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.


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


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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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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


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.



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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Return to Scotland

So, after a pretty intense and determined start to the year, it was finally time for our first guided trip.

Jem and I first tried Scotland in February 2015, on one of Heatherlea’s short breaks. We really enjoyed the holiday but my memories will always be slightly tainted because of FlyBe losing my luggage on the flight up to Inverness, forcing me to splash out on appropriate clothing and borrow a tripod until my bag eventually showed up a couple of days later, and I also slipped on the stone steps by the ski centre on Cairn Gorm and damaged my brand-new camera. However, with the yearlist challenge on our minds we thought it would be a good time to return. This time the short breaks were already booked up but there was a new break called the Birders’ Blast which has a similar itinerary, but with a bit more intensity to try and cram a bit more in. This time we opted for the train as well (the London City – Inverness air route has been scrapped since our last visit anyway).

The Saturday began with an earlier start than originally planned to try and see the Bluethroat on the Reservoirs so we missed out on our planned lie-in. Not to worry – we made our train in good time at Kings Cross and headed north, enjoying the scenery as we went. By the time we passed Perth and headed into the mountains the sun was setting, but we could still make out the snowy caps in the darkness. We were met by one of our guides, Mark, at Aviemore Station and we were whisked off to the hotel in Nethy Bridge in time for dinner.

Day One began with a pre-breakfast drive out to the glens for Black Grouse, which we saw well from a distance on their lek. Lots of Red grouse burbled around us too and we also got Pink-footed Goose onto the list nice and early. After breakfast we headed to Loch Garten for the feeders and also to see the Osprey that had returned a day or two previously. Annoyingly, and despite putting the news out of the Osprey’s return publicly, the RSPB had decided to close off access which also meant we couldn’t get to some of the feeders by the visitor centre. The feeders on the edge of the car park did at least bring in a few good birds, including our first Siskins of the year.

After a short while we headed to a private estate to look for Capercaillie, but with no luck. In fact, there was virtually nothing in the estate’s woodland at all. After the disappointment of the estate we headed to the Findhorn Valley for some raptor watching. Ravens, Buzzards and Goldcrests were seen at the first roadside stop, before we came to a side road where we decided to have our lunch. This was a bit more productive with the standout bird being a Goshawk flying across a stand of pines. As we headed along the road we also encountered Dippers on the river. I saw a large raptor up above a steep valley face – possibly a Golden Eagle – but nobody else saw it before it glided out of view. Eventually we had very brief views of distant Golden and White-tailed Eagles (our first WTEs in the UK). There were a number of brief stops on the way back – as we managed to get through to the other side of an apocalyptic-looking wall of precipitation-filled cloud – which brought us great close-up views of Red Deer and Red-legged Partridges, plus a couple of Red Kites. There was also a brief stop at Broomhill on the way back to look for a Black Redstart – a local rarity – that had been seen in previous days, but there was no sign of it.

Black GrouseBlack Grouse

Day Two was a slightly less early start as we had breakfast first before heading out to Cairn Gorm in bright morning sunshine. On the way we had the slightly amusing sight of a Common Snipe perched on a fencepost. A short time was spent scanning the snow and scree from the ski centre, but it was mainly Red Grouse that we were seeing. We all agreed that it would be fun to go up the funicular railway to the top of the piste where we would hopefully be able to find a Ptarmigan. And we were in luck, eventually finding two well-camouflaged individuals. Here we also had a stunning male Snow Bunting which flitted around us between a wall and the snowy rocks. After a short break halfway down the mountain for a coffee – and an unsuccessful attempt for Crossbills – we headed off to Boat of Garten Woods. A nice walk through the woods here brought us to some feeders where I was one of the lucky few to get glimpses of Crested Tit. We stayed in the area for a while because at least three Crossbills arrived, occasionally perching on the tree tops. We headed further on to a spot in the hope of finally getting the elusive Capercaillie, and three members of the group got the briefest glimpse of a male before it escaped out of sight, but Jem and I weren’t one of the lucky ones.

After lunch we headed back towards Findhorn Valley, but this time stayed on the south-eastern side of the hills at Dalnahaitnach. From here we had further brief views of both White-tailed and Golden Eagles (despite burning on the moor), and then prolonged views of a young Goshawk with a full crop that circled in the sky for something close to twenty minutes.

Following this we headed off to Lochindorb for our final main stop of the day. The target was a Black-throated Diver on the loch in summer plumage which we found without too much difficulty, and also had a Goosander which zoomed across the water and out of sight. Initially it was on the far side of the loch but it moved to a closer spot and we relocated to get better views. The position of the sun made photography very difficult, so instead I turned my attention to some burbling Red Grouse and got a few nice shots. Just as we were leaving the sun came out again and illuminated another grouse right next to the minibus, so Mark stopped and let me get some good portrait shots. As we headed back towards the hotel we had our first Stonechats of the trip too.


Day Three saw us go out after breakfast to have a look for Crested Tits again, this time having very good views at some feeders close to Nethy Bridge, and then it was off northwards to the coast. We had stops at Findhorn, Roseisle and Burghead where we eventually saw three species of diver: Black-throated, Red-throated and Great Northern, as well as Long-tailed Duck, Slavonian Grebe, Razorbill, Guillemot, Fulmar, Red-breasted Merganser, Gannet, Kittiwake, Common Scoter, Shag, Knot, more Crested Tits which looked like they were scouting for a nest site, plenty of Yellowhammers, many Hooded Crow hybrids and at least one genuine Hoodie, and Purple Sandpiper and Rock Pipit as we had lunch in a squall at Burghead. A quick check of the harbour also brought us a few Eider.

Following lunch we drove slowly around the Lossiemouth area, where we picked up Grey Partridges and a surprise Merlin by the main road by the RAF base. We had another stop for tea and cake by the river at the same site where we had an Iceland Gull last time we were here. This time we got a lifer: a Glaucous Gull (#480 on the lifelist). More slow driving around after leaving got us Tree Sparrows and Whooper Swan before we eventually headed back towards Nethy Bridge.

Glaucous GullGlaucous Gull

On Wednesday morning we did a bit of birding in front of the hotel, getting good views of Siskin and Red Squirrel, before we were taken back to Aviemore in time to get our train home. The route back was slightly different, taking us further east before crossing the Forth Bridge. Jem had missed the Goosander at Lochindorb but added one on the train back through the mountains. We also had a brief stop in Edinburgh and had a quick walk around before catching our connecting train back to London.

In all it was another fine trip to Scotland. Interestingly, despite being advertised as a more intense version of our previous visit, it didn’t really seem to be that much different. We may have missed out on Capercaillie, Hen Harrier, Twite and Corn Bunting, but we got pretty much everything else we could’ve wanted, and some great views of birds that we hadn’t seen well before. We got 98 species in total as a group and I added thirty-nine species to my yearlist, taking me up to 148. Also the bonus of the lifer in the Glaucous Gull made it extra good. The weather wasn’t too bad either, with plenty of sun in between the bits and pieces of rain.

Here’s the Flickr album of my photos.

Crested TitCrested Tit

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Back in the Game…

The relative failure of last year’s home birding meant I was pretty upset that I’d only managed to get 163 species onto my UK yearlist. My target every year is to at least beat my worst ever total – that feels like some kind of relative achievement – and to not manage to beat 2014’s total of 166 was a bit of a shame, not that it was for lack of effort (and of course a new low now makes future years easier).

So I made the bold decision to set myself a target and get involved with Bird Watching Magazine’s #My200BirdYear challenge. It’s something they set up to encourage people to get out birding more and, although it doesn’t seem to have many set-in-stone rules, I’ve set myself the rule that they must all be seen in the UK. I’m not going to count the feral pigeon either unless I manage to see genuine native Rock Doves somewhere, otherwise I’ll include species from self-sustaining feral populations. At the moment I’m only going to count birds I’ve seen, but I may add in the heard-only species later, depending on how things are going.


With all that said, January got off to a pretty decent start. We began with walks around the Reservoirs, getting such species as Greater Scaup and Peregrine onto the list nice and early. A day out at Bramfield followed with the plan of getting Hawfinch and Brambling as we’d managed to get them both back in December, but this time we couldn’t locate ourselves a Brambling – always a bird that we’ve struggled with. The Bramfield usuals were all there: Hawfinch, Red Kite, Buzzard, winter thrushes, etc, and as we finally began the long walk back to Hertford we had the unexpected surprise of a covey of eight Grey Partridge on the outskirts of the village. This was the first time we’d seen this species in the UK outside of Norfolk.


After visiting Shoeburyness for the first time just before New Year we knew it would be a good place to see lots of good shorebirds, so we spent a good Saturday there, starting on the East Beach in the morning for Brent Geese, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Redshank, Turnstone, Little Egret, etc, and then moving on to Two Tree Island at Leigh-on-Sea on the other side of Southend after lunch for Avocet and Common Snipe, amongst others. Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Goldeneye were all added on the Reservoirs over the following days too.


The next bird of note was a bit special. A Little Bunting was reported associating with Reed Buntings on a patch of scrub on the Reservoirs one Friday in late January. Jem and I got up the next morning in the pouring rain to see if it was still about, and thanks to a few other local birders, we managed a very brief glimpse before it headed off into the long grasses and out of view. Not great views, but it was enough to see the difference in face pattern, and it was our first lifer of the year (#479 – I thought I’d finished 2017 on 477, but with Lesser Redpoll being finally accepted as a separate species by the IOC, I got an additional ‘armchair’ tick). Over the next few weeks I’d spend a lot of time trying – and failing – to get decent photos of the bird.

I then went out to Staines Reservoir on my own because Jem was unwell one Sunday. Before Christmas a Shorelark had turned up on the causeway between the basins and it soon become apparent that it was probably one of the many North American races. It disappeared for a bit before returning in January. I love Shorelarks but had only previously ever seen one individual – in Norfolk several years ago – so I decided the trip across London would be a good idea. And so it turned out, with the bird showing extremely well and within just a few feet of the path. I failed to find the Black-necked Grebes that were also reported, but I did add better views of Goldeneye while I was there. I finished January with 86 on the yearlist.



The first stop in February was a horrible, grey, windy and damp Saturday at the London Wetland Centre in the hope of getting Bittern and Jack Snipe, and we were fortunate again. Two Bitterns were seen, one in the reeds beside one of the smaller hides, and one on a small island out in the middle of the main pool. After we’d relocated to the top of the Peacock Tower we witnessed the bird on the island suddenly come out onto the crest and perform a bizarre, frantic, snake-necked dance in the wind. Very odd. We got distant and partially-obscured views of one of the Jack Snipes, but it was good enough to see the diagnostics before it padded into some longer foliage. The following day was spent at Amwell where the target was Smew – and we saw at least two, maybe up to four redheads. Loads of displaying Goldeneye as well, and as we left Jem found a cracking male Bullfinch by the towpath.


Next was an afternoon walk on Regents Park, specifically to see the Water Rails that have been coming to a feeder in a ditch. On the way we had a good look at one of our local Peregrines perched up on the halls of residence by Tottenham Hale Station. Once we got to Regents Park and found the feeder it didn’t take too long before one of the rails came out and pottered around. We did some exploring and got great views of Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrests, Song Thrush, Coal Tit and Redwing. We heard a Green Woodpecker yaffling too, but I still hadn’t managed to get it onto the yearlist by this stage.

Water RailWater Rail

The following weekend we had our first trip to Rainham this year. Birds seem to be getting pretty active by this stage and we got great views of a number of birds perching up and singing. Marsh Harrier and Stonechat were added to the yearlist, as was a Barn Owl just visible in a nesting box and a Ruff flitting about on one of the scrapes. This brought me up to 97 for the year.


A sunny Saturday afternoon was spent on Epping Forest, starting at Connaught Water where we got our first Mandarins of the year. The Goosanders that were there in December appeared to have gone so Jem couldn’t get them onto her list, but despite the main part of the forest that we wandered round being very quiet, I finally managed to get my first Nuthatch of the year before we left. The following day was also nice and sunny, so we spent the morning on the Reservoirs where we got great views of one of the local Kingfishers by the Coppermill Stream, and then headed to Fairlop in the afternoon where we failed to add Little Owl or Green Woodpecker (despite hearing more yaffling). The plan was to try to get 100 species onto the list before the end of February, and luckily the Reservoirs’ early opening times for permit holders began on Tuesday of the final week of the month. I got in at 7am and made a mad dash to the overflow channel at the north end of the site to get Green Sandpiper and finally reach three figures with a day to spare.


Early March saw us try to get Caspian Gull, Great Northern Diver and Woodcock onto the yearlist during a wet afternoon at Fairlop and then Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook. The GND and Caspian Gull weren’t there, and we couldn’t find Woodcock either. We did manage to get a soggy Little Owl though. The second Caspian Gull at Eagle Pond had also gone AWOL, so we had a wander around the nearby woodland and ponds and consoled ourselves with an unexpected bonus of a pair of Lesser Redpoll. During the following week a Serin which had been briefly seen a couple of times on the Reservoirs in February returned and I managed to get a few glimpses one wet morning before work. A couple more early walks around the Reservoirs brought us more Goldeneye and a very nice confiding Dunlin on the Lockwood. I tried a few more times for photos of the Little Bunting in good light, but it didn’t want to show. I did eventually get Green Woodpecker and Cettis Warbler onto the list though.


The next little excursion was a great weekend spent with Dev in Woking. Jem and I got down there on the Friday night as it began to snow. By the time we awoke on Saturday morning there was a decent covering on the ground so we headed off towards Box Hill to look for the enormous Hawfinch flock (720+ individuals). We parked up at the Whitehill car park and walked up to Juniper Top, headfirst into a blizzard. A possible flock of Hawfinch was seen briefly but we didn’t see an awful lot aside from a few small tit flocks in the woodland. When we eventually made it back via Juniper Bottom we saw the flock again – probably only a couple of dozen birds – but they were indeed Hawfinches. Dev drove us up to the visitor centre car park and the feeding station there brought in some great birds: notably Marsh Tit and Nuthatch. Willow Tit was also listed on the board, but that was highly dubious. We then went off to Newlands Corner where we had lunch and another stroll. We were looking for Siskin but had to make do with lots of assorted tits – including Coal and Marsh Tits again – instead. After that it was back in time to watch Woking play Wrexham – a good match which ended in a 2-2 draw. We went for a Korean/Japanese meal in the evening. There was still plenty of snow around on Sunday morning and we headed out to Thursley Common to see what was around. We began with a nice male Stonechat, surprisingly in the woods by the Moat Pond, and then we had a couple of Snipe near the boardwalk. Once we reached the eastern side of Shrike Hill we noticed another Stonechat, and with it a Dartford Warbler. Then we saw another, and then another. They seemed to be everywhere, and were very active despite the snow. After getting plenty of photos we went on a much longer walk than we normally do, in the end finding no fewer than six Dartfords by the time we’d returned, as well as a Raven. The only thing missing was a Great Grey Shrike, but this has been a particularly bad winter for them with few sightings.

Dartford WarblerDartford Warbler

The days before we headed off to Scotland on our first trip of the year saw further failed Little Bunting photography attempts, a brief view of a probable Siberian Tristis Chiffchaff, and then on the Friday before we left, David found a Bluethroat on the West Warwick. It stayed all day delighting observers, so we got up early enough to get on site at 7am the next morning (our train to Scotland wasn’t until noon), but there was no sign. Dammit. Did finally get some decent-ish shots of the Little Bunting on the way out though.

Oh well, the yearlist was up to 109 by now and now it was time for Scotland…

Little BuntingLittle Bunting

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The Missing Year

I didn’t update my blog at all in 2017, and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, during the first half of the year I was just a bit lazy. I fully intended to update my blog as normal, but I kept struggling to find the time to really sit down and do it. I did, however, continue to keep the draft versions updated throughout the year for when the time came that I could get through my updates and publish them. The second, and most important, reason was that at the beginning of June I suddenly became affected by a vestibular condition that causes dizziness, and in my case it’s visually-induced. Every time I scroll through webpages or social media apps on my phone or computer I get a horrible, sickening, throbbing, dizzy feeling within my brain – and unfortunately typing is also a trigger for the symptoms. Actually typing the text for the blog isn’t too bad if I do it small batches, but WordPress changed their user interface a few years back and I was forced to start typing html code in order to keep the images displaying consistently and I’ve simply not been able to do it since I’ve been unwell.

So, with all that said, I’m going to do one mega-post with minimal photos, but instead including links to the relevant Flickr albums.

Here we go…


January saw several weekend birding trips, but the vast majority were centred around the Reservoirs. The first bird of the year was a Blackcap in Jem’s parents’ back garden, and the first bird of any kind of rarity/scarcity was the local Greater Scaup. Goosander was seen very briefly on the Reservoirs, as well as Goldeneye. Lots of Waxwings showed up around the country, and we got up early one Saturday morning to head down to Canonbury to see a flock that had been showing very nicely around some terraced houses. Lots of Redwings were seen here too. After that we headed around the newly-drained Reservoirs 4 and 5 to see Common Sandpiper and a very confiding Black Redstart. One sunny afternoon walk around the now-frozen Reservoirs brought us two Snipe and a Water Rail at the top of Number 1. Water Rail was particularly exciting as it was a bird we failed to see at all in 2016.

February brought us an afternoon walk in the gloom around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, with Little Owl and Coal Tit being found, and a surprise Red Kite which floated down fairly low and then headed off on a north-westerly direction. A gloomy day at Rainham Marshes also brought us some interesting waders – Black-tailed Godwit being the most notable. Little Owls were also seen in their usual spot at Fairlop one afternoon. Rye Meads brought us our first Sparrowhawk, Water Pipit, Stock Dove and Greenfinch of the year. We also had a nice day down at the Wetland Centre, with another Water Pipit and some Pintail of particular note.

March saw us head over to Tower Hamlets Cemetery to look for Firecrest. We heard it, but didn’t manage to get a look, although there were some nice Goldcrests around. A weekend at Mum and dad’s down in Oxted was enjoyed, with Sparrowhawks and Buzzards, and a pair of Treecreepers in the woods, and we had a morning walk to look for Dartford Warblers on Ashdown Forest. Sadly the weather was pretty grim and the Dartfords were nowhere to be seen, although we did get our first Linnets and Stonechats of the year.



Our first holiday of the year was to the Forest of Dean in mid-March with Naturetrek.

Jem and I took the train to Gloucester on the Friday morning, and then a local bus from Gloucester to the Speech House right in the middle of the forest. It was gloomy and spitting with rain, but we decided after unpacking to have a wander around anyway. A short walk down one of the rides into the woodland brought us a very noisy Raven straight away in the trees by one of the car park gates. Moving onto a small pond brought us a close encounter with a Common Buzzard, plus a pair of Mandarins. Walking further along the ride, we noticed several standard passerines: Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Robins, etc, but then we found a stunning male Bullfinch, and then its mate nearby. Living in London this was a real treat for us, and the first time we’d seen one in the UK for about three years. As the afternoon became gloomier and the rain set in we headed back to relax before meeting the guide, Greg, and the rest of the group for dinner. After dinner we headed off in the minibus to look for Wild Boar. As we drove around our torches picked up foxes and Fallow Deer, and eventually we all managed a brief glimpse of a family of boar at the foot of some trees.

The following morning was an early start as we headed to Parkend to look for Hawfinches. Common Buzzards were around, as were Grey Herons, Mistle Thrushes, and at least one more Bullfinch, and we eventually got distant views of some Hawfinches in a tree once we’d turned back through the village. The river beside the pub brought us great views of a pair of Dippers as well. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast – one of the best full-Englishes I’ve ever had – before we went off to Crabtree Hill to get great views of Great Grey Shrike, probably the closest we’ve ever had. We also saw Stonechat, Reed Bunting and Meadow Pipit here. Relocating to the New Fancy viewpoint we saw Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, a Hawfinch and more Bullfinches, and eventually a brief view of a Goshawk.

After lunch we went for a longer walk around Brierley, where we had better views of Common Buzzards and a great mixed flock of woodland birds including Lesser Redpoll and Siskin, a Grey Wagtail which flew over us, Great Spotted Woodpecker and another Bullfinch. We finished the afternoon at Yew Tree Break where we began with a nice female Crossbill in the sun, before we watched another good flock feeding around the edge of the forest which included Nuthatch, Goldfinch and Redpoll. We also had further brief views of a distant Goshawk and a Sparrowhawk, before we found a pair of very confiding Crossbills right by the path. They continued feeding right in front of us as I took loads of photos. If only the light had been better, but it was still by a long way the best view of the species that either Jem or I had ever had. After dinner we gave the boars another try, but had to make do with just Fallow Deer and Red Fox again.

Sunday began with a pre-breakfast walk at Horse Lawn. Green Woodpecker, Treecreeper and Firecrest were the main species seen, along with a fox ahead of us on the path and more Siskins in the trees. After breakfast it was on to Cannop Ponds. Greg put some seed down on the path and we got Nuthatches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Chaffinches and Marsh Tits all at close quarters. More Treecreepers were here too. As we walked around the edge of the pond we noticed a female Goosander on the opposite bank, and she stayed until we got fairly close.

The rest of the morning and lunchtime was spent at Symonds Yat, where we got great views of the nesting Peregrines, several Common Buzzards, more Goosander and a Kingfisher on the Wye below us, and finally better views of Goshawk – a juvenile being mobbed over the nearby woodland. After lunch we headed off to Nags Head RSPB to walk through the woods in the hope of finding Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Sadly we had no luck with that, but we did get Hawfinch and Great Spot. Eventually we ended back at Parkend for another wander around, this time up around the church. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrest, Treecreeper, and a large group of Fallow Deer were seen here and just as we were leaving, a final Goshawk over the high woodland ridge.

It was a great weekend, bringing us good views of a number birds that we don’t see often. The only species we hoped for that we didn’t manage to see were Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Brambling, but we knew they were going to be lucky finds anyway. The great views of Great Grey Shrike and Crossbill, plus the several Goshawks and pair of Dippers more than made up for that.

Here’s the Flickr album of my photos.



After the Forest of Dean trip we had a few weeks in and around London before heading off to Poland for our main holiday of the year.

The Reservoirs got us nice views of the usual Peregrines, and the first Reed Warblers were found around the edges of the West Warwick. Although we managed to hear a couple of Sedge Warblers as well, we didn’t manage to actually get a look at any.

A day at Rainham in warm sunshine brought us Common Terns on the opposite side of the Thames at Erith Marina, and Skylarks, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were also active. The highlight of the day was a Jack Snipe – a bird we’d never seen until last December, despite many attempts over the years to find.

A morning walk on Ashdown Forest was a real highlight of the early spring. We hoped for Cuckoo and Redstart, and we succeeded with both. The Cuckoo was heard calling for some time but we only got a brief, distant view of it as it flew across the other side of a valley, but the Redstarts were very active and gave us great views. The bonus was the addition of Tree Pipits, which were also particularly active. Common Buzzards were also displaying nearby. There were also good views of Stonechats and our first Willow Warblers of the year.

Ring Ouzel has always been a tough bird for us to get, with only one brief sighting of a female a few years back at Dagenham Chase – but there were strong reports of a male at Crayford Marshes, so Jem and I headed over on a hot and sunny Saturday in late April. I hadn’t been over there for several years and had forgotten how good it was. The long, secluded footpath from Slade Green got us our first Whitethroats of the year, and just as we reached the end of it we had our first Hobby too, circling overhead. There was a Whimbrel on the Thames foreshore too – a bird we failed to find last year – but there was no sign of the Ouzel. We’d located the correct field and spent a good couple of hours sat in the sunshine. Just as we were about to give up and head home, Jem saw the stunning male hop out into plain view. A fine bird and a fine day all round.


White-backed WoodpeckerWhite-backed Woodpecker

Next came the big holiday of the year: Poland, also with Naturetrek.

Day One

It was an early start for an early flight from Heathrow, so Jem and I stayed in an airport hotel to effectively begin the holiday an evening early. After meeting with Peter, our guide, we had an uneventful flight to Warsaw and then, after meeting Oliwier, our young local guide, we got aboard the minibus (which was a bit tighter than expected) and headed out of the city towards Bialowieza. The first bird of note for me was a Pied Flycatcher by a junction in Warsaw! After a nice lunch at a hotel we eventually made our first birding stop by the Bug River at Brok. We had a Marsh Warbler almost straight away (#466 on the lifelist), and there were White Storks in the distance, Cuckoos calling, and a very vocal Wryneck in a nearby tree. Then it was back on the road to Bialowieza and dinner and a chance to get settled in.

Day Two

A very early start for a dawn walk out to the north of the village. We got plenty of interesting species here, including Golden Oriole, Whinchat, Hawfinch, Yellowhammer, Red-backed Shrike, Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Corncrakes calling invisibly from the grass, and eventually distant views of Bison just before they went off into the forest. We then had a look from a tower on the southern side of the village where we got Barred Warbler, Rosefinch and Great Reed Warbler.

After breakfast we went off to the forest to look for woodpeckers. We stopped for a Lesser Spotted Eagle on the way, and after a walk through the forest we reached the nest tree for a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers that were very active. On the way back to the village we stopped at another nest tree, this time to get the elusive White-backed Woodpecker (#467) which I’d previously seen in Sweden but only as part of a reintroduction project and so weren’t ‘wild’. We tried for Grey-headed Woodpecker too, but no luck.

After lunch we went to a nearby bog area where we added – after some persistence – Icterine Warbler (#468), and I failed to locate a calling Cuckoo. Then it was into the Palace Park where we had great views of Rosefinch and Great Reed Warbler, brief views of Collared Flycatcher, Thrush Nightingale (#469), and a surprise Syrian Woodpecker – a species not seen at the site for twenty years.

After dinner we headed out with an extra guide, Mateeurz, who took us to a forest track and easily called in a Pygmy Owl as the light began to fade.

Day Three

We were up early again to meet Mateeurz who led us into the Strict Reserve part of the forest. We had brief views of more Collared Flycatchers, a Black Woodpecker which flew past us, Red Squirrels, Bank Voles, and then three fledgling Tawny Owlets. We also saw the site where Hermann Goering had local men executed during the war.

After breakfast it was onto another part of the forest where we had good-but-distant views of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers – again at a nest hole – and good views of Firecrest and Red-breasted Flycatcher (#470). Then, after lunch we had some free time to wander around the village. Jem and I went back down to the tower hide and had great close-up views of the Barred Warbler again and another Red-backed Shrike. Then it was off to Czerlonka for another forest walk for Nutcracker and Hazelhen. Nutcracker was easy, but Hazelhen was, as ever, very elusive. Some people got brief views but most of us just heard the birds.

After dinner it was off to the Narew Valley for the Great Snipe lek. Fortunately my boots were just about high enough to to keep my feet dry from the deep boggy areas, but we got attacked by mosquitoes to a level that I didn’t think possible! We waited for some time in the bog with various other species heading off to roost around us, and after a while a second tour group that were already there decided to call it a night. Eventually, Jem saw something jump and we began to hear the weird alien-like clicking-bubbling calls. We trained our eyes and cameras on a small ridge of marshland and every so often we could see the birds pop up and flash their tail feathers (#471). It was a tough night, but definitely well worth persisting with.

Day Four

We were allowed an extra hour in bed this morning so only began the morning walk at 6.30am! We boarded our new coach which was larger and more comfortable than the previous one (and came with a new driver) and headed out to a nearby park where we soon located Grey-headed Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Wryneck.

After breakfast it was off to the Siemianowska reservoir. On the way we stopped to get great views of Ortolan Bunting in a ploughed field and Yellow Wagtails on the opposite side of the road. Then we had another new species for me: Greater Spotted Eagle (#472). We had some nice butterflies once we got to the reservoir, alaong with Penduline Tits, White-tailed Eagle, and another Greater Spotted Eagle. We also had a Black-spotted Pliers Support Beetle!

After lunch we had another short forest walk where we found a Camberwell Beauty, and at the bridge at the end of the track we had Barred and Icterine Warblers again.

Day Five

Despite the disappointment of Sheffield Wednesday failing in the Play-offs against Huddersfield the previous evening, I managed to get myself up early for the final dawn walk in Bialowieza. Jem had a headache and decided to stay behind and the rest of us split into two groups to either go with Peter down to the south of the village or go with Oliwier to the north to see if the Bison were around. I chose the latter option. We couldn’t find any Bison, but we did hear some extraordinary haunting animal screams from deep within the forest. Oliwier wasn’t sure what they were, but the consensus was that it might’ve been a deer coming to a grisly end, perhaps victim to a wolf. Then we turned our attention to trying to get a look at one of the singing Corncrakes. Eventually we found ourselves close to one that was calling in the corner of a damp meadow. After some time it suddenly burst out of the grass and went for a short flight past us before dropping back out of sight a few yards away (#473). After that I went and checked on Jem before heading out to the south of the village in my own to see what I could photograph. The highlights here were a close Rosefinch in a bush and a Cuckoo which went for a flight and actually landed briefly in the tree next to me.

After breakfast it was time to leave Bialowieza and head up to Biebrza. We stopped before lunch at the Dojlidy fish ponds near Bialystok. Here we had greta views of Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Fire-bellied Toads, an in-flight Bearded Tit and a couple of distant White-tailed Eagles. There was also a Little Crake scampering around in the reeds.

After lunch we stopped briefly at a small pond before stopping at a field with a small flooded area and lots of waders. Here we had Wood Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Little Ringed Plovers, Red-backed Shrikes and Blue-headed Yellow Wagtails. After that we arrived at our second hotel at Goniadz, and Jem and I used the pre-dinner time to have a look out at the vast marshes. The highlight for us here were some very distant Common Cranes.

Day Six

A 6am walk from the hotel got us our first River Warbler (#474) in some nearby bushes, and several different terns from a higher viewpoint. There was also a distant Great Spotted Eagle in a distant bush.

After breakfast we went to the southern basin of the Biebrza Marshes. Almost straight away we found a White-spotted Bluethroat (which I persisted with until I managed to get a couple of reasonable photos), and then a bit further along the track we had Black-tailed Godwit, Common Crane and Raft Spider. After we left we had views from the roadside of three Montagu’s Harriers quartering the fields.

We had lunch at Brzostowo on the edge of the marsh where we could see the first two pairs of breeding Black-winged Stilts in this part of the country, along with Lesser Spotted and White-tailed Eagles, a ringtail Harrier which floated overhead, lots of Terns, Whooper Swan, and a loud Green Toad.

After lunch we stopped at another high viewpoint where we added Shoveler and Wigeon, and there were two more distant White-tailed Eagles, before we headed back for dinner. After dinner we went to the Dluga Luca boardwalk to search for Aquatic Warbler. Here we had several calling Cuckoos and an individual Elk, before eventually getting decent views of singing Aquatic Warblers (#475) in the grasses.

Day Seven

Another early pre-breakfast walk near to the hotel brought us little that we hadn’t seen before but I finally managed to get a reasonable photo of a Thrush Nightingale, after I’d decided to be stubborn and wait until I could see its face.

After breakfast it was off to the river basin near Dolistowo for good views of Citrine Wagtails, and then to the boardwalk at Osowiec where we managed to get a look down from the tower to a skulking Savi’s Warbler below and a look up to a singing Garden Warbler in the top of a nearby bush. It was extremely hot – the hottest day of the year so far in Poland – and was fairly quiet as far as birdlife goes. At the lodge at Dobarz where we stopped for lunch I noticed a sore spot on my hip. I looked under my t-shirt to see that I’d unwittingly knocked a skin tag and it had been rubbing against something and was causing some discomfort.

After lunch we went to the Elk Tower at Dluga Luca, but saw very little apart from one distant Elk. It was still very hot. We then moved on to a small sand quarry near Tykocin where we had great views of in-flight Bee-eaters and a Tawny Pipit on a telegraph wire. We might’ve got even better views of the Bee-eaters had a photographer not been parked right by their nesting bank in order to shove his 600mm+ lens in their faces. This is exactly the kind of behaviour that actually turns me off wildlife photographers and gives the industry a bad name. Even after Oliwier had a polite word with him he refused to move to a safer distance.

Following this we had an hour to spare for a wander around Tykocin itself. Jem and I planned to have a look onside the Synagogue but it was unfortunately closed, but we did have a good look at the information panels outside. It was also the right time to grab a nice cooling ice cream in the town square. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the flooded field again but there was little else to report, although Jem and I did see a probable Peregrine flying off over the woods.

Once back at the hotel came the only negative of the trip. I had a refreshing shower and tried to inspect my sore skin tag. Only wen I was out again and showed it to Jem we both realised that it wasn’t a skin tag after all – it was a tick. That was my cue to frantically search online for removal techniques and directions for preventing Lyme Disease. Luckily for me, Peter was well-equipped with a set of tick removal tools and he successfully extracted the horrible little bastard. Once I’d popped its abdomen under my shoe I could see that it wasn’t yet engorged with blood, so I knew we’d probably caught it in time.

Day Eight

Jem and I relaxed around the hotel grounds before breakfast, getting good views of a Lesser Whitethroat from our balcony. Following check-out we headed back out to the Dluga Luca boardwalk for another look at the Aquatic Warblers, and we also had a female Montagu’s Harrier fly past us very closely – unluckily I saw it too late to be able to get my camera onto it and so missed out on a great photo opportunity.

Then it was the drive back to Warsaw – stopping for lunch at the same spot where we’d eaten after our arrival the previous week – and then back to the airport. Some of us had noted that we hadn’t seen a Kestrel all week – and that was rectified once our plane pushed back from the gate as we saw one hovering beside the apron.

In summary, it was a great holiday. Poland was everything Jem and I had hoped it would be, completely living up to our expectations. We’d enjoyed the company of the other guests and the skill and attentiveness of the guides, and we’d managed to come away having seen pretty much everything we’d hoped to see, and much more. I managed to add ten new species to my lifelist (I could refer to them as ticks but, given the nasty little sod that tried to parasitise me on the penultimate day, I’m loath to do so) in Marsh Warbler, River Warbler, Aquatic Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Greater Spotted Eagle, White-backed Woodpecker, Thrush Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Great Snipe, and the bonus Corncrake. Jem also added a number of species that I’d previously seen in Serbia and Fenno-scandia when I’d been abroad without her, although she sadly missed out on the Corncrake. For anybody considering birding in Poland, we can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here’s the Flickr album of my photos.


Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher

After a long spring of heavy birding, Jem and I relaxed a bit as May ended and June began. I wanted to spend a bit more time working on my large format photography and invested in an adapter to let me take panoramic shots on 120 film. We went for a long walk on a hot Saturday from the O2 at the Greenwich Peninsula down to the Thames Barrier and beyond and I got some interesting shots. We even came back via the cable car over the river. That evening things went a bit wrong for me. After a nice takeaway meal we learned of the London Bridge terror attacks which were in full swing. As I frantically scrolled through Twitter updates on my phone I suddenly felt very unwell. After trying to calm down in the bathroom, and possibly even losing consciousness for a moment, I started to slowly feel a bit better. However, the following day I noticed something wasn’t right: every time I used my phone or computer I began to feel dizzy, and it began to affect my daily life over the coming days. Initially I thought it might have been caused by the previous month’s tick bite, but over the coming weeks I had blood tests to rule that out, and the likelihood is that I actually have vestibular migraine. Around this time I was also in and out of hospital having my kidney stones treated. With all this going on, birding took a definite backstage position in my life.

There were some good things around this time though. Pittsburgh Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup, which cheered me up. Jem and I had a walk up the North Downs on a day when we visited Mum and Dad and managed to get – surprisingly – a Yellowhammer onto the yearlist. I made the mistake of trying out a £1,600 ’59 reissue Fender Stratocaster in a shop on Denmark Street. Fortunately I managed to not buy it, but it did lead to me investing in a very nice special edition Bassbreaker amplifier.

An evening trip to Ashdown Forest unfortunately didn’t bring us the Nightjars we’d been hoping for, but I think we’d left it just a bit too late this year.

A trip to Rainham got Bearded Tits onto the yearlist, and a very welcome Spotted Redshank turned up on the Lockwood Reservoir, followed by a Spotted Flycatcher near to the East Warwick. We also went to see David Lindo’s collaborative walk and presentation with Hurtigruten at Richmond Park, which led to Jem and I later finding ourselves another Spotted Flycatcher.


Arctic WarblerArctic Warbler

Then it was time for our annual break in Norfolk in mid September. Our chosen dates coincided with both the Wells and Sheringham 1940s festival, as well as Wells’s own Pirate Weekend. This made it very difficult for Marcus to find us accommodation, but he eventually managed to get us booked into a nice maritime-themed guesthouse close to the quay in Wells.

After settling in to our room we went for our now-traditional first afternoon stroll to the east of Wells towards Warham Greens. We added Grey Plover and Grey Partridge to our yearlists, and the hoped-for hunting Barn Owl too. Spoonbills were also seen coming in to land on the saltmarsh. We also saw an extremely vibrant rainbow as the sun illuminated a rain shower. This was something we would experience several times over the next few days.

The first day began with a damp walk at Thornham Harbour. We had great views of Marsh Harriers, a Curlew, a Bar-tailed Godwit and two nice Wheatears, one of which perched on the fenceposts for us. There was also a Greenshank and a skein of Pink-footed Geese. From the beach we picked up a distant raft of Scoters and a single Eider. It poured with rain as we had lunch at Titchwell, but luckily it improved a bit as we headed out towards the pools. As always there were plenty of waders around, mainly Ruff which came in very close to the Island Hide, lots of Dunlin, a few Ringed Plovers, some Avocets and also three juvenile Little Stints – the closest views I’ve had of this species. We also managed to get onto a Bearded Tit feeding at the base of the reeds. There was also a Spotted Redshank, Snipe, and Yellow-legged Gull seen from the Parrinder Hide. As we made our way out to wards the beach we also got several Grey Plovers, one still in breeding plumage. Bar-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Sanderling were seen out on the beach. On the way back towards the visitor centre we had the addition of a Smooth Newt sat on the footpath.

Day Two began with a morning walk at Warham Greens towards the Whirligig. The track provided us with various woodland birds, plus a Yellowhammer in a hedge and a Brown Hare in the field, and once out on the edge of the saltmarsh we watched a Peregrine first chasing a Redshank and then having a pop at a Marsh Harrier before finishing with a quick go at a Little Egret. In the far distance close to the shore we saw a Short-eared Owl – our first of the year – floating around, but we couldn’t get good views of it. Once we reached the Whirligig we managed good views of five Spoonbills and also enjoyed lots of Linnets and Goldfinches that were swirling around. On the way back to the car we enjoyed another distant rainbow and then had a juvenile Peregrine – possibly the same one as before – float overhead as we were watching some Long-tailed Tits by the track.

Next it was off to Cley as there had been reports of a Red-necked Phalarope there. We arrived and made our way to the hide and located the bird straight away – a juvenile spinning around in the water (#476). Also here were Little Stints, Ringed Plovers, a Little Ringed Plover, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwits and a Hobby. After lunch in the car park we went for a walk at Kelling. We reached the water meadow and had close views of a Curlew Sandpiper and a couple of Little Stints with the Dunlin. We also had a close Linnet and a Hobby flew straight over us. We eventually headed off back to Cley to find a newly-arrived Snow Bunting – a very confiding individual feeding on the shingle – and we finished with Gannets and Sandwich Terns over the sea.

Day Three began at Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham where we had three Grey Partridge in the meadow by the car park. On the path we had Lesser Whitethroat and a heard-only Pied Flycatcher, a few Goldcrests which flew about in the trees, and Pink-footed Geese out on the meadows. There was also a distant Whinchat perched up in some reeds. We made our way to the Washington Hide and eventually got good views of a Great White Egret and also a Pintail. Moving on, we eventually managed to get one of the reported Yellow-browed Warblers, and on the walk back to the car we had good views of a Hobby eating on the wing.

We had lunch in the car park at the Wells Woods end and then headed in to where an Arctic Warbler had been reported earlier in the morning. It wasn’t difficult to find – there was a sizable crowd of birders all looking at a bush – and we eventually all got good views ourselves (#477).

We finished the tour at Stiffkey Fen: plenty of waders were here – Greenshank, Redshank, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Curlew, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, and Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits – as well as Sandwich Terns and a Kingfisher which perched nicely on a heavy iron chain, and a decent flock of dozing Spoonbills. It was a nice end to another fine Norfolk tour. The weather had been mostly good, we’d seen plenty of great birds, and even added two lifers.

Here’s the Flickr album of my photos.


Red-necked GrebeRed-necked Grebe

October saw several local trips – mainly walks around the Reservoirs – which brought in the odd Stonechat, a large flock of Mistle Thrushes, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Black-necked Grebe on the Lockwood. October was also the month when the reservoirs finally opened to the public as the Walthamstow Wetlands. I was previously quite excited about this, but as time went on I became more and more worried – and upon opening to the public those worries turned out to be more than justified. The positives are the nice new cafe and some of the improvements to the general site, but the negatives are the number of dog walkers that are coming onto the site (dogs are strictly prohibited), and joggers and cyclists who are ignoring the signage and using the banks and therefore scaring the wildlife. Then there are the families who are letting the children paddle in the reservoirs and throw stones at the wildfowl. It’s not ideal, and local media hasn’t helped by describing the site as “London’s newest park”. Luckily the staff have been listening to the concerns of the local birders and have made steps to improve the signage and cordon areas off from the general public. It means the paying permit-holders – both birders and anglers – still get privileged access to certain areas and at extended times.

One interesting day was a Monday that Jem and I had both taken off work where we decided to visit Roding Valley Meadows to see a Red-necked Grebe. We saw it straight away but then lost it and didn’t relocate it for some time. A strange storm across the Channel had also created the bizarre atmospheric conditions which sent a sheet of yellow-brown cloud up the country. Very strange.

A visit to Mum and Dad’s also gave us the opportunity to visit Ashdown Forest where the highlight was a very close Dartford Warbler.

November gave us a few more sightings around the Reservoirs – notably of Goldeneye on the West Warwick – and I managed to get a mint-condition used Sigma 70-200mm for a good price on eBay to replace the Sony 70-400mm that I’d purchased a year earlier. The Sony wasn’t a bad lens, but I just wasn’t getting on with it. It was big and heavy and I didn’t like the way the front element would draw out when walking with it by my hip. The image quality could be superb, but I was missing too many shots that it should’ve been easily focusing on – slow-flying raptors against a plain sky, for example. I chose that lens for the flexibility and the impressive 400mm maximum length, but I was finding that it just wasn’t getting me the results at the longer end of the range that I’d hoped for. The Sigma 70-200mm is a better fit for what I need as a walkaround lens. Testing it out on Kensington Gardens was a good day, bringing us good views of three Little Owls, a nice Jay, several of the usual woodland birds at the Leaf Store, and some nice Grey Squirrels.

Earlier in the autumn we’d booked to have a weekend in Gibraltar with Donna and Dev – and we were going to get some guided birding whilst there – but unfortunately we had to cancel for medical reasons. So we made up for it by booking a week’s stay at the end of November in one of the shepherd’s huts at Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey. It was great fun, having the entire marsh pretty much to ourselves, and there were plenty of birds to see: Peregrines, Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, Golden Plover, Barn Owl, Stonechat, Curlew, Turnstone, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Wigeon, Teal, Fieldfare, Redwing, Water Rail, Kingfisher and more. We had four target species: Hen Harrier, Merlin, Long-eared Owl and Brambling, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to get them. The best bird came on the morning we left, as we waited for our taxi to come and fetch us we flushed a close-by Woodcock. The south-eastern part of Sheppey is a separate reserve with a raptor watchpoint – which is probably the best spot to get the Hen Harrier and Merlin – but it requires transport which we don’t yet have. We really enjoyed our stay though, and will definitely look at returning in the future. It was freezing cold when were there, but once our wood burner was going it got so hot in the hut we had to sleep with the window open! And the staff were all fantastic, as was the food.

By the time December came around I was well aware that my yearlist had been suffering – a combination of my vestibular condition and some bad luck with missing out on target species – so we increased our efforts to see what we could get before the year came to an end. A day out at Bramfield gave us great views of Hawfinch, and we added a Brambing to the list. We had a nice – but ultimately fruitless – walk on Ashdown Forest on Boxing Day, and then checked out Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook to get the long-staying Caspian Gull. We also managed to fit in visits to Connaught Water where we saw Goosander and Mandarin before finishing the year off with a day at Shoeburyness and Southend – we hoped for divers off of Southend Pier but sadly had no luck.


And so the year came to an end. It was a mixed year – some bad luck with illness and missing out on target birds – but the positives of the trips we had outweighed that. Poland was absolutely fantastic – everything we hoped it would be – and we had very nice trips in the UK too. There were twelve additions to the lifelist with Marsh Warbler, White-backed Woodpecker, Icterine Warbler, Thrush Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Great Snipe, Greater Spotted Eagle, Corncrake, River Warbler and Aquatic Warbler in Poland and Red-necked Phalarope and Arctic Warbler in Norfolk, bringing the global lifelist up to 477. It was my poorest year in the UK since I first started recording my sightings in 2014 with only 163. The most surprising absentee this year was Sedge Warbler – a species that is normally easy to get on our local patch – but all we had were a couple of brief heard-only records. It was disappointing to not get Woodlark, Hen Harrier, Corn Bunting, Rock Pipit or any divers. On the other hand, we got some very interesting species that we don’t get often: Goshawk, Red-necked Grebe, Ring Ouzel and Brambling, on top of the two lifers in Norfolk.



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