I don’t normally go for obscure blog titles, but sometimes you have to keep people guessing…
Anyway, after we returned from Spain we decided that we needed to relax a bit after an intense – and very satisfying – season of spring birding. After a couple of weekends of recharging we headed out to Rainham for a day. Annoyingly, the rail line from Blackhorse Road to Barking which is by far our most direct route is currently out of action while major engineering works and electrification of the line is in progress. This makes it much more difficult to get out to Rainham, but we decided to make a day of it with the plan of hopefully seeing one of the regularly-reported Cuckoos and perhaps some Bearded Tits too. It’s not been a great year for Cuckoo sightings for us mainly as we hadn’t seen or even heard a single one in the UK this year, and although we heard several in Spain we still didn’t actually see any. And we like Cuckoos.
We started from the western end at Rainham Station and then headed through the marsh instead of taking the longer route by the river. Plenty to see at that end, but no Cuckoos. Marsh Harriers and Kestrels were seen over the Silt Lagoons, and they were joined briefly by a Hobby as well. A female Black-tailed Skimmer also perched obliging for us on some dry cut grass by the path. As we reached Wennington Marsh we got hit by a short, sharp shower, but soon enough the sun returned and we continued our stroll towards the reserve, enjoying Linnets on the way. Then we had our bit of luck. A bird flying parallel to the river between us and the MDZ caught our eye: a female Cuckoo heading eastwards, past the visitor centre and high over the trees towards Purfleet. Only a brief sighting, but a very welcome one. After the obligatory lunch and cake in the visitor centre we headed off for a loop around the reserve. No Bearded Tits unfortunately, but there were more Marsh Harriers, some Cetti’s, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Whitethroats and a smattering of waders. All in all a decent day out.
I had a dental checkup back in Oxted on the Monday morning so I headed down on the Sunday afternoon to see the folks. Of course, once I was there I idly checked Twitter to be greeted with the news that a stunning male Common Rosefinch had been found on Walthamstow Marshes. The Rosefinch is a bird that Jem and I were both interested in seeing, but which even our trips abroad hadn’t produced for us. It continued to be reported on the Monday, up until early-afternoon so Jem and I decided to try our luck after work, eventually getting down to the favoured spot around 8pm-ish. No sign of it, so after a good walk around the area we headed home, assuming the bird had gone. Then it showed well all day on the Tuesday so again we headed down after work, and a cyclist on the towpath spotted our binoculars and told us how well it was showing. When we arrived it hadn’t been seen for around half and hour, and it didn’t show again. Another hour and a half stood there and still not a peep. Drastic measures were called for. We got up before 5am on Wednesday and headed down before work, choosing the spot where the rail lines cross over as that’s where it had mainly been singing from early in the day. After a good hour or so the bird began to sing from the scrub behind the fence. But of course it didn’t show. We bumped into Gordon who we’d met in Norfolk last year, and I also exchanged phone numbers with a sound recordist while he checked out a different part of the marsh. Eventually Jem and I had to leave for work…and naturally, I then received the news that the bird finally appeared about ten minutes after we’d left. Wednesday night we tried again and yet again there was no sign of it, although that could’ve been a good thing as the regular singing tree in the middle of the marsh was hosting a determined-looking Sparrowhawk instead. We also bumped into David who we first met a few weeks earlier when watching the Garganey on the East Warwick, and he was with Jamie who’d discovered the bird in the first place on the Sunday evening. They had no joy relocating it either, although they did hear it singing from the reeds a little later on. By this time Jem and I were exhausted so we decided to give it a miss completely on Thursday, and of course it showed well for all observers until late in the evening…
And so it was back early on Friday morning. We arrived by the rail underpass again and straight away heard the bird singing again. It flew up into the sky and headed off through the out-of-bounds scrub, but all we saw was a brief silhouette against the sky. Another birder was carefully trying to follow it around, but after a short while the singing stopped so we decided to head round to the tree on the marsh again. More birders arrived but it wasn’t looking good. At 7.30 we decided to head back to the flat, and just as we were packing up to go Jem and I heard it singing, this time from a TV aerial on the flats beside the pub on the other side of the canal. Luckily we located it and even got a look through a gentleman’s scope before it flew off behind the houses and out of sight. Finally we felt we’d seen it properly, if only for about 30 seconds. I’d managed to get a couple of very distant photos, but in the overcast morning gloom they’re barely even record shots. So on Saturday, with nice bright sunshine, we headed down after lunch to get the fine views in perfect conditions that we’d been hoping for. Except we didn’t get them. Four hours of waiting around between the singing tree and the pub and not a sign of it. No individual bird has given us such a runaround before, but at least we can say we did see it, albeit briefly and from distance. It’s times like this we’re glad we’re not regular twitchers. We only went to see this bird as it was something we were particularly interested in seeing and it was within walking distance of home. The plus side is that it made us a bit fitter: in all we walked a total of 25.6 miles and we now know the marshes a bit better than we did before…
On the Sunday we decided to head down to Oxted again to visit the folks and then Mum and Dad took us out to Ashdown Forest to look for Nightjars. Sadly it was far breezier than we were expecting, although it was still quite warm. A number of birds were heard calling and churring as the sun went down, but all I got was a very brief glimpse of one as it flew between the trees.
The following weekend took us to a new spot: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. On my very first birding holiday – with Naturetrek to Sweden in the spring of 2009 – there was a couple on the trip who told me about Wicken Fen (their local patch), and it sounded like somewhere worth visiting. The downside was that it’s not the easiest place to get to without your own transport, which is why it’s taken so long to finally visit. We actually managed to get there before the visitor centre opened, and it was already hot. After enjoying the Swallows and House Martins that were zipping around the entrance buildings, we made our way along the boardwalk towards the butterfly trail. In the now-scorching sunshine we didn’t see an awful lot of birds. A handful of Reed and Sedge Warblers were heard in the scrub, and a Whitethroat or two seen, but it was mostly invertebrates that we were seeing: dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies. As the morning wore on we were enjoying ourselves, but I was feeling a bit off because despite the good light I hadn’t really taken any photos. At the start of the butterfly trail, just as we were deciding which direction to head in, I looked up and noticed two Buzzards floating overhead in the clear blue sky. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to them, but then decided I might as well take a few shots, so I grabbed a handful of frames of one of the birds and thought little more of it. It was only when reviewing the images on the back of the camera once I’d found some shade that I noticed the bird I’d photographed seemed to be a bit different from your average Common Buzzard. I checked against a raptor guide in the shop in the visitor centre and started to get a bit excited that I’d photographed a Honey Buzzard. We’d had seen one in Norfolk last year and I saw loads of them on a diving trip in the Red Sea a few years back, but I still decided to wait until I’d got a few more opinions from people who know better than I do, but happily it appears that I was right. I reported to the Cambridgeshire recorder the following day and hopefully it’ll be accepted. It’s my first ever entirely self-found rarity (without photo evidence our Rough-legged Buzzard at Bramfield last year was considered ‘unproven’, even though I was 99% sure). My only annoyance is that I didn’t get a photo of the second bird over Wicken – it may have been a pair.
After lunch we headed back out towards more open marshland areas alongside drainage channels. With a few white clouds bubbling around it was a bit more comfortable and the birdlife much more active. We had more Sedge and Reed Warblers, a nice Willow Warbler, a few Goldfinches, a Lapwing, several Grey Herons, at least three distant Marsh Harriers, and in a tiny patch of reeds right in front of where we’d sat we had at least two Bearded Tits – our first of the year. We liked Wicken Fen, and we’ll definitely return.
At the recent Farnborough Air Show I’d had some issues with one of my lenses. I bought a mint-condition Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX IF lens all the way back in 2005 and it’s served me very well, but the last couple of years it’s started to get a bit tired, bashed-about, and generally nearing retirement age. At Farnborough I found it was struggling to focus as quickly and accurately as it had in the past, so I looked into various options for replacement. In the end, rather than getting the new HSM OS version of the same lens, or a used copy of Sony or Minolta’s equivalents, I found a very good deal on Sony’s 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM (Mk.I) on the London Camera Exchange’s website, so I went ahead and made the purchase. It’s a bit heavier and bulkier and I’m not overly keen on the extending front element, but last weekend I took it out to Kensington Gardens to give it a try out. We started by looking for the two newer Little Owl nests. We think we found the correct location over by the Henry Moore sculpture but couldn’t find any owls, then we found the nest hole near the Albert Memorial, but no sign of the owls there either, and eventually headed over to the nest we’ve known for years – and no luck there either. Instead I tested the lens over by the Long Water, getting shots of Starlings, Egyptian Geese, Blackbirds, a Black-tailed Skimmer that kept landing on the path, some Red-crested Pochards in eclipse plumage, a few Parakeets, and a nice juvenile Blackcap. The lens focuses quickly, silently and accurately, and when it gets the focus spot-on it’s very sharp with lovely colours and smooth bokeh. I like it a lot.
And so to this weekend, and the long-awaited Hen Harrier Day. When the events began back in 2014 I hoped they’d eventually manage to organise one down in the south-east somewhere, but I certainly wasn’t in my wildest dreams expecting it to come to one of our favourite local patches within two years. So we managed to get up early and off to Rainham, and in glorious sunshine. Chris Packham, Mark Avery, Charlie Moores and Mike Clarke were all there to inspire us with passionate words, there was the Peregrine EnChantica vocal ensemble serenading us, a raffle (we didn’t win), and plenty of merchandise from BAWC. Wildlife-wise we saw a Water Vole munching his breakfast, lots of Marsh Frogs and Small Red-eyed Damselflies, flocks of Goldfinches, male Reed Bunting, and a distant Marsh Harrier over Wennington. I’d hoped to get a chance to buy Chris Packham’s latest book and get it signed, but he was inevitably swarmed by fans and we sadly didn’t have time to hang around long once the speeches were done. Hopefully I’ll get another chance at Birdfair. As we left the spot where the speeches had taken place, a curved-billed wader flew overhead. Annoyingly I didn’t have time to get my camera onto it so I can’t say whether it was a Curlew or Whimbrel. We haven’t seen the latter yet this year so it would’ve been a nice addition to the yearlist. Hen Harrier Day was a fine event though, and we’re already looking forward to next year.
The reason we couldn’t stay long is that we’d arranged to return to Ashdown Forest in the evening via Mum and Dad’s to give the Nightjars a final go. We got down to the car park near Wych Cross at the right time and the conditions were pretty much perfect: warm, still, and their were plenty of insects in the air. However, we were to end up disappointed again. One bird made a few calls and put out a few seconds of churring but it didn’t show itself, and that was all we got. There were probably at least three birds in the area when we tried a few weeks ago so maybe most of them have already started on their journey south. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.