Only a few months late with this, but I’ve been busy…
So, how has 2016 begun? Not too bad so far, despite the slightly odd weather. As the year has progressed it’s actually become colder, but we still seem to be having few weekend days of decent sunshine and so my photography hasn’t been particularly great as yet.
The first trip of note was an afternoon at Rainham in early January, with Meadow Pipits, Marsh Harriers and Short-eared Owls the highlight. The owls have been very visible since mid-October, with up to eight being recorded at a time. Most of our visits over the winter have brought us two or three birds at at time, and only once in good sunlight and calm conditions, so I’m still not managing to get the shots I crave.
Next was a weekend visiting Dev in Woking. We spent a few hours on the Saturday at Thursday Common where we saw not one but two Great Grey Shrikes – and the best views we’ve had of them there. We even saw one successfully catch some prey – probably a beetle or something – and from a distance we watched it trying to impale the meal onto a branch. Stonechats were also seen, and a very brief glimpse of a Dartford Warbler as it flew into a bush. We waited a while but it didn’t reappear. After lunch we tried Frensham as we’d never been there before, and a late afternoon walk from the Great Pond up to a ridge overlooking the Little Pond got us several Goldcrests at close range. The following morning, just as we were about to leave, a Red Kite floated past Dev’s 10th-floor flat. Unfortunately my camera was packed away and by the time I’d got it ready the bird was getting further away, but I did get a few nice snaps.
Jem’s dad was racing near Norwich one wet Sunday morning so we went along too and he dropped us off at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen reserve. I’d been there once before on my first Norfolk tour and knew it was good. We arrived before the visitor centre had opened, so from the car park we watched great flock of Siskin – a species I’ve seen very little of over the years. The feeders outside the centre were bringing in lots of the usual woodland birds, including Coal Tits, and then we noticed a Marsh Tit amongst them – the first I’ve seen in in three years. After wandering down a path we saw more Siskins, our first Lesser Redpoll in two years, a Song Thrush calling from a tree, and another Marsh Tit (or it could’ve been the same one again). The rest of the reserve brought us very little because of the persistent rain, and we struggled to get round without sinking too far into the mud. The Marsh Harriers were good to watch though. After a lunch by the seaside in Great Yarmouth we went off the main road briefly (back near to Strumpshaw Fen) and successfully found a hunting Barn Owl. Only distant views, but then we got very good close views of several Red-legged Partridges who were sharing a ploughed field with an interestingly-coloured dark blue Pheasant.
Next was an hour or so at Tower Hamlets Cemetery to look for the Firecrest (there seems to be at least one every winter). Last year it was a case of finding the Goldcrest flock and then searching for the odd one out, but this time we were surprised at the almost total lack of any bird life, save for a few corvids overhead. We wandered around for a while wondering where everything was when Jem noticed movement in the holly bush that we happened to have stopped next to. And out it popped – a Firecrest! We watched it for about a minute and I managed to get a couple of snaps as it stopped for the briefest moment in an open part of the bush, and then it was off. A Redwing was also in the same bush, a Wren fluttered around at the base of it, and a tit flock went past a few yards away containing at least one Coal Tit. I checked Twitter and read that there was a a couple of Greater Scaup and a male Goldeneye on the Lockwood Reservoir, so we made our way home and after a brief lunch did a lap of the reservoir. The Scaups were found straight away but the Goldeneye took a while, and it got chased across the water by a gull so I didn’t manage to get many decent shots of it. Shelduck, Little Egrets and at least two Kingfishers added to a satisfying day.
The following weekend we decided to have an afternoon stroll around Kensington Gardens. Hanging around by the Leaf Store brought us all the usual woodland birds: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Goldcrest, Woodpigeon, Chaffinch, etc, and just as I was trying to get a shot of one of the Coal Tits Jem called excitedly. She’d found another Firecrest! I got my binoculars on it and saw it really well for a brief moment with its orange crest fanned right out in the sunshine – something I’d never seen before. Sadly it was only passing through and it went before I managed to get my camera on it. We waited around for about 45 minutes but it didn’t return, but we did get good views of our first Nuthatch and Treecreeper of the year – two species I didn’t get until late summer last year. We also got a good look at the male Little Owl in the traditional nest tree (I’ve since found out that there are at least two more families elsewhere in the Gardens), we added Lesser Black-backed Gull to the yearlist, and then we successfully found the Black Swan that’s been living on the Serpentine recently. An odd sight for Central London.
February came to an end with two trips. Firstly to Essex as Jem’s dad was racing near Basildon. He dropped us off at the Wat Tyler Country Park, although it was too early and the gates weren’t yet open, so we went round to Vange Marshes instead. It was very windy and overcast but our first Sparrowhawk of the year was seen, as well as our first Avocets and Great Black-backed Gulls. There were also lots of Black-tailed Godwits there. We went back round to Wat Tyler – seeing a nice Kestrel on the way – and got the key to a hide from the RSPB visitor centre. The Bittern that had been seen recently was hiding, but we did get our first Snipe of the year. We then went around the outskirts of the site and saw two Barn Owls occupying two nest boxes.
Finally we had a Saturday afternoon back at Rainham. The Short-eared Owls are still being seen and I’m still envious of the great photos people have been getting in perfect sunlight, but it was another failure for us. It was far too windy – so much so that we didn’t see a single owl: the first time we’ve failed all winter. There were plenty of Pipits – most of which I couldn’t identify because they all look the same to me – a Fieldfare, several Pintail, a couple of Reed buntings, a Curlew, several Redshank and three Marsh Harriers, so it wasn’t a complete waste of a day. There was a big flock of Dunlin in the distance too, which is always nice to see.
Not a lot of birding on Mother’s Day weekend, but we saw a Buzzard near Riddlesdown as we were on the train down to Oxted, and two more over my parents’ house, which was good because I’ve only seen a Buzzard in the Oxted area once before and that was closer to the A25. In the back garden there were Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, a Jay, a Blackbird, a couple of Robins, a few Collared Doves, and two Stock Doves to take our yearlist up to 89.
And so the start to the year, and basically the transition from winter into spring, ended with a Saturday at Amwell – our first visit in about a year. And there were some interesting sightings. Buzzards floated overhead – at least three at one stage – all the usual waders, ducks and gulls, including Goldeneye and our first Oystercatcher of the year, and plenty of Little Egrets and Lapwings. We spent much of our time in one of the hides watching Reed Buntings, Coal Tits, Great Tits, Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, a Pheasant and a rat at the feeders, and there were Goldcrests in the trees outside. We hoped for a Kingfisher but we had no luck this time. We eventually moved around to the larger hide on the opposite side of the lake and waited for the regular Barn Owl to appear. Again we had no luck, but what we did get was a good view of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds below, and a few feet away a brief view of a Bittern – both firsts for the year. There was also a Muntjac Deer in the reeds opposite. Annoyingly we missed out on the female Smew. The Smew reports had dried up in the preceding days so we never ventured over to that end of the lake, but later that evening we heard that the Smew had indeed been seen that day. Oh well, can’t see everything…