After returning from Norfolk with a healthy-looking yearlist it was time for the usual lull as spring calmed down and summer took hold. I had a few ideas of species we could look for during this time, with specific plans to visit Ashdown Forest a few times to give ourselves a decent chance of getting Nightjars and Woodcocks onto the list.
We began with an afternoon walk in the heat to Fishers Green in the Lee Valley. We were hoping for Nightingales at a particular spot but it was all quiet when we reached it. On the way we had good views of a Garden Warbler, a Hobby circling overhead and two in-flight Cuckoos. We eventually re-found one of the Cuckoos calling from a distant tree. By then it was getting a bit too hot and we decided to head home before we burned up.
The late May Bank Holiday Monday saw us go down to Cliffe Pools with Jem’s parents – again in scorching heat (and with distant rumbles of thunder too). Cuckoos were calling, but as difficult to see as ever, but I eventually managed to get a look at one which flew across a field and clambered into a small tree with its wings spread open, possibly in the act of parasitising a nest. We knew how good Cliffe was for Nightingales and so spent some time trying for those too, but although we got within a few feet of one as it sang its heart out from within a hedge, we still couldn’t get a glimpse of the little blighter.
The next trip out was another visit to Rainham, still in burning heat, but nothing to report on this walk aside from a few Whitethroats that I managed to get snaps of. There had been a recent Curlew Sandpiper there but it wasn’t around any longer.
The first trip to Ashdown Forest turned out well. On the way down through Tandridge we saw a Little Owl on a telegraph pole, which was a nice start to the evening. One of the guests in Norfolk is a recorder for Ashdown Forest and he’d told me of a good spot at the Hindleap part of the Forest to target both Nightjars and Woodcock. As Jem and I explored it didn’t take long to find the Nightjars and they were more active than we’d ever seen before, and quite close too. We heard a Woodcock flying nearby over the woods but we couldn’t get onto it, and we also had a very close Tawny Owl hooting but it stayed well hidden in the trees. we tried it in daylight the following afternoon too because we knew that there had been Honey Buzzards reported. No luck with them but we had several Common Buzzards soaring together and a pair of Stonechats near a nest. Definitely a good spot for future visits.
And so it was. We returned a couple of weeks later and did it again and this time we got lucky with the Woodcocks too, seeing two roding birds. At least three Nightjars again, but we still couldn’t get a glimpse of the hooting Tawny Owl which seemed to now be taunting us.
The next day out was to Weeting Heath just inside the Norfolk border. It was a bit of a trek, going by train to Cambridge and then changing and trundling along to Brandon. The walk through Brandon showed just how dry it had been – there was barely a bade of grass to be seen in the gardens – and it was another hot day in the sun. A nice Pied Wagtail posed for me on a fencepost as we made our way towards the visitor centre at Weeting, a good couple of miles away. The staff were very helpful and told us where to look for the Stone Curlews, but before we’d reached the hide we got great views of the recently-fledged family of Spotted Flycatchers in the woodland. We were in the hide for quite some time with little luck – and a couple of other birders in there were stating to lose faith – but I eventually spotted a shape in the heat haze and realised it was one of the Stone Curlews. Terrible for photos but we had a reasonable look through Jem’s scope before heading off to another hide with feeders and a small pool in front. Here we had Blue Tits, Great Tits, Marsh Tits, Yellowhammers and even a juvenile Bullfinch, all at close range. Some cloud had briefly covered the sun too, so we headed back to the first hide and I managed to get a couple of reasonable record shots of a Stone Curlew before the heat haze returned. After a sit-down and an ice cream we headed back to Brandon. As we reached the station an interesting-looking raptor floated overhead. It was definitely a Kite, but the tail wasn’t forked so I made sure I got plenty of photos just in case it was a Black Kite. Once we were home and I got the photos onto the computer I could see that it was actually a juvenile Red kite and the outer tail feathers just hadn’t grown enough yet. Never mind, at least we’d seen the two main targets for the day.
A surprising absentee from the yearlist was Black Redstart – a bird we normally manage to find quite early in the year – so I was excited to learn that an adult male had been seen regularly on a small patch of grass by Liverpool Street Station, which happens to be where I come into London every morning. It took more than a week of looking every morning as I made my way to the office, but eventually one Friday morning I got a very brief view of it as it flew up from the grass and over the station roof. The following morning Jem and I both went to have a look and got great close-up views. The following day we had an afternoon walk at Fairlop with the macro lens to turn our attention to insects. Plenty of Common Blues, Brown Arguses and my first Small Coppers. Got some good close-up shots of Common and Ruddy Darters, and then the bonus of my first Emerald Damselfly.
Jem and I had been thinking that as we go on our walks and things we tend to have a pretty good idea – or at least a rough guess – of the vast majority of the animals that we encounter…with the exception of bats. When we see a bat all we know for certain is that it’s a bat, and that’s as good as it gets. So, having seen Chris Packham marvelling on Springwatch, I decided to invest in the Echo Meter Touch II which plugs into my iPhone. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s already been a great investment. We tested it out around our estate and in the first night we had several Soprano and Common Pipistrelles by the bridge, and even a possible Nathusius’s Pipistrelle too.
In late July it was back to Ashdown Forest for one final evening walk. The Nightjars were still active but the Woodcocks weren’t about. The Tawny Owl was still hooting, but this time further away than before. The bat detector got anther good workout. Common Pipistrelle was the main species this time, but we got Nathusius’s Pipistrelle again and a first Natterer’s Bat too. Earlier in the day we’d also found our first Purple Hairstreak on Mum and Dad’s patio. A few evenings later and we’d added Daubenton’s Bat to the list, feeding from the Lea by our flat.
The next little mission was to try and get one of the Pied Flycatchers that suddenly started popping up all over the place in early August. We tried Regents Park one morning before work but the individual there wasn’t playing ball. Plenty of other good woodland birds flying around and I also found a male Sparrowhawk hiding deep within a tall conifer. The next attempt was after work the same day at Alexandra Park. Unfortunately it had become cool, damp and cloudy and there was very little around, save for a juvenile Green Woodpecker which came ridiculously close to us at it searched the golf course for ants. A couple of mornings later we tried again – in the rain – and eventually located the Pied Flycatchers. There were also various other small birds – Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers in particular – being very active in the same stand of Silver Birches.
By now it was mid-August and time for Hen Harrier Day at Rainham. It was a fine day and the speeches by Chris Packham, Natalie Bennett and Barry Gardiner were all very good. David Lindo was unable to get there in time to make a speech, but he did give me a copy of his new book which has eight of my photos in it. All good things. After that Jem and I decided to do the long walk back to Rainham Station in the hope of finding a Yellow-legged Gull. Our gull identification skills are virtually nonexistent, but with a bit of persistence and a lot of photos taken, we managed to find ourselves a definite adult YLG by the Tilda Rice factory.
By the end of the following weekend I’d added two more species to the yearlist: two Whinchats on the Friday evening down on Walthamstow Marsh whilst Jem was having a driving lesson, and then on the Saturday we went up to Birdfair. We very rarely get much birding done while we’re there, but this time there were free guided bird walks around part of the reserve. We arrived at the Anglian Water Visitor Centre a bit early so we used the spare minutes to see what we could see from the viewing platform and as luck would have it four Ospreys suddenly appeared – one carrying a fish – and circled over the lagoon for a good length of time. Only the second time I’d ever seen Ospreys in the UK (the last was also at Rutland Water back in 2011).
A Saturday morning walk around the Reservoirs got great views of Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitethroat by the fisherman’s hut and the Sunday afternoon walk around the Lockwood got Jem the Whinchat that had been missing from her own yearlist, along with some Common Sandpipers and a surprise Hobby which erupted out of the grass. A couple of Common terns went overhead too.
Another week, another good bird in London. This time it was a juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Wanstead Flats. The first evening I raced back from work but as we were about to leave the flat I was told the bird hadn’t been seen for a couple of hours. Decided I’d get up early the next morning instead, but as I was getting ready it began to pour with rain. The rain eventually passed later in the morning and the Shrike was reported again so it was another dash back from work and we headed out, reaching the site just as the sun was setting. There wasn’t much about, apart from Jackdaws and someone flying a drone, but I eventually spotted the bird on the edge of a bush. Pretty terrible light and I’d only taken my 70-200mm lens, but I got a few reasonable record shots. The first one we’d ever seen in the UK.
Just two days later six Black Terns were reported on our Reservoirs. By luck as we were moving out of our office that day and I’d already packed my studio up, I was sent home early…and promptly missed the Terns by a matter of minutes. More than thirty Black Terns had been reported at Staines Reservoir the same day, so we got up and headed down there on the Saturday morning. They were fairly distant, but easy enough to pick up with the scope. Again, a bird I’d never seen before in the UK. There were also Black-necked Grebes as usual.
And that was pretty much it: a surprisingly good summer of birding and a good start to the autumn too. My yearlist was now all the way up 197 so I felt pretty relaxed about taking a couple of weeks out to go birding in Morocco…