I didn’t update my blog at all in 2017, and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, during the first half of the year I was just a bit lazy. I fully intended to update my blog as normal, but I kept struggling to find the time to really sit down and do it. I did, however, continue to keep the draft versions updated throughout the year for when the time came that I could get through my updates and publish them. The second, and most important, reason was that at the beginning of June I suddenly became affected by a vestibular condition that causes dizziness, and in my case it’s visually-induced. Every time I scroll through webpages or social media apps on my phone or computer I get a horrible, sickening, throbbing, dizzy feeling within my brain – and unfortunately typing is also a trigger for the symptoms. Actually typing the text for the blog isn’t too bad if I do it small batches, but WordPress changed their user interface a few years back and I was forced to start typing html code in order to keep the images displaying consistently and I’ve simply not been able to do it since I’ve been unwell.
So, with all that said, I’m going to do one mega-post with minimal photos, but instead including links to the relevant Flickr albums.
Here we go…
January saw several weekend birding trips, but the vast majority were centred around the Reservoirs. The first bird of the year was a Blackcap in Jem’s parents’ back garden, and the first bird of any kind of rarity/scarcity was the local Greater Scaup. Goosander was seen very briefly on the Reservoirs, as well as Goldeneye. Lots of Waxwings showed up around the country, and we got up early one Saturday morning to head down to Canonbury to see a flock that had been showing very nicely around some terraced houses. Lots of Redwings were seen here too. After that we headed around the newly-drained Reservoirs 4 and 5 to see Common Sandpiper and a very confiding Black Redstart. One sunny afternoon walk around the now-frozen Reservoirs brought us two Snipe and a Water Rail at the top of Number 1. Water Rail was particularly exciting as it was a bird we failed to see at all in 2016.
February brought us an afternoon walk in the gloom around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, with Little Owl and Coal Tit being found, and a surprise Red Kite which floated down fairly low and then headed off on a north-westerly direction. A gloomy day at Rainham Marshes also brought us some interesting waders – Black-tailed Godwit being the most notable. Little Owls were also seen in their usual spot at Fairlop one afternoon. Rye Meads brought us our first Sparrowhawk, Water Pipit, Stock Dove and Greenfinch of the year. We also had a nice day down at the Wetland Centre, with another Water Pipit and some Pintail of particular note.
March saw us head over to Tower Hamlets Cemetery to look for Firecrest. We heard it, but didn’t manage to get a look, although there were some nice Goldcrests around. A weekend at Mum and dad’s down in Oxted was enjoyed, with Sparrowhawks and Buzzards, and a pair of Treecreepers in the woods, and we had a morning walk to look for Dartford Warblers on Ashdown Forest. Sadly the weather was pretty grim and the Dartfords were nowhere to be seen, although we did get our first Linnets and Stonechats of the year.
Our first holiday of the year was to the Forest of Dean in mid-March with Naturetrek.
Jem and I took the train to Gloucester on the Friday morning, and then a local bus from Gloucester to the Speech House right in the middle of the forest. It was gloomy and spitting with rain, but we decided after unpacking to have a wander around anyway. A short walk down one of the rides into the woodland brought us a very noisy Raven straight away in the trees by one of the car park gates. Moving onto a small pond brought us a close encounter with a Common Buzzard, plus a pair of Mandarins. Walking further along the ride, we noticed several standard passerines: Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Robins, etc, but then we found a stunning male Bullfinch, and then its mate nearby. Living in London this was a real treat for us, and the first time we’d seen one in the UK for about three years. As the afternoon became gloomier and the rain set in we headed back to relax before meeting the guide, Greg, and the rest of the group for dinner. After dinner we headed off in the minibus to look for Wild Boar. As we drove around our torches picked up foxes and Fallow Deer, and eventually we all managed a brief glimpse of a family of boar at the foot of some trees.
The following morning was an early start as we headed to Parkend to look for Hawfinches. Common Buzzards were around, as were Grey Herons, Mistle Thrushes, and at least one more Bullfinch, and we eventually got distant views of some Hawfinches in a tree once we’d turned back through the village. The river beside the pub brought us great views of a pair of Dippers as well. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast – one of the best full-Englishes I’ve ever had – before we went off to Crabtree Hill to get great views of Great Grey Shrike, probably the closest we’ve ever had. We also saw Stonechat, Reed Bunting and Meadow Pipit here. Relocating to the New Fancy viewpoint we saw Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, a Hawfinch and more Bullfinches, and eventually a brief view of a Goshawk.
After lunch we went for a longer walk around Brierley, where we had better views of Common Buzzards and a great mixed flock of woodland birds including Lesser Redpoll and Siskin, a Grey Wagtail which flew over us, Great Spotted Woodpecker and another Bullfinch. We finished the afternoon at Yew Tree Break where we began with a nice female Crossbill in the sun, before we watched another good flock feeding around the edge of the forest which included Nuthatch, Goldfinch and Redpoll. We also had further brief views of a distant Goshawk and a Sparrowhawk, before we found a pair of very confiding Crossbills right by the path. They continued feeding right in front of us as I took loads of photos. If only the light had been better, but it was still by a long way the best view of the species that either Jem or I had ever had. After dinner we gave the boars another try, but had to make do with just Fallow Deer and Red Fox again.
Sunday began with a pre-breakfast walk at Horse Lawn. Green Woodpecker, Treecreeper and Firecrest were the main species seen, along with a fox ahead of us on the path and more Siskins in the trees. After breakfast it was on to Cannop Ponds. Greg put some seed down on the path and we got Nuthatches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Chaffinches and Marsh Tits all at close quarters. More Treecreepers were here too. As we walked around the edge of the pond we noticed a female Goosander on the opposite bank, and she stayed until we got fairly close.
The rest of the morning and lunchtime was spent at Symonds Yat, where we got great views of the nesting Peregrines, several Common Buzzards, more Goosander and a Kingfisher on the Wye below us, and finally better views of Goshawk – a juvenile being mobbed over the nearby woodland. After lunch we headed off to Nags Head RSPB to walk through the woods in the hope of finding Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Sadly we had no luck with that, but we did get Hawfinch and Great Spot. Eventually we ended back at Parkend for another wander around, this time up around the church. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrest, Treecreeper, and a large group of Fallow Deer were seen here and just as we were leaving, a final Goshawk over the high woodland ridge.
It was a great weekend, bringing us good views of a number birds that we don’t see often. The only species we hoped for that we didn’t manage to see were Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Brambling, but we knew they were going to be lucky finds anyway. The great views of Great Grey Shrike and Crossbill, plus the several Goshawks and pair of Dippers more than made up for that.
After the Forest of Dean trip we had a few weeks in and around London before heading off to Poland for our main holiday of the year.
The Reservoirs got us nice views of the usual Peregrines, and the first Reed Warblers were found around the edges of the West Warwick. Although we managed to hear a couple of Sedge Warblers as well, we didn’t manage to actually get a look at any.
A day at Rainham in warm sunshine brought us Common Terns on the opposite side of the Thames at Erith Marina, and Skylarks, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were also active. The highlight of the day was a Jack Snipe – a bird we’d never seen until last December, despite many attempts over the years to find.
A morning walk on Ashdown Forest was a real highlight of the early spring. We hoped for Cuckoo and Redstart, and we succeeded with both. The Cuckoo was heard calling for some time but we only got a brief, distant view of it as it flew across the other side of a valley, but the Redstarts were very active and gave us great views. The bonus was the addition of Tree Pipits, which were also particularly active. Common Buzzards were also displaying nearby. There were also good views of Stonechats and our first Willow Warblers of the year.
Ring Ouzel has always been a tough bird for us to get, with only one brief sighting of a female a few years back at Dagenham Chase – but there were strong reports of a male at Crayford Marshes, so Jem and I headed over on a hot and sunny Saturday in late April. I hadn’t been over there for several years and had forgotten how good it was. The long, secluded footpath from Slade Green got us our first Whitethroats of the year, and just as we reached the end of it we had our first Hobby too, circling overhead. There was a Whimbrel on the Thames foreshore too – a bird we failed to find last year – but there was no sign of the Ouzel. We’d located the correct field and spent a good couple of hours sat in the sunshine. Just as we were about to give up and head home, Jem saw the stunning male hop out into plain view. A fine bird and a fine day all round.
Next came the big holiday of the year: Poland, also with Naturetrek.
It was an early start for an early flight from Heathrow, so Jem and I stayed in an airport hotel to effectively begin the holiday an evening early. After meeting with Peter, our guide, we had an uneventful flight to Warsaw and then, after meeting Oliwier, our young local guide, we got aboard the minibus (which was a bit tighter than expected) and headed out of the city towards Bialowieza. The first bird of note for me was a Pied Flycatcher by a junction in Warsaw! After a nice lunch at a hotel we eventually made our first birding stop by the Bug River at Brok. We had a Marsh Warbler almost straight away (#466 on the lifelist), and there were White Storks in the distance, Cuckoos calling, and a very vocal Wryneck in a nearby tree. Then it was back on the road to Bialowieza and dinner and a chance to get settled in.
A very early start for a dawn walk out to the north of the village. We got plenty of interesting species here, including Golden Oriole, Whinchat, Hawfinch, Yellowhammer, Red-backed Shrike, Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Corncrakes calling invisibly from the grass, and eventually distant views of Bison just before they went off into the forest. We then had a look from a tower on the southern side of the village where we got Barred Warbler, Rosefinch and Great Reed Warbler.
After breakfast we went off to the forest to look for woodpeckers. We stopped for a Lesser Spotted Eagle on the way, and after a walk through the forest we reached the nest tree for a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers that were very active. On the way back to the village we stopped at another nest tree, this time to get the elusive White-backed Woodpecker (#467) which I’d previously seen in Sweden but only as part of a reintroduction project and so weren’t ‘wild’. We tried for Grey-headed Woodpecker too, but no luck.
After lunch we went to a nearby bog area where we added – after some persistence – Icterine Warbler (#468), and I failed to locate a calling Cuckoo. Then it was into the Palace Park where we had great views of Rosefinch and Great Reed Warbler, brief views of Collared Flycatcher, Thrush Nightingale (#469), and a surprise Syrian Woodpecker – a species not seen at the site for twenty years.
After dinner we headed out with an extra guide, Mateeurz, who took us to a forest track and easily called in a Pygmy Owl as the light began to fade.
We were up early again to meet Mateeurz who led us into the Strict Reserve part of the forest. We had brief views of more Collared Flycatchers, a Black Woodpecker which flew past us, Red Squirrels, Bank Voles, and then three fledgling Tawny Owlets. We also saw the site where Hermann Goering had local men executed during the war.
After breakfast it was onto another part of the forest where we had good-but-distant views of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers – again at a nest hole – and good views of Firecrest and Red-breasted Flycatcher (#470). Then, after lunch we had some free time to wander around the village. Jem and I went back down to the tower hide and had great close-up views of the Barred Warbler again and another Red-backed Shrike. Then it was off to Czerlonka for another forest walk for Nutcracker and Hazelhen. Nutcracker was easy, but Hazelhen was, as ever, very elusive. Some people got brief views but most of us just heard the birds.
After dinner it was off to the Narew Valley for the Great Snipe lek. Fortunately my boots were just about high enough to to keep my feet dry from the deep boggy areas, but we got attacked by mosquitoes to a level that I didn’t think possible! We waited for some time in the bog with various other species heading off to roost around us, and after a while a second tour group that were already there decided to call it a night. Eventually, Jem saw something jump and we began to hear the weird alien-like clicking-bubbling calls. We trained our eyes and cameras on a small ridge of marshland and every so often we could see the birds pop up and flash their tail feathers (#471). It was a tough night, but definitely well worth persisting with.
We were allowed an extra hour in bed this morning so only began the morning walk at 6.30am! We boarded our new coach which was larger and more comfortable than the previous one (and came with a new driver) and headed out to a nearby park where we soon located Grey-headed Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Wryneck.
After breakfast it was off to the Siemianowska reservoir. On the way we stopped to get great views of Ortolan Bunting in a ploughed field and Yellow Wagtails on the opposite side of the road. Then we had another new species for me: Greater Spotted Eagle (#472). We had some nice butterflies once we got to the reservoir, alaong with Penduline Tits, White-tailed Eagle, and another Greater Spotted Eagle. We also had a Black-spotted Pliers Support Beetle!
After lunch we had another short forest walk where we found a Camberwell Beauty, and at the bridge at the end of the track we had Barred and Icterine Warblers again.
Despite the disappointment of Sheffield Wednesday failing in the Play-offs against Huddersfield the previous evening, I managed to get myself up early for the final dawn walk in Bialowieza. Jem had a headache and decided to stay behind and the rest of us split into two groups to either go with Peter down to the south of the village or go with Oliwier to the north to see if the Bison were around. I chose the latter option. We couldn’t find any Bison, but we did hear some extraordinary haunting animal screams from deep within the forest. Oliwier wasn’t sure what they were, but the consensus was that it might’ve been a deer coming to a grisly end, perhaps victim to a wolf. Then we turned our attention to trying to get a look at one of the singing Corncrakes. Eventually we found ourselves close to one that was calling in the corner of a damp meadow. After some time it suddenly burst out of the grass and went for a short flight past us before dropping back out of sight a few yards away (#473). After that I went and checked on Jem before heading out to the south of the village in my own to see what I could photograph. The highlights here were a close Rosefinch in a bush and a Cuckoo which went for a flight and actually landed briefly in the tree next to me.
After breakfast it was time to leave Bialowieza and head up to Biebrza. We stopped before lunch at the Dojlidy fish ponds near Bialystok. Here we had greta views of Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Fire-bellied Toads, an in-flight Bearded Tit and a couple of distant White-tailed Eagles. There was also a Little Crake scampering around in the reeds.
After lunch we stopped briefly at a small pond before stopping at a field with a small flooded area and lots of waders. Here we had Wood Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Little Ringed Plovers, Red-backed Shrikes and Blue-headed Yellow Wagtails. After that we arrived at our second hotel at Goniadz, and Jem and I used the pre-dinner time to have a look out at the vast marshes. The highlight for us here were some very distant Common Cranes.
A 6am walk from the hotel got us our first River Warbler (#474) in some nearby bushes, and several different terns from a higher viewpoint. There was also a distant Great Spotted Eagle in a distant bush.
After breakfast we went to the southern basin of the Biebrza Marshes. Almost straight away we found a White-spotted Bluethroat (which I persisted with until I managed to get a couple of reasonable photos), and then a bit further along the track we had Black-tailed Godwit, Common Crane and Raft Spider. After we left we had views from the roadside of three Montagu’s Harriers quartering the fields.
We had lunch at Brzostowo on the edge of the marsh where we could see the first two pairs of breeding Black-winged Stilts in this part of the country, along with Lesser Spotted and White-tailed Eagles, a ringtail Harrier which floated overhead, lots of Terns, Whooper Swan, and a loud Green Toad.
After lunch we stopped at another high viewpoint where we added Shoveler and Wigeon, and there were two more distant White-tailed Eagles, before we headed back for dinner. After dinner we went to the Dluga Luca boardwalk to search for Aquatic Warbler. Here we had several calling Cuckoos and an individual Elk, before eventually getting decent views of singing Aquatic Warblers (#475) in the grasses.
Another early pre-breakfast walk near to the hotel brought us little that we hadn’t seen before but I finally managed to get a reasonable photo of a Thrush Nightingale, after I’d decided to be stubborn and wait until I could see its face.
After breakfast it was off to the river basin near Dolistowo for good views of Citrine Wagtails, and then to the boardwalk at Osowiec where we managed to get a look down from the tower to a skulking Savi’s Warbler below and a look up to a singing Garden Warbler in the top of a nearby bush. It was extremely hot – the hottest day of the year so far in Poland – and was fairly quiet as far as birdlife goes. At the lodge at Dobarz where we stopped for lunch I noticed a sore spot on my hip. I looked under my t-shirt to see that I’d unwittingly knocked a skin tag and it had been rubbing against something and was causing some discomfort.
After lunch we went to the Elk Tower at Dluga Luca, but saw very little apart from one distant Elk. It was still very hot. We then moved on to a small sand quarry near Tykocin where we had great views of in-flight Bee-eaters and a Tawny Pipit on a telegraph wire. We might’ve got even better views of the Bee-eaters had a photographer not been parked right by their nesting bank in order to shove his 600mm+ lens in their faces. This is exactly the kind of behaviour that actually turns me off wildlife photographers and gives the industry a bad name. Even after Oliwier had a polite word with him he refused to move to a safer distance.
Following this we had an hour to spare for a wander around Tykocin itself. Jem and I planned to have a look onside the Synagogue but it was unfortunately closed, but we did have a good look at the information panels outside. It was also the right time to grab a nice cooling ice cream in the town square. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the flooded field again but there was little else to report, although Jem and I did see a probable Peregrine flying off over the woods.
Once back at the hotel came the only negative of the trip. I had a refreshing shower and tried to inspect my sore skin tag. Only wen I was out again and showed it to Jem we both realised that it wasn’t a skin tag after all – it was a tick. That was my cue to frantically search online for removal techniques and directions for preventing Lyme Disease. Luckily for me, Peter was well-equipped with a set of tick removal tools and he successfully extracted the horrible little bastard. Once I’d popped its abdomen under my shoe I could see that it wasn’t yet engorged with blood, so I knew we’d probably caught it in time.
Jem and I relaxed around the hotel grounds before breakfast, getting good views of a Lesser Whitethroat from our balcony. Following check-out we headed back out to the Dluga Luca boardwalk for another look at the Aquatic Warblers, and we also had a female Montagu’s Harrier fly past us very closely – unluckily I saw it too late to be able to get my camera onto it and so missed out on a great photo opportunity.
Then it was the drive back to Warsaw – stopping for lunch at the same spot where we’d eaten after our arrival the previous week – and then back to the airport. Some of us had noted that we hadn’t seen a Kestrel all week – and that was rectified once our plane pushed back from the gate as we saw one hovering beside the apron.
In summary, it was a great holiday. Poland was everything Jem and I had hoped it would be, completely living up to our expectations. We’d enjoyed the company of the other guests and the skill and attentiveness of the guides, and we’d managed to come away having seen pretty much everything we’d hoped to see, and much more. I managed to add ten new species to my lifelist (I could refer to them as ticks but, given the nasty little sod that tried to parasitise me on the penultimate day, I’m loath to do so) in Marsh Warbler, River Warbler, Aquatic Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Greater Spotted Eagle, White-backed Woodpecker, Thrush Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Great Snipe, and the bonus Corncrake. Jem also added a number of species that I’d previously seen in Serbia and Fenno-scandia when I’d been abroad without her, although she sadly missed out on the Corncrake. For anybody considering birding in Poland, we can’t recommend it highly enough.
After a long spring of heavy birding, Jem and I relaxed a bit as May ended and June began. I wanted to spend a bit more time working on my large format photography and invested in an adapter to let me take panoramic shots on 120 film. We went for a long walk on a hot Saturday from the O2 at the Greenwich Peninsula down to the Thames Barrier and beyond and I got some interesting shots. We even came back via the cable car over the river. That evening things went a bit wrong for me. After a nice takeaway meal we learned of the London Bridge terror attacks which were in full swing. As I frantically scrolled through Twitter updates on my phone I suddenly felt very unwell. After trying to calm down in the bathroom, and possibly even losing consciousness for a moment, I started to slowly feel a bit better. However, the following day I noticed something wasn’t right: every time I used my phone or computer I began to feel dizzy, and it began to affect my daily life over the coming days. Initially I thought it might have been caused by the previous month’s tick bite, but over the coming weeks I had blood tests to rule that out, and the likelihood is that I actually have vestibular migraine. Around this time I was also in and out of hospital having my kidney stones treated. With all this going on, birding took a definite backstage position in my life.
There were some good things around this time though. Pittsburgh Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup, which cheered me up. Jem and I had a walk up the North Downs on a day when we visited Mum and Dad and managed to get – surprisingly – a Yellowhammer onto the yearlist. I made the mistake of trying out a £1,600 ’59 reissue Fender Stratocaster in a shop on Denmark Street. Fortunately I managed to not buy it, but it did lead to me investing in a very nice special edition Bassbreaker amplifier.
An evening trip to Ashdown Forest unfortunately didn’t bring us the Nightjars we’d been hoping for, but I think we’d left it just a bit too late this year.
A trip to Rainham got Bearded Tits onto the yearlist, and a very welcome Spotted Redshank turned up on the Lockwood Reservoir, followed by a Spotted Flycatcher near to the East Warwick. We also went to see David Lindo’s collaborative walk and presentation with Hurtigruten at Richmond Park, which led to Jem and I later finding ourselves another Spotted Flycatcher.
Then it was time for our annual break in Norfolk in mid September. Our chosen dates coincided with both the Wells and Sheringham 1940s festival, as well as Wells’s own Pirate Weekend. This made it very difficult for Marcus to find us accommodation, but he eventually managed to get us booked into a nice maritime-themed guesthouse close to the quay in Wells.
After settling in to our room we went for our now-traditional first afternoon stroll to the east of Wells towards Warham Greens. We added Grey Plover and Grey Partridge to our yearlists, and the hoped-for hunting Barn Owl too. Spoonbills were also seen coming in to land on the saltmarsh. We also saw an extremely vibrant rainbow as the sun illuminated a rain shower. This was something we would experience several times over the next few days.
The first day began with a damp walk at Thornham Harbour. We had great views of Marsh Harriers, a Curlew, a Bar-tailed Godwit and two nice Wheatears, one of which perched on the fenceposts for us. There was also a Greenshank and a skein of Pink-footed Geese. From the beach we picked up a distant raft of Scoters and a single Eider. It poured with rain as we had lunch at Titchwell, but luckily it improved a bit as we headed out towards the pools. As always there were plenty of waders around, mainly Ruff which came in very close to the Island Hide, lots of Dunlin, a few Ringed Plovers, some Avocets and also three juvenile Little Stints – the closest views I’ve had of this species. We also managed to get onto a Bearded Tit feeding at the base of the reeds. There was also a Spotted Redshank, Snipe, and Yellow-legged Gull seen from the Parrinder Hide. As we made our way out to wards the beach we also got several Grey Plovers, one still in breeding plumage. Bar-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Sanderling were seen out on the beach. On the way back towards the visitor centre we had the addition of a Smooth Newt sat on the footpath.
Day Two began with a morning walk at Warham Greens towards the Whirligig. The track provided us with various woodland birds, plus a Yellowhammer in a hedge and a Brown Hare in the field, and once out on the edge of the saltmarsh we watched a Peregrine first chasing a Redshank and then having a pop at a Marsh Harrier before finishing with a quick go at a Little Egret. In the far distance close to the shore we saw a Short-eared Owl – our first of the year – floating around, but we couldn’t get good views of it. Once we reached the Whirligig we managed good views of five Spoonbills and also enjoyed lots of Linnets and Goldfinches that were swirling around. On the way back to the car we enjoyed another distant rainbow and then had a juvenile Peregrine – possibly the same one as before – float overhead as we were watching some Long-tailed Tits by the track.
Next it was off to Cley as there had been reports of a Red-necked Phalarope there. We arrived and made our way to the hide and located the bird straight away – a juvenile spinning around in the water (#476). Also here were Little Stints, Ringed Plovers, a Little Ringed Plover, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwits and a Hobby. After lunch in the car park we went for a walk at Kelling. We reached the water meadow and had close views of a Curlew Sandpiper and a couple of Little Stints with the Dunlin. We also had a close Linnet and a Hobby flew straight over us. We eventually headed off back to Cley to find a newly-arrived Snow Bunting – a very confiding individual feeding on the shingle – and we finished with Gannets and Sandwich Terns over the sea.
Day Three began at Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham where we had three Grey Partridge in the meadow by the car park. On the path we had Lesser Whitethroat and a heard-only Pied Flycatcher, a few Goldcrests which flew about in the trees, and Pink-footed Geese out on the meadows. There was also a distant Whinchat perched up in some reeds. We made our way to the Washington Hide and eventually got good views of a Great White Egret and also a Pintail. Moving on, we eventually managed to get one of the reported Yellow-browed Warblers, and on the walk back to the car we had good views of a Hobby eating on the wing.
We had lunch in the car park at the Wells Woods end and then headed in to where an Arctic Warbler had been reported earlier in the morning. It wasn’t difficult to find – there was a sizable crowd of birders all looking at a bush – and we eventually all got good views ourselves (#477).
We finished the tour at Stiffkey Fen: plenty of waders were here – Greenshank, Redshank, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Curlew, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, and Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits – as well as Sandwich Terns and a Kingfisher which perched nicely on a heavy iron chain, and a decent flock of dozing Spoonbills. It was a nice end to another fine Norfolk tour. The weather had been mostly good, we’d seen plenty of great birds, and even added two lifers.
October saw several local trips – mainly walks around the Reservoirs – which brought in the odd Stonechat, a large flock of Mistle Thrushes, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Black-necked Grebe on the Lockwood. October was also the month when the reservoirs finally opened to the public as the Walthamstow Wetlands. I was previously quite excited about this, but as time went on I became more and more worried – and upon opening to the public those worries turned out to be more than justified. The positives are the nice new cafe and some of the improvements to the general site, but the negatives are the number of dog walkers that are coming onto the site (dogs are strictly prohibited), and joggers and cyclists who are ignoring the signage and using the banks and therefore scaring the wildlife. Then there are the families who are letting the children paddle in the reservoirs and throw stones at the wildfowl. It’s not ideal, and local media hasn’t helped by describing the site as “London’s newest park”. Luckily the staff have been listening to the concerns of the local birders and have made steps to improve the signage and cordon areas off from the general public. It means the paying permit-holders – both birders and anglers – still get privileged access to certain areas and at extended times.
One interesting day was a Monday that Jem and I had both taken off work where we decided to visit Roding Valley Meadows to see a Red-necked Grebe. We saw it straight away but then lost it and didn’t relocate it for some time. A strange storm across the Channel had also created the bizarre atmospheric conditions which sent a sheet of yellow-brown cloud up the country. Very strange.
A visit to Mum and Dad’s also gave us the opportunity to visit Ashdown Forest where the highlight was a very close Dartford Warbler.
November gave us a few more sightings around the Reservoirs – notably of Goldeneye on the West Warwick – and I managed to get a mint-condition used Sigma 70-200mm for a good price on eBay to replace the Sony 70-400mm that I’d purchased a year earlier. The Sony wasn’t a bad lens, but I just wasn’t getting on with it. It was big and heavy and I didn’t like the way the front element would draw out when walking with it by my hip. The image quality could be superb, but I was missing too many shots that it should’ve been easily focusing on – slow-flying raptors against a plain sky, for example. I chose that lens for the flexibility and the impressive 400mm maximum length, but I was finding that it just wasn’t getting me the results at the longer end of the range that I’d hoped for. The Sigma 70-200mm is a better fit for what I need as a walkaround lens. Testing it out on Kensington Gardens was a good day, bringing us good views of three Little Owls, a nice Jay, several of the usual woodland birds at the Leaf Store, and some nice Grey Squirrels.
Earlier in the autumn we’d booked to have a weekend in Gibraltar with Donna and Dev – and we were going to get some guided birding whilst there – but unfortunately we had to cancel for medical reasons. So we made up for it by booking a week’s stay at the end of November in one of the shepherd’s huts at Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey. It was great fun, having the entire marsh pretty much to ourselves, and there were plenty of birds to see: Peregrines, Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, Golden Plover, Barn Owl, Stonechat, Curlew, Turnstone, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Wigeon, Teal, Fieldfare, Redwing, Water Rail, Kingfisher and more. We had four target species: Hen Harrier, Merlin, Long-eared Owl and Brambling, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to get them. The best bird came on the morning we left, as we waited for our taxi to come and fetch us we flushed a close-by Woodcock. The south-eastern part of Sheppey is a separate reserve with a raptor watchpoint – which is probably the best spot to get the Hen Harrier and Merlin – but it requires transport which we don’t yet have. We really enjoyed our stay though, and will definitely look at returning in the future. It was freezing cold when were there, but once our wood burner was going it got so hot in the hut we had to sleep with the window open! And the staff were all fantastic, as was the food.
By the time December came around I was well aware that my yearlist had been suffering – a combination of my vestibular condition and some bad luck with missing out on target species – so we increased our efforts to see what we could get before the year came to an end. A day out at Bramfield gave us great views of Hawfinch, and we added a Brambing to the list. We had a nice – but ultimately fruitless – walk on Ashdown Forest on Boxing Day, and then checked out Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook to get the long-staying Caspian Gull. We also managed to fit in visits to Connaught Water where we saw Goosander and Mandarin before finishing the year off with a day at Shoeburyness and Southend – we hoped for divers off of Southend Pier but sadly had no luck.
And so the year came to an end. It was a mixed year – some bad luck with illness and missing out on target birds – but the positives of the trips we had outweighed that. Poland was absolutely fantastic – everything we hoped it would be – and we had very nice trips in the UK too. There were twelve additions to the lifelist with Marsh Warbler, White-backed Woodpecker, Icterine Warbler, Thrush Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Great Snipe, Greater Spotted Eagle, Corncrake, River Warbler and Aquatic Warbler in Poland and Red-necked Phalarope and Arctic Warbler in Norfolk, bringing the global lifelist up to 477. It was my poorest year in the UK since I first started recording my sightings in 2014 with only 163. The most surprising absentee this year was Sedge Warbler – a species that is normally easy to get on our local patch – but all we had were a couple of brief heard-only records. It was disappointing to not get Woodlark, Hen Harrier, Corn Bunting, Rock Pipit or any divers. On the other hand, we got some very interesting species that we don’t get often: Goshawk, Red-necked Grebe, Ring Ouzel and Brambling, on top of the two lifers in Norfolk.