November birding at Great Chalfield

The recent weather here in the UK has reminded us Brits that we in fact live on a fairly small rock on one edge of the Atlantic Ocean. When the wind blows somewhere over that great body of volatile water it invariably ends up crashing into the British Isles, spraying the entire country with cold rain. Younger readers may still think it’s worth exploring inland sites when it’s wet and blowy in the hope that a wreck of petrels will be occurring on the local duck pond, but us older, wiser (more rheumatic) folk know that getting soaked isn’t that much fun, and that there’s naff all chance of finding anything when you and every bird around is feeling miserable.

No, far better to wait for the wind to blow itself out and the sun to tempt what wildlife hasn’t been splattered across the countryside back into the open…

Sunday, thankfully, dawned – actually, I was going to expand on that but the very fact that dawn was distinctive from midday was something of a change, so I grabbed my Swaros and camera and left the house while Jo and Evie were still waking up and went birding. Yes, birding! Hurrah…


great chalfield
View from just outside my front gate

great chalfield
Spindle Euonymus europaeus


I’m still getting used to the idea that I can just walk out of my house and start birding without having to get into the car or making my way through a housing estate before I reach anywhere interesting, but while I’m getting used to it I’m certainly enjoying it. It’s just wonderful to watch Marsh, Blue, and Great Tits busy in your own back garden, hear Jackdaws on the roof, follow a charm of tinkling Goldfinches bouncing across the sky, while the visiting hordes of Redwings in the dense tangle of yew trees that separate the front garden from the minor road that circles the estate just light up the morning.

I’m a big ‘thrush fan’ as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a number of times. There’s something just sort of ‘right’ about them. Often subtly coloured but well-marked; round-bellied but still sleek in flight; nomadic explorers that make huge movements following berry crops, riding the edges of storms, slicing across the skies in noisy flocks. They have verve, spirit, and gusto. Hearing the ‘Shook-shook-shook’ of Fieldfares as they explode out of hawthorn bushes, or the high short hiss of Redwings as they fly over on a frosty night is what winter is all about for me.

Few birds make their nocturnal movements so audible this time of the year as Redwings, and year after year I’ve always listened for the first one of the autumn as I walk after dark or stand by the back door of an October/November evening. It’s a re-assuring signal that while the world is falling apart, it is still at least turning. And what courage these birds show. Imagine being a small bird setting off from northern Europe at dusk to look for berry bushes in a country hidden in darkness way to the south…fantastic. In fact I was so moved by hearing my first flocks of Redwings this year that I attempted a haiku:

Bonfire Night, November the 5th 2009

Redwing overhead
calls – a hiss like a hot spark
Falling on water.

I’m not sure that counts as art, but it conjures up all sorts of images for me and I guess that’s what counts…


Of course at this point it would be more useful to post a series of outstanding photos that provide a perfect visual interpretation – but, sadly, on this occasion my attempt at poetry is possibly more successful than my attempt at photography. It’s still early in the winter and many of the thrushes have only just arrived and are still nervous. They are very flighty in other words, and while there is still so much fruit available I don’t suppose they feel any great need yet to stick tenaciously to one bush even if a human is approaching. Perhaps I’ll have better luck in January when they’re settled and food stocks are running low, but in the meantime here’s what I did get.


great chalfield

great chalfield, fieldfares

great chalfield, redwings


The good weather even tempted a Skylark into song, circling high over a field so soggy that if it were daft enough to land it would sink to its neck in mud in seconds. Still, perhaps just flying up towards the sun far enough to have its feathers dried out was cause enough to celebrate. Whatever the reason, it was wonderful to hear that miraculous song pouring across the sky on an early morning in November.

To be honest there wasn’t that much else around. I found both Pied and Grey Wagtails, a solitary Meadow Pipit looking for somewhere to land, two Yellowhammers in their subdued non-breeding winter garb, and a large flock of Wood Pigeons making either a cold-weather movement or an effort to escape the gun going off at regular intervals on an adjoining farm.


great chalfield, reed bunting
Reed Bunting


The highlight (apart from the thrushes of course, which I’m still feeling the glow from) was my first Great Chalfield record of Reed Bunting, a non-breeding plumaged bird that is either a resident in the large square of reeds at the western end of the manor’s ‘Fish Pond’ (a stream-fed ‘Pond’ so large that Nessie could probably hide away for weeks) or a wind-blown stray that somehow found the right habitat as it tumbled across Wiltshire. I’m betting I would have noticed a Reed Bunting before if it were a resident, so more likely a new arrival – though how a small bird finds such a small area of reeds is remarkable (though, thinking about it, if it was a resident how did it find the pond in the first place anyway?).

Birding, so many unanswered questions. Wonderful isn’t it…?


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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