Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Undercoverts of Birding 1: The Flying Childers.

Perhaps more than any other hobby (or compulsion?) birding takes us all over the country, possibly from one end to the other in a good twitching weekend.  Thus we discover hidden hamlets and unknown lanes, meet interesting characters and have unexpected experiences that our non-birding friends, loafing at home with their sedentary hobbies, never do. 
Such travels have associated tales worthy of telling that never get told, not strictly about birds they get no mention in the news-stand birding glossies.  So here they are given a home and a name, for which a birding reference is requisite.  Something to infer the background of birding activities, and so The Undercoverts of Birding is born. 
The first undercovert concerns a pub we all whistle past on the way to Frampton Marsh or Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire.  It is The Flying Childers at Kirby Bellars, which looks like a spelling mistake.  Was it supposed to be Guilders, or Builders?  Or Chilblains or Cinders?  Unfortunately none of these things are known for flying around showing aeronautical prowess so it cannot be them.
A look in the dictionary tells us that ‘childers’ is an old fashioned name for children, but ‘flying children’ makes no sense either.  They are no more known for flying around than builders, or badgers.  In fact the childers-children thing is just a coincidental red herring.  There is a clue on the pub’s sign though, a racehorse in full gallop and indeed the pub is actually named after a horse, a very special horse.
The Flying Childers was a racehorse who was the first foal sired by the Darley Arabian, one of the three founding stallions of the Thoroughbred breed imported to Britain in the 17th Century.  With such illustrious genes it is hardly surprising that Flying Childers won every race he was ever entered in, by the proverbial country mile.  His owner, The Duke of Devonshire, had to turn down an offer to buy the horse for its weight in gold!  To be frank he would have left Frankel eating flying divots, but still the question remains, why ‘Childers’?  Why was that a name for a horse? 
It was simply his breeder’s name, one Colonel Leonard Childers.  Intrigued by the name I looked it up on and found that it hails from Norfolk, and a long gone village called Childerhouse.  This is the root of the name Childers, and comes from Old English ‘Cildra’ (child) and ‘Hus’ (house), as apparently there was a home and school for children there.  So the red herring is not so much of a red herring after all, more of a pink one really!
So the next time you are squashed into the back of a car on the way to Frampton to twitch an oriental pratincole, you can break the customary pre-tick tension with tales of Flying Childers and pink herrings as you scream through Kirby Bellars.  On the way back with the bird safely ticked and travelling at a more sedate and law-abiding pace you could even call in for a pint!
The Flying Childers - lots in a name!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Industrial Revolution Rabbits

The navvies that dug canals, hewed coal and generally powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution with elbow grease had an awesome reputation.  They each excavated an average of 20 tons of earth a day, just using picks and shovels.  Human endeavours are often mirrored in nature if we care to look, and one such smacks us in the face at Draycote Reservoir.
On the occasion of Nuneaton Birdclub’s Christmas walk there we were introduced to the amazing power of rabbits.  Rabbits can reputedly dig at a rate of up to two metres an hour, but at Draycote it is not the speed but the substrate that is impressive.  The bank at Draycote was clearly built of rubble topped with good stone hardcore, and finished with turf.  Presumably not the easiest place for rabbits to dig, but look at the pictures below.  Great mounds of stones lie like cairns around burrow entrances all along the bank.  It almost defies belief that two of those wee lucky charms some people have on their keyrings were all that were used in making these mounds.  The hole size, proximity of each, and the tell-tale piles of rabbit raisin droppings on each one reveal their makers identity though - Oryctolagus cuniculus, the humble rabbit. 
There is the adage about if a flea was the size of a human it could jump over a house.  Well looking at these rabbit cairns I wonder if a rabbit was the size of a human what could it do.  Shifting twenty tons of earth a day, without sissy picks and shovels, would be just the start of it.  I imagine a few human sized rabbits, fuelled with sufficient carrots, could have blasted out the Grand Union Canal in a couple of days – the hard part might have been getting them to stop!
Anyway, it continued to be a day of surprises with the birdwatching.  The first was that the ticket machine had broken down, so we were forced to keep our £2.50.  Our second surprise surfaced in front of us along the bank in the shape of a fine male smew.  Its black and white plumage made it look like a sort of water skunk as it dived repeatedly, smoothing all its feathers back.  I almost regretted year-ticking a redhead two weeks earlier as the male really is one of our most striking birds.
There was not a high species count but high counts of some species.  It was a coot-lovers paradise, and I counted 512 altogether.  There were also 278 tufted ducks, and a very pleasing 164 lapwings.  My favourite spot , and third surprise of the day though was a bird numbering only one.  On the boardwalk I heard a pig squealing, and then remembered that Draycote doesn’t have pigs roaming about, and so that this was surely a water rail.  Homing in on the noise I caught movement in the reeds but was disappointed to see a moorhen reveal itself.  Then it ran at another bird and I got a classic glimpse of a water rail, a thin bird with long blood-red bill darting between reeds and it was gone!  Bob Wale appeared and I whispered what I had seen.  We both looked for about 10 minutes and enjoyed some cracking views …of the moorhen!  Then moving around some scrub and looking back we were almost about to give up when it squealed again.  This time we both had a brief good view as it sprinted back into deep cover.
After circumnavigating the reservoir, a tidy walk of 5 miles, we sprinted into deep cover too, the lounge of the Bull Inn at Brinklow for a feed and a pint.  A fine end to the day, and out of respect for their impressive stone-shifting endeavours everyone resisted ordering the rabbit pie!  
Stone creations by Isambard Kingdom Bunny...

...and Thomas Thumper Telford
Rabbit raisins, and the odd sultana

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Birding In The Blue

Some envious birders I meet seem to think I have their dream job.  An Ecologist, specialising in bird surveys?  Aye’.  A professional ornithologist’ they emphasise,  in case I hadn’t realised.  Yes, I suppose so’.  So, you get paid….to watch birds!’ they persist, just to make sure I really haven’t missed their point.  I haven’t, but its not all milk and honey buzzards, there are the reports of course, and the B&Bs.

Last week I was in Lincolnshire doing a wintering bird survey.  I booked four nights B&B and the first two were brilliant, clean, warm, cosy, just the job.  For the last two I had booked at a hotel near the coast where I would be doing low tide counts.  I pulled up outside Santa’s Grotto, a myriad of pulsating blue fairy lights lit up the front and most of the town.  A sign declared ‘Cabaret Entertainment’, and another ‘Curry and Chips - £3.99’, (Phoenix Nights meets Las Vegas!).  Thunderous drum and bass belted out of the six feet square mega-woofers in the bar, just below my room.

The room itself had a novel take on the notion of ‘en suite’, with the toilet down the corridor and the bathroom down another corridor, round a corner and through some double doors.  In the room there was a sink though, but it was to this that I traced the hissing noise I first feared was a gas leak.  The cold tap leaked and would not turn off any further, the water dribbling out with a loud hiss. 

Back downstairs blue floodlights bathed the bar in a ghostly hue.  Shouting over the music I discerned from the eerily blue-faced barmaid that no they did not do evening meals, nor breakfast as it turned out, yet another interesting take on the concept of B&B!  Miles from anywhere else, having prepaid and with time ticking on I went out to see if there was anywhere else open.  The only place was an Italian restaurant and I became its only patron, eating pasta while waited on by three staff.  Afterwards they directed me to a general store that would ‘definitely sell maps and things’, named ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’s’.  I went partly just to see if it really was called that.  It was but it did not sell maps after all, just all the tat that Poundland would be embarrassed to have on its shelves.  A plastic frog on a stick?  How did I ever get by without one!  The bored women behind the counter asked what I wanted maps for, so I told them I was doing some survey work.  Ooh science stuff, well what do you think about this?” one asked, waving one of those hideous tabloids at me.  NASA plan trip to Mars, what use is messing about up there when there’s so much wrong down here?”  Slightly taken aback by this unexpected line of enquiry I could only reply, “I don’t know love, I just count birds”.  Going out of the door I heard her say to her colleague, “Well what use is that either?” a dispiriting comment to hear!
Back at the Blue Hotel the drum and bass boomed on until midnight, less than ideal with my alarm set for 5.30 a.m.  I was going to do a high tide count of waders and the Moon takes no account of birders when deciding what time to slam the tide in.  The corresponding evening high tide would be completely in the dark so the morning it had to be.  Needless to say I procured a refund for my second night’s stay, and moved to a different hotel in a different town! 

I am guessing those envious birders would not fancy swapping places on nights like that, but the days make up for it.  I had the beach to myself next morning, well not entirely, there was one other occupant photographed below.  Just me, him, and the sanderlings sprinting through the backwash, and the common scoters riding the waves, and the great black-backed gulls marauding past like stealth bombers.  Later that morning I was treated to a 250-strong flock of lapwings wheeling over the fields, emitting that evocative call like someone tuning in an old radio.  Yep, it is a great job and I’m definitely not for swapping!
'Morning Maddox', 'Hello seal'