1999: Winter Farmland Survey

A Farm

Birds on farmland? By all accounts that is the last place to look for them. And yet Crawley, Hampshire was the location for my Winter Farmland Survey. Oh well, it would keep me fit.

A cheeky chaffinch got the ball rolling before I even got out of the car at New Barn Farm. Across a field I could see some pheasants and red-legged partridges. No surprise there though: the second farm I would visit bred them, so it was only a short flit to my starting point.

Another Farm

I had to walk round and through fields within a one-kilometre square — a tall order given the layout in my particular square. It’s fine if field entrances are where you want them to be and barbed wire doesn’t enter the equation. Otherwise…

At least, my scanning for suitable routes across the fields revealed a few fieldfares. No, about a dozen. No, there’s another dozen. Remarkably well camouflaged against bare soil, these birds. I grouped up enough dozens to make a round hundred — not bad. Add a couple of starlings and a skylark and the day was beginning to look up.

It got even better a moment later when a linnet started singing from a nearby tree. Singing? In December?

My second field, with a very short crop of barley, only produced a mistle thrush somewhere up a tree and a few blackbirds in the bordering copse. So, then it was over the road to Warren Farm and a very interesting looking field of stubble.

Again red-legged partridges and pheasants were the order of the day but a couple of the game birds revealed themselves as grey partridges — although curiously lacking the black horseshoe on their underparts. Not only was that my first sighting of them for the year but it was my first for Hampshire — probably more indicative of my birding habitats than anything else.

The stubble in fact produced nothing else despite a crop of something (my brilliant farming knowledge to the fore here!) in one corner of it. I returned to the car for a cup of tea and my friendly chaffinch popped up again. I got the bins on to it out of habit and was puzzled by the colour of its breast. It turned round to show the same colour in its wings and dark patterns down its back — all this in a split second before it flew off. Well, that had to be a brambling, didn’t it? It was one of those fleeting glimpses that can be so tantalising.

I finished off the stubble field and then opted for a tiny patch of scrub with a dilapidated barn , despite being hardly a blip on the map. It seemed like the sort of place that could produce something special. How about more red-legged partridges? As I appeared, they started going crazy. I didn’t want to freak them out, so I abandoned them and headed off down a large field.

This was where the action really started.

First, a buzzard floated over and circled for a while. A few meadow pipits and skylarks called and flew briefly in the interior. A yellowhammer buzzed over. I approached an area of much higher vegetation and could see small birds commuting between it and the bordering hedge. From the calls I could tell that most of these were chaffinches and the binoculars confirmed this. However, a few were certainly yellowhammers and one or two were… reed buntings. I didn’t expect them. I kept wanting one to be a corn bunting and one individual certainly looked different but turned out to be a solitary greenfinch. And there were definitely bramblings.

With all the comings and goings it was impossible to judge the size of the flock, let alone the proportions of its components. In the end I had to guess at about a hundred — principally chaffinches with a few handfuls of the other species. All this took me the best part of quarter of an hour, which of course ate considerably into the morning. I knew for certain then that I would not cover the entire square.

It took a while to circle and cross this big field. One surprise on the way round was a wintering chiffchaff on its own in the hedgerow. Eventually hunger drove me back to the car but not before I stopped to admire three kestrels loafing around by a barn.

On my route back I walked one side of another ploughed field, which also contained about a hundred fieldfares. The same flock? Who could tell? A final treat was a pair of bullfinches calling and located in the top of a tree. As if not to be outdone New Barn Farm also produced a bullfinch when I got back to the car.

Doesn’t that sound like a familiar pattern? Some of the best birds appear in the car park!

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