After the fun we had in the Cairngorms back in early February, we’ve managed a number of days out-and-about since to see what’s around and to add to our UK yearlist.
It began with a damp Saturday morning in Kensington Gardens. The main plan was to look for the owls, and we soon found the male Tawny Owl sat above the nest hole in the usual tree, with his feathers fluffing about in the breeze. The Little Owls were nowhere to be seen, but we did get an unusually-confiding Green Woodpecker which was rooting about in the grass near to the Leaf Store. Using a small tree as a screen I was able to get within a few feet of him, and I managed to get the best close-up photos I’ve ever managed of this normally-skittish species. There was also a young Greater Scaup on the Round Pond, slowly coming into his adult plumage.
The following weekend took us to Tower Hamlets Cemetery. I hadn’t been over there for at least a couple of years, but it’s great for the usual woodland species, and there had been reports of a Firecrest amongst the Goldcrests. Jem had never seen a Firecrest – and I’d only seen two before – so off we went. The Goldcrests were found quite quickly in one particular glade, and then I spotted the Firecrest nearby, looking for insects on the side of a gravestone. Photos were difficult to get as these birds just won’t stay still for more than a fraction of a second, but I managed a few record shots before we decided to wander around the cemetery a bit more. Lots of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen together – probably a family group – and I also managed to get an interesting shot of another Goldcrest as it opened its wings whilst scaling a tree trunk.
March came around and we decided to spend a day down at Thursley Common in Surrey. It was the first really nice, sunny day of early spring and it brought us a few interesting species. We started with Woodlarks, a Kestrel and a female Stonechat (surprisingly, our first of the year), and then we eventually managed to get a decent look at the annual Great Grey Shrike. We met up with Dev and Michelle for lunch nearby and then we returned for another walk around the Common. The Woodlarks were seen again, and I’m pretty sure we had a Dartford Warbler fly past us too, but it wasn’t a definite tickable sighting.
Jem’s dad was racing at Dungeness the following weekend, so we took the opportunity to have a good look around the RSPB reserve again. Bright, warm sunshine again, but unfortunately it was very breezy this time and most of the birds were keeping a low profile. Goldeneyes were seen on one of the main lakes, and we also got first views of a Cetti’s Warbler for the year. One of the Great White Egrets was also seen flapping around and I managed to creep up on a nicely-perched Kestrel and get a few shots. There were also a few Tree Sparrows lurking around by the feeders at the car park.
The following weekend proved to be an exciting one. As anyone who reads my blog will know, the bird that has proved most elusive for me over the years has been the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I’ve had one fly past my head in Serbia, a couple fly away over treetops in the New Forest, I’ve located a nest tree in Bushy Park, and had one go through the hotel car park in Finland whilst I’ve been stuck inside checking out, but I’ve never had a proper look at one – at least not anywhere near well enough to see I’ve ‘seen’ one. But that all changed thanks to a number of regular reports on Twitter and on the Hertfordshire Bird Club’s website. We found out there was a regular male at Stocker’s Lake on the edge of Rickmansworth – with a female possibly on the nest – so we took the Tube all the way out there and made our way to the lakes. It’s a great place for birding. Throughout the day we found Treecreepers, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, our first Chiffchaffs of the spring, a nice Sparrowhawk, several Redwing and a number of active Goldcrests. We knew the the LSWs had mostly been seen on an island in one corner of the lake, so we got ourselves to a good viewing spot on one of the banks. It was actually the perfect location, both for bird and birdwatcher: the island was close enough that we could see most of the trees well with our binoculars, yet it was far enough away from the edge of the lake that there wouldn’t be disturbance. We waited for a while with no luck, and then another local birder arrived and set his scope up. Still no sign for a while, but eventually a woodpecker flew from the south side of the lake into one of the trees on the island. I got my binoculars on it, and it was unmistakeable. The gent with the scope let us have better views too, and so I finally got my nemesis bird! It was too far away for good photos, but I managed a couple of low-quality record shots. After a few minutes the bird disappeared, so the other birder left to go round the rest of the lake. Two more birders arrived a short while later and the bird then returned before flying high over our heads towards a wooded area to the west. That was #415 on my global lifelist.
Spring was definitely on its way, and the following weekend we saw reports of the first Wheatear at the reservoirs next door, so we spent a Sunday afternoon in the sunshine wandering around. We found one Wheatear on the eastern bank of the Lockwood and I was able to shuffle along slowly and get some shots that I was happy with. Lots of Egyptian Geese around too, and we also got some Grey Wagtails. We bumped into a group of young birders who mentioned they were going to be looking for the Barn Owl that had been recently seen on Tottenham Marshes just north of the Lockwood, so Jem and I decided to join them later on. It took a little while for the owl to appear, but it eventually crossed the canal right in front of us and did a few circuits of the eastern part of the marsh. A couple of guys notified us of some thieves who were around – apparently armed with a knife – so we decided it would be best to head off home before they saw my camera equipment. Whether it was true or no we don’t know, but we’d had great views of the owl and it was beginning to get dark anyway.
The following Saturday was spent at a location we’d never been to before: Staines Reservoirs. We obviously know the Moor nearby very well now, but we didn’t realise that the causeway between the north and south basins of was publicly-accessible. With the northern basin drained for maintenance, it gave us added incentive to have a look for ourselves. As with many of our trips out so far this year, it was windy, and also a bit grey and damp, but we made the best of it and got good views of the Great Northern Diver that had been on the south basin for several days. The six Black-necked Grebes were also found eventually, but they were very distant. Large numbers of Pied Wagtails were noted, and a nice flock of Linnets were pecking around in the north basin. We also saw a Red Kite waft over the housing in between the north basin and Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Just before we left we got close views of a Little Ringed Plover and some Meadow Pipits on the grassy bank.
Early April was spent with a walk down the canal to Walthamstow Marshes. Not a huge amount was seen, but we had a nice Fieldfare on the Marshes and then got a nice little compendium of birds down beside the Springfield Marina. There were Robins, House Sparrows, Chaffinches, a Mistle Thrush, and some Starlings. I’d taken my old, battered Sigma 70-200/2.8 lens with 1.4x teleconverter in the expectation of getting just a few record shots of anything that looked interesting. This combination of old lens and TC is what I’d normally call ‘convenient’ rather than high-quality. Light transmission is affected by the TC, and focusing tends to be far less accurate than normal, and overall image quality is definitely poorer than using the lens on its own (which is in itself poorer in IQ than my usual 500/4.5 prime lens). So I was very pleasantly surprised to see that one of the Starling photos came out absolutely crystal clear and pin sharp! I’d rank it as one of the best photos I’ve taken so far this year. On the way back to the flat we had the added bonus of a flock of Greenfinches taking turns to feed from a makeshift bird feeder than someone had installed outside a high-level flat, and a fox on the opposite side of the canal carrying a large fish in its mouth.
Easter Monday was bright and warm, so we decided to give Rainham Marshes a visit for the first time in a while. We got probably more than thirty Redshanks, lots of Goldfinches, a few Shelduck and Lapwing, some Oystercatchers, a male Marsh Harrier, and a Water Vole happily munching on a stalk. The main highlight, however, was a pair of Garganey that had been on one of the pools near to the woodland area for a few days. Views weren’t great because they kept going in and out of the grasses, but they were good enough. They’re the first Garganey I’d ever seen in the UK.
Next stop was the Wetland Centre. We’d not been since last year, so we were well overdue a visit. Again, it was a day of bright sunshine. Plenty of Lapwings around, as well as a Sparrowhawk that soared overhead from the Barnes end of the site. We also had good views of Redshanks and Little Ringed Plovers from the Peacock Tower, as well as our first Sand Martins of the year. We also managed to see a female Blackcap and three Common Lizards – one that ran under Jem’s foot near the Summer Route and two in the logpiles.
The pre-holiday spring birding came to an end with a wander around the reservoirs one Saturday afternoon. The Kingfishers were in full voice, there were lots of Chaffinches, Great Tits and Blue Tits around, and I’m pretty sure I also got a brief sight of a Marsh Tit too, but I wasn’t able to get a photo for confirmation. My first House Martins of the year were grabbing insects on the wing too. The following day we went up to Essex to have lunch with Jem’s grandparents. Behind the marina restaurant we saw Greenshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Meadow Pipits, and we heard our first Cuckoo of the year. A few days later a Short-eared Owl had been reported on consecutive evenings where the Barn Owl had been a few weeks earlier, so Jem and I went up to have a look on the eve of our holiday. No luck unfortunately, but it got us into the mood for the holiday ahead…