I was planning to update before the festive season, but knowing that I was going to put some effort into the final few weeks of the year it made more sense to finish off the year’s birding first and put in an extended update, before then posting a full review of the whole year.
Straight after Norfolk we did little in the way of significant birding, partly due to other arrangements (weddings, birthdays, etc) and also partly because I inexplicably passed out twice one night in late September and it took a while before I was fully over the dizzy spells that followed.
When we did get out we had a nice afternoon walk around the reservoirs, which gave me more chance to get to grips with the new 70-400mm lens that I’d been struggling with. The most significant event was when I was standing underneath one of the electricity pylons, looking up at the geometric metalwork and deciding whether to photograph it or not. Out of nowhere, something came falling out of the sky and just missed my head, landing with a thump in the long grass. I looked back up to see one of the local Peregrines perched on a strut. We searched the grass and eventually found the dropped item: the freshly decapitated head of a Little Grebe. Nice.
The following weekend was Rob Young’s stag weekend. I’m not one for stag events unless they’re expected to be reasonably sedate, and the plan of a walk from Eastbourne over Beachy Head and down to Birling Gap was something I definitely wanted to be a part of. Starting on Eastbourne’s promenade, it was grey skies and blustery wind – and there was very little on the slightly choppy seas – but once we began to ascend the chalk hills the conditions were much calmer. I was hoping for a Ring Ouzel, but had to make do initially with Robins, Stonechats and various corvids, but as we got to the top of Beachy Head, other birds began to appear. Dev and I checked out some areas of scrub where we found an interesting warbler. I couldn’t ID it definitively, but I think Willow Warbler was the best guess. Then we heard some squealing calls from overhead and we located two Peregrines squabbling. We eventually stopped for lunch by the Belle Tout lighthouse, and the adjoining walls were host to a Northern Wheatear and several Rock Pipits. A Common Buzzard circled a short way inland, and we also saw another Peregrine (or perhaps one of the original two) on our way down to Birling Gap. We eventually found our way to a nice pub in East Dean but by then the conditions had begun to change and we had to make our way inside as the heavens opened.
A week later it was off to Staines Moor for the first time in a while. Ring Ouzel and Yellow Wagtail were targets, but again, we couldn’t find any. There were plenty of Stonechats and Meadow Pipits, and a nice Grey Wagtail too. Kestrels were hovering around as always, but the highlight was a pair of Short-eared Owls quartering up and down as the sun began to drop.
November saw a couple of football matches on successive weekends. Firstly at Fulham, which gave us the opportunity to visit the Wetland Centre in the morning. The plan was to try to finally get ourselves a Jack Snipe (up to seven had been there during the previous week), but we were again without luck. Common Snipe was seen, plus our first Water Pipit of the year, and two Green Sandpipers. The football could’ve been a bit better too. Wednesday scored early and controlled much of the game, but after backing off towards the end they let Fulham grab a very late equaliser. Annoying. The first time I’ve experienced sitting in a neutral section of a stadium though, which was interesting. The following weekend I went off to Wolverhampton to see Wednesday again. The morning was grey, but I tried to do as much birding as possible from the train, although it brought me little aside from a Buzzard or two. I checked out a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery first, and then went off to the match. With a glorious sunset backdrop I enjoyed a glorious 2-0 win. Unexpected and very welcome.
December began well, with a first visit to Ruislip Lido and after years of attempts, we finally saw our Jack Snipe (#464 on the lifelist). In fact, we saw three of them. And they were out in the open, feeding along the muddy edge of the lake just a few yards from a perfect viewing point. Even Lee Evans turned up to have a look. After this victory, our next event was an afternoon walk around reservoirs for Greater Scaup. We’d seen one in pretty tatty plumage early in the year on the Lockwood, but this was a much smarter drake on Number Four. There were also plenty of Little Egrets on the East Warwick and another nice sunset.
A Friday was taken off work and we headed over to Rainham as there had been a juvenile Hen Harrier out on the Wennington Marsh for a few days. Sadly we didn’t manage to find it, although we had good views of Marsh Harrier and Buzzard, and just as the sun disappeared one of the resident Barn Owls came out from the woodland – although it meant we very nearly got locked in…
I took a week off work and headed firstly back out round the reservoirs to look for reported Goosander and Goldeneye , but in miserable conditions I had no luck. There was a nice flock of Meadow Pipits around the SW corner of the Lockwood, and an unexpected Lapwing on the eastern bank. Grey and Pied Wagtails were plentiful, and I also got the first two Fieldfares of the season along the edge of the Low Maynard. A quick look for the Scaup again on Number Four was unsuccessful as the rain forced me home.
On the Wednesday, Jem and I had a nice sunny afternoon walk on Kensington Gardens. The Leaf Store gave us good views of a variety of the usual woodland birds, including Nuthatch, Coal Tit and Goldcrest. We were hoping for Mandarin somewhere on the Long Water or Serpentine, but had no luck there, and we didn’t manage to see any Little Owls, despite trying two of the nest sites.
The Thursday was a day trip to Rye Harbour for the first time, in order for our parents to get together for the first time in a couple of years. We liked Rye Harbour. Golden Plover, Redshank, Widgeon, Turnstone, Gadwall, Little Egret, Skylark, Curlew, Little Grebe and more were seen. I was hoping to find a Red-breasted Merganser that had been reported on one of the pools, but it didn’t seem to be around.
On the Friday Jem and I had another walk around the reservoirs. Again, Goosander and Goldeneye were the targets, and again we failed. There was a nice Sparrowhawk high up on the pylon near to the main entrance, and before the sun went down we got fantastic views of a female Kingfisher which perched obligingly on one of the newly-installed metal railings at the top end of the High Maynard. On the Sunday we went with Jem’s mum for a walk around Fairlop Waters. It was gloomy and we mostly saw Redwings flying around, but the highlight was two Little Owls over by the riding school, and a Sparrowhawk which sat briefly in a nearby tree.
Boxing Day saw Dad give Jem and I a lift down to the Old Lodge reserve on Ashdown Forest. It was a nice and sunny morning, and straight away we got views of Woodlark on top of a tree. A Goldcrest gave me the run-around as I tried to get photos, and we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. Two Buzzards were doing what looked like a courtship display. I saw something fly across the top of the woodland which could’ve been a Crossbill, but I wasn’t 100% sure. There were also Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Wrens and more.
On the 28th we went off to Frinton to visit Jem’s grandparents, and as we arrived close to the town we got good views of a nice bunch of Red-legged Partridges in a field, and we also noticed a Sparrowhawk chasing the vast numbers of Starlings swirling over the suburbs.
One more wander around the reservoirs followed that, bringing us little more aside from a Green Sandpiper at the northern end of the Lockwood. Two Kingfishers chased each other around the Low Maynard, and just as we were leaving a Peregrine perched on the pylon by the main entrance.
We headed over to Amwell on the last Friday of the year to see if we could locate the Smew that had been seen regularly on Tumbling Bay Lake – a part of the site we’d never been to before. It was cold and foggy, and we coudn’t find the Smew despite walking all the way around the lake. The best bird of the day was a Treecreeper near to the James Hide, and also two Chiffchaffs amongst a large tit flock containing Long-tailed Tits and a few Goldcrests.
And so we ended up on New Year’s Eve heading over to Wallasea Island with Jem’s parents for the first time in two years (well, one day short of two years to be precise as we last visited on New Year’s Day 2015). The target species was Hen Harrier as we hadn’t managed to get it onto the earliest, with the hope of maybe seeing Corn Buntings too. It was grey and cool, but not too windy, and after we’d watched a hovering Kestrel from the car park and made our way up onto the river wall, I noticed the unmistakable ghostly grey shape of a male Hen Harrier rise from the western part of the marsh and slowly drift towards the back end. A female soon appeared, as well as at least one Marsh Harrier. As we moved along a short way we noticed a small flock of four diminutive brown birds lad on a fence. A look in Jem’s scope and a burst of photos confirmed it: our first ever Twite (#465)! Getting a lifer is always nice, but to get it on New Year’s Eve is even better. I’d reached December having ticked off just one of my five annual targets, but the final month of the year had brought me two more. To our north there was a lot of good wader action on the mud, notably lots of Dunlin, a Curlew and some Sanderling, and on one of the few trees we found a small flock of Corn Buntings – also firsts for the year. A third Hen Harrier – this time a juvenile – was watched over towards the eastern end of the site, but we were unable to find Merlin or Short-eared Owls that had been seen recently. We weren’t disappointed though!
So that brings the year to an end. The next post will be a full review of the year, and I’ll also be posting an update of the other photography-based things I’ve getting up to in my spare time…