Rounding Off The Year

After we came back from Norfolk, things quietened right down. I had started to get deeper into a project with my large format camera so that gave us the excuse to spend time in Epping Forest. Birding wasn’t a priority on these trips, although we did take our bins with us just in case. My plan for the remains of the year was simply to try to get my yearlist up above 163 – making sure it wouldn’t be my worst year since I began recording in 2014.

We went down to Oxted in mid-November to visit Mum and Dad and, in a departure from our usual quest to visit Ashdown Forest, we instead had a nice Sunday morning walk on The Chart (aka Limpsfield Chart). It was a nice walk with the trees in full autumn colour, and we paid particular attention to the fungi. Birding was limited to some Goldcrests and Coal Tits.

The big birding news came right at the end of the month when a pair of Firecrests turned up on the Reservoirs. Jem and I managed to go and have a look early one Saturday morning before we needed to head off to Charlton to Sheffield Wednesday grab a convincing 3-1 victory. We only managed to get one of the Firecrests, but it was good enough for us. The following day we visited Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook to see the returning Caspian Gull.

DSC00693Firecrest

DSC00851Caspian Gull

The following weekend it was back to Epping Forest, although this time with the birding camera. We concentrated on the Mandarin Ducks on Connaught Water. We thought we saw a single Goosander briefly in flight, but that would have to be a target for another day for me.

The Sunday before Christmas was a good day for a trip up the Lee Valley to Amwell, with the star of the show being a Whooper Swan in the afternoon sunshine. Coal Tits and Reed Buntings were feeding by the hide too, and we were treated to an impressive mini-murmuration of Starlings as the sky turned pink.

DSC01304Whooper Swan

DSC02045Starlings

The following day I made use of being off work for the Christmas break to head up to Stocker’s Lake near Rickmansworth. I had two main targets: Goosander and Red-crested Pochard, which were both missing from my yearlist. I started my walk with some Siskin feeding high in the trees but as I circuited the lake in a clockwise direction I found myself struggling to get the targets. A brief chat with another birder led me to the Goosander at last – it was in a separate section of river beside the lake – and I also managed to get great views of displaying Goldeneyes, and a Kingfisher zoomed past my head. Eventually I managed to pick out the Red-crested Pochards as they skulked under the vegetation on one of the islands.

A couple of days after Christmas we had a walk up at Bramfield for the first time since late spring. It was a nice day out, although we didn’t see anything new for the year. A nice show from one of the local Red Kites and a Muntjac on a footpath were the main highlights.

And so it came to New Year’s Eve. I still needed a few more birds for the yearlist, so we made the bold decision to visit Wallasea Island by public transport. It’s not easy, but the train is pretty direct to Southend, and there’s a bus service that gets to Canewdon – a village about three miles from the reserve. It was worth the trek. Buzzards and winter thrushes were seen as we made our way towards the island and as the distant reedbeds came into view we picked out our first Hen Harrier. The walk past the timber yards got us two more species: flocks of Corn Buntings were expected, but the female Merlin that floated in and landed on the mud was a real bonus. We eventually reached the main car park and set ourselves up on the sea wall to wait for Short-eared Owls. Unfortunately they weren’t playing ball. We stood and waited, with the harriers quartering in the distance, and got chatting to two women who had also come here for the owls. Eventually after a bit of scanning with Jem’s scope, I managed to pick one owl out as it sat motionless on a small island. We watched it for some time but it didn’t want to fly. Knowing we had a bus to catch and a long walk ahead of us we eventually called it a day and went to leave, when the two women offered to drive us back to Canewdon. This was very welcome as it saved our already-tired legs, and also gave us time to get a hot drink in the pub there. It had turned out to be a great day out to finish the year off, and my yearlist was now up to 166 too. I believe the Hooded Merganser from Titchwell has not been accepted as a wild bird, but I’m leaving it on the list anyway – it’s not like I’m doing it competitively.

DSC02887Short-eared Owl

In all, 2019 was a great year. The trip to North America was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. It brought me thirty additions to the lifelist, and most importantly it got me my holy grail bird, the Snowy Owl. It was also great to revisit Pittsburgh, and we had the best time visiting Peter, Katelyn, Jasmine and Ellen in Pittsford. Niagara Falls wasn’t bad either. Lots of good birding was done at home too, with a few birds – Merlin, Corn Bunting, Whooper Swan, Waxwing and Nightingale, for example – that we don’t see often.

And of course, we were happily oblivious as to what 2020 had in store for us…

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Norfolk

As October came around, so did our annual trip to Norfolk.

Day One

We went up by train as usual, via Cambridge to Kings Lynn, and then got the bus across the coast to Wells. After settling in we went out for a walk down via the quayside for lunch and then I went alone to the edge of the saltmarsh to the east of the town with my large format camera to try to get some sunset compositions.

Day Two

Marcus picked us up after breakfast and we made the very short trip along to the lane just behind the saltmarsh where I had walked to the previous evening. Straight away there was a Great Egret nearby, and then we managed to get onto a Greenshank in one of the channels. There were plenty of other waders here – Redshanks, Curlews, etc, and some Brent Geese. A couple of Ruff where also on one of the pools and then a Sparrowhawk zoomed through, spooking everything. We also managed to get onto a Yellowhammer before heading out eastwards along the Warham Greens path towards the Whirligig. Pink-footed Geese, Golden Plovers and a Marsh Harrier were seen here, and despite a no-show for the Dusky Warbler that had been here previously, we did manage to get onto a close-by Ring Ouzel in some bushes. Eventually Marcus also managed to pick out a Whinchat in the low scrub.

We had lunch at the Wells Beach car park and picked out some Oystercatchers, a Grey Plover, some Bar-tailed Godwits, Turnstones and a Sanderling from near the lifeboat station. We heard a Bullfinch too, but I couldn’t get onto it myself. Then we headed around the eastern part of the woods to look for Yellow-browed Warblers. One was heard amongst a tit flock, but the whole flock was very mobile in the breeze. Coal Tits and Goldcrests were seen well, but not a great deal else so we headed back to the car.

The afternoon was finished off at Stiffkey Fen. One Spoonbill was there, along with some Little Egrets and a flock of Black-tailed Godwits. A Kingfisher zoomed past – we’ve seen them often here – and the highlight were three distant Red-breasted Mergansers. Not a spectacular day of birding in breezy conditions, but it had been very enjoyable.

01_GreyPhalaropeGrey Phalarope

Day Three

The weather wasn’t much better on our second morning of birding, and we headed out westwards to Titchwell. There were plenty of tits flocking in the trees near the visitor centre and another Yellow-browed Warbler became the second heard-only record of the trip. There was Pintail in one of the first pools and a Marsh Harrier in the distance. Avocets were seen out on the Freshmarsh, and a Peregrine passed overhead. More Godwits of both species down on the beach, along with one Knot, and a young Gannet flew past over the water. A Grey Phalarope had arrived the previous day at Thornham Point so we headed off along the windy beach in the hope of having a look. Luckily it was still there and happily feeding around a pool by the Point. After a good time spent watching the Phalarope we headed back to Titchwell and had a sit-down in Parrinder Hide. There wasn’t a lot more than we’d seen earlier, but there were a few Ruff and more Avocets visible this time. As we headed back along the path towards the visitor centre something was attracting a small crowd ahead of us – a Water Shrew happily munching on a snail. It wasn’t bothered by all the feet clumping past and we managed to get plenty of photos before heading to the picnic tables for lunch. As we ate, a handful of Siskin flew overhead. After lunch we headed out to Patsy’s Reedbed, but there wasn’t a great deal there aside from another Pintail and a young Mediterranean Gull which briefly flew in with some Black-headed Gulls.

Marcus is always good at figuring out plans which avoid the worst weather, and as the rain approached he got us all together and ferried us off southwards towards the Brecks. On the way a covey of Grey Partridges crossed the road. When we got down to the Brecks we positioned ourselves at the corner of one of the pig farms to look for Stone Curlews. As always, it was almost impossible to spot any to begin with, but once we got our eye in we found several. Marcus picked out both a Yellow-legged and a Caspian Gull in the pig fields, but the only view was with his scope up at height, and it was too high for Jem and I to get to. A Marsh Tit called in a nearby bush, but kept out of sight. We drove around to the opposite side of the field to scan for the Stone Curlews again in case there were more over the other side of the ridge. We each took turns in scanning along with the scope and trying to count – eventually settling on a total of 28 birds. Marcus had been right about the weather, and as we headed back northwards we drive through torrential rain. It had been a very well-planned, and fruitful day’s birding.

02_WaterShrewWater Shrew

03_StoneCurlewsStone Curlews

Day Four

It was still cloudy and grey, but less windy and much drier. We started at a spot I hadn’t been to before: Sheringham Cemetery. The idea was to look for Ring Ouzels and Yellow-browed Warblers which had been seen the previous day. On arrival two birders told us the Ring Ouzel had departed earlier, so we tried for just the warbler instead. There was a Green Woodpecker down on the grass, and then a significant tit flock containing Long-tailed, Blue, Great and Coal Tits, plus Goldcrests, which circuited the cemetery. There were a few Blackbirds and Song Thrushes too. Eventually it was Jem who spotted a warbler in the trees at the far corner of the cemetery and Marcus confirmed it was the Yellow-browed so we were all happy with that. After a while we decided to leave the cemetery and head down to the promenade where we had excellent close encounters with a large number of Turnstones. There were also Razorbills, a Guillemot and some Gannets out to sea, and a single Red-throated Diver which flew east. On the way back westwards we stopped at Walsey Hills just across the road from Cley. The main target was found quite easily – a Jack Snipe on the pool – and then we headed into the wooded path where there were plenty of Chiffchaffs, a Blackcap and another Yellow-browed Warbler.

We had lunch at Cley and watched a flock of Ruff, a Yellowhammer overhead and a Marsh Harrier. Marcus had heard that there had been a Hooded Merganser at Titchwell earlier in the morning so, as it was reported to still be there, we headed back westwards to have a look for ourselves. It was more like a proper twitch as there were plenty of birders present at Patsy’s Reedbed. The Hooded Merganser was there and happily swam along the foot of the reedbed several times until distant shooting scared it off with all the other ducks. It did come back down in another part of the reserve, whilst I kept myself busy photographing a close-by Marsh Harrier. We headed along the eastern trail – I think I’ve only ever been along there once or twice before – to look for Bearded Tits and Water Rails. Nothing showed for us there, but we heard calls. There were more Godwits and Avocets to watch though. Eventually we went back across to the main path. Yesterday’s Water Shrew was still there, and the Hooded Merganser had been re-found by the twitchers. We eventually got views of a Water Rail from the Island Hide and eventually got some great close-up views of Bearded Tits in the reeds right beside the path. A surprise Cetti’s Warbler was following them and flitting up into view as they made their way along the reeds. It was a great way to end the day.

04_HoodedMerganserHooded Merganser

05_BeardedTitBearded Tit

Day Five

The final day of birding was damp and drizzly to start with. We went out to Lady Anne’s Drive as Pink-footed Geese flew overhead. There was also another covey of Grey Partridge near to the car park. Another Yellow-browed Warbler was heard but not seen as we walked along the track and two Great White Egrets were seen in the fields. From Washington Hide we scanned around and eventually found a Ring Ouzel high up in a bush amongst several Song Thrushes and Redwings, as well as a third Great White Egret. The rain stopped for a while so we continued on westwards as a Red Kite floated overhead, and we eventually found a few more Yellow-browed Warblers, but they weren’t very showy. We also began to noticed flocks of Siskins coming in, obviously just off the sea. Marcus estimated we’d seen more than 500 by that time. A couple of Bramblings flew overhead, and we eventually made it to the end of the track to look at the distant Cattle Egrets – at least eight were counted – with another three Great White Egrets. As we clambered over the dunes at the end of the pines more and more Siskins came in, Chaffinches as well. There were plenty more Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, and a Fieldfare too. We headed back to Lady Anne’s Drive and had lunch in the new Lookout Cafe as it rained again, but luckily it cleared up by the time we left.

Then it was off to Friary Hills – another spot I hadn’t been to before. The Siskin flocks had been replaced by smaller flocks of Chaffinches, and there were thrushes and Blackcaps in the bushes. We eventually managed to find another Yellow-browed Warbler in a tit flock and I finally managed to get a photo of one, albeit a record shot only. Some Marsh Harriers were over the Freshes and a young Peregrine soared directly over us. As we got back down to the seawall were pleased to see the Hooded Merganser in the captive collection was still there. As we walked out to scan the harbour we perused the waders on the mud. There were Curlews, Redshanks, Knot, Dunlin, Grey Plover, and Bar-tailed Godwits. As we turned to leave a flock of Turnstone passed over us with some smaller waders amongst them. I thought I’d managed to get a tiny wader that Marcus was interested in in one of my photos, but it turned out to be one of the Dunlins instead – the smaller wader was most likely a Little Stint but it would have to be one that got away.

06_YellowBrowedWarblerYellow-browed Warbler

Day Six

After breakfast I wandered back down to the quayside to shoot some more large format compositions while Jem relaxed at the guesthouse. Once we were all packed we headed out into Wells for lunch before making our way, by bus and train again, back to London.

In all, it was yet another fine birding tour of North Norfolk. At the time I was expecting that we’d be back again the following year, but a certain virus would have other ideas…

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Spring & Summer

With my concentration turned to film photography, birding was far more relaxed after we’d returned from North America.

We visited Dev for a weekend in Woking and spent much of the two days at Thursley and Frensham. Starting at Thursley Dartford Warblers were found easily, as was a perched Woodlark. Talking to a small birding group we encountered, they mentioned a Redstart in the area near to the Parish Field so we decided to have a look for ourselves. As we walked along the path alongside the field we were surprised to find a flock of Brambling in a tree ahead of us. They flew off before we’d managed to get extended views, but as we turned the next corner the Redstart – fine male – hopped out onto the path in front of us. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get any photos before it disappeared. In the afternoon we went to the football to see Woking against Torquay.

On the Sunday it was a good walk around Frensham, between the ponds. The main target was the female Ring-necked Duck that had been staying on the Little Pond. It took a while but we eventually had good close views, and a Kingfisher flew past and landed in amongst the reeds. Out onto the heath areas we had further Dartford Warbler views. Several Treecreepers were also noted.

Dartford WarblerDartford Warbler

The next notable birding was a warm morning on the local patch where we caught up with a White Wagtail and female-type Black Redstart on the riding paddocks. We don’t head that way often but it was well worth it. Back on the Reservoirs we had good views of a Brambling by the anglers’ hut and a Little Ringed Plover on Number Four Reservoir.

BramblingBrambling

Working the way through May brought us several summer migrants on the Reservoirs. The regular Scaup was still around on Number Four, and it was joined briefly by a drake Garganey and two Black-necked Grebes (both requiring after-work visits during the week). A single Wheatear was found on the East Warwick.

A morning on Ashdown Forest brought us a stunning male Bullfinch and a close encounter with a Tree Pipit. Cuckoo was heard very close, but we just couldn’t get a glimpse of it before we ran out of time and had to head back. There were at least a couple of Redstarts around too, plus a very pale Common Buzzard.

Tree PipitTree Pipit

The Cuckoo mission – something we put considerable effort into every year – took us to Fishers Green up the Lee Valley. Unfortunately we failed with the Cuckoo but we did instead get Nightingale onto the yearlist. We know exactly where to look for them and were expecting to have to make-do with just a heard-only record but I did see one briefly fly between two bushes. It was only my second actual view of one in the UK.

More reservoir birding brought another drake Garganey, this time on the East Warwick one evening.

An afternoon walk at Bramfield for film photography brought us at least one calling Cuckoo. We initially thought we saw it in silhouette on top of a distant pine tree, but further consideration when we got home led me to think that it was probably something else – a corvid, most likely. But we knew Cuckoos were there, so we returned the following weekend and we were finally rewarded with a fine male calling from a tree. One of these two trips also got us a couple of Yellowhammers, plus our first ever self-found Yellow Wagtails. Although there can be plenty of Yellow Wagtails on the Reservoirs every spring, we never seem to see them. I’ve only ever seen them in the UK when on guided birding trips, so finding our own in Bramfield was particularly nice.

CuckooCuckoo

In early June Jem’s dad was involved in a race in Norfolk and so her parents had decided to make the most of it and book a small lodge in Welborne near Dereham for a few days. It had a spare bedroom so they invited Jem and I to stay with them. We went up by train to meet Jem’s parents in Norwich on the Saturday evening because I’d had a driving lesson – my first time behind the wheel on a public road in more than twenty years – earlier in the day, and the highlight was seeing our first Barn Owl of the year just as the train was coming into Wymondham. An evening walk brought us some Brown Hares but not a lot else. The Sunday was hot and sunny so we spent the morning wandering around the nearby lanes whilst Jem’s dad was off racing. There were plenty of singing Yellowhammers, plus Common Buzzards and Red Kites. There was also a pair of Bullfinches frequenting the garden of the lodge. In the afternoon I went for a walk on my own, photographing the Buzzards and Common Whitethroats in the sun. Towards the end of my walk I found Grey Partridges on a golf course on one side of the road, and Red-legged Partridges on the other side. A Hobby also flew overhead. In the evening Jem and I went out so I could take some large format photos, and a Little Owl called from a nearby tree. I also had my bat detector with me and we recorded the usual Pipistrelles and, more-excitingly, also a Western Barbastelle. Unfortunately the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were horrific. It poured all day on Monday so we went out to visit Wymondham Abbey by car (and still got soaked). On Tuesday we decided to give Titchwell a go but the weather was even worse with pouring rain going horizontal in the wind. From Parrinder Hide we scanned around, eventually adding Mediterranean Gull and Bar-tailed Godwit to our yearlists. Jem and I have been to Norfolk lots of times now but this was by far the worst weather we’d experienced. We headed home on the Wednesday, adding nothing else bird-wise. It had been a very nice break for the first couple of days but the weather really affected the rest of the trip. Never mind.

Grey PartridgeGrey Partridge

Later in the month it was back to Ashdown Forest for an evening with the Nightjars. We succeeded, and also succeeded with roding Woodcock too, but there was much less action when compared with our visits last year. Tawny Owl was heard hooting as usual, but no glimpses.

It was around this time I came down with shingles, which kept me in for a short time. In July we had a work summer party at West Lexham in Norfolk, not far from Thetford, and although I wasn’t able to partake in the outdoor pool fun, I did spend some time wandering the grounds enjoying the mostly-invertebrate life and flocks of Goldfinches. In the evening I did some bat recording in the trees – lots of Common and Soprano Pipistrelles – but the rain arrived before things got darker and I gave up on my Barn Owl hunt.

With the exception of Birdfair, August saw very little in the way of birding. A few walks around the Reservoirs, but most of our weekend days out were centered around just enjoying the weather and also doing more large format photography (I’m working on a separate blog for that). We’d had a day down at Beachy Head in July, and this month we had a day down at Rye. What we did get was a distant view of Whinchat down on Walthamstow Marsh, and a very brief view of a Pied Flycatcher in the trees by the Lockwood one evening.

WhinchatWhinchat

A day out at Amwell brought us a Bittern and Common Sandpiper, but the highlight of this late part of the summer was a stunning male Redstart that stayed for a day at the bottom of the West Warwick – luckily Jem and I managed to get down there after work and just before the sun had gone down.

RedstartRedstart

Next up, our annual trip to Norfolk…

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North America

I’ve been fascinated by owls since I was about five years old. I can’t remember how or why it began, but it’s just my thing. It was after going on an owl-centric guided birding tour to Sweden in 2009 that I started to get more into birding in general, and I’ve been slowly working my way through seeing the various owl (and other bird) species that we have in Europe ever since. My favourite bird of all is the Long-eared Owl (two trips with David Lindo to Northern Serbia took care of this species for me, although I’ve still never seen one in the UK), but the owl that I believe to be the most iconic is the Snowy Owl. Seeing a Snowy Owl in the wild has been top of my bucket list for some time and although they sometimes find themselves fairly close to home I’d prefer to experience them in their more ‘natural’ habitats.

With this in mind we started to look at tours we could go on that would give us a good chance of seeing them, and the country that seemed to be the best for this was Canada. With Jem’s brother and his family living just outside Rochester, NY, we realised that there would be potential to make this into a bigger holiday. Eagle-Eye Tours from Canada provided the owl solution with a short tour (three full days of birding) in Manitoba, starting and ending in Winnipeg itself and heading out towards the Winnipeg River in between. Being a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan I took the opportunity to book us a few days there for the hockey and a bit of sightseeing (I had previously visited back in 2007 and had a very good time), and then we could stay with Jem’s family in Rochester before heading back via Niagara Falls for an extra final bit of touristy stuff. I hadn’t had a proper two-week holiday since I went to Australia in 2009, so this trip was going to be much needed and very exciting.

Day One

It started with a very early Tube journey to Heathrow to get our 9am flight out to Toronto. Everything was fine until we landed at Pearson International. Our connecting flight to Winnipeg had been cancelled, we’d been automatically re-booked onto the next one (even before we’d arrived in Canada), and then that second flight had been cancelled too. Air Canada had then re-booked us again onto an entirely new (i.e. previously unscheduled) flight which would get us to Winnipeg around dinner time. It wasn’t a great start, but the big plus was that as we waited in the departure lounge at Toronto Jem noticed a large white bird in the distance. A look with our bins certainly suggested Snowy Owl (and I had previously noted that there had been reports of them there in the preceding weeks) and then we found a second one, much closer this time, and a definite Snowy Owl. It was still distant and the conditions were pretty awful – grey skies, poor visibility, snow and sleet – but at least it was a 100% Snowy (#518 on the lifelist – at time of writing last year’s addition of Barbary Falcon has now been downgraded to subspecies of Peregrine). We eventually arrived at our hotel having missed going for an evening meal with the rest of the tour group, but we were so tired it didn’t really matter. A protein bar each, a bit of ice-hockey on the TV, and it was time for bed.

Day Two

After breakfast we finally met up with the rest of the group and our leader Rudolf and then we headed out. It had snowed overnight but was clear blue sky all around now, and very cold at around -15°C. Ice crystals were floating around in the air like glitter and we also experienced a very impressive sundog. The first stops on the outskirts of Winnipeg brought our first North American Black-billed Magpies (#519) and lots of Grey Partridges. We headed to a small parkland beside the river where we looked for Eastern Screech Owls but they weren’t around this time. Instead we got good close views of White-breasted Nuthatches coming to scattered food (#520) and a Bald Eagle flew down the river but I didn’t get a good enough look at it. We then headed out to the Oak Hammock Marsh reserve for a quick look to see what was around. No sign of the Short-eared Owl that had been recently visiting, but we did get some views of Common Redpolls. As we left the reserve we stopped briefly for Snow Buntings in the fields beside the road, and then a second stop a bit further on where we got even better views of them. As would be a familiar sight in Canada we started to notice the abundance of Ravens.

After a quick lunch at a Tim Horton’s we headed south-east out of Winnipeg to look for Snowy Owls. A quick stop at a house brought us our first Wild Turkeys (#521) and Black-capped Chickadees (#522) and then at a second house we looked for Great Horned Owl. We didn’t find it but the owner came out and told us of another one at her sister’s house not far away. As we approached the house we got a glimpse of the owl flying through the trees. We repositioned ourselves back out on the road and waited. A Bald Eagle flew overhead (#523) and then the owl reappeared, flying between two stands of trees, briefly perching, and then flying back into the woods and out of sight (#524). I couldn’t get a photo but I did get a good look at its face as it flew. Following this we went looking for the Snowy Owls. Eventually, after we slowly drove alongside several almost-featureless fields of snow, I spotted a likely shape in the snow and we watched it – a male – take off and grab a rodent before returning to its original spot. We got out the minibus to have a better look and get some photos. Luckily the light was still very good and despite the ridiculous wind chill I managed to get some reasonable photos from distance. Soon afterwards a second owl – this time female – was spotted in another field and we did the same. The routine for getting out and photographing repeated a couple more times as we added a second female, and then finally a second male which was perched on an electricity pole beside the road. This male eventually dropped down and flew across the road right past us and perched onto a different pole further away.

With our Snowy Owl mission completed we headed off and skirted around Winnipeg before making our way north-east to our second base of the tour up at Powerview-Pine Falls beside the Winnipeg River. We settled into our hotel and had dinner before heading out again at dusk to look for more owls. We didn’t manage to get any Great Greys but we did have a nice Northern Hawk Owl in silhouette perched up on a tree. We also heard a Tengmalm’s Owl calling from in the forest before we eventually headed back for the night.

Snowy OwlSnowy Owl

Day Three

We were out early to look for more owls. Again, the Great Grey was the main target but no matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t find one. Instead we found a number of Northern Hawk Owls (including at least one pair), Pileated Woodpeckers (#525), Gray (aka Canadian) Jays (#526), and a Ruffed Grouse perched in a distant tree (#527). We eventually returned for a morning snack and then headed out again around the streets of Powerview and Pine Falls. Plenty of Pine Grosbeaks (#528) were found munching on berries, along with a lot of Redpolls. A short drive brought us a Hairy Woodpecker (#529) beside the main road and on our return to Powerview we stopped for better views of a perched Bald Eagle on a gnarly trunk beside the river.

After lunch in Subway we headed back out again and had a great stop at a house in the woods. Here the feeders were bringing in all kinds of species, including Blue Jay (#530), Downy Woodpecker (#531), some stunning Evening Grosbeaks (#532) and amongst all the Common Redpolls, one Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll (#533). We moved off to look for Sharp-tailed Grouse but instead found a Northern Goshawk, whose presence was probably the reason why we couldn’t find any grouse.

We had an early dinner back at the hotel before heading back out on the owl trail again. Northern Hawk Owls were again being found with relative ease, but still no sign of any Great Greys.

Bald EagleBald Eagle

Day Four

It was back out early again to look for Great Grey Owls under overcast skies, but still no luck. Northern Hawk Owls were still around but little else. Eventually, with too much daylight, it was decided to call it a day on the owls and see what else we could find. It didn’t take long before we got an American Crow (#534) and our first two Sharp-tailed Grouse on a ridge in the middle of a field (#535). For the rest of the morning it was mainly more and more grouse that we were seeing. We tried for woodpeckers down a straight track and one did briefly fly across in front of us but we couldn’t be sure which species it was, and it didn’t show itself again.

After lunch in a Chinese restaurant we started to make our way slowly back towards Winnipeg. One stop brought us our final addition the list: A Black-backed Woodpecker which gave fine views on a broken tree (#536). I spotted a shrike by the side of the road as we headed onwards, so Rudolf stopped and we had a look at it as it flew across the road and into a tree. At the time he indicated that the Northern Shrike was the same species as the Great Grey Shrike we see at home, but a bit of research since and I’ve found that it has now been split as a separate species (#537).

We finished our Manitoba tour with a hearty Italian meal back in Winnipeg and then it was back to the hotel for the night. Twenty new species for the lifelist and some great views of some fantastic birds. Hard to believe we’d only been in North America for four days at this stage.

Sharp-tailed GrouseSharp-tailed Grouse

Day Five

Another early start – this time too early even to have breakfast – and it was off to Winnipeg Airport to catch our flight back to Toronto. More snow meant we ended up in a queue for de-icing and we eventually arrived in Toronto late. Crossing the US border takes place within the airport itself and it was a bit of an ordeal. Too much of an ordeal in fact as we finally arrived at our gate for the flight to Pittsburgh only to find that it had already departed. As it turned out our bags hadn’t made it onto the flight and so we hadn’t been expected to be on it either. Air Canada managed to get us onto the next flight but that meant an eight-hour wait in the US-bound terminal. Due to ongoing renovations it was probably the most boring terminal to be in – on the ground floor with no views out onto the airfield – and the few windows that did offer anything like a view were obscured because of the construction work. We’d been given meal vouchers by the airline but the only places we could spend them in were a small Starbucks kiosk and a small diner.

Eventually we got our very short flight to Pittsburgh, jumped in an Uber and finally reached our hotel around midnight. A tough day and the only birds of note were the Red-tailed Hawks congregating around the airfield at Pearson.

Day Six

Having wasted most of the previous day in an airport terminal we weren’t going to waste any more precious time, so it was up early and out for breakfast with a quick wander around the gardens beside the hotel. Plenty of American Robins were on the grass and we could hear something else having a good sing. Eventually we found it – a Song Sparrow – in the top of small tree (#538). Wandering on southwards we added a small group of Common Grackles (#539) and a Mourning Dove (#540) and then made our way towards the Monongahela Incline. Unfortunately it was out of service for maintenance so we had to navigate our way towards the Duquesne Incline instead. This actually worked in our favour though as on the way we found our first Northern Cardinal (#541) singing from a tree and then two Northern Mockingbirds (#542). We also noticed raptors – Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks – flying across the ridge of Mount Washington. We reached the Incline and trundled up to the top and took cityscape photos from the various viewpoints before nipping into a little library so we could use their bathroom. Following that we made our way back down and headed off for a long walk via the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges across to the North Side and onto the National Aviary for an afternoon with the captive birds. Following that we wandered back to the hotel via PNC Park (noticing a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in the Allegheny River as we crossed) and then we headed out for a meal at Emporio Meatballs (one of the best meals we had on the holiday – I definitely want to return in the future).

Northern MockingbirdNorthern Mockingbird

Day Seven

We tried to get out of the hotel nice and early, but it happened to be St Patrick’s Day weekend and and that’s a very big deal in Pittsburgh. It meant we had to wait a while for a table for breakfast, and instead of walking we took the subway back to the North Side to spend some time in the Warhol Museum before it was time to go to the hockey game. I last visited Pittsburgh to see the Penguins play in October 2007, soon after they’d announced they were going to demolish the old Civic Arena and build a new state-of-the-art home. I specifically wanted to experience the classic old igloo and had a great time while I was there. Despite being built just across the street, the new arena (currently called PPG Paints Arena) is a world away from the old one. Absolutely fantastic monument to sport and it made it a great experience as a fan. On my previous visit a young Evgeni Malkin scored the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over the New York Rangers. This time Geno was being honoured before the game for recently reaching the milestone of 1,000 points in the NHL. Sadly the Penguins had an off-day. Despite recording 41 shots on goal compared with St Louis’s 26, the Blues won by a convincing score of 5-1. Never mind.

After the hockey we had downtime to kill. The St Patrick’s Day festivities had transferred to the various bars by this time so we went for a leisurely stroll through Downtown and ended up at Point State Park where we got better looks at the gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, to be precise (#543). After that it was more waiting around (and snacking) in the hotel before leaving Pittsburgh and getting the overnight train to Rochester via Cleveland.

Day Eight

The day ‘began’ on the train from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. We arrived in Cleveland just before 3am, waited a few hours in the waiting room and then boarded the 5.50am towards Rochester. As we neared Rochester it began to snow, which was a surprise given it had been 22°C just two days prior. Peter met us at the station just before 10am and we headed off to the house in Pittsford to meet up with Katelyn, Ellen and Jasmine. After settling in to our basement room we drove out to a small woodland reserve nearby – Mendon Ponds Park – where the birds were obviously used to visitors and would happily feed from the hand. We soon had Red-breasted Nuthatches (#544) and Tufted Titmice (#545), more Northern Cardinals and a nicely-perched American Tree Sparrow (#546). We then had a good look around a small raptor sanctuary called Wild Wings that sits nicely within the woods before heading back to the house to get some rest.

Tufted TitmouseTufted Titmouse

Day Nine

Before we came out to North America I emailed the Rochester Birding Association about where we should consider going whilst we were in the area and I got a very nice – and detailed – email back from Andrea, the President of the RBA, with loads of good information. Peter and Katelyn were up for taking us out to a particular part of the Braddock Bay Park on the shores of Lake Ontario that’s known for its owls. Before we left the house I added House Finch to the list thanks to the feeders by the kitchen window (#547).

When we arrived at Braddock Bay we tried to get to the bird observatory only to find it closed at this time of the year, so we headed a short distance back out and down to the water’s edge. The trees were full of Red-winged Blackbirds, various sparrows and a couple of Northern Cardinals and three Turkey Vultures circled overhead. We could see down to the water that there were lots of wildfowl, and we soon managed to pick out Ring-necked Ducks (#548), Hooded Mergansers (#549) and Buffleheads (#550). Jem noticed a lone Waxwing in some scrub and after I’d managed to get a good look myself we realised that it was a Cedar Waxwing (#551). Closer to the water we noticed Black-necked Grebes, two juvenile Bad Eagles that headed past, and also some American Wigeon (#552). We decided it was time to head off but I’d worked out that the Owl Woods which we’d really hoped to see were just on the other side of the road, so we went to have a quick look, not expecting to see anything much. As we followed the trail into some pretty dense brush I noticed a bird just heading out so I asked if he’d seen any owls. He casually mentioned there were two Northern Saw-whet Owls in amongst some nearby pines. I soon heard voices of where there were a few other birders and they pointed the first owl out to me, just a few feet away on a head-height branch (#553). The second owl was in a similar position in a tree a few feet away, dozing in the morning sun. After we’d all had a good look we decided to leave the owls to it and headed back towards Pittsford for lunch. The afternoon was spent relaxing as we watched the garden receiving another fall of snow from the warmth and comfort of the house.

Northern Saw-whet OwlNorthern Saw-whet Owl

Day Ten

We went out in the morning to watch Jasmine in the Purim Festival parade at a local Jewish community care centre and then Jem, Peter and I had a little tour of a few parts of Rochester, namely the Cobbs Hill Reservoir where we heard woodpeckers in the trees and the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park. After reconvening with Katelyn and Jasmine for lunch we went for a walk at the Tinker Nature Park. This was a very rewarding afternoon where we saw an Eastern Bluebird (#554) coming to a nestbox near a visitor centre, and once in the woodland itself we also added Red-bellied Woodpecker (#555) and a surprise Cooper’s Hawk to the list (#556). We also had good views of White-tailed Deer (as we would also have in the garden too).

Red-bellied WoodpeckerRed-bellied Woodpecker

Day Eleven

Peter had to work today so Katelyn took us out for the day, driving south-west out of Pittsford in sunny conditions to Letchworth State Park. We stopped first at the overlook of the Mount Morris Dam where Turkey Vultures floated around us in the strong wind. Heading on we made it – via a large detour – to a good spot to view the Middle and Upper Falls of the Genesee River and get some long-exposure photos. On the way back we dropped in at a Tractor Supply Company depot to pick up some bits and pieces before getting back to Pittsford and relaxing until dinnertime.

Turkey VultureTurkey Vulture

Day Twelve

Our last full day in Rochester was cloudy and grey, but that didn’t matter as we planned to visit George Eastman’s house and museum. It was an interesting afternoon and I regret not purchasing a signed copy of Jason Lee’s A Plain View from the gift shop (it was expensive, it had a damaged cover, and it wouldn’t have fitted in my luggage). After an ice-cream in the cafe we went back to Pittsford for the afternoon to have a drive around to a local fish hatchery before heading out for an evening meal at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in the city, followed by a visit to the Genesee Brew House to test out the Cream Ale. It was a pretty good way to finish the Rochester part of our trip.

Day Thirteen

We left Pittsford by car in sleety and snowy conditions and eventually crossed the border at Niagara Falls where Peter and Jasmine said goodbye and Jem and I spent the rest of our last full day in North America wandering alongside the falls. The weather had been pretty poor on our arrival and it left me a little underwhelmed after I’d built the Falls up in my mind, but after lunch it had turned sunny and clear (although still freezing cold) and we experienced the Falls in all their glory. Ring-billed Gulls and Long-tailed Ducks were in plentiful supply here. Our hotel room also had a good view of the falls and we enjoyed seeing it illuminated at night from the steakhouse on the ninth floor, but then a major blizzard moved in and we saw the town get covered in snow as the night wore on.

Horseshoe FallsHorseshoe Falls

Day Fourteen

We got up early to enjoy the sunrise and clear conditions from the hotel and after breakfast went for a frozen walk along to the Bird Kingdom to do a final bit of touristy stuff before getting our shuttle bus back to Pearson Airport. On the way, just before reaching the airport itself, we added one final bonus bird: an American Kestrel hovering close to the freeway (#557). The flight home was uneventful and we arrived back in London the following morning.

It was an epic trip – my first full two-week holiday in almost ten years – and we got much more than we’d hoped for. Forty bird species were added to my lifelist, including great views of my most sought-after bird: the Snowy Owl. The short excursion to Pittsburgh was fun (and I unexpectedly added some species there too), and then we had a great time spending most of the second week near Rochester with the family. I’d wrongly assumed we wouldn’t add many species there, but we ended up with thirteen additions, including the Saw-whet Owls. Despite the problems with missed flights and time wasted in the airport in Toronto, and the poor performance of the Penguins in Pittsburgh, it was an amazing trip.

The final list of new species was: Snowy Owl, Black-billed Magpie, White-breasted Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, Black-capped Chickadee, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Ruffed Grouse, Gray (Canada) Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Downy Woodpecker, Evening Grosbeak, Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll, American Crow, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Northern Shrike, Song Sparrow, Common Grackle, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Ring-billed Gull, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, American Tree Sparrow, House Finch, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Cedar Waxwing, American Wigeon, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Bluebird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Cooper’s Hawk and American Kestrel.

Loads of birds seen, loads of good food eaten, loads of family fun, loads of good experiences enjoyed. I want to go back.

A full photo album can be seen here.

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern Hawk Owl

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New Year, New Challenge

Last year was all about the 200 bird challenge. It was a great way of getting myself out of bed in the morning, and it was great fun. But with that completed I’m going to spending my spare time this year concentrating on something else: photography. Or, to be more accurate, film photography.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to be birding, but the last few years have been all about seeing birds and making sure I get photos of them for social media, etc. Since 2015 I’ve broadened my creative horizons by getting back into film photography – in both medium and large formats – and with this I shoot non-avian subjects. I still take my binoculars with me but if I take my large format camera out on a weekend there’s no room for the DSLR and long lenses so all that has to stay at home.

For this update I’ll be covering the birding that we have done so far this year, and then I’ll soon be telling the story of how and why I got back into shooting film in subsequent posts.

Visits to Epping Forest, Abney Park Cemetery and walks around our reservoirs in early January brought us the usual species: Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper, Redwing, Kestrel, Tufted Ducks, etc. The annual wintering Greater Scaup was found on Reservoir #4 and two Green Sandpipers were in the drainage channel north of the Lockwood. Further visits to the Reservoirs brought Goldeneyes (although several attempts to see Goosander were fruitless – always a bird I find elusive when everyone else is reporting them). Peregrines were seen as usual on my commute from Tottenham Hale and also one over my head when I was on the High Maynard.

Most excitingly it turned out to be a good Waxwing winter. Jem and I headed down to Balham to look for a flock that had been active around there. Whenever I see Waxwings in the UK the conditions are bad. The light is always poor and my photos are always uninspiring, and this occasion was no different. When we arrived to the correct location the birds were nowhere to be seen. There were plenty of Redwings and Fieldfares gorging on berries in the same tree the Waxwings had been visiting, but nothing else. After a while the weather turned to freezing rain so we headed off for a walk to keep warm around the neighbourhood to a few other spots where the Waxwings had been reported but to no avail. But when we got back to the original site there they were. The conditions weren’t much better but at least we saw the birds.

RedwingRedwing

Waxwings & RedwingWaxwings & Redwing

February saw a couple more trips around the Reservoirs, and visits to Hainault Country Park and Claybury Woods. The highlights were a Kingfisher and a Sparrowhawk flying past the Reservoirs car park within a minute or two of each other, and Common Buzzard, Skylark and Nuthatch at Hainault. I also took the opportunity at the Reservoirs to practice with focusing on birds in flight – I’d become a bit rusty with the recent emphasis on my photography turning away from birds and Jem and I had recently booked a big holiday: Canada and the USA, with birding in Manitoba, ice-hockey in Pittsburgh, and family fun in Rochester, NY. Oh, and with a stop at Niagara Falls on the way home.

And that’s what my next update will be about…

Mute SwanMute Swan

GoldeneyesGoldeneyes

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The Final Run

After returning from Morocco it was time to turn our attention back to the mission of trying to get 200 bird species in the UK before the year came to an end.

Surprisingly, we were back in the game before we’d even got back to London. We arrived at Gatwick late on the 29th September and stayed with Mum and Dad in Oxted overnight. I’d only recently subscribed to Birdguides and the app was telling me that a Grey Phalarope was at Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent – a place we used to go to occasionally as kids to look at the Grey Herons. Dad was eventually persuaded to drive us over on the Sunday afternoon and we soon picked the bird out on one side of the causeway before it suddenly flew right past us and down into a pool on the other side of the road (#518 on the lifelist and #198 on the yearlist).

Grey PhalaropeGrey Phalarope

Once back in London and back to normality I researched what was around in the London area that we could get to and one thing that was notable was the large numbers of Cattle Egrets around the country. There was one showing well at Rainham from the Butts Hide and we went over to see it. It was doing the classic thing – following cattle – and we watched it for some time. This was the first time we’d seen one in the UK. The following weekend we were hoping to get over to see the Pallid Harrier that had been delighting birders near Royston but sadly it didn’t quite hang around long enough for us.

Cattle EgretCattle Egret

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long for my 200th bird of the year. A Rustic Bunting turned up at Wanstead Flats and brought birders from far and wide. We headed over on a Saturday morning and got great views over a period of a couple of hours. It wasn’t a lifer for me as I’d seen one in Finland a few years back, but it was a lifer for Jem and it was still a UK-first for me, and a really nice bird to complete the #200birdyear challenge with. However, the morning did also reinforce my hatred of twitching. Several times I was bashed into and shoved aside despite there being plenty of room for everyone, and it wasn’t like the bird was hiding away. It’s very similar to the way otherwise decent people turn into utter shitsacks when they get behind the wheel of a car. Birders can turn into horrible bastards too when there’s a rarity in town.

Rustic BuntingRustic Bunting

There was also a very slight pang of doubt as the one bird I’d ticked off this year that I wasn’t 100% sure of was still needling me a little – the Great Egret that flew through Hertford Cemetery when we visited Bramfield early in the year. But luckily that was soon put to rest with a Sunday afternoon walk over Richmond Park to see the long-stayer on the Pen Ponds.

Surprisingly, things really seemed to dry up after this. I was keeping tabs on what was around on a daily basis, but there was simply very little that we hadn’t already seen this year – or at least very little that we could easily get to. Despite several nice walks during November and December, including a Sunday morning on Ashdown Forest where we tried and failed to get the Great Grey Shrike, the only further addition for myself was the returning Caspian Gull on Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook. I returned with Jem one day because she still needed the gull and it got her onto 200 for the year too (she didn’t get the Serin on our reservoirs earlier in the year). We also had a day down at Rye Harbour with the parents where we got a brief view of the regular Merlin – our second of the year. A Christmas Eve return to Ashdown Forest still didn’t get us the GGS, but it was nice to get a flock of Crossbills overhead (the first time we’ve ever self-found the species) and on returning to Mum and Dad’s in Oxted, Mum shouted to us as we stepped into the house that there was a Bullfinch in the garden. I immediately assumed she was either joking or had mis-identified a Chaffinch or something, but she was dead right: there was a stunning male Bullfinch sunning itself in the apple tree. Mum and Dad have lived in the house since 1976 – three years before I was born – and although we’ve had a number of good species as it backs onto woodland, it’s definitely the first Bullfinch that I’ve ever known to appear there. It didn’t stay for long but I managed to get a few very dodgy record shots before it left.

Caspian GullCaspian Gull

The final day out was spent at Cliffe Pools on New Year’s Eve. We got down to Cliffe Village during late morning and had a wander around the church first in order to scan the marshes for any raptors. As we turned back through the churchyard Jem noticed a shape on top of the church roof – a Little Owl! We headed round for a better look and found that there was actually a pair. I got a couple of shots of one of the owls as it perched on the gutter. Heading off towards the Pools we had a good extended look at a good flock in the trees. Mostly Redwing and Fieldfare, but with a few Linnets and Goldfinches amongst them. Our main targets were Red-necked Grebe, Bewick’s Swan, Corn Bunting and Hen Harrier. In the end we didn’t get any of them. I thought I’d worked out which pool the grebes were on, but eventually realised we were in the wrong place and found that we needed to get to the Alpha Pool, a larger body of water that we’d never seen before. We eventually gave up when we realised we weren’t going to be able to get access from the southern road. We stood on an elevated mound of grass and ate our lunch and mused that it looked like a good spot for Long-eared Owls – and just two days later that proved to be true as one was spotted at that exact location. Anyway, after lunch we headed back to the Flamingo Pool to look for the Bewick’s Swans, but they had obviously departed already – we missed them by one day. We occupied ourselves with good views of Golden Plover, Little Egret, Common Buzzard and a Marsh Harrier which came floating by. As the afternoon wore on we headed back towards the village, but went a different way than usual because we still had time before needing to get our bus back to Strood, taking the lower path which skirts the marshes. I had a good feeling that there could be a Short-eared Owl around and it turned out that I was right. I only got a brief view as it quartered a patch of marshland, but it was unmistakable. Unfortunately Jem couldn’t get onto it and it eventually went off out of view. Aside from an angry Blackbird in a garden in the village the owl proved to be my last bird of the year, so it was a nice end.

Little OwlLittle Owl

It had been a pretty hectic year for birding. It had begun with the plan to get 200 birds in the UK in the year and it saw us get three lifers in the process (Little Bunting, Glaucous Gull and Grey Phalarope). We got a few UK-firsts too, such as Serin, White-tailed Eagle, Wood Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Black Tern, Red-backed Shrike, Cattle Egret and Rustic Bunting, which brought my overall UK list up to 243. The trip to Scotland brought great views of lots of iconic birds and we only really missed out on Capercaillie. Norfolk got us some great spring species and some unexpectedly hot weather. And September’s trip to Morocco added thirty-seven species to the lifelist (which had totalled 518 by the end of the year).

Unfortunately we missed out on a few of the species that turned up during the unprecedented run of scarcities on the local patch (Bluethroat, Hoopoe and Black Kite – all of which would have been UK firsts for us), Tawny Owl and Nightingale became heard-only species for the year (yet again), we missed out on Dotterel (again), and species we often get but failed with this year were Hen Harrier, Water Pipit, Arctic Tern, Firecrest and Corn Bunting. To be fair, we could’ve probably got Water Pipit fairly easily if we’d put some effort in. The final UK yearlist total was 201. This was both satisfying because I’d succeeded in the challenge, and disappointing because I reached 200 in mid-October and only managed to add one more species in the final two-and-a-half months of the year. It wasn’t for lack of trying. For what we did get I have to offer my thanks and gratitude to the local Walthamstow patch birders for finding so many good birds, to the Heatherlea guides in Scotland and Marcus in Norfolk, and to both mine and Jem’s parents for taking us around to various spots throughout the year. I’ve recently started refresher lessons after more than twenty years of not driving, so hopefully it won’t be long before we can get our own car…

…and I still haven’t seen a Long-eared Owl in the UK…

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Southern Morocco

Normally we have our main holiday abroad each year in spring, but after we were unable to fly for a while due to medical reasons and knowing we weren’t going to get the all-clear until April anyway, we decided instead to consider options for an autumn trip. We’d had Naturetrek’s Southern Morocco trip in mind for a few years and seeing as they had a September departure scheduled we decided to go for that. It was a bit more expensive than our usual holidays, but it was also a few days longer so we were still going to get decent value – and of course the potential for a lot of species we wouldn’t normally be able to encounter in Europe.

Day One

It began with a 3am cab ride from Mum and Dad’s in Oxted to Gatwick in order to get an early flight to Marrakesh. It was comfortable and uneventful, but as we landed we saw a large flock of White Storks, several Cattle Egrets and some unidentifiable larks. Once inside the terminal, having bought some currency, we straight away added House Bunting to the lifelist (#481) as several flew around inside the building. Those of us who had chosen to go on the optional trip into the mountains got into the minibus and headed off out of Marrakesh towards Oukaimeden. A short stop on a bend brought us brief views of our first Moussier’s Redstarts (#482) but we soon headed off again to a stop for lunch. Flocks of both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs were in the air and on the grass and a large flock of Serins were pecking in the car park. Following lunch we had a good look through the flocks of Serins and could just about see a couple of African Crimson-winged Finches – our main target of the day (#483). Just along the road we looked at a couple of Seebohm’s Wheatears, a Black Redstart, Black Wheatears and a larger flock of Crimson-winged Finches and then headed a bit further on where we got a good look at a Kestrel and then headed to a final peak where we got better views of Moussier’s Redstarts, a Spotted Flycatcher and a far more relaxed Crimson-winged Finch. On the way back towards Marrakesh we stopped for a potential Barbary Falcon which turned out to be a Peregrine, enjoyed some Alpine Swifts and also added African Blue Tit to the list (#484 – I didn’t realise until the following day that it was a full species). We missed out on Levaillant’s Woodpecker, but it was otherwise a fine start to the holiday.

Moussier's RedstartMoussier’s Redstart

African Crimson-winged FinchAfrican Crimson-winged Finch

Day Two

Day Two began with breakfast by the pool and straight away I managed to get my first Common Bulbuls (#485) as they picked items up from unattended tables. There was also a juvenile Laughing Dove preening in a tree. As we headed out of the hotel and loaded into the vehicles a couple of Little Swifts circled overhead (#486) and we added Maghreb Magpie as we headed out of Marrakesh (#487). The first stop as we headed towards the High Atlases was a small patch of pines where we had glimpses of Cirl Buntings and the North African race of Chaffinch. Here we also had a couple of very interesting orb weaver spiders, plus one each of Booted Eagle and Lesser Kestrel high overhead. After a coffee stop at Toufliht we had a short walk along the main road which brought us views of the Atlas race of Coal Tit, Crossbills and a Grey Wagtail. Lunch was at Taddart before we traversed the Tizi N Tichka Pass and eventually descended towards Ouarzazate, stopping for great views of Bonelli’s Eagle and getting our first White-crowned Black Wheatears (#488). After checking into the hotel we headed out to the Barrage where we had our first Maghreb Larks (#489) and a couple of Hoopoes. A storm was brewing so we couldn’t stay for long, but we did get a good look at a Little Owl of the Atlas race. We just made it back to the minibus before the torrential rain began and we headed back to the hotel where I spent some time photographing the lightning.

House BuntingHouse Bunting

Maghreb LarkMaghreb Lark

Day Three

A hot and sunny start to the day was spent on a different part of the Barrage, getting us an Osprey in a small bush beside the water, before we walked across the drier areas to get more White-crowned Black Wheatears and, eventually, our first Spectacled Warblers (#490). Walking back towards the water we had a small group of Bee-eaters fly past but couldn’t tell which species they were, we saw a group of Greater Flamingos over the water, we found a distant Southern Grey Shrike, saw two very distant Honey Buzzards, and then a Purple Heron came by. We went down closer to the water to get look at Common Sandpipers, Yellow Wagtails and Black-eared Wheatears. We eventually returned to the vehicles and went off eastwards to Boumalne Dades, getting our first good looks at the Barbary Ground Squirrels in front of the hotel. After lunch we headed off to the Dades Gorge, stopping to look at the rock formations and check out a couple of Bonelli’s Eagles on the way. At the hairpin stop-off we got a very close Subalpine Warbler before eventually, after a bit of persistence, we got our main target species: Tristram’s Warbler (#491). There were also Rock Buntings, Crag Martins, Rock Doves and Blue Rock Thrushes here. We headed back to Boumalne and then went out to the nearby dump where I spotted another Little Owl on a mound of earth. We then located a small group of Trumpeter Finches (#492) and some Red-rumped Wheatears (#493), although we did miss out on Thick-billed Larks. After dinner Jem and I did some bat detecting, getting Common and Nathusius’s Pipistrelles, plus Leisler’s Bat and a probable Noctule. We also enjoyed a Praying Mantis which walked across the wall in front of us.

Spectacled WarblerSpectacled Warbler

Tristram's WarblerTristram’s Warbler

Day Four

As we left Boumalne we had an impromptu roadside stop because a small group of Cream-coloured Coursers had been spotted (#494). Once we’d all had a good look we headed off a short distance into the Tagdilt Plain for a desert walk. A small pool brought us our first Desert Wheatear (#495) and Temminck’s Lark (#496). At our next stop I was first to notice a large distant flock in the sky – what looked a bit like a flock of pigeons – which turned out to be around sixty Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (#497) which eventually landed a short distance away from us. We also had a Long-legged Buzzard, a Thekla Lark and a number of scorpions. Our usual coffee stop brought a number of interesting dragonflies at a small pool, before we headed off eastwards again and eventually stopped for lunch. Here we had our first Western Olivaceous Warbler (#498), a Greenfinch and a number of Subalpine Warblers. It again started to rain and we headed off towards Erfoud, but with a short break on the Maharra Plain where we had another Southern Grey Shrike before a sand storm reached us and we escaped just in time. Jem and I had our first swim in the hotel pool in Erfoud and enjoyed more Common Bulbuls and some dragonflies.

Pin-tailed SandgrousePin-tailed Sandgrouse

Temminck's LarkTemminck’s Lark

Day Five

It was an early breakfast so we could get into the 4x4s and out to the desert before sunrise. We could hear Greater Hoopoe-larks singing, but the first species seen was a Desert Warbler (#499) and then my 500th species: Bar-tailed Desert Lark. Around the same time we got our first views of Greater Hoopoe-larks (#501) and then another look at Desert Wheatear. Back into the 4x4s we weaved around the dunes and plains, adding Spotted Sandgrouse (#502), a Barbary Falcon which flew up from the sand (#503), several Brown-necked Ravens (#504), and after looking through a scope for some time I eventually managed to get onto a snoozing Egyptian Nightjar (#505). In amongst these sightings we also had more Hoopoe-larks and some nice, close-up Cream-coloured Coursers, plus our first Desert Sparrows (#506). A short stop at an oasis also got us better views of the Sparrows, and we also had a nice relaxing morning refreshment break near the Merzouga Dunes. After lunch in the Berber Depot we headed to a lake but it only held Ruddy Shelduck of note. On the way back towards Erfoud we stopped at a site for Fulvous Babbler. We didn’t find any, but we did instead have Common Redstart, Woodchat Shrike and more White-crowned Black Wheatears. Back at the hotel we had another nice swim, and after dinner Jem and I did some good bat detecting, adding Daubenton’s a Long-eared species, Serotine and Western Barbastelle.

Greater Hoopoe-larkGreater Hoopoe-lark

Egyptian NightjarEgyptian Nightjar

Day Six

This was the day that many members of the group started to become unwell – not totally unexpected, but we’d been very careful to avoid likely causes – and we think it was down to tap water-diluted orange at the Erfoud hotel’s breakfast buffet. I held out until the evening, mainly because I didn’t have the orange on the first morning in Erfoud, so the day wasn’t too bad for me. It was mainly a day of travel anyway, heading all the way back to Ouarzazate. After a short walk around the Oued Zizz in Erfoud we headed westwards and had a stop along the escarpments at Rissani. We tried and failed for Pharoah Eagle Owl (although it would’ve been lucky to get one anyway) but after a long wait we eventually got Lanner Falcon onto the list (#507) and some of us added Desert Lark as well on the way back (#508). A nice lunch stop got us the Fulvous Babblers we’d been missing (#509), a Black-eared Wheatear, a Turtle Dove and then a selection of warblers: Western Olivaceous, Western Orphean, Subalpine and Sardinian. Another desert-race Southern Grey Shrike was seen in the afternoon, and we got great views of a Short-toed Eagle.

Lanner FalconLanner Falcon

Fulvous BabblersFulvous Babblers

Day Seven

After a rough night I popped some Imodium to get me through the day and we headed off westwards again out of Ouarzazate, after another short stop at the Barrage where the highlight was seeing the the Little Owl we’d first seen a few days earlier, along with its mate. After we left Ouazarzate behind for the second time we failed to find Mourning Wheatear before continuing in rainier conditions via a coffee stop in Taznakht and eventually to Tinfat for lunch at the saffron dealer’s place. In the afternoon we stopped for a short walk in Aoulouz where we saw Spanish Sparrows (#510), a Cetti’s Warbler, Red-rumped Swallows and a Bonelli’s Eagle. Soon after we stopped again for better views of Barbary Falcon which relocated from one pylon to another. We eventually arrived at our hotel in Taroudant in time for dinner, where my Imodium wore off. This day also happened to be my birthday, but unfortunately it wasn’t one of the better days of the trip, thanks to a combination of illness, lots of travelling, poor weather and only adding the one lifer. Never mind.

Little OwlLittle Owl

Barbary FalconBarbary Falcon

Day Eight

Another sunny morning and I was beginning to feel better. We headed off on the short drive to Agadir – our final base of the trip – and stopped off for a bit of sea watching with our refreshments. Pomarine Skua (#511) and Lesser Crested Tern (#512) were additions here before we got checked into the hotel and then headed northwards up the coast to Tamri where we located the population of the critically-endangered Northern Bald Ibis (#513) and some Audouin’s Gulls. As we hung around the vehicles for lunch a raptor appeared out of nowhere and briefly hovered before stooping into the reedbeds: our first Black-winged Kite (#514). In the afternoon we headed to the other side of Agadir to the Oued Souss. Species seen here included Marsh Harriers, White Wagtails, Dunlin, Knot, Sandwich Terns, Whimbrel and an Osprey.

Northern Bald IbisesNorthern Bald Ibises

OspreyOsprey

Day Nine

We headed southwards out of Agadir towards the Oued Massa, stopping along the way at a dirty, dusty roadside for a large flock of Stone-curlews – probably around sixty individuals. Another Spectacled Warbler was here, as well as Thekla Larks and a Redstart. When we reached the Oued Massa itself we went for a long walk alongside the river. It began well with our best views of Moussier’s Redstarts, and we also got several Stonechats, a Curlew, lots of Common Bulbuls, some Barbary Partridge (#515), a young Woodchat Shrike, a Cirl Bunting, some Spotted Flycatchers, a flock of Glossy Ibis and, after a lot of persistence having heard it calling, finally a Black-crowned Tchagra (#516). After our refreshment break we found a second Black-winged Kite – this time perched on a palm tree – and at our lunch stop at a narrower part of the river we also added Plain Martin (#517) to the list. There were more Turtle Doves and Spotted Flycatchers here as we ate our lunch in a small woodland. In the afternoon we relaxed back at the hotel and had our final swim of the trip.

Black-crowned TchagraBlack-crowned Tchagra

Black-winged KiteBlack-winged Kite

Day Ten

Our final morning in Morocco was spent with another walk at the Oued Souss, but this time from a different spot. I finally got some photos of Maghreb Magpies here, and we had Zitting Cisticolas and Sardinian Warblers in the scrub. The river itself was very active with large numbers of Greater Flamingos, White Storks, Black-winged Stilts, Spoonbills, both Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Sanderling, Redshank , Greenshank, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher. A Peregrine perched in a distant tree and we were treated to an awesome fly-over from a juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle. After that it was back to hotel to relax and get checked out before leaving for lunch and then the airport for the flight home.

Greater FlamingosGreater Flamingos

Bonelli's EagleBonelli’s Eagle

In summary it was a pretty awesome holiday. There were a few missed species (Thick-billed Lark, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, plus the other two Sandgrouse species: Crowned and Black-bellied), and we were unfortunate with the dodgy orange squash at the hotel in Erfoud, but the pluses far outweighed any negatives. I saw 151 bird species in total, including thirty-seven lifers to take my list past 500 and up to 517. My favourite day was Day Five when we went out into the Sahara before dawn and my favourite species seen were the Cream-coloured Coursers. Other highlight lifers were the Greater Hoopoe-larks, Lanner Falcons, Black-winged Kites, Egyptian Nightjar, Northern Bald Ibises, Moussier’s Redstarts, African Crimson-winged Finches, Barbary Falcons, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Fulvous Babblers and the Black-crowned Tchagra. I also really enjoyed some non-lifers, such as the Bonelli’s Eagles, the scenery and landscapes, and the overall variety of habitats that we visited. Not bad at all.

A full photo album can be seen here.
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Summer Additions

After returning from Norfolk with a healthy-looking yearlist it was time for the usual lull as spring calmed down and summer took hold. I had a few ideas of species we could look for during this time, with specific plans to visit Ashdown Forest a few times to give ourselves a decent chance of getting Nightjars and Woodcocks onto the list.

We began with an afternoon walk in the heat to Fishers Green in the Lee Valley. We were hoping for Nightingales at a particular spot but it was all quiet when we reached it. On the way we had good views of a Garden Warbler, a Hobby circling overhead and two in-flight Cuckoos. We eventually re-found one of the Cuckoos calling from a distant tree. By then it was getting a bit too hot and we decided to head home before we burned up.

The late May Bank Holiday Monday saw us go down to Cliffe Pools with Jem’s parents – again in scorching heat (and with distant rumbles of thunder too). Cuckoos were calling, but as difficult to see as ever, but I eventually managed to get a look at one which flew across a field and clambered into a small tree with its wings spread open, possibly in the act of parasitising a nest. We knew how good Cliffe was for Nightingales and so spent some time trying for those too, but although we got within a few feet of one as it sang its heart out from within a hedge, we still couldn’t get a glimpse of the little blighter.

The next trip out was another visit to Rainham, still in burning heat, but nothing to report on this walk aside from a few Whitethroats that I managed to get snaps of. There had been a recent Curlew Sandpiper there but it wasn’t around any longer.

The first trip to Ashdown Forest turned out well. On the way down through Tandridge we saw a Little Owl on a telegraph pole, which was a nice start to the evening. One of the guests in Norfolk is a recorder for Ashdown Forest and he’d told me of a good spot at the Hindleap part of the Forest to target both Nightjars and Woodcock. As Jem and I explored it didn’t take long to find the Nightjars and they were more active than we’d ever seen before, and quite close too. We heard a Woodcock flying nearby over the woods but we couldn’t get onto it, and we also had a very close Tawny Owl hooting but it stayed well hidden in the trees. we tried it in daylight the following afternoon too because we knew that there had been Honey Buzzards reported. No luck with them but we had several Common Buzzards soaring together and a pair of Stonechats near a nest. Definitely a good spot for future visits.

NightjarNightjar

And so it was. We returned a couple of weeks later and did it again and this time we got lucky with the Woodcocks too, seeing two roding birds. At least three Nightjars again, but we still couldn’t get a glimpse of the hooting Tawny Owl which seemed to now be taunting us.

NightjarNightjar

The next day out was to Weeting Heath just inside the Norfolk border. It was a bit of a trek, going by train to Cambridge and then changing and trundling along to Brandon. The walk through Brandon showed just how dry it had been – there was barely a bade of grass to be seen in the gardens – and it was another hot day in the sun. A nice Pied Wagtail posed for me on a fencepost as we made our way towards the visitor centre at Weeting, a good couple of miles away. The staff were very helpful and told us where to look for the Stone Curlews, but before we’d reached the hide we got great views of the recently-fledged family of Spotted Flycatchers in the woodland. We were in the hide for quite some time with little luck – and a couple of other birders in there were stating to lose faith – but I eventually spotted a shape in the heat haze and realised it was one of the Stone Curlews. Terrible for photos but we had a reasonable look through Jem’s scope before heading off to another hide with feeders and a small pool in front. Here we had Blue Tits, Great Tits, Marsh Tits, Yellowhammers and even a juvenile Bullfinch, all at close range. Some cloud had briefly covered the sun too, so we headed back to the first hide and I managed to get a couple of reasonable record shots of a Stone Curlew before the heat haze returned. After a sit-down and an ice cream we headed back to Brandon. As we reached the station an interesting-looking raptor floated overhead. It was definitely a Kite, but the tail wasn’t forked so I made sure I got plenty of photos just in case it was a Black Kite. Once we were home and I got the photos onto the computer I could see that it was actually a juvenile Red kite and the outer tail feathers just hadn’t grown enough yet. Never mind, at least we’d seen the two main targets for the day.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher

Stone CurlewStone Curlew

A surprising absentee from the yearlist was Black Redstart – a bird we normally manage to find quite early in the year – so I was excited to learn that an adult male had been seen regularly on a small patch of grass by Liverpool Street Station, which happens to be where I come into London every morning. It took more than a week of looking every morning as I made my way to the office, but eventually one Friday morning I got a very brief view of it as it flew up from the grass and over the station roof. The following morning Jem and I both went to have a look and got great close-up views. The following day we had an afternoon walk at Fairlop with the macro lens to turn our attention to insects. Plenty of Common Blues, Brown Arguses and my first Small Coppers. Got some good close-up shots of Common and Ruddy Darters, and then the bonus of my first Emerald Damselfly.

Black RedstartBlack Redstart

Jem and I had been thinking that as we go on our walks and things we tend to have a pretty good idea – or at least a rough guess – of the vast majority of the animals that we encounter…with the exception of bats. When we see a bat all we know for certain is that it’s a bat, and that’s as good as it gets. So, having seen Chris Packham marvelling on Springwatch, I decided to invest in the Echo Meter Touch II which plugs into my iPhone. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s already been a great investment. We tested it out around our estate and in the first night we had several Soprano and Common Pipistrelles by the bridge, and even a possible Nathusius’s Pipistrelle too.

In late July it was back to Ashdown Forest for one final evening walk. The Nightjars were still active but the Woodcocks weren’t about. The Tawny Owl was still hooting, but this time further away than before. The bat detector got anther good workout. Common Pipistrelle was the main species this time, but we got Nathusius’s Pipistrelle again and a first Natterer’s Bat too. Earlier in the day we’d also found our first Purple Hairstreak on Mum and Dad’s patio. A few evenings later and we’d added Daubenton’s Bat to the list, feeding from the Lea by our flat.

The next little mission was to try and get one of the Pied Flycatchers that suddenly started popping up all over the place in early August. We tried Regents Park one morning before work but the individual there wasn’t playing ball. Plenty of other good woodland birds flying around and I also found a male Sparrowhawk hiding deep within a tall conifer. The next attempt was after work the same day at Alexandra Park. Unfortunately it had become cool, damp and cloudy and there was very little around, save for a juvenile Green Woodpecker which came ridiculously close to us at it searched the golf course for ants. A couple of mornings later we tried again – in the rain – and eventually located the Pied Flycatchers. There were also various other small birds – Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers in particular – being very active in the same stand of Silver Birches.

Green WoodpeckerGreen Woodpecker

By now it was mid-August and time for Hen Harrier Day at Rainham. It was a fine day and the speeches by Chris Packham, Natalie Bennett and Barry Gardiner were all very good. David Lindo was unable to get there in time to make a speech, but he did give me a copy of his new book which has eight of my photos in it. All good things. After that Jem and I decided to do the long walk back to Rainham Station in the hope of finding a Yellow-legged Gull. Our gull identification skills are virtually nonexistent, but with a bit of persistence and a lot of photos taken, we managed to find ourselves a definite adult YLG by the Tilda Rice factory.

By the end of the following weekend I’d added two more species to the yearlist: two Whinchats on the Friday evening down on Walthamstow Marsh whilst Jem was having a driving lesson, and then on the Saturday we went up to Birdfair. We very rarely get much birding done while we’re there, but this time there were free guided bird walks around part of the reserve. We arrived at the Anglian Water Visitor Centre a bit early so we used the spare minutes to see what we could see from the viewing platform and as luck would have it four Ospreys suddenly appeared – one carrying a fish – and circled over the lagoon for a good length of time. Only the second time I’d ever seen Ospreys in the UK (the last was also at Rutland Water back in 2011).

A Saturday morning walk around the Reservoirs got great views of Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitethroat by the fisherman’s hut and the Sunday afternoon walk around the Lockwood got Jem the Whinchat that had been missing from her own yearlist, along with some Common Sandpipers and a surprise Hobby which erupted out of the grass. A couple of Common terns went overhead too.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher

Lesser WhitethroatLesser Whitethroat

WhinchatWhinchat

Another week, another good bird in London. This time it was a juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Wanstead Flats. The first evening I raced back from work but as we were about to leave the flat I was told the bird hadn’t been seen for a couple of hours. Decided I’d get up early the next morning instead, but as I was getting ready it began to pour with rain. The rain eventually passed later in the morning and the Shrike was reported again so it was another dash back from work and we headed out, reaching the site just as the sun was setting. There wasn’t much about, apart from Jackdaws and someone flying a drone, but I eventually spotted the bird on the edge of a bush. Pretty terrible light and I’d only taken my 70-200mm lens, but I got a few reasonable record shots. The first one we’d ever seen in the UK.

Red-backed ShrikeRed-backed Shrike

Just two days later six Black Terns were reported on our Reservoirs. By luck as we were moving out of our office that day and I’d already packed my studio up, I was sent home early…and promptly missed the Terns by a matter of minutes. More than thirty Black Terns had been reported at Staines Reservoir the same day, so we got up and headed down there on the Saturday morning. They were fairly distant, but easy enough to pick up with the scope. Again, a bird I’d never seen before in the UK. There were also Black-necked Grebes as usual.

Black TernsBlack Terns

And that was pretty much it: a surprisingly good summer of birding and a good start to the autumn too. My yearlist was now all the way up 197 so I felt pretty relaxed about taking a couple of weeks out to go birding in Morocco…

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Norfolk in Spring

Ah, mid-May and it’s time to return to Norfolk with Marcus of the Bird ID Company. We go at least once a year but this was the first time we’d gone in spring, with arriving migrants being the main targets. We chose this specific time as it was likely to be the best time to see Dotterel, which is currently our most elusive sought-after species. We had a brief view of four individuals in Finland back in 2014 flying away into the sun, but it wasn’t a view that Jem or I were happy with to say that we’d actually seen them.

Arriving in Wells on the Thursday was largely uneventful and the weather was already looking promising. After dropping our bags at the B&B we walked into the town to get some lunch and then headed off along the quay. Straight away we had a Peregrine swoop down from on top of the Granary’s gantry and head off across the saltmarsh. Walking up towards the harbour we had Red Kite, Common Tern, Oystercatcher, Pied Wagtail, Spoonbill and Little Tern, followed by a couple of Wheatear. From the sands we also had a good look at a Harbour Seal. There were terns everywhere, but unfortunately we couldn’t pick out any Arctics. On the way back towards the town we also had a probable Whimbrel. We always head out to the marsh and fields at the east of Wells to look for Barn and Short-eared Owls in late afternoon, but this time there were no owls to be seen. I was pretty sure I could hear a distant Turtle Dove purring somewhere near the main road to the south but we couldn’t see it.

Little TernLittle Tern

Marcus picked us up on the Friday morning, we met with the other guests and then we headed off to see if we could find Nightingales. Unfortunately we had no luck – Marcus had said that numbers were down this year – but we did get a few Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. We headed on to Kelling because of reports of a couple of Garganey. There were a pair of Hobbies in the air behind the village, along with lots of Swallows and House Martins and the walk down the track brought us Whitethroats and a Brown Hare in a ploughed field. It took a bit of work at the pond, but we eventually managed to locate the Garganeys in one of the corners. Avocet, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Reed Buntings, Whitethroats and Linnets were also here. We walked on up the hill to get a look at the sea and we had Stonechats, Meadow Pipits, Little Terns, Sandwich Terns, a Kittiwake and a Kestrel. As we walked back to the car we saw Marsh Harrier over the field where the hare had been earlier. I tried and failed to get photos of Orange Tip butterflies as we went along the track.

We then moved on to Cley and tried the Iron Road pool first although there was little on it, and so we headed round to the hide instead, watching some baby Lapwings on the way. Here we had great views of mating Avocets and Pied Wagtails right in front of us and a Common Sandpiper which slowly made its way around the edge of the water, feeding as it went. At lunch in front of the Visitor Centre we used the scope to check out both Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits out on Pat’s Pool, along with various other waders. After we’d eaten it was up to the Heath to look for Dartford Warblers. A Hobby flew past just as we arrived and after a bit of moving around we managed to get good views of a Stonechat as well. A Woodlark went up for a flight at one stage too, but despite plenty of effort the Dartford Warblers were staying away.

GarganeyGarganey

Saturday morning started with the pleasant surprise of a Peregrine flying through the pigeons and up onto the church tower in Wells, just as we were picking up the rest of the group. We spent several minutes watching it and taking photos as it sat on a ledge. The rest of the morning consisted of a long walk at Burnham Overy Dunes in the warm sun. All the usual warblers were around – Sedge, Reed, Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat – and on the mud on the sea side we found several Grey Plover in summer plumage. As we reached the dunes themselves we got some good views of Wheatears, presumably of the Greenland subspecies. As we headed westwards a Yellow Wagtail flew over us, calling as it went. It was good to finally get it onto the yearlist and it remains, bizarrely, a species that Jem and I have only ever seen when on guided tours. We reached the more shingle-covered part of the beach and located superbly-camouflaged nesting Ringed Plovers which I spent some time trying to get decent photos of – very difficult with all the heat haze. Turnstones, Common Sandpipers, more Ringed Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, and several Common Terns were found. Marcus also saw a very distant Arctic Tern which Jem and I desperately wanted for the yearlist but we couldn’t get onto it before it disappeared. As we eventually headed back to the car we heard a Bittern booming several times – I think the first time I’ve heard one booming in this country since we visited the Somerset Levels back in 2013.

After lunch at Holkham it was back to Cley to look for a Temminck’s Stint that had been reported on the pool by the Iron Road. It was starting to rain and the stint had apparently already gone by the time we got there but we did see another Hobby, a Little Ringed Plover, a couple of Ringed Plovers, a Wheatear and some Dunlin instead. We headed round to the hide and luckily the Temminck’s Stint was there, feeding along the back edge of the pool and regularly being chased by two Little Ringed Plovers. As the rain had stopped we then headed out for a final walk on the East Bank where we saw a distant Spoonbill, several waders including another summer-plumage Grey Plover, and a Hobby on a fencepost. Several Marsh Harriers were drifting around too as we finally made our way back to the car to head back to Wells.

Temminck's StintTemminck’s Stint

Sunday morning was cloudy but still warm and we headed off to Titchwell. The idea was to look for Turtle Doves first, although we weren’t too expectant as the reports suggested that the pair in residence was heading off elsewhere very early each morning and not being seen the rest of the day. We had no luck but after checking out the birds on the feeders behind the Visitor Centre we heard a very close Cuckoo. Annoyingly it was just the other side of the trees and by the time we got round to have a look from the main path it had gone elsewhere. We followed the calling round to Patsy’s Reedbed but still no sign, although we could still hear it close by. This was frustrating to say the least. As we headed back to the main footpath Marcus got a brief glimpse as it disappeared into the distance towards the sea, but the rest of us would have to wait for a look. Sedge and Reed Warblers were in the reeds alongside the path and we eventually managed to get a few brief views of Bearded Tits – our first of the year. On the Freshmarsh there were four very variable Ruff lined up on the edge of a scrape and a pair of Red-crested Pochard, plus two Pink-footed Geese. Here was also a single Little Gull, and as we arrived at Parrinder Hide we got great views. There were also some Mediterranean Gulls on one island amongst the Black-headed Gulls, plus some Common Gulls and a pair of mating Sandwich Terns. There was little of note on the no-longer-tidal Tidal Pools but once we reached the beach we got scope views of Grey Plover, summer-plumaged Sanderling, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwits, Common and Little Terns, one Scoter and a couple of Fulmar. As we headed back towards the Visitor Centre we could hear the Cuckoo again, this time far more distant out to the west. It took some time but Marcus eventually managed to get it into his scope as it perched in a small tree. It eventually took flight and we watched it circling over a small woodland at the north of Thornham Village. On the yearlist at last! An extra surprise was a Siskin on the feeders as we arrived back near the Visitor Centre.

After lunch we made the effort to look for Dotterel at Choseley. I’d been following the sightings closely and I knew that the small group that had arrived the previous week had not been seen for several days, so I was well prepared for the subsequent disappointment. We didn’t waste much time there and instead went off to Holme to look for Turtle Doves that had been reported earlier in the day. By this time it was getting pretty hot and although we didn’t get any Turtle Doves we did get closer views of another Cuckoo, as well as a nice Linnet, a Willow Warbler and a pair of Lesser Whitethroats. As Jem and I were hanging back the Cuckoo flew right past us and out to a bush on the sea wall. Heat haze prevented me getting anything other than a record shot though.

The tour ended with a fine walk at Stiffkey Fen. From the footpath alongside the main road we watched two male Marsh Harriers systematically taking Brown Hare leverets from the meadow, and then Marcus noticed a small wader in a small distant pool in the meadow. It turned out to be a Wood Sandpiper – like the Temminck’s Stint, a first for the UK for us. Moving on to the Fen we got views of two Greenshank – new for the yearlist – various other waders, Brent Geese and Little Terns. Out on the harbour edge Marcus noticed a small wader amongst a group of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, and eventually we managed to find it in the scope: a Little Stint. After we’d all had a look and were about to turn back a Whimbrel came in and landed on the saltmarsh and a male Marsh Harrier flew straight over us. We walked back along the path by the fen and a startled Barn Owl flew straight up from the trees by the river. As we arrived back at the car the same owl briefly came over the hedge towards us, but annoyingly I’d somehow knocked the useless on-board flash on my camera and it had popped up – when this happens the camera automatically goes into flash exposure mode and so it messed all my settings up and stopped me getting a photo of the owl. I wish camera manufacturers would just do away with the crappy on-board flashes.

As we reached Wells we noticed that the Peregrine from Saturday morning was back up on the church tower. As we said goodbye to the other guests and thanked Marcus for another fine tour, Jem and I decided we’d go back out to see if we could find the Turtle Dove that we’d heard the first evening. We skirted the fields to the east of the town and eventually heard it purring again. As we got closer to the sound Jem managed to locate it on top of a mobile phone mast. Luckily it stayed put for a while and I managed to get some decent-ish photos before a Kestrel came along and perched on the same mast, sending the dove into the nearby trees. Once the Kestrel had moved on the Turtle Dove returned to the same spot.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier

We’d booked a final night’s stay so decided to get up extra early on the Monday morning for a dawn chorus walk around the farmland to the south of Wells. We didn’t see a huge amount, aside from an injured Woodpigeon that was clearly unable to fly, a Brown Hare that stopped on the road just long enough for me to get a photo, and a couple of Buzzards.

Not a bad little holiday. We didn’t get the Dotterel but we’d added two new birds to our UK lists and fourteen to our yearlists, bringing mine up to 186 (beating my previous best of 185 in 2015). We felt we’d pretty much maximised our spring birding and it had taken the pressure off the quieter summer months ahead.

Here’s the Flickr album of my photos.

Turtle Dove and WoodpigeonTurtle Dove and Woodpigeon

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Spring Additions

After a great time in Scotland the next day out was a damp Saturday where we headed over to Wimbledon Common in the hope of finding the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that had been there, but to no avail. Plenty of Great Spotteds probably didn’t help, but we did get an interesting close look at a Kestrel that came down to the path and promptly ate an earthworm. We also found a nice flock of Redpolls in the tree canopy. We made a detour on the way back to have a look for the Firecrests at Tower Hamlets Cemetery, but we had no luck with those either. Just as we were leaving we did get our first Blackcap of the year, a male by the entrance.

The next trip was on a pouring Sunday. Jem wanted to have a look at the North American Horned Lark at Staines so we prepared to head off down there. Before we left there were reports of Red-crested Pochards and a Green Sandpiper on the Reservoirs, so we popped in there first and after a bit of a wait we eventually got both. As we arrived at Staines Reservoir – with the rain having finally moved off – we struggled to get the Horned Lark. Instead we added a stunning summer-plumage Black-necked Grebe and three Little Ringed Plovers to the yearlist. At one stage we stopped and looked straight down the causeway path ahead at the multitude of Meadow Pipits and we both thought there was a larger bird that looked very lark-like. Jem got the scope on it just before it disappeared and we’re pretty sure it was the Horned Lark. Just a shame we couldn’t get a good view of it this time.

Black-necked GrebeBlack-necked Grebe

The following weekend – the first of April – a mix-up of reports of a Hoopoe meant Jem and I ended up missing out on it by just ten minutes. On the Friday one had been seen at Brent Reservoir, and then a late evening report had been assumed to have been the same bird. By the following morning it had been cleared up that in fact a second bird had been seen, this time on the central path on our own reservoirs. Some of the patch birders managed to get brief views before it went into cover. Unfortunately it didn’t reappear and it wasn’t to be seen again. On the plus side we did get our first Stock Doves of the year and an exhausted-looking Swallow that flew over us as we were leaving. The following morning I got up early to take a walk around the reservoirs with some of the patch birders, namely David, Paul, Jamie, Lol and Fran, in the hope of relocating the Hoopoe. We didn’t find it but we had a good walk that covered the central path and the Lockwood and I got my first Sand Martin of the year as a bonus. Later that afternoon Jem and I went over to Wanstead Flats for the first time in a long while to try to find a Ring Ouzel. We didn’t find it, but we had some great close views of our first Skylarks of the year instead.

SkylarkSkylark

The following week brought in a double whammy on the Reservoirs: a Ring Ouzel at the same part of the site that had held the Little Bunting and Serin, and a flock of Brambling beside the fisherman’s hut between Two and Three and Four and Five. I dashed home from work and got into the site in time, but to begin with I couldn’t see the Ouzel. Luckily Jamie came along and pointed it out to me and I watched it and grabbed photos in the rain until Jem came along. Jamie had been over to look for the Bramblings but they’d disappeared for the evening, but I decided to get up early on the Friday morning to have a look. They were still there and after some persistence I managed to grab a few photos of a male. The Saturday was glorious so we went back out again, and the Ouzel was still around. Jem, Jamie, Fran and I watched it preening (and pooping) before it finally took off and headed directly north, probably signalling the end of its stay. Jem and I spent the rest of the morning wandering around the southern half of the site, adding our first Sedge and Willow Warblers to the yearlist, and getting views of a Red Kite soaring overhead too – the first we’ve seen on the Reservoirs. Jem and I then decided to head to Rainham Marshes on the Sunday with the recently-reported pair of Short-eared Owls being the main target. Reports of the owls were few and far between over the previous winter so it was a big surprise for a couple of them to turn up and hang around during the spring. We did the long walk from Rainham along the Thames Path, adding Common Tern to the list on the way, and reached the visitor centre in time for lunch. Afterwards we headed up towards the Serin Mound to scan the marshes for any sign of the owls, but in wind and rain we eventually decided to call it a day and head home. We were nearing the Purfleet end of the river wall when the rain stopped and bright sunshine burst through the clouds behind us. I decided to stop and have a look back and something caught my eye perched on a fencepost right by the river path. I called to Jem to come back with her scope and we had a look. For a moment we thought we had a Buzzard, but eventually it looked right at us and we could see the bright yellow eyes and angry-looking brows of a Shortie. I hoped to edge closer to get photos but the owl took off and began to hunt around the reserve. We stood and watched it for close to an hour as it quartered in front of the MDZ and flapped from perch to perch. A pretty good result!

Ring OuzelRing Ouzel

BramblingBrambling

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

The following morning I got up to look for a reported Wheatear on the Reservoirs, but instead had to make do with close-up views of a Chiffchaff of the Siberian Tristis subspecies – possibly the same individual that I’d seen a few weeks earlier. I got much better photos this time and again submitted to the London Bird Recorder (having had some welcome help from Jamie with the identification and diagnostics). More early walks during the week got me my first Lesser Whitethroat and, finally, a Wheatear. This brought me up to 163 for the year, equalling last year’s total. A Whinchat also turned up on the Reservoirs for a day, but by the time I’d got back from work and met Jem on the site it had gone – the consolation being managing to get some nice photos of a Cetti’s Warbler. On the Saturday we added Reed Warbler to the list after patiently waiting for one in the reeds at the top of Reservoir #1 to finally make an appearance. On the Sunday afternoon we went for another walk, this time around the Lockwood, in warm sunshine. Lots of Wheatears had been reported so they were the main target, but we were surprised to find a group of five all together on the path in the south-west corner. I used the bank as cover to sneak up and get without doubt the best Wheatear photos I’ve managed to get to date, including some of one individual which had some kind of beetle sat on top of its beak. We reckon we had seven Wheatears in total (Jem saw a couple flying past while I was photographing the party of five), and a circuit of the reservoir also brought Sand Martin and Common Sandpiper which Jem hadn’t seen yet this year. The following week saw an early morning report of a Red Kite over the Reservoirs. Having already seen them we didn’t make the effort, but a while later the report was changed to Black Kite – which would’ve not only been great for the yearlist, but would’ve also have been a UK first for us. The same bird, presumably, was then seen all over London during the course of the day but it stayed out of our range.

Siberian ChiffchaffSiberian Chiffchaff

WheatearWheatear

I finally made the bold decision to get some new binoculars too. My Nikons have served me very well and they were astounding for the price I paid back in 2012 (£380 in an end-of-line sale, knocked down from about £750), but every year at Birdfair I’m blown away by the image quality of the wares of the big three brands (Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss). I’d heard so many anecdotes of Swarovski’s outstanding customer service that I’d decided that those were the ones for me. A pair of mint-condition boxed 10×42 ELs came up on eBay and I bit the bullet (with Jem’s blessing). In fact, when they arrived I was astounded that they didn’t look as though they’d been used at all – and I’d saved more than £500 on retail price – and I could still register them with Swarovski to get the full warranty and aftercare.

A productive April came to an end with a visit to Mum and Dad’s and a morning walk around Old Lodge on Ashdown Forest. The main target was Cuckoo, but despite three reported very active the previous day, we had not a peep of one. Instead we got our first Common Whitethroat of the year, our first Redstarts, our first Woodlarks and our first Tree Pipit. I also got to test the new binoculars out and I wasn’t disappointed. The exit pupil distance is a bit different to my Nikons (which I’ve now passed on to Jem) and takes a bit of getting used to, particularly in very bright conditions, but I’m very pleased with the purchase.

RedstartRedstart

WoodlarkWoodlark

A couple of mornings later I headed around the Reservoirs to look for Yellow Wagtails. I was originally planning to go down the central path, but at the last minute I went for a circular walk around the outskirts of #1, #2 and #3. I bumped into birder who’d just seen two Yellow Wagtails fly across #4, but I couldn’t find them. There was a nice Wheatear sunning itself there instead. I had to head off to work and just as I was getting on the train, Jamie reported a Cuckoo – on the central path! I was pretty gutted. I tried again myself the following morning but failed. Just as I was getting on the train it was reported calling again and showed nicely for anyone wanting a look! Over the following days I also tried hard to get Arctic Tern onto the yearlist, but everything I thought might be Arctic turned out to be Common.

A Saturday walk around the Reservoirs in the heat didn’t bring us a great deal aside from more Common terns and some good views of Lesser Whitethroat (we missed a Greenshank that had dropped in earlier on), but on the Sunday we decided to head over to Staines Moor for the first time in a while. The targets were Hobby, Cuckoo, Garden Warbler and perhaps a Yellow Wagtail. On arrival we got Hobby straight away, circling in the sky. Lots of nice Reed Buntings and a couple of terns and eventually, after some persistence, we managed to get views of a singing Garden Warbler by the Stanwell Moor boardwalk. This took me up to 172 species for the year, and then it was time for a little trip to Norfolk…

Reed BuntingReed Bunting

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