Thursday, 27 August 2009

Flying Kites on Watlington Hill!

For me the highlight of the trips out we have enjoyed in the last few weeks has to be our visit to Watlington Hill, we picked the perfect day, sunny and warm and not too much wind. What an incredibly beautiful place it is! The views are stupendous and of course the kite flying mentioned in my post title was not the man made variety but the magnificent Red Kite.

I hope you will indulge me with this post as it will mainly be just about this fabulous bird. My next post will be about what else we saw on Watlington Hill but I was so enchanted by this wonderful creature that I feel it needs a post devoted almost entirely to it. As I sorted out my photos (of which I took very, very many!) I wondered over and over again how this incredible bird could have been brought almost to extinction in the UK which then led me to an immense feeling of sadness at the knowledge that we have also lost so many other beautiful wonders of Nature over the years due almost entirely to the ignorance and often cruelty of man.

As I mentioned I took a great many photographs of the Red Kite but I am not well practised in the art of photographing birds in flight, however all the photos here are my best efforts.

To start with I thought it would be appropriate to explain a little of the history of the Red Kite.

Due to persecution this beautiful and majestic bird was exterminated in England, Scotland and most of Wales by the end of the 19th century. In the 16th century a series of Vermin Acts decreed that 'vermin' should be killed throughout England and Wales, the Red Kite and other so called vermin were seen as a threat to expanding agriculture. This was a complete misconception as in fact Red Kites pose no threat to sheep farming or game rearing. This persecution continued during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Towards the end of the 18th century the situation was further exacerbated when increasing numbers of country estate owners employed gamekeepers and many, many more Red Kites were killed. By the late 18th century Red Kites had bred for the last time in England and in Scotland it was a similar situation. Only in mid-Wales did they survive but with their numbers down to just a few pairs. At this point a few local landowners had the foresight to set up an unofficial protection programme to try to safeguard this beautiful bird.

Over the next 100 years or so, committed generations of landowners, rural communities and various dedicated individuals and organisations made the effort to maintain a fragile breeding population. Thanks to their dedication and despite severe threats from egg collectors, poisoning and some modern farming practices, Red Kite numbers are now gradually increasing.

It is not completely clear just how close the Red Kite came to extinction but scientific research shows that in 1977 the entire population emanated from just one female bird!

In 1989, a project was launched to reintroduce the Red Kite back into England and Scotland. Over a period of five years, more than 90 birds were brought into the Chilterns and initially placed in wooden release pens on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. After a period of several weeks, and successful health checks, the kites were then released into the wild.

The first successful breeding in the Chilterns took place in 1992. Since then numbers have steadily increased to approximately 400/500 breeding pairs and the kites are still monitored by experienced volunteers. Following the success of the initial Chilterns project further reintroductions have taken place in various other locations in England and Scotland.

The Red Kite is a gregarious bird, and can be seen in large groups. During winter months they also gather at roosts located in various places throughout the Chilterns. Sometimes over 100 can be seen in a favoured woodland roost. Spectacular aerial displays often take place at these sites.

I read that one has to be exceptionally unlucky to visit Watlington Hill and not see Red Kites and thankfully we were not disappointed, they seemed to be everywhere! As we walked and stood and sat and watched I really felt I had entered a magical kingdom, the sun shone and warmed our backs and everywhere I looked sheer beauty lay before me!

'The clouds are at play in the azure space,
And their shadows at play on the bright green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a darkness of leaves in that aspen bower,
There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.'

(William Cullen Bryant)

Red Kites are very distinctive with their forked tail and striking colours, predominantly chestnut with white patches under the wings and a whitish head.

Their wingspan of nearly two metres (about five and a half feet) and relatively small body weight of about one to two kilogrammes (two to three pounds) makes them incredibly agile allowing them to stay in the air for many hours with hardly a beat of their beautiful wings.

Despite being large birds Red Kites are not particularly strong or aggressive. Primarily scavengers and opportunists; they will take advantage of sheep carrion but are not capable of opening the carcasses themselves and must wait for more powerful birds such as Ravens or Buzzards to make the first inroads before they can feed. They are, however, predators and take a wide variety of live prey, ranging from earthworms and beetles to small mammals, amphibians and birds.

Red Kites usually breed for the first time at the age of two or three. They usually pair for life, although this is thought to be more because of a mutual attachment to the same nest sites and territory rather than because of any great love for each other and there have been a few recorded cases of 'divorce' where both members of the original pair were later found breeding with different partners.

As we walked we saw the occasional dog walker who was clearly local and I couldn't help feeling envious that this was 'their patch'. I wonder if they appreciate the immense beauty or is it so familiar that they forget to look and wonder at the splendour of this special place?

We found a bench opportunely placed on the side of the hill overlooking the small town of Watlington and sat for some time just watching the Red Kites soaring above and below us. It was impossible to see too much of these majestic creatures riding the thermals and dominating their surroundings.

'O bird, you fly in the sky of Infinity.
Tell me, is flying your only game?
Tell me, how do you fly in the infinite blue welkin?
My soulful eyes look at you with all admiration.
My heart pines to fly like you.
O bird, you fly in the sky of Infinity.'

(Sri Chinmoy)

'High from the earth I heard a bird;
He trod upon the trees
As he esteemed them trifles,
And then he spied a breeze,
And situated softly
Upon a pile of wind
Which in a perturbation
Nature had left behind.'

(Emily Dickinson)

It was wonderful too to see these lovely creatures not only in the air but also on the ground. Look at their impressive feathery 'trousers'!

'Even when a bird walks, one feels it has wings'

(Antoine-Marin Lemierre)

I realise some of these photos are less than sharp but I just had to try and convey to you something of the magic of these lovely birds and if I had hesitated too much I would have missed some of the opportunities to do so.

'No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings'

(William Blake)

I do hope I have managed to convey at least a little of the magical quality of this truly beautiful bird and that it will never again be brought to the brink of extinction. I hope also that you haven't been too bored by my concentrating on just one subject and that I have shown how very enchanted I was by the amazing Red Kite and by Watlington Hill itself.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Summer on Otmoor

On one of our recent outings we went to Otmoor which is a Nature Reserve managed by the RSPB. The AA (Automobile Association) describe it thus:

'A stone's throw to the north of Oxford lies Otmoor, a canvas of fields and hedgerows that seems to have been bypassed by the rest of the county. A curious ghostly stillness pervades this wilderness, inspiring various writers over the years to describe it romantically as 'the forgotten land', 'bewitched Otmoor' and 'sleeping Otmoor cast under a spell of ancient magic.

With its flat fields, ditches and dykes, it is, in places, reminiscent of East Anglia. On a cold winter's day, and even occasionally in high summer, you can sense Otmoor's sinister, sometimes unsettling, atmosphere. At times it is dark and mysterious, at times it exudes an air of calm and tranquillity. Cross Otmoor as a light mist drifts over the meadows and you'll find the image will linger long in the memory.

If time allows, journey to the village of Beckley, perched 400ft (122m) over the southern edge of Otmoor, and you'll see why Lewis Carroll was supposedly inspired by the view of this primitive 4,000-acre (1,620ha) landscape to write about the giant chessboard in Alice Through the Looking Glass. John Buchan, who lived at nearby Elsfield, described Otmoor in great detail in his novel The Blanket of the Dark.'

'For some minutes Alice stood without speaking,
looking out in all directions over the country....
I declare that it is marked out like a large chessboard!'

(Charles Dodson alias Lewis Carroll whose home overlooked Otmoor)

As I said at the beginning it is an RSPB managed Nature Reserve and unfortunately the birds were just that, reserved! However it is a beautiful place, well worth a visit and we will definitely go there again. The photo at the top of the post of Canada Geese was taken near the end of our visit, you can see the sky was preparing for 'shepherds delight' and the promise of another good day to come.

'Red sky at night; shepherds delight,
Red sky in the morning; sailors warning.'

While the birds were shy the butterflies were more noticeable, it was a beautiful warm and sunny day although a little windy. The Painted Ladies which we have all been so privileged to see in good numbers this year were in evidence.

'Butterflies go fluttering by
On colored wings that catch the eye.
On wings of orange, and silvery blue,
On wings of golden yellow, too.
Butterflies float in the air,
Making their homes most anywhere.'

(Author Unknown)

I think this is a

Green Veined White Butterfly on Vetch

This butterfly was looking spic-and-span, and like us, enjoying the sunshine

Gatekeeper Butterfly

On a wooden rail leading to a hide I saw another sunbather

'A Peacock Butterfly one day
Across a garden took its way,
Unto a spot where roses grew
Of noble form and lovely hue;
And seeing one of goodly size,
To sip its sweets she quickly flies;
And lighting on its crimson leaves,
Her breast with exultation heaves.'

(William Heaton)

Peacock Butterfly

This beautiful blue butterfly refused to open its wings for me but after considering whether it might be a Silver-Studded Blue I have opted for the

Common Blue Butterfly

I may not have been lucky with bird sightings but there was quite a plethora of insects, this one is usually not seen on its own and has the rather indelicate name of Bonking Beetle for obvious reasons!

Rhagonycha fulva

I don't think I have ever seen this particular beauty before

Ruddy Darter (male)

and the female

Ruddy Darter

We had taken a look from the hides as we encountered them on our walk around but there wasn't much to see. Towards the end of our visit, with evening approaching, we felt we deserved a rest so sat in one of the hides and just enjoyed the peace and beauty of the closing day and watched the reed beds.

'Swiftly walk o'er the western wave,
Spirit of Night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where, all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which make thee terrible and dear--
Swift be thy flight!

Wrap thy form in a mantle gray,
Blind with thine hair the eyes of day;
Kiss her until she be wearied out,
Then wander o'er city, and sea, and land,
Touching all with thine opiate wand--
Come, long-sought!'

(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I saw these


and this


To the side of the hide these Canada Geese were gathered

As we left the hide I heard and saw flocks of Canada Geese which made quite an impressive sight in the evening sky.

'Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.'

(Mary Oliver)

The only small birds I saw were this

Blue Tit

and as we left the Reserve perched on a rather ugly power line support this


As we walked back towards the car park I saw the teeniest tiniest froglet or maybe a toadlet, it was so small I thought it was a spider at first and not even a large spider! I would say it was no bigger than the size of a finger nail.

Finally (are those sighs of relief I hear? ! I do hope you have made it to the end! I am aware that this has been rather long but I do have to make up for not posting as frequently as some other bloggers :)) after getting back to the car and making our way along a slightly rickety track we were brought to a sudden halt by my cry of Hare! It's a good job there was no one behind us but I just had to get a photo, luckily it froze briefly when it saw me

'Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.'

(William Blake)

before continuing on its way

and we did the same.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Summer Cocktail with a Dash of Fred and Ginger!

Continuing with photographs from some of our recent outings, I saw the above lovely Song Thrush on a garden wall when we visited a nearby small town.

In a local park there were lots of Magpies about, often hopping around on the ground looking for any scraps of food they could find.

'The magpie, lighting on the stock,
Stood chattering with incessant din:
And with her beak gave many a knock,
To rouse and warn the nymph within.'
(Jonathan Swift)

This extremely tatty looking Pied Wagtail was busily scurrying around in the grass.

'Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,
He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.'
(John Clare)

This Squirrel, which I think may be a young one due to its quite slight appearance, was just about to climb a tree.

'Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I'd a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I would do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go'
(W.B. Yeats)

Resting on the grass was this Rabbit who didn't seem too worried about having its photo taken.

I saw these Rose Hips in the hedgerow and was amazed by how large they are this year, they look more like tomatoes!

On a similar note, I have been very struck by how early the hedgerow fruits have ripened this year, to illustrate that, this photograph of Blackberries was taken on July 7th which must be the earliest I have ever seen them at this stage of ripeness in my area.

'My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I'll tear your dress, and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I'll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I'll laugh at your disgrace.

But when the bramble-jelly's made,
You'll find your trouble well repaid.'

(Cicely Mary Barker)

I have been really pleased to see more of the Painted Lady Butterflies lately which so many people seem to have seen in huge numbers, the first is in slightly more pristine condition than the second.

'Thou spark of life that wavest wings of gold,
Thou songless wanderer mid the songful birds,
With Nature’s secrets in thy tints unrolled
Through gorgeous cipher, past the reach of words,
Yet dear to every child
In glad pursuit beguiled,
Living his unspoiled days mid flowers and flocks and herds!'

(Thomas Wentworth Higginson)

I also saw

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly

and this

Six Spot Burnet Moth

This pretty Robin posed nicely for me

I saw this Mallard on the side of the canal

and on a pond in a pub garden where we stopped for a glass of wine on the way home I saw more Mallards.

Finally with apologies to Irving Berlin I saw these Mallards

Dancing beak to beak!