Spring has been very rewarding this year. After we returned from Wales the birds started to arrive, and we’ve even got ourselves a life tick – and one from this year’s list of five targets, no less.
Firstly, it was a day out at Rainham on Good Friday. The plan to get some reasonable photos of the Short-eared Owls in decent light was still ongoing, and luckily the owls hadn’t yet headed off back to Scandinavia. And we weren’t disappointed. After a lunch in the visitor centre we headed off along the river wall, and soon enough an owl came floating along the ditch along the southern perimeter of the reserve. There were at least two owls – maybe three – on this afternoon and they seemed to appear for short bursts of hunting over the marshes and then disappearing off over the landfill site. Luckily I was in position on a few occasions and got a handful of shots that I’m happy with. No award-winners, but definitely the best images I’ve managed of these birds so far, and we left fairly satisfied at last!
The next trip was a Saturday at Bramfield – our first visit in about a year. It was a lovely sunny day as we set off from Hertford North Station, and we had plenty of good birds to see on the walk. Nuthatches featured highly, as did a close Buzzard. We took a slightly different route from usual, heading across the fields and through a clump of trees. There were Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Pheasants on the way. We reached the village and had our lunch in the churchyard as usual, enjoying various woodland birds including Great Spotted Woodpecker and Greenfinch, and several Red Kites circling overhead. As we finished our lunch the clouds came over and it even started to rain. A large flock of Goldfinches flew into the tops of the trees in the garden of the Old Rectory. We decided, since we were in Bramfield after all, to check them all out closely, and lo and behold there was one Hawfinch among them. This was a surprise for this late in the year, and especially as there hadn’t been any reports on social media of them for several weeks. Sadly, the flock was very mobile and each time it returned the birds stayed only for a few moments and I wasn’t able to get a record shot. As the rain got heavier we headed home, but on the way we got our first Yellowhammer of the year, singing from the top of a tree at the north end of the village.
The following weekend we went to the Museum of London to see the crime exhibition before it ended, and afterwards we headed to Docklands to check out Russia Dock Parkland and Stave Hill Ecological Park. I visited several times in 2008 to look for the breeding Kingfishers there (I failed), and hadn’t been back since. There had been a report of a male Redstart, so that gave us a good reason to have a look. It took a while of wandering around before we worked out exactly which part we should be looking in, but once we found the right section we found the Redstart straight away. There were also Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and a Great-spotted Woodpecker, but the Redstart was the star of the show and after a while I was able to get some decent snaps of him on the pathway and even on one of the stone tors. We don’t normally catch up with Redstarts until later in the year so this was an exciting day.
Next it was back to Rainham. We’ve never seen a Grasshopper Warbler before, although we’ve heard a few, here at Rainham, at Rye Meads, and last summer at Lakenheath, but there were at least three reported to be showing well at various spots along the river wall, so we headed off fairly early and got our reward – but not before my glasses had broken – and then thanks to some other birders just outside the visitor centre we got ourselves our first Common Terns of the year and a Little Gull. The first gropper was seen sporadically amongst the brambles and bushes in and around a ditch (#452 on the lifelist). It came out and reeled for a good minute at one stage, despite the fact that it was actually pretty poor conditions – cloudy, cold and windy. We also had our first Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers of the year. A second gropper was found reeling in another tree but the MDZ Hide brought no luck with the Kingfishers. In fact they hadn’t been seen for a few days so we were expecting the worst, but apparently they’re now back. After lunch – where two Arctic Terns were pointed out to us travelling up river – we headed home and relaxed, but a report of a Black Tern at the reservoirs gave us reason for a late afternoon wander. The Black Tern was long gone but we did get lots of Common Terns, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and more. We also managed to almost get locked in for the night because we’d made an error with the closing times!
The following morning was warm and sunny, and the reports of a showy Pied Flycatcher on Regent’s Park was all we needed to head out. There were a couple of birders in position when we arrived and the bird showed almost straight away. There were also Chiffchaffs around, but the flycatcher was keeping us well distracted as it flew from tree to tree and occasionally perched nicely in the sunshine. The first I’ve seen in the UK since September 2012.
We hadn’t been to Staines Moor since the Barred Warbler visit back in September, so with more decent weather we made our way over on the last weekend in April. There were Stonechats perching nicely, several Green Woodpeckers, a Red Kite, Kestrels, House Martins, Swallows, Sand Martins, Little Egrets, Common Terns, Reed Buntings, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Linnets, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and a Sparrowhawk. We were hoping for Yellow Wagtails but failed with them. As we ended the day walking down the path alongside the KGVI Reservoir I noticed a falcon perched on a fencepost. Initially I thought it was a Merlin, but when I got the bins onto it it turned out to be a cracking Hobby. It sat for some time before eventually flying off over the reservoir and out of sight.
Another nice weekend came along and we’d planned to go to King’s Lynn with Jem’s dad who was racing there on the Sunday morning. Unfortunately we overslept and he had to go on his own, leaving us very annoyed with ourselves. We got up anyway and decided to make the most of the decent weather by wandering around the reservoirs. Our first Lesser Whitethroats of the year were found along the Coppermill Stream, our first Swifts of the year whizzed past, and the local male Peregrine flew over us and went towards one of the pylons. When we caught up with him he was tearing a pigeon apart. My photos later showed that the pigeon had a leg ring – maybe a racing pigeon? We had no luck in looking for the Wood Warbler that had been at the southern end of the East Warwick earlier in the week, but we enjoyed Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs. Common Terns, Greenfinches, a Wheatear and one very bold member of the resident family of foxes. The reeds alongside the West Warwick also got us our first Reed Warbler of the year. We went over to visit Jem’s parents in the afternoon and had a walk around Fairlop Water and Claybury Woodland. More Whitethroats were the main species of the afternoon as it started to get cooler, but at Claybury we also had the bonus of Green Woodpeckers and a nice Sparrowhawk overhead.
Bank Holiday Monday gave us the chance to get up extra early for the dawn chorus – something our usual laziness causes us to miss out on. Knowing there had been another Grasshopper Warbler up on Tottenham Marshes, we decided that was the place to head for. The weather wasn’t great – mostly cloudy and with a hint of rain in the air – and when we reached Wild Marsh East we were disappointed. A few Whitethroats and little else, but as we wandered around I kept thinking I could hear a buzzing sound, which Jem couldn’t hear. Eventually it got louder and louder and we realised that it was the gropper reeling from a clump of brambles. I didn’t have my longest lens with me so I tried to edge closer, and incredibly the bird didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. I eventually managed to get within about ten feet of him, but still he just kept on singing. By the time we left I had over 600 photos and a couple of minutes of video. There was also a good hirundine flock over the Banbury Reservoir to the north. Despite the weather it had been a satisfying morning.
The following weekend we decided to spend the Sunday at Stocker’s Lake in Rickmansworth. We’d only been there once before: last spring to finally get our first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a great place to wander round and there had been reports of Cuckoos there – which we’ve so far failed to find this year. No luck with the Cuckoo, and no luck finding the Spotted Flycatcher that had been reported along one of the paths, but we did get a Kingfisher, a pair of Stock Doves, a Grey Wagtail, several Whitethroats, a Red Kite, a Sparrowhawk and a Buzzard. Plenty of Common Terns were flapping around, and there were a couple of Red-crested Pochards too. A nice day out, if unspectacular.
And so the final birding before we head off to Spain was a couple of after-work wanders around the reservoirs, firstly to the Lockwood where we saw the Black-necked Grebes, a Little Ringed Plover, lots of Common Sandpipers, and a rarity for the site: a Sanderling. All four were firsts for the year, and we got pretty good views of all, despite grey cloud and diminishing light. A couple of days later and we were back, this time to the East Warwick for a stunning male Garganey. We only found it thanks to a local birder who’d seen it fly from the West Warwick which is where we’d initially headed. Plenty more Common Terns were seen, and the male Peregrine flew over and startled everything as usual, before perching on his favourite pylon. Song Thrushes, Dunnocks and Greenfinches were also perching in the evening sunshine. The British yearlist is now up to 140 species. We’re a few waders short of where we’d usually be at this stage, but we’ve got lots of species we wouldn’t normally have found yet. No Cuckoo as yet, but there’s still time.
Last weekend I had to go to Amsterdam for work on the Saturday, and I was too tired for anything on the Sunday. The main highlight was a close encounter with a Buzzard as our cab took us from the airport to the venue in the north of the city. I also noticed lots of Grey Herons and some noisy Parakeets.
And so, next stop the Spanish Pyrenees…