December’s Festive Birding

I was planning to do what I did last year and just add December’s highlights in my review of the year, but we’ve had some pretty good outings this month and I feel it needs its own post in order to do the month justice.

In fact, there were a couple of visits to Rainham Marshes in late November that need mentioning too. Firstly, I went down the afternoon of the Monday after we got back from Norfolk, which was my last day of annual leave. The plan was to settle myself at the western end of the marshes, near to the silt lagoons, to try to find (through hope, rather than expectation) some Short-eared Owls after we’d somehow managed to keep missing out on them throughout the autumn/winter. Three years ago I saw my first ever shorties at the Rainham Silt Lagoons, and I returned to watch them on several occasions over the 2011/12 winter, but I haven’t seen them there since. And I still haven’t. Lots of nice Stonechats and a Kestrel or two were pretty much all I saw, plus an interesting ‘false murmuration’ of pigeons rather than Starlings, around the rice factory. A decent flock of Starlings did come over though and settled to roost on one of the pylons near Rainham Station. The following Saturday, Jem and I returned to have another look. We started at the reserve end of the Marshes this time, seeing more Stonechats in the orange sunlight, Kestrels and Buzzards were also seen, and a distant Marsh Harrier too, but we’d left things a bit too late for a good day’s birding.








The first thing we did in December itself was try out a new local patch. We’d tried a few weeks earlier to visit the Waterworks Nature Reserve just to the south of the Walthamstow Marshes, but we’d got there too late. This time we got there and had a good nose around. IN all fairness, it was a very quiet Sunday afternoon’s birding, but we did get a nice Kestrel flying overhead. It’s an interesting reserve, with the converted filter bed site now set up as a set of different habitats with a large viewing area in the centre, a bit like a square pie-chart with a large hub. After a cookie or two in the visitor centre we strolled around to the Middlesex Filter Beds nearby (the close proximity of two filter bed-related reserves caused us plenty of confusion), and the highlight of this was a Kingfisher by the weir at the Lea Bridge. Although it wasn’t a bird-heavy trip, it was a good bit of reconnaissance and we’re looking forward to visiting in the spring when it should be teeming with activity.

So that brings us on to a fine day at Staines Moor. This year we’ve divided much of our birding days between Rainham and Staines, and it’s difficult to say which we like best. Now we’ve moved out to Tottenham it’s a bit easier to get to Rainham where it used to be easier to get to Staines, but Staines seems to always be worth the trip.

In bright sunshine we arrived at the footpath behind Currys PC World and straight away got a lovely Grey Wagtail foraging in the leaf litter. The usual suspects of Blackbirds, Blue and Great Tits, etc, were seen as we made our way onto the Moor from the mural-decorated tunnel under the A30, and then we headed towards southernmost of the Colne bridges. Just as we got there – as Jem was being nibbled by some curious horses – I saw a flash of blue in one of the nearby trees: a Kingfisher, which proceeded to buzz along the edge of the river, perching at various high-points along the way. Unfortunately for me, it was always just too far out of range for decent photos, and then it headed off southwards and over the rail line. A good start.

Next target was to look around the south-east section of the Moor to see if we could locate the Dartford Warbler that had been seen regularly over the previous few weeks (and which I missed out on on my previous visit just before we went to Norfolk). The trick to finding Dartford Warblers, which Peter Jones taught me when we were out in Spain last year, is to look for Stonechats and see if there’s anything else hanging around with them. This knowledge helped me find my first Dartford Warbler, on Richmond Park almost exactly one year ago, and then helped us find four more in South Devon earlier this year. And it worked again. There are large numbers of Stonechats on the Moor at the moment, so we knew it wouldn’t be easy to sift through them all, but I thought I saw something different from a distance over towards the Bonehead edge of the Moor, and I headed that way. Eventually I came to a halt by a fairly large isolated bush which was harbouring a pair of Stonechats and waited for Jem to catch up. I was taking photos of the Stonechats from quite close range when the Dartford suddenly appeared, right on the top of the bush. It was highly mobile though, perching for a few seconds, before heading off to the east and going down into the long grasses. Then we’d hear it chattering again and it would return, but each time unnoticed and from the west, meaning it was doing circuits without us seeing.

DSC06600Common Buzzard mobbed by Crow

DSC06615Dartford Warbler


Anyway, we munched our sandwiches and waited until we got the impression that it had moved away, and then we decided to head northwards in the hope that we might be lucky with Short-eared Owls this time. The water level had risen which meant Jem struggled to get through the numerous pools and marshy areas, but we eventually came to a dry patch in the centre of the Moor as the sun fell below the horizon (I flushed a couple of Snipe on the way). We spoke to a couple who were also hopeful of seeing shorties. I felt that it was getting too late and we’d soon be out of time, but they seemed to be hanging on to fading hope. Just as we were about to turn back and head for home I happened to look over my should to see something suddenly rise out of the grass, just a few yards behind us. It looked initially like a large gull as it headed directly away from us, but it changed direction and we saw the tell-tale blunt head and rowing action of the wingbeats and we finally had our first shortie in the UK for almost two years (Norfolk in February 2013 was our last). It floated off to the west and I managed to grab a few shots of it silhouetted against the sunset before it went down somewhere in the south-west corner of the Moor. Several other birders had enjoyed the brief show, but it was getting dark (and cold) and many headed off home. That’s when I decided to do the only sure-fire thing to get a bird to reappear: I packed my camera away. No sooner had I done so than, out of the gloom, the owl came swooping back, and this time with a friend in tow. They flew straight past us and spent the next ten minutes squabbling as they quartered up and down a large area of the eastern part of the Moor. Only when it became too dark for us too see them with our binoculars did we finally leave and head for home, fully satisfied.

DSC06684Short-eared Owl

It’s also worth mentioning that we saw both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Little Egrets, Buzzards and Kestrels, amongst others, just to add to the day’s tally.

The next little trip was probably the shortest birding trip I’ve ever done. I’d seen via social media that a Greater Scaup had been seen – and confirmed as a non-hybrid bird – on the reservoirs right next to our close, so on the Tuesday morning Jem and I got up extra early and snuck over for a bit of pre-work birding. Luckily the bird was still on the same reservoir as it had been reported on the previous few days, and was still hanging around amongst a group of Tufted Ducks. We didn’t have time to get more than brief views as Jem had to catch her train, but I managed to get a few record shots, and we also saw another Kingfisher nearby. This little trip brought my lifelist up to #410, and my British yearlist up to #166.

DSC06712Greater Scaup, flanked by Tufted Ducks

Jem was unwell so there was no more pre-Christmas birding, but we did get some nice sights in Mum and Dad’s back garden over between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Stock Dove, Coal Tit, Sing Thrush and Goldfinch were notable, and short walk around the Oxted suburbs on Christmas afternoon got us five Ring-necked Parakeets and a surprise Grey Heron.

Back in London I got a very nice view of another one of the local Kingfishers as I walked to Tesco for bread and milk – in the bright mid-day sun it was gleaming a bright emerald green – and with the days between Christmas and New Year available to spend as I wished, I spent a few hours on the 30th back around the reservoirs next door. No sign of the Scaup this time, although a number of Pochards have now joined the Tufted Ducks. It was a pretty quiet morning, with most of the action coming from the numerous anglers, but Greylag Geese were seen amongst the Canada Geese, Long-tailed Tits and Wrens were vocal in the trees and bushes, and Little and Great Crested Grebes were around too. Still, time for a couple of highlights: an awesome Peregrine that caught my attention as I exited the hide at the bottom of No. 3 Reservoir and rested on the electricity pylon above, and when I returned to the top end of No.2 I got a brief encounter with yet another Kingfisher. It was close by, but my view was partially obscured by some bushes. I managed to get a few snaps before it saw me and left, but I was surprised when I got home that I’d actually grabbed a couple of quite pleasing shots.

DSC06729Blue Tit

DSC06781Peregrine Falcon


And so to the final day of the year. I didn’t want to waste it in front of the TV (even if the darts is on at the moment), so I decided to revisit Staines Moor in the hope that the owls may still be around, and if they were maybe they’d be out in better light so I could grab a few decent shots. Sadly it wasn’t to be. I got there around lunchtime and the clouds had formed enough to make it a gloomy sight. Lots of Kestrels around as usual, and I managed to get pretty close to one perched nicely on a tree by the Colne. I would’ve manged to get really close and some very nice shots, if only a dog walker with four boisterous dogs hadn’t arrived at that exact moment. The dogs bounded into the river and the Kestrel was off. Stonechats, Mistle Thrushes, a couple of Buzzards, several Green Woodpeckers, some unidentified Pipits, and a few Stonechats were the most notable sights, plus a few Grey Herons, a couple of distant waders (probably Snipe) that flew off towards the King George VI Reservoir, but no owls. I waited as long as I could but it was getting cold and dark. A nice flock of Fieldfare moved around the Moor though, which was another welcome sight. I’ve seen very few winter thrushes so far this season, aside from the ones we saw in Norfolk. On the way back through the commercial estates into Staines I passed the sorry sight of a squirrel that appeared to have frozen to death.



Of course, the aspiration for me is to get some good photos of Short-eared Owls hunting in perfect sunshine, as I keep seeing from other photographers up and down the country, but at the moment I’ll have to be happy with just getting to watch them in gloomier vistas.

All in all, a pretty good month’s birding.

About hootbot

Professional design agency photographer and amateur birder.
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