Spring Additions

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

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

Black-necked GrebeBlack-necked Grebe

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

SkylarkSkylark

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

Ring OuzelRing Ouzel

BramblingBrambling

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

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

Siberian ChiffchaffSiberian Chiffchaff

WheatearWheatear

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

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

RedstartRedstart

WoodlarkWoodlark

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

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

Reed BuntingReed Bunting

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

PtarmiganPtarmigan

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

HawfinchHawfinch

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.

AvocetAvocet

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.

ShorelarkShorelark

————-

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.

BitternBittern

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.

DunnockDunnock

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.

SerinSerin

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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…

WaxwingWaxwing

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.

————-

DipperDipper

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.

————-

RedstartRedstart

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.

RobinRobin

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of the Year – 2016

January

The year began well, with days out at Rainham for Marsh Harriers and Short-eared Owls, Thursley Common for Great Grey Shrike and Dartford Warbler (and a surprise Red Kite floating past Dev’s flat in Woking), Strumpshaw Fen for Marsh Tit, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll (and Barn Owl and Red-legged Partridge nearby).

Marsh TitMarsh Tit

February

A morning at Tower Hamlets Cemetery brought us a Firecrest, and the afternoon back at the reservoirs added Greater Scaup and Goldeneye. The following weekend we had a short afternoon walk at Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, which brought us a surprise second Firecrest, plus a Little Owl, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Green Woodpecker and a Black Swan on the Serpentine. We also got to visit Vange Marsh and Wat Tyler Country Park in Essex for the first time. Here we had Black-tailed Godwits, Avocet, Sparrowhawk, Snipe, Kestrel and two Barn Owls in nest boxes. The month ended with a trip to Rainham, but it was too windy for the owls to show. Fieldfare, Dunlin and Pintail were noted.

FirecrestFirecrest

March

A day out at Amwell brought us a skulking Bittern and good views of a Cetti’s Warbler. Then it was out for our first holiday of the year: a three-day guided birding tour of Ceredigion in mid-Wales. Highlights were our first UK Choughs and Glossy Ibis, hundreds of Red Kites, a couple of Black Redstarts, a Starling murmuration, two Dippers, Common Scoters, some Purple Sandpipers, my first ever Stoat, Red-throated Diver, Shag, Ravens, a Gannet, Fulmar, Guillemot, Kittiwake, and we finished off with our first Wheatear of the year. A very good trip. We finished the month with another day at Rainham, where I finally managed to get some reasonable photos of the Short-eared Owls in decent light.

Black RedstartBlack Redstart

April

April began with a day out to Bramfield in the cloud – and even some rain – but we were rewarded with a late-staying Hawfinch in a Goldfinch flock, and a singing Yellowhammer. The weather had vastly improved the following weekend, and a visit to Russia Dock Parkland and Stave Hill brought us a nice male Redstart. Rainham was the next place to be visited and we finally caught up with Grasshopper Warbler (at least two of them), to bring my lifelist up to 452. Lots of seasonal warblers were around, as well as a Little Gull and Arctic Terns on the Thames. The next day took us to Regent’s Park to get a fine male Pied Flycatcher. The final weekend of a productive month took us to Staines Moor, with the bird of the day being our first Hobby of the year perched nicely on a fencepost.

Grasshopper WarblerGrasshopper Warbler

May

The Bank Holiday weekend saw Jem and I oversleep and miss out on a trip to King’s Lynn with her dad, but we made use of the fine weather with a productive wander around the reservoirs. Swifts, Peregrine and Wheatear were the highlights. We also visited Fairlop and Claybury with Jem’s mum later in the day. We got up early for a dawn chorus walk on the Monday, and we were rewarded with prolonged close-up views of a singing Grasshopper Warbler on Tottenham Marshes. The following weekend brought a walk around Stocker’s Lake (Red-crested Pochard being the most notable species), and then two after-work walks around the reservoirs for Garganey, Black-necked Grebe and Sanderling.

Then it was time for our main holiday of the year: a week in the Spanish Pyrenees. It consisted of both countryside walks in the foothills and higher-altitude walks in the mountains. We got pretty much everything we came for: Lammergeiers, a Wallcreeper, and a Eurasian Eagle Owl, along with seven other lifers for me: Alpine Chough, Citril Finch, Western Orphean Warbler, Western Cattle Egret, Thekla Lark, Melodious Warbler and Western Bonelli’s Warbler, bringing the lifelist up to 462. The only target we failed with was Alpine Accentor. There was plenty of great scenery, flora, and other wildlife too. If only Sheffield Wednesday had won the Play-off final on the Saturday, it would’ve been one of the best weeks of my life…

LammergeiersLammergeiers

June

June was basically empty. We took a few weeks off from birding after Spain, and didn’t really get back into it until July (aside from a brief afternoon visit to the reservoirs dominated mainly by gulls)…

July

Rainham was the first day out in July, bringing us a fleeting glimpse of a female Cuckoo and a brief circling Hobby. The big event was the report of a male Rosefinch on Walthamstow Marshes one Sunday evening. Jem and I put the effort in, getting up early to try to find it before work, and then going back out after we’d got home. It took us until the Friday morning before we finally got to see the bird (having heard it once or twice). It stayed on a TV aerial for about thirty seconds, and that was all we got. Still, it was #463 on the lifelist. We also had an attempt for Nightjars on Ashdown Forest, but all I got was a fleeting momentary view as it proved too breezy for them. A day out with Jem’s parents to Wicken Fen followed. A scorching morning brought us very little – until I found a Honey Buzzard floating overhead. Should get my name in the Cambridgeshire Bird Report! We also managed Willow Warbler and our first Bearded Tits of the year. Kensington Gardens was visited so I could test out a zoom lens I’d recently acquired, with a female Blackcap being the highlight of the day.

Honey BuzzardHoney Buzzard

August

August began with Hen Harrier Day at Rainham. A lovely hot sunny day, and we had great views of Marsh Frogs and a Water Vole. We could;t stay around because we were returning to Ashdown Forest in the evening to look for Nightjars again. Despite perfect conditions, all we got was some brief churring and calling, and no sightings. Birdfair was the next highlight, and while trying out expensive scopes from the top of the Swarovski Tower we got add Great White Egret to the yearlist. We also got to catch up briefly with David Lindo, and we met Chris Packham and woodpecker expert Gerard Gorman, before enjoying the Bird Photographer of Year Awards. I’d tried to enter the competition myself but the registration system wasn’t working properly and my message to customer service went unanswered. I’ve entered for this year instead though, so we’ll see how that goes.

Henry Hen HarrierHenry Hen Harrier

September

A good month, which began with great views of Spotted Flycatchers and a Dunlin at the reservoirs. Fine-tuning the autofocus with my long lenses also proved to be one of the smartest things I’ve ever done! Then it was off to Norfolk for our annual break. Jem and I found our own Short-eared and Barn Owls in Wells the first evening, plus a smart Grey Plover. Then we experience the waders at Snettisham at long last, before a nice afternoon at Titchwell. We had a day off to wander Wells Woods and find a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a Wheatear, before we were taken back there by Marcus on the Friday to see more, plus Pied Flycatcher, Garden Warbler and Treecreeper. On the last day we got our first UK Caspian Gull at Cley, along with great views of Marsh Harrier and Snipe. It was another very nice trip, although I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t get any lifers: Dotterel and Red-breasted Flycatcher had been around but we missed them, plus what would’ve been our first UK Wryneck. There’s always next year though.

Knot & OystercatchersKnot & Oystercatchers

October

A quiet month, birding-wise, but we managed an afternoon around the reservoirs where a Peregrine dropped a freshly-severed Little Grebe head from the pylon above me and just missed my head. Beachy Head was visited for Rob Young’s stag, and this brought me some great views of Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Stonechat, Willow Warbler and at least two squabbling Peregrines overhead. Lots of Stonechats and Meadow Pipits were seen at Staines Moor the following weekend, along with a Grey Wagtail and two Short-eared Owls.

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

November

Jack Snipe was my main target for the year, and by November I still hadn’t come close to finding one. Jem and I tried the Wetland Centre one Saturday morning as we were in the area for football match anyway but although there had been four of them the previous weekend, none were showing this time. We did get Green Sandpiper, Common Snipe and Kingfisher instead though.

December

The end of the year was a good one. Straight away we finally got our Jack Snipes: three of them at Ruislip Lido (#464). We also had several visits to the Reservoirs, although we struggled with the often-reported Goosander and Goldeneye. Scaup, Peregrines, Sparrowhawks, Green Sandpiper and Kingfishers were all noted. A Friday at Rainham brought Barn Owl, Buzzard and Marsh Harriers, but we missed a juvenile Hen Harrier. Kensington Gardens brought us Goldcrest, Coal Tit and Nuthatch. Rye Harbour was also visited before Christmas, with Golden Plover, Curlew, Skylark, Little Egret, Redshank and Turnstone seen. Dad took us to Old Lodge on Ashdown Forest on Boxing Day, where we added Woodlark to the yearlist, nudging it past 2014’s total of 166. We also tried and failed for Smew at Amwell, but we did get a surprise pair of Chiffchaffs. The year ended with a fine morning at Wallasea Island. Three Hen Harriers (male, female and juvenile), Kestrels, Marsh Harriers, Corn Buntings, Dunlin, Redshank, Brent Geese, Sanderling, Curlew and Kingfisher were all seen, and there was even time for a final lifer for the year: a small group of Twite (#465)! Pretty good.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe

So, the year was a good one in all. Fourteen species were added to the lifelist: Western Cattle Egret, Lammergeier, Jack Snipe, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Alpine Chough, Thekla Lark, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Western Orphean Warbler, Wallcreeper, Common Rosefinch, Twite and Citril Finch – which brought it up to 465 in total. Gropper, Jack Snipe, Twite and Rosefinch were all seen in the UK, bringing my British list up to 227. With the late additions in December, the yearlist ended on 170 – beating 2014’s worst of 166 and well behind 2016’s best of 185. By late spring the yearlist was doing very well and I wondered if I might even beat last year’s total, but it fell off dramatically in the second half of the year. The notable absentees this year were Tawny Owl (heard, but never seen), Water Rail, Red-breasted Merganser, Grey Partridge, Bullfinch, Whooper Swan, Mandarin, Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Crossbill, Woodcock, Whimbrel, Rock Dove, Yellow-legged Gull and Tree Sparrow. First time in years that I haven’t managed to get either Tawny Owl or Water Rail onto the list. Of my list of five targets for the year, I successfully found Jack Snipe, Twite and Gropper, missing Little Auk and Corncrake. I haven’t yet decided on the three new additions for 2017, but Dotterel will definitely be one of them. I just hope it doesn’t become my next ‘nemesis’ bird…

Peregrine with PigeonPeregrine with Pigeon

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jack Twite: The Year’s End

I was planning to update before the festive season, but knowing that I was going to put some effort into the final few weeks of the year it made more sense to finish off the year’s birding first and put in an extended update, before then posting a full review of the whole year.

Straight after Norfolk we did little in the way of significant birding, partly due to other arrangements (weddings, birthdays, etc) and also partly because I inexplicably passed out twice one night in late September and it took a while before I was fully over the dizzy spells that followed.

When we did get out we had a nice afternoon walk around the reservoirs, which gave me more chance to get to grips with the new 70-400mm lens that I’d been struggling with. The most significant event was when I was standing underneath one of the electricity pylons, looking up at the geometric metalwork and deciding whether to photograph it or not. Out of nowhere, something came falling out of the sky and just missed my head, landing with a thump in the long grass. I looked back up to see one of the local Peregrines perched on a strut. We searched the grass and eventually found the dropped item: the freshly decapitated head of a Little Grebe. Nice.

RobinRobin

SparrowhawkSparrowhawk

PeregrinePeregrine

The following weekend was Rob Young’s stag weekend. I’m not one for stag events unless they’re expected to be reasonably sedate, and the plan of a walk from Eastbourne over Beachy Head and down to Birling Gap was something I definitely wanted to be a part of. Starting on Eastbourne’s promenade, it was grey skies and blustery wind – and there was very little on the slightly choppy seas – but once we began to ascend the chalk hills the conditions were much calmer. I was hoping for a Ring Ouzel, but had to make do initially with Robins, Stonechats and various corvids, but as we got to the top of Beachy Head, other birds began to appear. Dev and I checked out some areas of scrub where we found an interesting warbler. I couldn’t ID it definitively, but I think Willow Warbler was the best guess. Then we heard some squealing calls from overhead and we located two Peregrines squabbling. We eventually stopped for lunch by the Belle Tout lighthouse, and the adjoining walls were host to a Northern Wheatear and several Rock Pipits. A Common Buzzard circled a short way inland, and we also saw another Peregrine (or perhaps one of the original two) on our way down to Birling Gap. We eventually found our way to a nice pub in East Dean but by then the conditions had begun to change and we had to make our way inside as the heavens opened.

Northern WheatearNorthern Wheatear

Rock PipitRock Pipit

Looking West from Beachy HeadLooking West from Beachy Head

A week later it was off to Staines Moor for the first time in a while. Ring Ouzel and Yellow Wagtail were targets, but again, we couldn’t find any. There were plenty of Stonechats and Meadow Pipits, and a nice Grey Wagtail too. Kestrels were hovering around as always, but the highlight was a pair of Short-eared Owls quartering up and down as the sun began to drop.

Meadow PipitMeadow Pipit

StonechatStonechat

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

November saw a couple of football matches on successive weekends. Firstly at Fulham, which gave us the opportunity to visit the Wetland Centre in the morning. The plan was to try to finally get ourselves a Jack Snipe (up to seven had been there during the previous week), but we were again without luck. Common Snipe was seen, plus our first Water Pipit of the year, and two Green Sandpipers. The football could’ve been a bit better too. Wednesday scored early and controlled much of the game, but after backing off towards the end they let Fulham grab a very late equaliser. Annoying. The first time I’ve experienced sitting in a neutral section of a stadium though, which was interesting. The following weekend I went off to Wolverhampton to see Wednesday again. The morning was grey, but I tried to do as much birding as possible from the train, although it brought me little aside from a Buzzard or two. I checked out a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery first, and then went off to the match. With a glorious sunset backdrop I enjoyed a glorious 2-0 win. Unexpected and very welcome.

December began well, with a first visit to Ruislip Lido and after years of attempts, we finally saw our Jack Snipe (#464 on the lifelist). In fact, we saw three of them. And they were out in the open, feeding along the muddy edge of the lake just a few yards from a perfect viewing point. Even Lee Evans turned up to have a look. After this victory, our next event was an afternoon walk around reservoirs for Greater Scaup. We’d seen one in pretty tatty plumage early in the year on the Lockwood, but this was a much smarter drake on Number Four. There were also plenty of Little Egrets on the East Warwick and another nice sunset.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe

Greater Scaup

Greater ScaupGreater Scaup

Little EgretLittle Egret

A Friday was taken off work and we headed over to Rainham as there had been a juvenile Hen Harrier out on the Wennington Marsh for a few days. Sadly we didn’t manage to find it, although we had good views of Marsh Harrier and Buzzard, and just as the sun disappeared one of the resident Barn Owls came out from the woodland – although it meant we very nearly got locked in…

I took a week off work and headed firstly back out round the reservoirs to look for reported Goosander and Goldeneye , but in miserable conditions I had no luck. There was a nice flock of Meadow Pipits around the SW corner of the Lockwood, and an unexpected Lapwing on the eastern bank. Grey and Pied Wagtails were plentiful, and I also got the first two Fieldfares of the season along the edge of the Low Maynard. A quick look for the Scaup again on Number Four was unsuccessful as the rain forced me home.

On the Wednesday, Jem and I had a nice sunny afternoon walk on Kensington Gardens. The Leaf Store gave us good views of a variety of the usual woodland birds, including Nuthatch, Coal Tit and Goldcrest. We were hoping for Mandarin somewhere on the Long Water or Serpentine, but had no luck there, and we didn’t manage to see any Little Owls, despite trying two of the nest sites.

Coal TitCoal Tit

Great TitGreat Tit

Blue TitBlue Tit

Grey HeronGrey Heron

The Thursday was a day trip to Rye Harbour for the first time, in order for our parents to get together for the first time in a couple of years. We liked Rye Harbour. Golden Plover, Redshank, Widgeon, Turnstone, Gadwall, Little Egret, Skylark, Curlew, Little Grebe and more were seen. I was hoping to find a Red-breasted Merganser that had been reported on one of the pools, but it didn’t seem to be around.

Lapwing & Golden PloverLapwing & Golden Plover

On the Friday Jem and I had another walk around the reservoirs. Again, Goosander and Goldeneye were the targets, and again we failed. There was a nice Sparrowhawk high up on the pylon near to the main entrance, and before the sun went down we got fantastic views of a female Kingfisher which perched obligingly on one of the newly-installed metal railings at the top end of the High Maynard. On the Sunday we went with Jem’s mum for a walk around Fairlop Waters. It was gloomy and we mostly saw Redwings flying around, but the highlight was two Little Owls over by the riding school, and a Sparrowhawk which sat briefly in a nearby tree.

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe

Tufted DuckTufted Duck

KingfisherKingfisher

Boxing Day saw Dad give Jem and I a lift down to the Old Lodge reserve on Ashdown Forest. It was a nice and sunny morning, and straight away we got views of Woodlark on top of a tree. A Goldcrest gave me the run-around as I tried to get photos, and we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. Two Buzzards were doing what looked like a courtship display. I saw something fly across the top of the woodland which could’ve been a Crossbill, but I wasn’t 100% sure. There were also Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Wrens and more.

GoldcrestGoldcrest

On the 28th we went off to Frinton to visit Jem’s grandparents, and as we arrived close to the town we got good views of a nice bunch of Red-legged Partridges in a field, and we also noticed a Sparrowhawk chasing the vast numbers of Starlings swirling over the suburbs.

One more wander around the reservoirs followed that, bringing us little more aside from a Green Sandpiper at the northern end of the Lockwood. Two Kingfishers chased each other around the Low Maynard, and just as we were leaving a Peregrine perched on the pylon by the main entrance.

CormorantsCormorants

Tottenham Marsh in the MistTottenham Marsh in the Mist

We headed over to Amwell on the last Friday of the year to see if we could locate the Smew that had been seen regularly on Tumbling Bay Lake – a part of the site we’d never been to before. It was cold and foggy, and we coudn’t find the Smew despite walking all the way around the lake. The best bird of the day was a Treecreeper near to the James Hide, and also two Chiffchaffs amongst a large tit flock containing Long-tailed Tits and a few Goldcrests.

And so we ended up on New Year’s Eve heading over to Wallasea Island with Jem’s parents for the first time in two years (well, one day short of two years to be precise as we last visited on New Year’s Day 2015). The target species was Hen Harrier as we hadn’t managed to get it onto the earliest, with the hope of maybe seeing Corn Buntings too. It was grey and cool, but not too windy, and after we’d watched a hovering Kestrel from the car park and made our way up onto the river wall, I noticed the unmistakable ghostly grey shape of a male Hen Harrier rise from the western part of the marsh and slowly drift towards the back end. A female soon appeared, as well as at least one Marsh Harrier. As we moved along a short way we noticed a small flock of four diminutive brown birds lad on a fence. A look in Jem’s scope and a burst of photos confirmed it: our first ever Twite (#465)! Getting a lifer is always nice, but to get it on New Year’s Eve is even better. I’d reached December having ticked off just one of my five annual targets, but the final month of the year had brought me two more. To our north there was a lot of good wader action on the mud, notably lots of Dunlin, a Curlew and some Sanderling, and on one of the few trees we found a small flock of Corn Buntings – also firsts for the year. A third Hen Harrier – this time a juvenile – was watched over towards the eastern end of the site, but we were unable to find Merlin or Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. We weren’t disappointed though!

Hen HarrierHen Harrier

TwiteTwite

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting

Hen HarrierHen Harrier

TwiteTwite

So that brings the year to an end. The next post will be a full review of the year, and I’ll also be posting an update of the other photography-based things I’ve getting up to in my spare time…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Norfolk

Very late with this update, but I’ve been busy putting together a large-format kit, and there have been a number of prior engagements that have taken my time up too, but here goes…

Since the last update which ended with the report of Hen Harrier Day at Rainham Jem and I have enjoyed a few brief local wanderings, but not enough to really make a full update on its own.

The first highlight of the month-or-so before the Norfolk trip was the annual pilgrimage to Rutland Water for Birdfair. This time Jem’s mum came along too to see what the fuss is all about. We met up with various good people who we’ve come to know over the years, including David Lindo, Peter Jones and Clare Evans, and we were lucky in arriving just in time to meet Chris Packham and get a signed copy of his book which we’d failed to do at Hen Harrier Day. I also purchased Owls of the World by James Duncan (a completely new book, even though I have an older book of the same title by the same author), the new Britain’s Birds guidebook by Hume, Still, Swash, Harrop and Tipling, and Jem got Gerard Gorman’s Woodpeckers of the World. We had a nice chat with Mr Gorman and he gave me advice on where to go for the White-backed Woodpecker – the only European woodpecker that I haven’t seen yet (I did see a reintroduction bird in Sweden a few years ago, but I don’t count it). We spent some time – as we always do – testing out the latest binoculars in the Optics Marquee. I tested the 10×42 offerings by Swarovski (EL range: around £1800), Zeiss (Victory SF: around £1750), and the brand-new Leica (Noctivid: around £2080). They were all very, very nice…and I can’t afford any of them. We also managed to add Great White Egret to the yearlist as it was viewable from the Swarovski Tower. Another nice extra for us is that we had some spare time to wait at Oakham Station on the way home, so we went into the pub next door and tried some nice beers (I had Osprey, Jem had Panther, and Jem’s mum had Blue Moon).

Birding-wise we managed three weekend outings: the first was to the reservoirs to look for the reported Spotted Flycatcher. We met up with a few of the local birders: David, Jamie and Lol, and eventually found at least two of the birds. It was tough getting photos as they were flitting across a particularly gloomy pathway, but Jem and I decided to stay there whilst the others went off to look for waders. Eventually persistence paid off and I managed to get a few shots.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher

Willow WarblerWillow Warbler

Next, Jem and I decided to make our first visit to the recently-opened Woodberry Wetlands near Stoke Newington. Plenty of standard wetland species were seen (various ducks and gulls, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots and Moorhens, etc), but no sign of the Water Rail that had been reported, and virtually nothing in the way of passerines. There was a late Swift overhead, but nothing else of real interest for us. The cafe was busy (and very ‘hipster’ in its offerings and prices), and there was an army of staff clearing various plants and foliage by the boardwalk. I wouldn’t say we were disappointed, but neither were we particularly impressed. I’d put it down as somewhere that has plenty of potential but probably needs a bit longer to settle in.

Finally, there was another afternoon spent at the reservoirs – this time on the northern side – and it was very productive. A wander up the eastern bank of the Lockwood brought us Common Sandpipers, loads of Pied Wagtails, a Sparrowhawk, and a very smart Dunlin which allowed me to get surprisingly close. We don’t normally head up the drainage channel but we’d heard of a couple of Greenshank up there and so we had a look (we hadn’t seen any so far this year). And although it was a real struggle to get a position where we cold see the only patch of mud, we were eventually rewarded with views. A Common Buzzard also floated high overhead. On the way back I decided to have a quick scan of the pylon at the southern end of the Lockwood and as I did so, a Peregrine swooped down and went on a sortie around the trees on the edge of the Low Maynard. It wasn’t a successful mission, and he returned to the pylon and gave us some very nice views.

Black-headed GullBlack-headed Gull

SparrowhawkSparrowhawk

Dunlin

Dunlin

Dunlin

Dunlin

DunlinDunlin

Greenshank & Little EgretsGreenshank & Little Egrets

BuzzardBuzzard

PeregrinePeregrine

An added note: I recently tried to calibrate the AF adjustment on my two long lenses: the Sigma 500mm and the newly-acquired Sony 70-400mm using my cameras built-in adjustment facility and a home-made focus target. Both appeared to be back-focusing and required some reasonable adjustment of around -8. The 500mm is now almost like a new lens in its ability to hit focus spot-on (the Dunlin proved to be a perfect subject and I was really happy with the results), however I’m having some issues with the 70-400mm which seems to be struggling to take sharp photos, especially at its long end. It’s most likely something that I’m doing (or not doing), so more work is needed here.

And so, it was finally off to Norfolk!

We finally managed to get things organised so that we would get to see the ‘wader spectacular’ at Snettisham, but that would be on the Wednesday morning. Wanting to make a week of it but still keep things under control financially, we booked to stay at Wells from the Tuesday afternoon until the Sunday, with guided birding on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. We also booked our trains from Tottenham Hale to Kings Lynn rather than from Kings Cross. It costs a small amount more and means changing at Cambridge, but it means not having to deal with the Underground. We also had the added bonus(?) of seeing the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the platform at Cambridge. He gave me a particularly unpleasant look.

Having dealt with the issue of the Coasthopper bus service no longer picking up from Kings Lynn Station (without receiving any notification of the changes), we arrived in Wells about 45 minutes later than planned and headed down the quayside for a late lunch and to do some timelapse photography. There were Turnstones and Redshank down on the mud and Curlew and Little Egrets on the saltmarsh. I was also planning – in the event of some clear weather – to try some astrophotography, so suggested that we take a wander eastwards along the East Fleet to a spot where Marcus had taken us a couple of years back at North Point. On the way we saw a nice Grey Plover, still in summer plumage, and a Greenshank. As we continued east I noticed a familiar brown shape floating off the marsh: a Short-eared Owl. We headed along the bank and waited and after a short while the owl returned, hunting between various scrubby bushes. After a while the owl headed off out of sight, and I joked to Jem that a Barn Owl would turn up next. Seconds later one did! The Barn Owl hunted around the same bushes as the SEO, and then passed over into the grassy meadow between us and the houses, eventually catching what looked like a very large beetle. By then it was getting dark so we headed back to our B&B. Not a bad start to the trip.

Wells QuaysideWells Quayside

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

Barn Owl

Barn OwlBarn Owl

Wednesday was an early start so Marcus could gather everyone together and head off to Snettisham. It was worryingly foggy for most of the journey, but luckily it was clearer once we arrived at Snettisham and straight away we could see the Oystercatchers being pushed along the mud by the incoming tide. There were also Grey Plovers, Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, Curlew and of course the dense numbers of Knot. The tide continued to push in rapidly and the birds occasionally took to the air in dense clouds. Some of them headed straight over to the pits behind us, but most returned to the mud and got pushed further and further to the end of the Wash. Eventually, they started to swarm together in larger numbers and began to streak over us as they ran out of mud to settle on. We made our way round to the most southerly of the hides to get views of the waders clustered on the small islands and around the margins. There was a nice Bar-tailed Godwit washing in front of us, and a solitary Curlew Sandpiper too. Most of the Oystercatchers were on a bank on one side, and most of the Knot were crowding together on an island just ahead, with a few Black-tailed Godwits and the occasional Oystercatcher for good measure. I tried various experiments with my photos: mainly with longer exposures to try to capture the movement of the Knots and the stillness of the Oystercatchers. Marcus pointed out some distant Spotted Redshanks too. After a while we headed round to a second hide where a single Little Stint was eventually picked up roosting amongst Dunlin and Redshank. Back out on the Wash the waders had begun to stream back as the tide receded. Both a Marsh Harrier and a Red Kite were floating overhead, making the smaller waders a bit nervous.

Knot & Oystercatchers

Knot & OystercatchersKnot & Oystercatchers

KnotKnot

Knot & Oystercatcher

Knot & OystercatcherKnot & Oystercatcher

Little Stint amongst Dunlin, Redshank & Black-tailed GodwitLittle Stint amongst Dunlin, Redshank & Black-tailed Godwit

After the show was over we headed off to Titchwell for the afternoon. It was busier than we’d ever seen before and we struggled to get parked. After lunch in the woodland we headed out to the fresh marshes to look for a Pectoral Sandpiper that had been seen well and quite regularly, but unfortunately we just missed it by a matter of a few minutes. More Curlew Sandpiper and some very smart Ruff were enjoyed, and a large group of Golden Plover were sat on a muddy scrape. After reaching the beach we managed to see a very distant Arctic Skua chasing a Sandwich Tern, a Red-throated Diver that had come close into shore, and a seal. On the way back there was still no sign of the Pectoral Sandpiper, but instead we had a nice Hobby fly right over us and we eventually managed to get onto a group of Bearded Tits in the reedbeds.

RuffRuff

Curlew SandpiperCurlew Sandpiper

HobbyHobby

Thursday was our day off, but we decided to make the most of it and get ourselves out of bed at a reasonable time and headed off down to the quayside and then along to Wells Woods. It was sunny and quite hot and the tide was right in, and by the time we started the walk from the car park a lot of the birds had hidden themselves away in the shade. We did manage to find a few interesting birds along the main path towards Holkham, including Coal Tits, Jays, Blackcaps, a Marsh Harrier that had probably just come in off the sea, a couple of Jays and a Stonechat, but the highlight was when we heard a call that we didn’t recognise. We followed it to some scrubby bushes and could see the silhouette of a small warbler. Eventually it moved through a tree and I got a brief but clear view of it: a Yellow-browed Warbler. My first for four years, and Jem’s first ever. We turned back after reaching Lady Anne’s Drive, and stopped for lunch once we arrived back at the car park by the caravan park. After a short shower while we waited we headed off onto the beach as the tide had gone out, exposing large areas of sandy mud, which was now covered with Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and a few Sanderling. A large flock of Brent Geese had also come in. I had developed a headache so we started to head back towards Wells, stopping to watch lots of Curlew, Ringed Plover, and a surprise Wheatear which hopped out onto the path in front of us. The evening was clear and starry, so after dinner we headed out to the footpath at the end of our road to a spot away from the streetlamps and I set up to photograph the night sky. I can’t remember ever seeing skies as clear as this in the UK, and we could even see the Milky Way with the naked eye. The ideal lens for this subject is something with a very wide angle of view, and a very wide maximum aperture. Something like a 12mm f/1.2 would be perfect, but sadly they’re incredibly difficult to manufacture so we have to compromise. I have a Sony 16-50mm f/2.8, which is probably the best compromise because I use a camera with an APS-C sensor. The field of view is closer to 24mm, so not as wide as I’d like. Anyway, it did a pretty decent job, although with the lens wide open there was a fair amount of coma visible in the stars. I’m thinking of getting a manual 24mm f/1.4 in the near future, but it’ll obviously make the field of view even narrower, unless I also get a full-frame camera. I also managed to locate the Andromeda galaxy and zoomed into it a bit. Not an amazing photo, but certainly quite interesting. I also had some fun illuminating Jem with a small LED torch. A Tawny Owl hooted nearby whilst we were out.

JayJay

WheatearWheatear

Milky WayMilky Way

Jem with the Milky WayJem with the Milky Way

Friday was back on the guided birding trail. Marcus took us straight out to Wells Woods again, and it wasn’t long before we caught up with another Yellow-browed Warbler. They’re very skittish and it took a while before I managed to get any reasonable photos. I’m also having a bit of trouble with my newly-acquired 70-400mm lens. It’s great when I actually manage to get it in focus, but it seems to be affected by camera shake a lot more than my 500mm is. I had also focus-adjusted it recently and it had similar back-focus issues to the 500mm, but while the 500mm is now behaving like a new lens at the top of its game, I’m still struggling with the 70-400mm. I’m wondering if it’s something to do with the way I’ve been holding the lens (the front element extends right out when zoomed) and it’s exacerbating the vibration. I did get a few decent shots though, notably of a scruffy Goldcrest and, after we’d got back to Wells for lunch, another nice Wheatear. Before that we’d managed to get some good views of Garden Warbler (my first for two years), a Pied Flycatcher, Kestrel, Common Buzzards, a Red Kite and a brief Sparrowhawk, plus Coal Tits, a Great Tit dismantling a caterpillar, a skein of Pink-footed Geese and a couple of Treecreepers.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler

Garden WarblerGarden Warbler

GoldcrestGoldcrest

WheatearWheatear

Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese

The afternoon saw us head over to Stiffkey Fen where the pool was hosting around 30 Spoonbills and a lot of Greylags. There were plenty of waders here: Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank, etc, plus a single Snipe (before a second one flew in and landed out of sight), and lots of lots of Wigeon that were being regularly added-to by incoming birds. We headed along the bank and down to the harbour edge where we watched the distant seals basking on Blakeney Point, and we also watched a Peregrine soaring around and a distant Gannet. On the way back I noticed two Greenshank that had appeared on the water, and a Kingfisher zoomed past across the reeds and along a channel. We finished off by heading to the nearby coastal marsh and bumped in to a group of birders who told us there was nothing around aside from a Red-breasted Flycatcher in the nearby woodland. We tried for the bird, but had to admit defeat. A nice Kestrel was perched on a mound of hay in the adjacent field, so we had to make do with that.

SpoonbillsSpoonbills

KestrelKestrel

Saturday morning started with a breezy wander in the clifftop scrub by Beeston Bump near Sheringham. The plan was to try to find a Wryneck that had been there in previous days, but the stronger wind and the large number of dog walkers meant we had to console ourselves with a number of hirundines coming in off the sea. We then headed off towards Cley, starting with at least a couple of Wheatears, a Snipe, and an overhead Buzzard as we made our way to the new Babcock Hide on the Salthouse Marshes. Once inside we got to compare male and female Ruff (the female being called a reeve), and a Black-tailed Godwit that briefly landed alongside. A Hobby came past at high speed too.

WheatearWheatear

BuzzardBuzzard

Black-tailed Godwit with Ruff and ReeveBlack-tailed Godwit with Ruff and Reeve

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit

After lunch beside the visitor centre at Cley we headed out to the hides. There was lots of good action (causing the Golden Plover to flock in panic) from the Marsh Harriers – I actually managed to get some photos from fairly close-in for once – and there were a couple of Little Stints out on the mud amongst various other waders. The most interesting bird here was a Caspian Gull: the first that Jem and I had seen in the UK. We switched to the hide next-door which was significantly busier, and everybody was enjoying a very close Common Snipe nozzling in the damp grass only a few feet in front of the hide. After a while, a Mute Swan came over and scared the Snipe away, but not before it posed elegantly right out in the open on a mud track. We also heard Bearded Tits in the reeds ahead, but they were keeping out of the wind. Eventually we went out to the beach car park and then walked along to the viewing platform. On the way we had a distant Guillemot, some Brent Geese and a Marsh Harrier arriving off the sea, a couple of Reed Buntings on the fence, and a nice pair of Whinchat too. There was one final Wheatear on a fence on the shingle and a distant Gannet over the sea as we made our way back to the car and then back to Wells.

Caspian GullCaspian Gull

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier

Common SnipeCommon Snipe

Reed BuntingReed Bunting

Jem and I had open rail tickets so we didn’t have to rush about too much on the Sunday, choosing instead to wander around Wells for a few hours and then to have lunch. Plenty of waders were on the East Fleet, including several Curlew, and the Grey Plover from the first afternoon was still there. At the quayside in Wells we noticed a very contrasty juvenile gull. We considered it might be another Caspian Gull, but we weren’t sure – and Marcus confirmed via email that it was a Greater Black-back. I also did another timelapse, this time of the boats heading out towards the sea. After lunch in a cafe we collected our things and caught the bus back to Kings Lynn and then the train back to London. On the way we noticed a Green Woodpecker in a Cambridgeshire field – the first for the trip!

Overall, it was another very nice break in Norfolk. The weather was very good for the majority of the time, with warm, sunny days and a few clear nights as well. The highlight was definitely the wader spectacular at Snettisham, which we’ve finally seen after planning to see it for several years now. I’m also happy with some of the photos I took, especially since micro-adjusting the focus for my 500mm telephoto. If there was any disappointment at all, it was that I didn’t manage to see any species that I hadn’t seen before. That’s not the reason we go, but what made it a bit disappointing is that there plenty of species that had been around – Dotterel, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Pectoral Sandpiper, for example – that we missed out on. And in the weeks since our visit there have been many more interesting species drop in. On the plus side, Jem saw her first ever Yellow-browed Warblers – and they were the first for me since my first Norfolk visit back in 2012. It was also good to catch up with several species that had been missing from the yearlist too, and of course the bonus self-found owls on the first day. Our next booked trip is to the Forest of Dean in March, and then we’re hoping to go to Poland in May, so our next Norfolk tour will have to wait until next autumn.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rose, Honey, Jars…

I don’t normally go for obscure blog titles, but sometimes you have to keep people guessing…

Anyway, after we returned from Spain we decided that we needed to relax a bit after an intense – and very satisfying – season of spring birding. After a couple of weekends of recharging we headed out to Rainham for a day. Annoyingly, the rail line from Blackhorse Road to Barking which is by far our most direct route is currently out of action while major engineering works and electrification of the line is in progress. This makes it much more difficult to get out to Rainham, but we decided to make a day of it with the plan of hopefully seeing one of the regularly-reported Cuckoos and perhaps some Bearded Tits too. It’s not been a great year for Cuckoo sightings for us mainly as we hadn’t seen or even heard a single one in the UK this year, and although we heard several in Spain we still didn’t actually see any. And we like Cuckoos.

We started from the western end at Rainham Station and then headed through the marsh instead of taking the longer route by the river. Plenty to see at that end, but no Cuckoos. Marsh Harriers and Kestrels were seen over the Silt Lagoons, and they were joined briefly by a Hobby as well. A female Black-tailed Skimmer also perched obliging for us on some dry cut grass by the path. As we reached Wennington Marsh we got hit by a short, sharp shower, but soon enough the sun returned and we continued our stroll towards the reserve, enjoying Linnets on the way. Then we had our bit of luck. A bird flying parallel to the river between us and the MDZ caught our eye: a female Cuckoo heading eastwards, past the visitor centre and high over the trees towards Purfleet. Only a brief sighting, but a very welcome one. After the obligatory lunch and cake in the visitor centre we headed off for a loop around the reserve. No Bearded Tits unfortunately, but there were more Marsh Harriers, some Cetti’s, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Whitethroats and a smattering of waders. All in all a decent day out.

I had a dental checkup back in Oxted on the Monday morning so I headed down on the Sunday afternoon to see the folks. Of course, once I was there I idly checked Twitter to be greeted with the news that a stunning male Common Rosefinch had been found on Walthamstow Marshes. The Rosefinch is a bird that Jem and I were both interested in seeing, but which even our trips abroad hadn’t produced for us. It continued to be reported on the Monday, up until early-afternoon so Jem and I decided to try our luck after work, eventually getting down to the favoured spot around 8pm-ish. No sign of it, so after a good walk around the area we headed home, assuming the bird had gone. Then it showed well all day on the Tuesday so again we headed down after work, and a cyclist on the towpath spotted our binoculars and told us how well it was showing. When we arrived it hadn’t been seen for around half and hour, and it didn’t show again. Another hour and a half stood there and still not a peep. Drastic measures were called for. We got up before 5am on Wednesday and headed down before work, choosing the spot where the rail lines cross over as that’s where it had mainly been singing from early in the day. After a good hour or so the bird began to sing from the scrub behind the fence. But of course it didn’t show. We bumped into Gordon who we’d met in Norfolk last year, and I also exchanged phone numbers with a sound recordist while he checked out a different part of the marsh. Eventually Jem and I had to leave for work…and naturally, I then received the news that the bird finally appeared about ten minutes after we’d left. Wednesday night we tried again and yet again there was no sign of it, although that could’ve been a good thing as the regular singing tree in the middle of the marsh was hosting a determined-looking Sparrowhawk instead. We also bumped into David who we first met a few weeks earlier when watching the Garganey on the East Warwick, and he was with Jamie who’d discovered the bird in the first place on the Sunday evening. They had no joy relocating it either, although they did hear it singing from the reeds a little later on. By this time Jem and I were exhausted so we decided to give it a miss completely on Thursday, and of course it showed well for all observers until late in the evening…

And so it was back early on Friday morning. We arrived by the rail underpass again and straight away heard the bird singing again. It flew up into the sky and headed off through the out-of-bounds scrub, but all we saw was a brief silhouette against the sky. Another birder was carefully trying to follow it around, but after a short while the singing stopped so we decided to head round to the tree on the marsh again. More birders arrived but it wasn’t looking good. At 7.30 we decided to head back to the flat, and just as we were packing up to go Jem and I heard it singing, this time from a TV aerial on the flats beside the pub on the other side of the canal. Luckily we located it and even got a look through a gentleman’s scope before it flew off behind the houses and out of sight. Finally we felt we’d seen it properly, if only for about 30 seconds. I’d managed to get a couple of very distant photos, but in the overcast morning gloom they’re barely even record shots. So on Saturday, with nice bright sunshine, we headed down after lunch to get the fine views in perfect conditions that we’d been hoping for. Except we didn’t get them. Four hours of waiting around between the singing tree and the pub and not a sign of it. No individual bird has given us such a runaround before, but at least we can say we did see it, albeit briefly and from distance. It’s times like this we’re glad we’re not regular twitchers. We only went to see this bird as it was something we were particularly interested in seeing and it was within walking distance of home. The plus side is that it made us a bit fitter: in all we walked a total of 25.6 miles and we now know the marshes a bit better than we did before…

On the Sunday we decided to head down to Oxted again to visit the folks and then Mum and Dad took us out to Ashdown Forest to look for Nightjars. Sadly it was far breezier than we were expecting, although it was still quite warm. A number of birds were heard calling and churring as the sun went down, but all I got was a very brief glimpse of one as it flew between the trees.

The following weekend took us to a new spot: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. On my very first birding holiday – with Naturetrek to Sweden in the spring of 2009 – there was a couple on the trip who told me about Wicken Fen (their local patch), and it sounded like somewhere worth visiting. The downside was that it’s not the easiest place to get to without your own transport, which is why it’s taken so long to finally visit. We actually managed to get there before the visitor centre opened, and it was already hot. After enjoying the Swallows and House Martins that were zipping around the entrance buildings, we made our way along the boardwalk towards the butterfly trail. In the now-scorching sunshine we didn’t see an awful lot of birds. A handful of Reed and Sedge Warblers were heard in the scrub, and a Whitethroat or two seen, but it was mostly invertebrates that we were seeing: dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies. As the morning wore on we were enjoying ourselves, but I was feeling a bit off because despite the good light I hadn’t really taken any photos. At the start of the butterfly trail, just as we were deciding which direction to head in, I looked up and noticed two Buzzards floating overhead in the clear blue sky. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to them, but then decided I might as well take a few shots, so I grabbed a handful of frames of one of the birds and thought little more of it. It was only when reviewing the images on the back of the camera once I’d found some shade that I noticed the bird I’d photographed seemed to be a bit different from your average Common Buzzard. I checked against a raptor guide in the shop in the visitor centre and started to get a bit excited that I’d photographed a Honey Buzzard. We’d had seen one in Norfolk last year and I saw loads of them on a diving trip in the Red Sea a few years back, but I still decided to wait until I’d got a few more opinions from people who know better than I do, but happily it appears that I was right. I reported to the Cambridgeshire recorder the following day and hopefully it’ll be accepted. It’s my first ever entirely self-found rarity (without photo evidence our Rough-legged Buzzard at Bramfield last year was considered ‘unproven’, even though I was 99% sure). My only annoyance is that I didn’t get a photo of the second bird over Wicken – it may have been a pair.

Honey BuzzardHoney Buzzard

Common DarterCommon Darter

Swallow

SwallowSwallow

After lunch we headed back out towards more open marshland areas alongside drainage channels. With a few white clouds bubbling around it was a bit more comfortable and the birdlife much more active. We had more Sedge and Reed Warblers, a nice Willow Warbler, a few Goldfinches, a Lapwing, several Grey Herons, at least three distant Marsh Harriers, and in a tiny patch of reeds right in front of where we’d sat we had at least two Bearded Tits – our first of the year. We liked Wicken Fen, and we’ll definitely return.

Bearded TitBearded Tit

Willow WarblerWillow Warbler

Red-eyed DamselflyRed-eyed Damselfly

At the recent Farnborough Air Show I’d had some issues with one of my lenses. I bought a mint-condition Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX IF lens all the way back in 2005 and it’s served me very well, but the last couple of years it’s started to get a bit tired, bashed-about, and generally nearing retirement age. At Farnborough I found it was struggling to focus as quickly and accurately as it had in the past, so I looked into various options for replacement. In the end, rather than getting the new HSM OS version of the same lens, or a used copy of Sony or Minolta’s equivalents, I found a very good deal on Sony’s 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM (Mk.I) on the London Camera Exchange’s website, so I went ahead and made the purchase. It’s a bit heavier and bulkier and I’m not overly keen on the extending front element, but last weekend I took it out to Kensington Gardens to give it a try out. We started by looking for the two newer Little Owl nests. We think we found the correct location over by the Henry Moore sculpture but couldn’t find any owls, then we found the nest hole near the Albert Memorial, but no sign of the owls there either, and eventually headed over to the nest we’ve known for years – and no luck there either. Instead I tested the lens over by the Long Water, getting shots of Starlings, Egyptian Geese, Blackbirds, a Black-tailed Skimmer that kept landing on the path, some Red-crested Pochards in eclipse plumage, a few Parakeets, and a nice juvenile Blackcap. The lens focuses quickly, silently and accurately, and when it gets the focus spot-on it’s very sharp with lovely colours and smooth bokeh. I like it a lot.

Feral PigeonFeral Pigeon

BlackbirdBlackbird

Black-tailed SkimmerBlack-tailed Skimmer

Lesser Black-backed GullLesser Black-backed Gull

BlackcapBlackcap

StarlingStarling

And so to this weekend, and the long-awaited Hen Harrier Day. When the events began back in 2014 I hoped they’d eventually manage to organise one down in the south-east somewhere, but I certainly wasn’t in my wildest dreams expecting it to come to one of our favourite local patches within two years. So we managed to get up early and off to Rainham, and in glorious sunshine. Chris Packham, Mark Avery, Charlie Moores and Mike Clarke were all there to inspire us with passionate words, there was the Peregrine EnChantica vocal ensemble serenading us, a raffle (we didn’t win), and plenty of merchandise from BAWC. Wildlife-wise we saw a Water Vole munching his breakfast, lots of Marsh Frogs and Small Red-eyed Damselflies, flocks of Goldfinches, male Reed Bunting, and a distant Marsh Harrier over Wennington. I’d hoped to get a chance to buy Chris Packham’s latest book and get it signed, but he was inevitably swarmed by fans and we sadly didn’t have time to hang around long once the speeches were done. Hopefully I’ll get another chance at Birdfair. As we left the spot where the speeches had taken place, a curved-billed wader flew overhead. Annoyingly I didn’t have time to get my camera onto it so I can’t say whether it was a Curlew or Whimbrel. We haven’t seen the latter yet this year so it would’ve been a nice addition to the yearlist. Hen Harrier Day was a fine event though, and we’re already looking forward to next year.

Water VoleWater Vole

GoldfinchesGoldfinches

Marsh FrogMarsh Frog

Hen Harrier Day

Hen Harrier Day

Hen Harrier Day

Charlie MooresCharlie Moores

Mark AveryMark Avery

Mike ClarkeMike Clarke

Hen Harrier Day

Chris PackhamChris Packham

Henry Hen Harrier

Henry Hen HarrierHenry Hen Harrier

Peregrina EnChanticaPeregrina EnChantica

Hen Harrier Day

Marsh FrogsMarsh Frogs

Small Red-eyed DamselfliesSmall Red-eyed Damselflies

The reason we couldn’t stay long is that we’d arranged to return to Ashdown Forest in the evening via Mum and Dad’s to give the Nightjars a final go. We got down to the car park near Wych Cross at the right time and the conditions were pretty much perfect: warm, still, and their were plenty of insects in the air. However, we were to end up disappointed again. One bird made a few calls and put out a few seconds of churring but it didn’t show itself, and that was all we got. There were probably at least three birds in the area when we tried a few weeks ago so maybe most of them have already started on their journey south. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Spanish Pyrenees

So, after a very successful spring back home, it was off to the Spanish Pyrenees with Naturetrek for our big holiday of the year.

Day One (Sunday) was basically the travel day. We had the convenience of flying to Zaragoza from Stansted, so that meant an easy train trip from Tottenham Hale direct to the airport, but the downside was that we were flying with Ryanair, which seems to be the only airline whose cabin baggage restrictions meant my new rucksack is just too big, forcing me to take my older, smaller one. Jem took my binoculars in her bag so I still managed to take most of the stuff I wanted to take. After a fairly uneventful flight – although I was surprised that the seats on Ryanair planes don’t even have pockets for magazines and things, which is surely taking their cost-cutting a bit too far – and a bit of rough descent into Zaragoza, we met the rest of our group and the guides, Phil and David, and also the hotel proprietor, Peter, who drove one of the minibuses for the journey north through the foothills to our base in Berdún. Leaving Zaragoza we noticed lots of Black Kites, a single Marsh Harrier, and a few Crested Larks. We also had a brief stop near the Mallos de Riglos to take a few photos and view the Griffon Vultures that were circling around the pinnacles in a very blustery wind. Soon after leaving we noticed an Egyptian Vulture float over the road – which at the time was best view I’d ever had of the species after seeing just one juvenile high up in the sky when we were in Andalucía back in 2013. After settling into the hotel and having a fine dinner, Jem and I headed to the one of the lookout points at the top of the village where I took a few long-exposure photos. My plan was to try to photograph the Milky Way at some stage during the week, but that would obviously be dependent on the weather.

Mallos de RiglosMallos de Riglos

Day Two began with great views of a Black Redstart in the garden in front of our room. After breakfast we walked on a winding track around the outskirts of the village to a riverside area described as the ‘badlands’. On the way down we noticed more Black Kites, Red Kites, a couple of Egyptian Vultures, and a large kettle of several dozen Griffon Vultures preparing for their day’s soaring. One Red Kite appeared to be carrying nesting material, but when I zoomed in on the photos I took I could see that it was carrying – as well as a ball of fibrous stuff – a small bird, probably a Great Tit. We also saw our first Melodious Warbler (#453 on the lifelist) singing from a nearby branch, and several Corn and Cirl Buntings, and a bit of a rarity: a Black Stork flying overhead. A Grey Wagtail flew over when we reached the bridge over the river, and on the other side we had at least two Golden Orioles fly past us, and a brief look at a Bee-eater too. On the way back up the track to the village we had further views of the Melodious Warbler, brief views of a Serin flying around, and a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in some scrubby trees. We also found a rather unwell-looking bat under the eaves of a small outhouse building as we made our way back to the hotel for lunch.

Black KiteBlack Kite

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting

Red Kite with PreyRed Kite with Prey

After lunch it was off to the Aragón River a short distance away for a second walk. Whilst here I noticed one of many small blue butterflies flitting around. For no particular reason I decided to have a look at one individual that I saw landing in a tussock and I suddenly realised it was struggling – it had been caught by a Crowned Mantis. I’ve always been interested in the mantid family of insects but I’d never seen one in the wild before, so this was particularly interesting. It didn’t seem to be too bothered as we all took close-up photos of it while it munched on its meal. Moving on we had a Marsh Harrier, lots more butterflies, a second mantis that had recently shed its skin, and at the end of the track, a Sparrowhawk which circled in front of us and then went into the woodland on the opposite bank, and then a Short-toed Treecreeper on the way back. More Orioles were heard but not seen. We bumped into another tour group on the way back and they told us that there were Bee-eaters near to where we’d parked our minibuses. As we neared I could see at least one Bee-eater perched by the nesting bank, but when we got closer it had gone. We waited a while but we only got a very brief further look, and I didn’t manage to get any photos.

Crowned Mantis with ButterflyCrowned Mantis with Butterfly

BerdúnBerdún

Day Three began with a short walk high on a wooded hillside near the Hermitage of the Virgin of la Peña. We picked up views – eventually – of our first Western Bonelli’s Warblers (#454) and the Western subspecies of the Subalpine Warbler (which may well be split into a full species in the not-too-distant future). It took some coaxing to be able to get a view of either of these species, and I was particularly happy with the Subalpine Warbler as it’s one of my favourite birds and my attempts to get photos of the many Eastern subspecies we saw in Lesvos last year didn’t get me the results I wanted. One individual this time – after we eventually located it – perched obligingly for me and I managed to get a few frames. We also had a good look at a pair of Firecrests here, and there was a calling Cuckoo somewhere in the forest valley below. Next we made our way to the vulture feeding hide. There were a few vultures floating around, a nice Stonechat which perched several times right in front of the hide, and another Cuckoo calling somewhere nearby. Sadly, the man with the pig carcasses didn’t show up – for the second consecutive year for this tour. So we had to make do without the spectacle of the vulture feed, but we did get further Subalpine Warbler views as we walked back to the minibuses, plus a couple of Psammodromus lizards on a rock. A Short-toed Eagle floated past just before we left.

Western Subalpine WarblerWestern Subalpine Warbler

Large PsammodromusLarge Psammodromus

We had lunch at the monasteries of St Juan de la Peña, where a short woodland walk brought us further views of Firecrests, plus Crossbills, a Crested Tit and a Nuthatch. Moving up through more woodland to a lookout point where we got a spectacular Pyrenean vista, we heard a calling Black Woodpecker below us. I didn’t see it myself, but some of the group did. Back at base we had dinner and then headed out for our first attempt at finding an Eagle Owl. The light levels dropped and just before it got too dark a large owl-shaped silhouette floated off out the tops of the wooded hillside and off into the distance. Definitely our first Eagle Owl (#455), but not the greatest of views. As we drove off we soon found a Nightjar sat in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, as Phil turned off the minibus engine the headlights went out too, and the bird decided it was time to leave. We got a good close view of a hare on the way back, but no more Nightjars.

FirecrestFirecrest

Day Four was our first real trip up at altitude as we made our way up to the Aisa Valley. Just as we were arriving David noticed a large raptor overhead, and excitedly identified it as a juvenile Lammergeier (#456). It wasn’t a bad view either, although it was against a bland white cloudy sky. The walk along the valley was a fairly long one, though not too challenging. We had broken cloud and warm sun all the way and we noted our first Alpine Choughs (#457), lots of Red-billed Choughs, distant Pyrenean Chamois, my first Citril Finch (#458), and various raptors overhead. Jem and I had the idea – when we booked the holiday – that we’d like to see some nice alpine meadows and this really gave us that. At least half the group were more botanically-focused and they had a wealth of orchids, saxifrages, helleborines and gentians throughout the week, and there seemed to be plenty for them to see here in particular. I was mainly keeping my eyes upwards to check out the raptors soaring over the mountaintops but I also took some time to photograph the landscapes and mountain streams. After a picnic lunch on a mound at the end of the valley some of us took the opportunity to climb up onto a higher ridge. This was the most challenging climb of the whole week – and probably the most challenging climb I’ve ever done – particularly as I was carrying a camera with 500mm lens attached, a tripod, and a heavy rucksack. As we slowly inched our way up I noticed an interesting raptor fly through the cleft just over our heads and a few minutes later it reappeared in front and headed off over the mountain ridge – an adult Lammergeier. We also noted the Rock Buntings on the rocky edge. When we finally got up onto the ridge we found ourselves at the snow line. The group moved on a bit further but Jem and I stopped to check out a dark thrush-like bird on a nearby bush. We assumed it was a Blue Rock Thrush, but were later told that it was unlikely, so was probably just a Blackbird looking a bit iridescent in the light. The downside of this distraction is that we didn’t notice the Lammergeier returning and floating right over us. I got some snaps as it flew away giving the rest of the group better views, but I was disappointed to have missed the chance to get better photos. As we began to head back down two more Lammergeiers appeared high in the sky and were driven off by an angry Golden Eagle. The Lammergeiers were seen off pretty quickly and headed back down through the valley and I managed to get a couple of shots of them against the snow and rock, but I had to admit defeat in getting anything special. Still, it wasn’t a photography tour, and so just seeing the birds is more than good enough for us. On the return leg we got a few more interesting sights: a pair of confiding Yellowhammers in the grass, a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush on a rocky slope, an Alpine Marmot that bounded past, and a Red-backed Shrike. This was the most exhausting day of the holiday and my feet were pretty sore (I’d also managed to fill my left hand with splinters when ascending the steep ridge), but it really helped us get in shape for the rest of the week.

Juvenile LammergeierJuvenile Lammergeier

Aisa ValleyAisa Valley

Lammergeier

LammergeiersLammergeiers

YellowhammerYellowhammer

Day Five was a drive south for a walk between the villages of Agüero and Murillo de Gállego. We began around the foot of the Mallos de Agüero – similar to those at nearby Riglos – and enjoyed the many Griffon Vultures and occasional Egyptian Vultures overhead. We found our first Western Orphean Warbler (#459) here, as well as Sardinian Warblers, Western Subalpine Warblers, Firecrests, and a Blue Rock Thrush that Jem found perched on a tree with a large centipede in its beak. The walk towards Murillo de Gállego brought us purring Turtle Doves, a few Bee-eaters (skittish as usual), Woodchat Shrikes, a brief flypast from a Golden Oriole, a singing Woodlark, yet another calling-but-hidden Cuckoo, more Red and Black Kites, a Booted Eagle, and lots more flowers and butterflies. The low-point of the holiday came after our picnic lunch when we all headed off through the village to a cafe for ice-cream whilst our guides were taken back to Agüero to pick up the minibuses. Jem was at the back of the group and somehow went missing and I ended up walking through the maze of narrow streets, calling her name in the burning heat. Luckily she’d found her way to the cafe via a parallel route. Panic over, but I desperately needed the ice-lolly to cool me down.

Western Orphean WarblerWestern Orphean Warbler

Blue Rock ThrushBlue Rock Thrush

Bee-eaterBee-eater

Booted EagleBooted Eagle

After this we drove up to the Castillo de Loarre for an hour’s birding before heading back to the hotel, and we saw a pair of aerobatic Peregrines on the way. Up here we had a stunning Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush sat on top of one of the castle walls right in front of us. Plenty of raptors soared overhead, including the usual Griffons and also a few Honey Buzzards and another Peregrine. There were Red-billed Choughs and Crag Martins all around, and I was the only member of the group that managed to get a look at a Hoopoe which flew out of the castle wall and around the rocks in front. We also found a huge grasshopper on the way back to the minibuses. We were in the second minibus on this day, driven by David, and we had some luck here. As we drove out onto the main roads we had the windows down and heard a Wryneck calling from the trees beside a junction. A very quick stop, but we got great views of the bird as it perched on an exposed branch in front of us. After our evening meal some of us went for a walk up through the village where I took a few more evening landscape shots. We had a drink at Phil and David’s hotel where David and I discussed the surprising lack of Scops Owls in the village. After Jem and I returned to our hotel I went out into the garden to try to photograph the night sky, when a male Scops started to call in the next field. Jem and I explored the surrounding roads to see if we could get a look at it, when a female began to respond from a tree right behind our room. We located the tree and I made some recordings, but even with a torch we couldn’t see the owl. Eventually it relocated to a nearby telegraph wire and we got a brief look at her before she moved on.

Honey BuzzardHoney Buzzard

Rufous-tailed Rock ThrushRufous-tailed Rock Thrush

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture

Melodious WarblerMelodious Warbler

WryneckWryneck

Evening view from BerdúnEvening view from Berdún

Day Six was back up the mountains, this time up to Portalet on the French border. On the way we made a brief stop at a roadside to see the rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid – which even had its own warden looking after it from a lay-by on the other side of the road – before we left the minibuses at the small square at Portalet. There was a Short-toed Eagle hovering just to the south and plenty of Black Redstarts around the track as we made our way up to the plateau and across the border into France. A small pond-like area of water brought us our first Water Pipits of the trip. There were several marmots around here, including one that we watched eating all the orchids in one particular meadow. We also found several Northern Wheatears and at least one Pyrenean Chamois up on the crest of the mountain ridge. After a lunch at an especially windy spot, those of us who wanted to see an Alpine Accentor set off up the steep mountainside to look for it amongst the rocky scree. Unfortunately, none were to be found, although we did find more Black Redstarts and another Chamois. Two very high Golden Eagles soared overhead and we also had a Red Kite come down over us, but it was a relatively light day on the raptor front. After a quick ice-cream stop in the cafe back in Portalet we headed back down to lower altitudes and back towards the village. After another fine evening meal we headed off for a second go at seeing the Eagle Owl. This time we had better luck as the owl swooped around the treetops and even briefly perched, silhouetted against the sky. After a few minutes it had gone and we began to notice storm clouds closing in and distant lightning. The drive back didn’t bring us any Nightjars this time, but we watched as the storm moved parallel to us and we just made it back to the hotel as it hit. I took the opportunity to try to photograph some of the lightning as it mainly skirted the village. I didn’t quite get the photos I was looking for, but I did get to hear the Scops Owls calling again, although a bit more distant this time.

Alpine MarmotsAlpine Marmots

Northern WheatearNorthern Wheatear

Pyrenean ChamoisPyrenean Chamois

Eurasian Eagle OwlEurasian Eagle Owl

Day Seven and it was back up to altitude on a cool and cloudy morning, eventually arriving at the Refugio de Gabardito where we left the minibuses and headed off along a forest trail. There were some good close encounters with raptors – especially Griffon Vultures – as they circled above the valley close to our eye level, and we’d also found an obliging Crested Tit and a brief Treecreeper. The reason for the walk was to reach the rock face at the end of the track in the hope of finding a Wallcreeper. We were prepared for anything up to a two-hour wait, but luckily it only took a few minutes for David to locate one high above our heads (#460). We watched it flitting around between the various rock faces and and ledges, and at one stage it even stayed in one place long enough to get the scope onto it. Other birds around here included lots of hirundines and a Kestrel which landed on a prominent ledge. A few more distant Lammergeiers were also seen from here, floating above the crest of the opposite mountain. We made our way back through the forest and had lunch by the refuge (where the cafe owner had angrily prevented us from using his picnic tables – and therefore ensured that none of us were going to be buying anything from him). It was still cool and cloudy up here, but we enjoyed watching the cows with their bells jangling, and there was a flock of Citril Finches that passed through the trees a couple of times too.

Crested TitCrested Tit

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture

Wallcreeper

WallcreeperWallcreeper

After lunch we drove back down the mountain and went for a walk along the Foz de Biniés gorge. By now it was burning hot, so the occasional shade cast by the cliffs was very helpful. Again, it was a great spot for raptors. Loads of Griffons, a couple of Egyptians, and a few Kites floated up and down the gorge. We looked for Dippers without any luck, but there were at least a couple of Grey Wagtails calling from the water below. I also managed to get a look at a Blackcap for the first time on the trip. At the end of the walk we had a good look at several butterflies drinking from a wet tyre track, and a Hobby with damaged tail feathers flew over too. When the minibuses picked us up it was just nice to get out of the sun – the only time all week that we’d felt a bit uncomfortable. Back at the hotel I was somewhat sidetracked by news of the Play-off Final. Had I not been here in Spain I’d have been at Wembley cheering Wednesday on, but sadly they fell short and will have to spend at least another season outside the Premier League. After dinner I tried to get some photos of the Milky Way again. It was a shame not to have had a proper cloudless night sky all week, but this was at least the best opportunity I’d had. I wandered around the village, taking shots from various locations, but the best celestial views I got were found from the hotel garden anyway.

Egyptian VultureEgyptian Vulture

Griffon Vulture

Griffon VultureGriffon Vultures

HobbyHobby

ButterfliesButterflies

The final day saw us check out of the hotel and get back on the road south. We stopped at a couple of locations near to Huesca, the first being a kind of reservoir. On the way we saw more Bee-eaters and had our first good views of a Hoopoe flying towards its nest site in an old out-building. When we got out of the minibuses by the reservoir we got good looks at Calandra Larks and a Greater Short-toed Lark that flew over our heads. There was also a new species for us: Western Cattle Egret (#461), plus Red-crested Pochards, a Woodchat Shrike, a Marsh Harrier, a couple of Purple Herons (the best views I’ve had of these to date), and a Little Ringed Plover. We also heard Great Reed Warbler, but couldn’t get a look. Then it was finally off to the Castillo de Montearagón for lunch. Here we had good views of both Black-eared and Black Wheatears, and I also got a final life tick: a Thekla Lark (#462) that sat on a rocky outcrop for a few moments. As we tried to relocate the Black Wheatear after it had flown down the hillside from the castle walls a small falcon flew straight past me. Nobody else saw it apart from Jem, but it looked good for Lesser Kestrel. After that it was the final drive back to Zaragoza and our flight home. Lots of Black Kites and a couple more Bee-eaters were seen, but nothing else to add to the list.

Western Cattle EgretWestern Cattle Egret

Purple HeronPurple Heron

So, a pretty good holiday. I saw ten new life species: Melodious Warbler, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Lammergeier, Alpine Chough, Citril Finch, Western Orphean Warbler, Wallcreeper, Western Cattle Egret and Thekla Lark, taking my global lifelist up to 462. The only real failure was the Alpine Accentor, but my three main targets were the Lammergeier, Wallcreeper and Eagle Owl – if we’d seen no other new species I’d still have come away very happy. The vulture feeding would have been nice to see but there wasn’t much we could do about that. I was also happy to have seen the Western Subalpine Warbler for the first time even though it’s not a full species yet. If I counted correctly we saw 106 different bird species. Aside from the birds it was interesting to see so many butterflies, and the Crowned Mantis was also a highlight. Although I’m not really into flowers the botanical focus made it refreshingly different to the trips we normally go on, and I really enjoyed the clean air, the alpine meadows and the stunning mountain landscapes. The guides were very good – working well together and displaying an incredible wealth of knowledge across all the different flora and fauna. And the hotel was also very nice with friendly hosts, comfortable rooms, and great food and wine. And weather was very comfortable for the most part too with minimal rain and plenty of sun. We chose our holiday well!

A full album of photos can be found on my Flickr page.

Prints of some of the photos can be purchased here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Update

Spring has been very rewarding this year. After we returned from Wales the birds started to arrive, and we’ve even got ourselves a life tick – and one from this year’s list of five targets, no less.

Firstly, it was a day out at Rainham on Good Friday. The plan to get some reasonable photos of the Short-eared Owls in decent light was still ongoing, and luckily the owls hadn’t yet headed off back to Scandinavia. And we weren’t disappointed. After a lunch in the visitor centre we headed off along the river wall, and soon enough an owl came floating along the ditch along the southern perimeter of the reserve. There were at least two owls – maybe three – on this afternoon and they seemed to appear for short bursts of hunting over the marshes and then disappearing off over the landfill site. Luckily I was in position on a few occasions and got a handful of shots that I’m happy with. No award-winners, but definitely the best images I’ve managed of these birds so far, and we left fairly satisfied at last!

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owls

The next trip was a Saturday at Bramfield – our first visit in about a year. It was a lovely sunny day as we set off from Hertford North Station, and we had plenty of good birds to see on the walk. Nuthatches featured highly, as did a close Buzzard. We took a slightly different route from usual, heading across the fields and through a clump of trees. There were Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Pheasants on the way. We reached the village and had our lunch in the churchyard as usual, enjoying various woodland birds including Great Spotted Woodpecker and Greenfinch, and several Red Kites circling overhead. As we finished our lunch the clouds came over and it even started to rain. A large flock of Goldfinches flew into the tops of the trees in the garden of the Old Rectory. We decided, since we were in Bramfield after all, to check them all out closely, and lo and behold there was one Hawfinch among them. This was a surprise for this late in the year, and especially as there hadn’t been any reports on social media of them for several weeks. Sadly, the flock was very mobile and each time it returned the birds stayed only for a few moments and I wasn’t able to get a record shot. As the rain got heavier we headed home, but on the way we got our first Yellowhammer of the year, singing from the top of a tree at the north end of the village.

YellowhammerYellowhammer

The following weekend we went to the Museum of London to see the crime exhibition before it ended, and afterwards we headed to Docklands to check out Russia Dock Parkland and Stave Hill Ecological Park. I visited several times in 2008 to look for the breeding Kingfishers there (I failed), and hadn’t been back since. There had been a report of a male Redstart, so that gave us a good reason to have a look. It took a while of wandering around before we worked out exactly which part we should be looking in, but once we found the right section we found the Redstart straight away. There were also Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and a Great-spotted Woodpecker, but the Redstart was the star of the show and after a while I was able to get some decent snaps of him on the pathway and even on one of the stone tors. We don’t normally catch up with Redstarts until later in the year so this was an exciting day.

Redstart

RedstartRedstart

Next it was back to Rainham. We’ve never seen a Grasshopper Warbler before, although we’ve heard a few, here at Rainham, at Rye Meads, and last summer at Lakenheath, but there were at least three reported to be showing well at various spots along the river wall, so we headed off fairly early and got our reward – but not before my glasses had broken – and then thanks to some other birders just outside the visitor centre we got ourselves our first Common Terns of the year and a Little Gull. The first gropper was seen sporadically amongst the brambles and bushes in and around a ditch (#452 on the lifelist). It came out and reeled for a good minute at one stage, despite the fact that it was actually pretty poor conditions – cloudy, cold and windy. We also had our first Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers of the year. A second gropper was found reeling in another tree but the MDZ Hide brought no luck with the Kingfishers. In fact they hadn’t been seen for a few days so we were expecting the worst, but apparently they’re now back. After lunch – where two Arctic Terns were pointed out to us travelling up river – we headed home and relaxed, but a report of a Black Tern at the reservoirs gave us reason for a late afternoon wander. The Black Tern was long gone but we did get lots of Common Terns, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and more. We also managed to almost get locked in for the night because we’d made an error with the closing times!

Grasshopper WarblerGrasshopper Warbler

Reed BuntingReed Bunting

The following morning was warm and sunny, and the reports of a showy Pied Flycatcher on Regent’s Park was all we needed to head out. There were a couple of birders in position when we arrived and the bird showed almost straight away. There were also Chiffchaffs around, but the flycatcher was keeping us well distracted as it flew from tree to tree and occasionally perched nicely in the sunshine. The first I’ve seen in the UK since September 2012.

Pied FlycatcherPied Flycatcher

We hadn’t been to Staines Moor since the Barred Warbler visit back in September, so with more decent weather we made our way over on the last weekend in April. There were Stonechats perching nicely, several Green Woodpeckers, a Red Kite, Kestrels, House Martins, Swallows, Sand Martins, Little Egrets, Common Terns, Reed Buntings, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Linnets, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and a Sparrowhawk. We were hoping for Yellow Wagtails but failed with them. As we ended the day walking down the path alongside the KGVI Reservoir I noticed a falcon perched on a fencepost. Initially I thought it was a Merlin, but when I got the bins onto it it turned out to be a cracking Hobby. It sat for some time before eventually flying off over the reservoir and out of sight.

LinnetLinnet

WhinchatWhinchat

HobbyHobby

Another nice weekend came along and we’d planned to go to King’s Lynn with Jem’s dad who was racing there on the Sunday morning. Unfortunately we overslept and he had to go on his own, leaving us very annoyed with ourselves. We got up anyway and decided to make the most of the decent weather by wandering around the reservoirs. Our first Lesser Whitethroats of the year were found along the Coppermill Stream, our first Swifts of the year whizzed past, and the local male Peregrine flew over us and went towards one of the pylons. When we caught up with him he was tearing a pigeon apart. My photos later showed that the pigeon had a leg ring – maybe a racing pigeon? We had no luck in looking for the Wood Warbler that had been at the southern end of the East Warwick earlier in the week, but we enjoyed Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs. Common Terns, Greenfinches, a Wheatear and one very bold member of the resident family of foxes. The reeds alongside the West Warwick also got us our first Reed Warbler of the year. We went over to visit Jem’s parents in the afternoon and had a walk around Fairlop Water and Claybury Woodland. More Whitethroats were the main species of the afternoon as it started to get cooler, but at Claybury we also had the bonus of Green Woodpeckers and a nice Sparrowhawk overhead.

Peregrine with PigeonPeregrine with Pigeon

WrenWren

Red FoxRed Fox

WheatearWheatear

Bank Holiday Monday gave us the chance to get up extra early for the dawn chorus – something our usual laziness causes us to miss out on. Knowing there had been another Grasshopper Warbler up on Tottenham Marshes, we decided that was the place to head for. The weather wasn’t great – mostly cloudy and with a hint of rain in the air – and when we reached Wild Marsh East we were disappointed. A few Whitethroats and little else, but as we wandered around I kept thinking I could hear a buzzing sound, which Jem couldn’t hear. Eventually it got louder and louder and we realised that it was the gropper reeling from a clump of brambles. I didn’t have my longest lens with me so I tried to edge closer, and incredibly the bird didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. I eventually managed to get within about ten feet of him, but still he just kept on singing. By the time we left I had over 600 photos and a couple of minutes of video. There was also a good hirundine flock over the Banbury Reservoir to the north. Despite the weather it had been a satisfying morning.

Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler

The following weekend we decided to spend the Sunday at Stocker’s Lake in Rickmansworth. We’d only been there once before: last spring to finally get our first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a great place to wander round and there had been reports of Cuckoos there – which we’ve so far failed to find this year. No luck with the Cuckoo, and no luck finding the Spotted Flycatcher that had been reported along one of the paths, but we did get a Kingfisher, a pair of Stock Doves, a Grey Wagtail, several Whitethroats, a Red Kite, a Sparrowhawk and a Buzzard. Plenty of Common Terns were flapping around, and there were a couple of Red-crested Pochards too. A nice day out, if unspectacular.

Stock DoveStock Dove

And so the final birding before we head off to Spain was a couple of after-work wanders around the reservoirs, firstly to the Lockwood where we saw the Black-necked Grebes, a Little Ringed Plover, lots of Common Sandpipers, and a rarity for the site: a Sanderling. All four were firsts for the year, and we got pretty good views of all, despite grey cloud and diminishing light. A couple of days later and we were back, this time to the East Warwick for a stunning male Garganey. We only found it thanks to a local birder who’d seen it fly from the West Warwick which is where we’d initially headed. Plenty more Common Terns were seen, and the male Peregrine flew over and startled everything as usual, before perching on his favourite pylon. Song Thrushes, Dunnocks and Greenfinches were also perching in the evening sunshine. The British yearlist is now up to 140 species. We’re a few waders short of where we’d usually be at this stage, but we’ve got lots of species we wouldn’t normally have found yet. No Cuckoo as yet, but there’s still time.

Garganey

GarganeyGarganey

Last weekend I had to go to Amsterdam for work on the Saturday, and I was too tired for anything on the Sunday. The main highlight was a close encounter with a Buzzard as our cab took us from the airport to the venue in the north of the city. I also noticed lots of Grey Herons and some noisy Parakeets.

And so, next stop the Spanish Pyrenees…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment