…do it yourself.
Jem and I had booked to return to Norfolk so that we could see the ‘Wader Spectacular’ at Snettisham for the first time. Sadly, I got a phone call from Marcus (he’s taken the tour company over from Stuart) to say he’d broken his ankle and would be forced to cancel our tour. As I’d already booked a week off work anyway I decided I was going to fill my time with plenty of local birding instead. But before that we had a couple of weekend day trips to enjoy.
Firstly, we decided it was time to venture over to Bramfield again. We’d had a great day there just as spring was getting going, so it was time to return to see what we might find as summer comes to a close. The walk up from Hertford North Station was fairly quiet, although we did get to watch what we initially thought were House Martins flying across the fields (the tails were short), but when one decided to sit on the warm road surface we could see that they were actually young Swallows. One of the main fields was being worked-on by a large combine-harvester-type-thing and this had the effect of keeping the usual birds away as we neared the village – there are normally Buzzards, Kestrels and Red Kites here – so we made our way straight up the track towards the farm on the east side of the village, seeing lots of young Pheasants on the way. As we reached the farm and scanned the trees behind we noticed a lot of commotion amongst the pigeons. A large raptor flew through and perched openly on a high branch – a Peregrine Falcon – and there was also a Buzzard sat on a telegraph pole in front. A Jay came along and looked as though it was going to mob the Peregrine, but eventually thought better of it. As we moved on we saw our first Kestrel of the day perched on a fencepost to our left.
Reaching the village we had our first – and only – Red Kite of the day, and then we settled in the churchyard for lunch. The church was acting as a checkpoint for a local cycle ride, so we decided to have a look inside (it’s always been closed on our previous visits) and get talking to the locals. They were extremely helpful and gave us directions for a longer walk around the area. The problem we’d had in the past is that the road between Hertford and Bramfield is quite busy and there’s no footpath once you’re outside of Hertford’s suburbs. It makes it difficult to really immerse yourself in the birding. Armed with a map, we left the church and followed this new route in a wide arc through the farmland to the east. More Buzzards were seen, along with a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, further Kestrels as we neared Hertford again, and a nice Yellowhammer. Bramfield never disappoints.
The following weekend we decided to meet up with David Lindo’s Sunday morning tour of Wormwood Scrubs. Our success at the Scrubs in a couple of visits last year was limited due mainly to the blustery wind, but this was a much better visit overall – and it always helps with professional guidance too. Raptors were the first interesting sights – three Kestrels were mobbed by corvids, a Red Kite drifted overhead as we reached the south-east corner of the Scrubs, and that was soon followed by a Hobby. We listened for Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs in the bushes at the eastern end and a showy Reed Warbler popped out too and preened in the sun. As we made our way across the northern boundary towards the model aircraft flying area we had a Grey Wagtail fly over, a high soaring Buzzard and a migrating Jay. There were dozens of Meadow Pipits around too. Eventually we finished off with several Whinchats perched in the heat haze. It was good to finally get a chance to see what the Scrubs are all about. On the way back to Tottenham Jem and I were discussing that the only thing we’d not had was a Sparrowhawk. As we came up from the subway to ground level at Tottenham Hale, naturally, there was a fine Sparrowhawk circling just above the station!
Last year we planned to visit Dungeness RSPB with Jem’s parents, but unfortunately her dad’s car broke down before we’d even made it across the Thames, so that trip was put on hold. We decided it was high time that our parents met each other too, so we arranged to spend a day down in Britain’s only desert. Dungeness is a strange place – all flat shingle and vast horizons, with few trees and lots of stark concrete, all watched over by the power station on the edge of the coastal spit. The RSPB reserve is pretty large – similar to Rainham in that it has a main circuit track around the outside – but with a secondary site on the other side of the main road. Kestrels were seen straight away, hovering in the heat haze, as well as lots of gulls, Cormorants, Grey Herons, Common Sandpipers, Little Egrets, and a female Marsh Harrier. We made our way around the track from hide-to-hide, and at the third stop we saw a scarcity – a Great White Egret – hunched on a small island. Cetti’s Warblers were heard too, with Jem and her mum seeing one briefly. We eventually reached the Bittern viewpoint on the northern part of the loop. There were no Bitterns around, but we could hear several Bearded Tits. Sadly they decided not to show themselves, even though we could track them around the reedbed by listening to the calls. A Kingfisher then decided to make an appearance, perching firstly on a plant in the water, then on the edge of the reeds, then in a bush right in front of us, but it only stopped for a few seconds at a time before flying back out of sight. We then saw it briefly fly across the tops of the reeds into the distance, and then it came straight back past us, over the heads of a couple who’d brought their car along and who were sneakily snaffling the blackberries from the bushes. Marsh Harriers were noted throughout the day, and a couple of Common Buzzards too. In the afternoon we crossed the road to the smaller side of the reserve where Gulls and Ducks seemed to make up most of the birds on show. There were two more Great Egrets here, some Pintail at the back of the pool, and three small waders arrived onto a small scrape. They turned out to be Ruff of varying ages. With the Great Egrets and the Ruff, my British yearlist had now reached 153. A heartening sight was the sheer number of Kestrels in the area. We think we managed to count at least twelve individuals within a fairly small area of just a few square miles.
Ruff amongst Wigeon and Black-headed Gulls
The next day out was an afternoon at Tices Meadow on the outskirts of Aldershot. It was a fair walk from Aldershot Station, but we got a brief Kestrel up in a conifer on the way, and we eventually found our way through the suburbs to the site. There was some work going on in the surrounding woodland – tree clearing by the looks of it – but the meadow itself was quiet. Plenty of gulls, ducks, etc on the large pool in the middle of the meadow, and a nice Kestrel waiting patiently on the grass (and ignoring an inquisitive crow). The afternoon mainly got us raptors: a couple of regular Kestrels, a couple of Sparrowhawks which I tried and failed to get good photos of, and a Buzzard floating around the quarry works at the western end of the site. Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers were seen, as well as Lapwings and a few Common Sandpipers. We’d been hoping for a Pectoral Sandpiper which had been reported a few times in the preceding days, but it didn’t seem to be around. Back up on the mound viewpoint as we were getting ready to leave we got talking to a couple of local birders and we had great views of a Kestrel on the grass right in front us (presumably the same one we saw when we first arrived), and we even managed to take down the code from its leg ring. It was starting to get gloomy so we decided to call it a day and wander back through the suburbs, when I pointed out a Woodpigeon on a TV aerial on top of a house at the end of a terrace…only to realise as we got closer that it was actually a male Sparrowhawk. The closest look I’d ever had of one, and only the second time I’ve seen a Sparrowhawk perched rather than in the air.
The Friday was my birthday and Jem and I decided to relax through the morning and then go for a short walk around the reservoirs in the afternoon. There wasn’t a huge amount around, but we did get a brief look at a Kingfisher near to the hide of Reservoir Number 3 and enjoyed watching a Grey Wagtail foraging along the edge of Reservoir Number 5. There was also a nice Great Crested Grebe and a close Grey Heron that I tried to sneak up on to get an interesting photo from behind.
The Sunday had a very good weather forecast, so we decided to make a day of it and go down to Staines Moor for the first time since the spring. Arriving from the retail park at the southern end – the route we’d only discovered for the first time back in May – we straight away got a raptor overhead. From its size I instantly assumed it was a Buzzard, but when it changed direction I could see it was a hawk shape. I’m obviously well used to seeing Sparrowhawks, but this one just struck me as being much larger than usual. Luckily I managed to get my camera ready in time to get a few quick snaps as the bird circled high overhead. Later on I put it up on Birdforum and it was confirmed as a Sparrowhawk, so it just goes to show that even regularly-seen birds can cause confusion sometimes. Getting on to the Moor itself we went looking for Stonechats. eventually we thought we had some on top of a bush, and with bright sunshine and plenty of space behind to the distant woodland border, I knew there would be good photo opportunities and so I slowly and carefully crept up until I got within a few yards. In fact, it was a Whinchat, and a very nice one too. After the bird had gone we continued in a clockwise direction around the Moor and did indeed get our first Stonechats of the season. And then we got more…and more… In the end we gave up counting, but we suspect the numbers would be in the dozens. In amongst the larger bushes at the western end of the Moor I managed to get some really close shots – definitely the best photos I’ve taken in a while. Meadow Pipits were around, as were a couple of Kestrels, a Cetti’s Warbler was heard, a Green Woodpecker yaffled, a few Jays floated about, and Jem saw another Sparrowhawk up in a nearby tree which soon flew off to try its luck with some Starlings. As we reached the part were the Colne enters the Moor we got Ring-necked Parakeets, another Green Woodpecker, lots of Meadow Pipits, a couple of Reed Buntings, and a flushed Common Snipe which went off to the Wraysbury Reservoir to the west. Just for once we didn’t get a Red Kite here, but we didn’t mind. Another Green Woodpecker and a Mistle Thrush were seen on the fenceposts bordering the King George VI reservoir as we made our way back down the path towards Staines, and then back home again. A pretty good day to finish off a hectic, but ultimately very rewarding, week of birding.