New Year’s Day saw Jem’s parents very kindly take us to Wallasea Island in Essex for our first ever visit. Despite grey skies ans strong winds off the Crouch, we were met as soon as we arrived in the car park by an awesome female Hen Harrier. On the grass directly in front of the car park we had a mobile flock of Corn Buntings, and there were Marsh Harriers and Buzzards quartering the marsh too. From up on the river wall we got – thanks to some other birders – a very distant Rough-legged Buzzard, plus several waders on the mud on the river side. Sadly the strong winds kept the Short-eared Owls away (there had been up to six of them reported in the preceding days. I was pretty sure there was at least one Peregrine over the marsh once we’d returned to the car too. On the way back to London we had a Black-backed Gull species, Little Egrets, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker on a telegraph pole.
I then invested in a new camera. It’s the upgrade of my trusty Sony A77 (imaginatively named the A77 II) and on the face of it doesn’t appear to be much different (it even has the same number of pixels), but the main thing is the new AF system, and that’s what convinced me to invest.
The next trip was a mid-afternoon jaunt over to Fairlop Waters for the first time in a while because of a reported Short-eared Owl. We met another local birder there who seemed to know where we should be looking, but after while it looked like we were going to be unlucky. In the meantime we got Redwings and Fieldfares, and a nice Sparrowhawk too. Then Jem spied the owl as it emerged from the scrub and then began to do circuits of the nature reserve area. We moved back to our original position in between the main lake and the reserve and we were treated to a number of flypasts as the light eventually began to fade. It was difficult to get uninterrupted lines-of-sight because of the all the random trees and bushes, but the AF system in the new camera did a surprisingly good job of locking on to a difficult subject in very poor lighting conditions.
The following weekend took us to Amwell to try to get our first Smew. Despite fine sunshine for most of the afternoon and being in the correct location for them, the Smew didn’t put in an appearance. We did instead Get a Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Kingfisher and Goldeneye, and we finished off with great views of the regular Barn Owl as it hunted over the reeds. The following day we had a quick wander around the reservoirs next door to see what we could find. We couldn’t find the recent adult Greater Scaup, but we think we saw a younger bird instead. A Kingfisher flew past us as we walked down the side of the East Warwick, and we had a circling Sparrowhawk overhead too. An obliging Robin gave me a good opportunity to really test the AF of my new camera on a close subject.
Then it was off to Bramfield for our first visit of the year. The main target was Hawfinch as they’d been seen in the village again, but we got a surprising start with two Red Kites as soon as we’d left Hertford North Station. On the way out of Hertford we got lots of Coal Tits and lots of Redwings. Common Buzzards and Kestrels were seen as we neared the village, but then we noticed a raptor that seemed slightly different. I initially assumed it was a Common Buzzard as it was a similar size to one that was circling nearby, but it’s shape seemed slightly more harrier-like with longer wings and tail proportions. When it caught the sun, in my binoculars I saw a very prominent white rump/tail patch on an otherwise brown upperside, which made me think of a female Hen Harrier even more. The problem was that we were there for the Hawfinches and we were already later than we’d planned, so when we lost sight of the bird we walked on. But then we turned round and it had reappeared behind the house on the corner of the main road where we usually see Yellowhammers and Redpolls. The bird was hovering, unlike a Common Buzzard and less flickery than a Kestrel would, so I began to wonder if it was a Rough-legged Buzzard instead. Typically, just as I tried to get my camera onto the bird, it stooped and disappeared from view. It didn’t reappear quickly so we headed on into the churchyard for the Hawfinches whilst I made mental notes of what we’d just seen.
The Hawfinches were there – as were a number of birders with bins and scopes – but the birds were very difficult to see. There were at least two birds, in one tree, but our views were either shadowy silhouettes or brief glimpses as the sun caught them as they bounced amongst the branches. Luckily, I managed to fire off a few shots of one individual as it’s head was illuminated just before they all flew off. Again, the camera’s quick and accurate AF showed its worth. Soon after a birding couple arrived and asked us if we’d seen the Hawfinches, but by then they had left the churchyard. The couple were disappointed as they assumed they would miss out on them, but they were at least upbeat because they’d seen a Rough-legged Buzzard on their walk over from Stapleford – which means they undoubtedly saw the same bird as us! By the end of the day we’d added both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Greenfinches, Fieldfares, Brown Hares and Jays to the list. When I returned home I checked my guide books for Rough-legged Buzzard and it was absolutely bang-on for what we saw. I’ve submitted the record to the Hertfordshire Bird Recorder, so I hope it’ll be accepted. Even if it isn’t accepted officially we know 100% what we both saw, and it’s good that other people had seen it too.
The final trip out of a very productive January took us back to Amwell in a surprise snowstorm. This time we were in luck and it didn’t take us long to see the two drake Smew (lifelist #411), even if they were distant and only seen through heavy snow. The Goldeneye were still there, and after we moved off to the James Hide to get out of the weather and have our lunch we had a very nice time watching lots of Reed Buntings and Long-tailed Tits on the feeders. A Kingfisher briefly flew to the branch right in front of the hide, but I wasn’t quite quick enough with the camera. A Water Rail also jumped out from right in front of the hide and quickly snuck into the reeds. Three Buzzards were seen, a couple of Little Grebes, lots of Cormorants, robins, Lapwings and Gulls too, but the Barn Owl didn’t make an appearance this time. By the end of the month the yearlist was already up to 74. It’s going to be a good year…