Overbury Hall Farm Dawn Chorus Walk 30th April 2016

At 5:45am, as the group drove into Overbury Hall, Edward the Cockerel was crowing to greet us,
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underlining the fact that it was dawn, and time for the walk. Tom McJannet was here to lead a birds and birdsong walk around Nick and Liz Reid's Overbury Hall Farm, in aid of Liz's charity, The Porch Project. While we were greeting each other in the car park a Swallow flew over the house, a Pied Wagtail perched on the barn roof, Goldfinches flitted into a tree and Blue Tits, Great Tits, Song Thrushes and a Blackbird were all singing vigorously.

Temperatures had dropped below zero overnight and the grass was still frosty in the fields. But the sun was coming up, the sky was clear blue and although the air was chilly there was no wind, so everyone congratulated Nick on choosing such a perfect morning.

We walked down to the ponds, disturbing three or four Graylag Geese who flew off in a noisy panic, and a beautiful Grey Heron, who unhurriedly flapped away. On the misty pond we found half a dozen Tufted Ducks, the males looking very smart in their black and white, and the females, as is usual with ducks, an unmemorable brown. There is a reason for this of course: females do not want to be noticed by predators while they are incubating their eggs.

As we walked along a grassy path with poplars on one side and a thick hedge on the other, we Pasted Graphic 1heard and then saw a Chiff-chaff. Almost immediately a Nightingale began to sing, and some of us spotted it in the spriggy hedge behind the poplars. For a moment or two it sat out in the sunshine, an uncharacteristic appearance for this very shy bird. It often happens that small birds with low-key brown plumage have a loud and distinctive song, and the Nightingale is a good example. The Wren is another, and its song accompanied us for most of the walk. A Blackcap was singing, and kindly sat in the sun showing us his neat black cap, so definitely a male. (The female has a smart brown cap.)

Under a large English oak tree (pedunculate oak) we stopped to look at a Whitethroat which sat nearby on an elder bush, showing its white throat very nicely as it sang.

A note on Oak trees: on English oaks (or pedunculate oak) the acorns appear in a cup at the end of a stalk, like a miniature smoker’s pipe. The leaves do not have stalks.
An oak tree growing in rugged, rocky places, might be the Irish oak (also called, Welsh oak or Cornish oak). The acorns appear in clusters on the twigs with no stalk. This is sessile oak, Quercus petraea.

A Robin was singing from the poplars, while the Chiff-chaff continued the repetitive song that gives it its name. Overhead a Tree Creeper appeared, Pasted Graphic 2walking along a thick oak branch. These birds tend to work their way up a tree, then fly downwards to begin again somewhere else. Luckily this one flew down to a nearby spindly dead tree where we could see its curved bill in silhouette as it worked its way upwards, feeding on insects in the peeling bark. This section of the walk had produced an impressive group of resident and summer migrant songbirds. As a Swallow flew overhead, Tom told us how Swallows and Martins navigate to last year’s nest by noticing familiar landmarks. If they overshoot and lose sight of places they know, they retrace their journey until they recognize the locality again. Finally they locate last year’s nesting site, perhaps the eaves of your own house.

Pasted Graphic 3We walked up a hill beside a field where three of Liz’s horses, were enjoying a holiday, Nick told us, after a winter’s hunting. They cantered over to greet us, and duly had their noses rubbed. On the other side of this track is a thick, wildlife-friendly hedge, rapidly thickening up by Nick’s policy of doing very little in areas such as this and letting nature take its course. Young oak trees, probably growing from acorns buried by jays and squirrels, were thriving, along with a good mixture of brambles, dog roses, blackthorn, wild cherry and hawthorn. Here a Lesser Whitethroat was heard, and then seen, distinguished from the Whitethroat first by its song, but also by its grey back, not the chestnut brown of the whitethroat’s. You could think of it as lesser whitethroat, less brown.

We then set out uphill through the self-propagated woodland that gradually appeared after gravel extraction from the quarry was abandoned. Here the fully grown wild cherry trees were in full blossom, and looked stunning against the clear blue sky. Nightingales are known to nest here, and we heard at least three. The most insistent song though, was from Song Thrushes, repeating each phrase several times over, creating another of the wonderful sounds of spring. Although heard, the Nightingales remained true to character on this occasion and lurked unseen nearby. Dunnocks were also singing here.

(The Dunnock has had its name changed three times: we grew up calling it a Hedge Sparrow, but it is not a sparrow, so in the mid-fifties its official name became Dunnock (literally little brown bird from old English ‘dunn’ for ‘brown’ and ‘-ock’ for ‘small’.) But it belongs to the family of Accentors with the pretty scientific name ‘Prunella’. So now there is a move to change its name again, to Hedge Accentor. The Hedge Accentor’s nearest relative geographically speaking is the Alpine Accentor, found in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but other relatives are more distant, the Brown Accentor in Afghanistan and further east, and the Japanese and Siberian Accentors. It is interesting to know that birders from the USA are often very keen to see a Dunnock when they come to the UK, as it is the most accessible of all the Prunella species.)

Pasted Graphic 4The sun was getting higher and beginning to warm the day, so it was very pleasant to stand on the bank of the reservoir and watch Tufted Ducks and Little Grebes (or Dabchicks as some folk know them). Actually, we mostly watched Little Grebes disappearing as they were feeding, and spent most of the time underwater. The Greylags were wary again, flying off to watch us from the top of the rise. Above the field Skylarks sang, sometimes in pairs, sometimes visible and sometimes too high for most of us to spot. Nick has estimated that he has 15-20 breeding pairs on the farm, another success story. By now it was 7.45am and thoughts of Liz’s full English breakfast were beginning to creep into our minds.

We walked back towards Overbury Hall, watched by a Robin on the fence and a flock of sheep on the brow of the hill. This had been an ‘Oh to be in England now that April’s there’ morning. We all very much appreciated having access to this farm where hedges and woodlands full of native species are being re-created by Nick and his family and the Woodland Trust, but most of all, by Nature herself, due to Nick’s policy of providing space for plants to grow unhindered. Pasted Graphic 5

After the early morning chill and a good walk, breakfast was very welcome indeed. Everyone was very appreciative of the delicious full English breakfast provided by Liz and her team of helpers in the kitchen. They had also had a very early start to the day to enable eighteen very hungry walkers to sit and chat and enjoy a perfect conclusion to what had been a truly excellent early morning walk with the birds.

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