RICHARD WILLIAMSON: County bird life

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As usual on my walk this week in Verdley Wood I kept my eyes not just on the ground for wild plants, tracks, etc but up into the branches of the trees and far beyond into the skies, both blue and clouded on the day I chose.

There is always an enormous amount of bird life passing to and fro especially in this county and it is such a pity to miss it all by merely staring at the next place to put one’s boot.

First birds I saw (but could not hear, I much regret) were firecrests up in the Douglas firs. These are as minute in size as shrews, so are easily missed.

Most people can hear their squeaks even at that height but I had left my hearing aids in the garage at home, in a jam jar where I couldn’t miss them when I went out. Ha ha! Through binoculars I could see these green tiddlers fiddling about among the needles finding tiny flies and spiders for their breakfast.

I hoped to see one carrying a piece of dry moss, or a couple of strands of deer hair, or even a feather for their nests. They only use dark feathers, incidentally, not bright white ones from pigeons which might give the game away to crows and magpies hunting the tips of the fir branches for a feast of ten tiny eggs. These nests are a ball of moss tied cunningly into the needles of the fir and have little obvious entrance. They resemble a small, flat, Wren’s nest.

Now, you may have wondered why I thought these birds seen on my walk, were not goldcrests. They are both tiny, both overlap in Sussex in their breeding range, and both usually nest right up there in the higher branches.

Well, I think I have my eye in on both ever since, in the early spring, a firecrest came within six inches from my face, against the kitchen window, where it had seen a reflection of itself and thought that to be a rival.

I photographed it but that picture was not quite sharp enough for my use here. Its bright orange crest was very obvious compared to that of its cousin. More obvious was the thick white eye-stripe and strong black supercilium above.

Altogether, this bird is much more handsomely adorned with a helmet more in mind of what Col. Gaddafi used to wear in Libya. Firecrests do come from warmer countries too; that is why they have suddenly started to move north in Britain with global warming. They were not known at all in this country before 1843. Now they have reached Yorkshire in breeding distribution but their stronghold is in Sussex.

There was much more to see in Verdley Wood, including buzzard, sparrowhawk, and tawny owl. But I need to go there at dawn this week if I want to hear the strange call of the long-eared owl which nests in those tall firs.