Sunday, 9 January 2011

Christmas visiting and super-sized Starlings

Mouldon Hill Country Park, Swindon
I guess it would be only polite to commence today’s entry with a rather belated ‘Happy New Year’ to everybody out there in Internetland!
As usual, I’m stumped as to where do begin. So, let me see, last post was the end of November (eek, but I do have the excuse of the motherboard of my former laptop going caput with no warning – fortunately, courtesy of those lovely DSA people, I’m now in possession of brand new shiny laptop, so all is well once more), which means time for some hard-core brain-racking.

After a brief ‘warm’ spell, the snowy and icy weather returned to most of the country, with only our little tip of Cornwall being spared, and then it was only a short trip out of our village before we hit the cold, white stuff. Whilst I spotted some Redwings, the Waxwings and Bitterns being seen all over the country managed to evade us (well, me), and accordingly, my ‘Would love to see’ list has not been reduced… [sulk]
For the first time in three years, we spent Christmas away from home, and whilst it was good to see family and to not have to do the cooking, I found myself desperately missing Cornwall, with its open, wild spaces, quietly strong people, and unrelenting seas. Perhaps, most significantly, I experienced a keen longing to return to a community in which I didn’t have to continually justify my (apparently) unconventional lifestyle. And we were only away for nine days!
But, other than sharing some of my Christmas wildlife encounters, I won’t dwell on my time away any more than is necessary (phew!).

So, what did I do, where did I go, what did I see??? So many questions, let’s see if I can conjure up some answers… First stop was just outside Brighton, within a stone or two’s throw of the edge of the South Downs National Park. Icy cold weather and the lure of a warm house meant that other than an evening trip to the pub, we didn’t actually venture outside during our stay. However, courtesy of a conveniently-placed set of French doors, we were able to partake in a spot of armchair ornithology, during which we observed Starlings, Collared Doves, Woodpigeons, House Sparrows, Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Goldfinches galore, all merrily tucking into the continual supply of seed, nuts and fat provided for their delectation. Despite the cold temperatures and abundance of snow and ice, the blue tits in particular appeared to be intent on refurbishing their nesting box (actually, the sparrows’ nesting box) in preparation for some family time. All good stuff!

Interestingly, there was a notable size discrepancy amongst the garden’s regular visitors, most notably amongst the starlings, with some birds being considerably larger than their conspecifics, which made me wonder about the prevalence of clinal variation (aka the somewhat controversial ‘Bergmann’s rule’, which asserts that ‘within a species the body mass increases with latitude and colder climate, or that within closely related species that differ only in relation to size that one would expect the larger species to be found at the higher latitude’ (source: Wikipedia)) in birds generally, and perhaps in starlings specifically.

Once home, I was able to look into this, and to my satisfaction, discovered that starlings are known to exhibit clinal variation, and that a number of subspecies are recognised each demonstrating the relative differences. For example, both the Faroese Starling (Sturnus vulgaris faroensis) and Shetland Starling (Sturnus vulgaris zetlandicus) are larger in size than the UK’s regular starling, the nominate subspecies Sturnus vulgaris vulgaris, whereas the Azores Starling (Sturnus vulgaris granti) and the Sind Starling (Sturnus vulgaris minor) of Pakistan are both smaller (source: Thus, considering the severity of winter weather and the known extent of more easily-recognised winter avian visitors, it makes sense that the UK’s regular starling populations are being supplemented by their larger, more northerly counterparts.

OK, according to the BTO, from late September, local starlings are supplemented by millions from further east in Europe, where winters are harsher:  So, there you go!

On both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Eve Eve, we escaped the over-heated house in suburban Swindon that was our temporary home for the few days post-Christmas, and navigated our way around the multitude of roundabouts, traffic lights and dual carriageways to discover not one, not two but three country parks, where we forced to don wellies and/or walking boots, woolly hats and gloves, and brave the brisk, fresh air for an amble in the open.

Our first visit of the three was to Lydiard Park - nostalgia-inducing historic parkland surrounding a Palladian house, the nostalgia element stemming from the fact that during my childhood I had spent many a happy time there as a Girl Guide. This visit was only a flying one, and after checking out the old stables and historic church, we soon headed to the lake to see what waterfowl was about. Despite the persisting covering of ice, the lake’s residents seemed unperturbed by their restyled habitat, and Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Coots, Moorhens, Mallards and Black-headed Gulls were there in abundance. For info about Lydiard Park, see:

Lydiard Park, Swindon

The following day we first paid a visit to Mouldon Hill Country Park, a relatively new recreational area on the north/western outskirts of Swindon, centred on a large lake. The site also features restorations by the Wilts & Berks Canal: and is the focus of a considerable restoration project by the Swindon & Cricklade Railway:

Mouldon Hill Country Park, Swindon

It didn’t take long to perform a circuit of the lake, and being rather cold and in somewhat urgent need of some public conveniences, we decided not to hang around to explore the other areas. However, we were treated to some close contact with a pair of Mute Swans and a fleeting glimpse of what we decided was a Moorhen, rather than a Water Rail as momentarily pondered.

So, on to Coate Water Country Park it was (another place associated with my childhood), where first port of call was the toilets, and what unpleasant toilets they were too, but I guess they served their intended purpose! Mainly as a consequence of the increasingly low temperatures and the impending dusk, we didn’t get to see very much of the park, which, after further research, appears to be much more extensive than I can recall, and definitely worthy of further investigation (despite the off-putting toilets!).

Coate Water Country Park, Swindon

The Small Person had been given some bread for ‘duck-feeding’, and as it was only a couple of slices, I reluctantly bit my tongue and managed to withhold my protestations for the sake of family peace. So, once at the water’s edge, the bread was dutifully broken into small pieces and thrown to the multitude of feathered beings (Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Black-headed Gulls, Pochards, Canada Geese, Coots and Mallards) on the water, all of whom greedily gobbled it down with very little hesitation - and the Small Person did have fun! For info about Coate Water Country Park, see: and

The following day it was not only time to head home but also the first day of a year’s commitment to recording all species of bird seen, on a daily basis, and to sharing this information with a group of fellow birdy people. Well, I managed to remain sufficiently awake to record species from Swindon to Okehampton, after which my brain gave up and sleep took over. Still, Swindon to Okehampton’s not bad, eh?!

The records are going well, even if I’m trailing somewhat in number of species seen but that’s what you get when you spend your day sitting on the settee rather than getting out there with binoculars! But, I did spend a lovely afternoon yesterday, pottering around Mousehole with the Small Person, in our wellies, eyeing up the harbour residents, and was rewarded with a single Redshank pootling about amongst a gang of Turnstones and their larger (and noisier) Herring Gull mates. Also doing its stuff about was a solitary Rock Pipit. Still, next week I’m off to Paradise Park but unfortunately, only wild birds count!

Well, as I’m feeling rather worn out from all this brain-racking, I’m going to leave things there. Hopefully, now that I’m once more with laptop, I’ll be able to be back sooner rather than later.

Coate Water Country Park, Swindon

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