Calverton Birdlife.

Switch off the telly, grab a pair of binoculars and join Geoff Wilkins as he takes us on an ornithological tour of the Calverton countryside.

Green WoodpeckerWoodpeckers are some of Britain's most colourful birds, and Calverton has recently been blessed with a good number of them. We've all heard the gleeful chuckle of the green woodpecker (in the West Country he's called the yaffle, and you can hear why), and probably seen the flash of his yellow tail feathers as he bobs away from you with his distinctive undulating flight. If you can spot where he perches, and you've got good eyesight (or your binoculars handy), you might be rewarded with a view of those glorious red and black markings. But don't get too close; he's very shy!

Great spotted woodpeckers don't chuckle - they drum. At times in early summer, the sound seems to be all around you, but can you spot them? They're usually too canny for you. If you have a bird table or nut feeder you may be lucky and have one come to visit. Generally, they will stay just long enough for a few mouthfuls, and then will be gone, so you need to keep an eye open for them. If you are really lucky, like Jan Evans, you may get a whole family being brought up on the lawn, but this is most unusual. I just hope nobody tells her cats about it.

Tawny OwlOf the five types of owl found in Britain, only the long-eared and short-eared owls have not been reported in Calverton; it is not surprising that we haven't seen these two, as they tend to occur more frequently in northern England and Scotland.

Tawny owls seem to be simply everywhere in our parish, though you are much more likely to hear their long, quavering hoot than you are to see one. Tawny owls make other noises too; a sharp "ke-wick" sound heard during a late summer or autumn evening is likely to be a juvenile, and birds just out of the nest often make a noise just like a creaking gate!

Little OwlLittle owls are not native to Britain, but were introduced during the 19th century (I don't know why). One of the places that they were released was Northamptonshire, so it is not surprising that we see them in Calverton; one of their favourite haunts is Red Ditch (beside Beachampton Way).

Little owls hunt by day as well as by night, so you are more likely to see one than, say, a tawny owl. In flight, they bound (a bit like a woodpecker), but you may see one perched on a post or tree, in which case he will probably examine you as closely as you examine him. To get a better idea of what they are looking at, all owls will move their heads so that their forward facing eyes can see an object from as many different viewpoints as possible; the little owl takes this to extremes, and will sometimes turn his head completely upside down!

Barn OwlThere is no doubt, however, that it is the barn owl which is the most exciting to come across. We know that the population is declining (there are probably only about 4000 breeding pairs in Britain), and this gives it a special rarity value.

You are most likely to spot a barn owl in your car headlights; the ghostly white presence is almost unmistakable (but be careful, because even a tawny owl looks pale in the headlights). I have seen only two barn owls in Calverton. The first was several years ago, flying out of Crow Piece and across the bend in the road at the entrance to Lower Weald. My second sighting was very recently, almost exactly on the parish boundary on the Whaddon road.

What a joy it is when the first lapwings appear in the late autumn. Although waders, these unmistakable black and white birds with their floppy rounded wings and upright crests overwinter on farmland throughout Britain. I say black and white, but the black is in fact very dark green; indeed, these birds are also known as green plovers. In Calverton, one of their favourite places is around Lower Woler and Short Langley (between Lower/Middle Weald and Watling Street). In the winter, you can hear their distinctive pee-wit cry, from which of course they derive yet another alternative name, and in the early spring these clowns of the air treat us to a wonderful, tumbling acrobatic display as they pair up for mating.

Coal TitIn the garden, most of us are used to seeing mixed flocks of great and blue tits, but what a treat when we also see a coal tit, or even better a long-tailed tit amongst them. Long-tailed tits are commoner in the surrounding fields than they are in the garden, but will come to the bird table or nut feeder in winter if natural food is scarce. Like a small fluffy ball attached to a long black stick, they are easy to identify, and their antics can cheer up the dullest winter's day. The coal tit is a tiny (even smaller then the blue tit), perky little bird; you can pick him out by the white patch on the back of his neck.

Two other related exciting finds you might spot are treecreepers and nuthatches. The nuthatch is very distinctive, with a blue-grey back, orange underparts and a black eyestripe, but even if you don't spot those, you won't miss its fat-bellied shape, and the fact that it is the only bird you will see around here which can walk down a tree trunk head first! The treecreeper is more difficult to spot, but when you see it there is no mistaking it. It does exactly what its name says; it creeps up trees, searching for insects beneath the bark, spiralling up one before flying down to the bottom of the next and starting again.

Grey HeronIf you have a pond in your garden, then our local heron will certainly have paid you a visit, and was most probably not welcome. You cannot deny, though, that this is a magnificent bird, whether poised motionless on the bank of the brook, waiting for an unfortunate frog to poke his head up through the duckweed, or flapping majestically away on those huge, arched wings. Just recently, he seems to have taken up residence under the bridge across the meadow in Lower Weald, and has given me a start on more than one occasion, by bursting out and flapping away just as I cross the bridge on my way home from work!

KestrelThese days, kestrels are most commonly seen hovering above motorway verges, where otherwise undisturbed rodents are presumably numerous, and unsuspecting! However, they can often be seen throughout the Wealds, sometimes riding the wind and waiting for the right moment, sometimes just sitting on a fence post and watching the world go by. This year, I think a pair nested in the trees near Calverton Place Cottage; although we didn't see much of them, their tremulous high pitched "kee-kee-kee" call was very noticeable, particularly in the early mornings.Sparrowhawk Sparrowhawks have also been seen, right in the middle of the village, using the gatepost of Rectory Farm as a dining table! I don't know what it is, but there is something exciting about a bird of prey which cannot be matched by seed or berry eaters.

Song ThrushThere has been much in the press recently about the declining numbers of some of Britain's commoner birds, including thrushes and skylarks. I think we now have more mistle thrushes than song thrushes, which is a reversal from a few years ago, but there are still a good number around, as evidenced by the tapping of snail shells on the garden path.

Summer simply would not be summer without the twittering of the sky which lark is still a common sound in much of the Wealds. A particularly good area is Deep Furrows and surrounding fields, alongside Beachampton Way. So next time hear David Attenborough rhapsodising over a rhea or extolling the virtues of an eagle, just think about our bullfinches and chaffinches, our kingfishers and jackdaws, our moorhens and our flycatchers. Remember our blackbirds, greenfinches and red-legged partridges. Dwell for a moment on our redwings, fieldfare and swallows. And then of course, there is Jemima the Duck, but that is quite another story

The Calverton Birdlist.

The Calverton Birdlist is a list of all the birds which have been reported as being seen within the Calverton parish boundary. If you know of birds which should be on the list but are not, please give the details to Geoff Wilkins.
Barn Owl
Blue Tit
Canada Goose
Carrion Crow
Coal Tit
Collared Dove
Common Kestrel
Common Kingfisher
Coot Cuckoo
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Green Woodpecker
Grey Heron
Grey Partridge
Grey Wagtail
Hen Harrier
House Martin
House Sparrow
Little Owl
Long-tailed Tit
Marsh Tit
Mistle Thrush
Pied Wagtail
Red-legged Partridge
Song Thrush
Spotted Flycatcher
Tawny Owl
Wood Pigeon

Geoff Wilkins.

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Last updated 2nd April 1998.