After returning from Morocco it was time to turn our attention back to the mission of trying to get 200 bird species in the UK before the year came to an end.
Surprisingly, we were back in the game before we’d even got back to London. We arrived at Gatwick late on the 29th September and stayed with Mum and Dad in Oxted overnight. I’d only recently subscribed to Birdguides and the app was telling me that a Grey Phalarope was at Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent – a place we used to go to occasionally as kids to look at the Grey Herons. Dad was eventually persuaded to drive us over on the Sunday afternoon and we soon picked the bird out on one side of the causeway before it suddenly flew right past us and down into a pool on the other side of the road (#518 on the lifelist and #198 on the yearlist).
Once back in London and back to normality I researched what was around in the London area that we could get to and one thing that was notable was the large numbers of Cattle Egrets around the country. There was one showing well at Rainham from the Butts Hide and we went over to see it. It was doing the classic thing – following cattle – and we watched it for some time. This was the first time we’d seen one in the UK. The following weekend we were hoping to get over to see the Pallid Harrier that had been delighting birders near Royston but sadly it didn’t quite hang around long enough for us.
Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long for my 200th bird of the year. A Rustic Bunting turned up at Wanstead Flats and brought birders from far and wide. We headed over on a Saturday morning and got great views over a period of a couple of hours. It wasn’t a lifer for me as I’d seen one in Finland a few years back, but it was a lifer for Jem and it was still a UK-first for me, and a really nice bird to complete the #200birdyear challenge with. However, the morning did also reinforce my hatred of twitching. Several times I was bashed into and shoved aside despite there being plenty of room for everyone, and it wasn’t like the bird was hiding away. It’s very similar to the way otherwise decent people turn into utter shitsacks when they get behind the wheel of a car. Birders can turn into horrible bastards too when there’s a rarity in town.
There was also a very slight pang of doubt as the one bird I’d ticked off this year that I wasn’t 100% sure of was still needling me a little – the Great Egret that flew through Hertford Cemetery when we visited Bramfield early in the year. But luckily that was soon put to rest with a Sunday afternoon walk over Richmond Park to see the long-stayer on the Pen Ponds.
Surprisingly, things really seemed to dry up after this. I was keeping tabs on what was around on a daily basis, but there was simply very little that we hadn’t already seen this year – or at least very little that we could easily get to. Despite several nice walks during November and December, including a Sunday morning on Ashdown Forest where we tried and failed to get the Great Grey Shrike, the only further addition for myself was the returning Caspian Gull on Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook. I returned with Jem one day because she still needed the gull and it got her onto 200 for the year too (she didn’t get the Serin on our reservoirs earlier in the year). We also had a day down at Rye Harbour with the parents where we got a brief view of the regular Merlin – our second of the year. A Christmas Eve return to Ashdown Forest still didn’t get us the GGS, but it was nice to get a flock of Crossbills overhead (the first time we’ve ever self-found the species) and on returning to Mum and Dad’s in Oxted, Mum shouted to us as we stepped into the house that there was a Bullfinch in the garden. I immediately assumed she was either joking or had mis-identified a Chaffinch or something, but she was dead right: there was a stunning male Bullfinch sunning itself in the apple tree. Mum and Dad have lived in the house since 1976 – three years before I was born – and although we’ve had a number of good species as it backs onto woodland, it’s definitely the first Bullfinch that I’ve ever known to appear there. It didn’t stay for long but I managed to get a few very dodgy record shots before it left.
The final day out was spent at Cliffe Pools on New Year’s Eve. We got down to Cliffe Village during late morning and had a wander around the church first in order to scan the marshes for any raptors. As we turned back through the churchyard Jem noticed a shape on top of the church roof – a Little Owl! We headed round for a better look and found that there was actually a pair. I got a couple of shots of one of the owls as it perched on the gutter. Heading off towards the Pools we had a good extended look at a good flock in the trees. Mostly Redwing and Fieldfare, but with a few Linnets and Goldfinches amongst them. Our main targets were Red-necked Grebe, Bewick’s Swan, Corn Bunting and Hen Harrier. In the end we didn’t get any of them. I thought I’d worked out which pool the grebes were on, but eventually realised we were in the wrong place and found that we needed to get to the Alpha Pool, a larger body of water that we’d never seen before. We eventually gave up when we realised we weren’t going to be able to get access from the southern road. We stood on an elevated mound of grass and ate our lunch and mused that it looked like a good spot for Long-eared Owls – and just two days later that proved to be true as one was spotted at that exact location. Anyway, after lunch we headed back to the Flamingo Pool to look for the Bewick’s Swans, but they had obviously departed already – we missed them by one day. We occupied ourselves with good views of Golden Plover, Little Egret, Common Buzzard and a Marsh Harrier which came floating by. As the afternoon wore on we headed back towards the village, but went a different way than usual because we still had time before needing to get our bus back to Strood, taking the lower path which skirts the marshes. I had a good feeling that there could be a Short-eared Owl around and it turned out that I was right. I only got a brief view as it quartered a patch of marshland, but it was unmistakable. Unfortunately Jem couldn’t get onto it and it eventually went off out of view. Aside from an angry Blackbird in a garden in the village the owl proved to be my last bird of the year, so it was a nice end.
It had been a pretty hectic year for birding. It had begun with the plan to get 200 birds in the UK in the year and it saw us get three lifers in the process (Little Bunting, Glaucous Gull and Grey Phalarope). We got a few UK-firsts too, such as Serin, White-tailed Eagle, Wood Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Black Tern, Red-backed Shrike, Cattle Egret and Rustic Bunting, which brought my overall UK list up to 243. The trip to Scotland brought great views of lots of iconic birds and we only really missed out on Capercaillie. Norfolk got us some great spring species and some unexpectedly hot weather. And September’s trip to Morocco added thirty-seven species to the lifelist (which had totalled 518 by the end of the year).
Unfortunately we missed out on a few of the species that turned up during the unprecedented run of scarcities on the local patch (Bluethroat, Hoopoe and Black Kite – all of which would have been UK firsts for us), Tawny Owl and Nightingale became heard-only species for the year (yet again), we missed out on Dotterel (again), and species we often get but failed with this year were Hen Harrier, Water Pipit, Arctic Tern, Firecrest and Corn Bunting. To be fair, we could’ve probably got Water Pipit fairly easily if we’d put some effort in. The final UK yearlist total was 201. This was both satisfying because I’d succeeded in the challenge, and disappointing because I reached 200 in mid-October and only managed to add one more species in the final two-and-a-half months of the year. It wasn’t for lack of trying. For what we did get I have to offer my thanks and gratitude to the local Walthamstow patch birders for finding so many good birds, to the Heatherlea guides in Scotland and Marcus in Norfolk, and to both mine and Jem’s parents for taking us around to various spots throughout the year. I’ve recently started refresher lessons after more than twenty years of not driving, so hopefully it won’t be long before we can get our own car…
…and I still haven’t seen a Long-eared Owl in the UK…