After we came back from Norfolk, things quietened right down. I had started to get deeper into a project with my large format camera so that gave us the excuse to spend time in Epping Forest. Birding wasn’t a priority on these trips, although we did take our bins with us just in case. My plan for the remains of the year was simply to try to get my yearlist up above 163 – making sure it wouldn’t be my worst year since I began recording in 2014.
We went down to Oxted in mid-November to visit Mum and Dad and, in a departure from our usual quest to visit Ashdown Forest, we instead had a nice Sunday morning walk on The Chart (aka Limpsfield Chart). It was a nice walk with the trees in full autumn colour, and we paid particular attention to the fungi. Birding was limited to some Goldcrests and Coal Tits.
The big birding news came right at the end of the month when a pair of Firecrests turned up on the Reservoirs. Jem and I managed to go and have a look early one Saturday morning before we needed to head off to Charlton to Sheffield Wednesday grab a convincing 3-1 victory. We only managed to get one of the Firecrests, but it was good enough for us. The following day we visited Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook to see the returning Caspian Gull.
The following weekend it was back to Epping Forest, although this time with the birding camera. We concentrated on the Mandarin Ducks on Connaught Water. We thought we saw a single Goosander briefly in flight, but that would have to be a target for another day for me.
The Sunday before Christmas was a good day for a trip up the Lee Valley to Amwell, with the star of the show being a Whooper Swan in the afternoon sunshine. Coal Tits and Reed Buntings were feeding by the hide too, and we were treated to an impressive mini-murmuration of Starlings as the sky turned pink.
The following day I made use of being off work for the Christmas break to head up to Stocker’s Lake near Rickmansworth. I had two main targets: Goosander and Red-crested Pochard, which were both missing from my yearlist. I started my walk with some Siskin feeding high in the trees but as I circuited the lake in a clockwise direction I found myself struggling to get the targets. A brief chat with another birder led me to the Goosander at last – it was in a separate section of river beside the lake – and I also managed to get great views of displaying Goldeneyes, and a Kingfisher zoomed past my head. Eventually I managed to pick out the Red-crested Pochards as they skulked under the vegetation on one of the islands.
A couple of days after Christmas we had a walk up at Bramfield for the first time since late spring. It was a nice day out, although we didn’t see anything new for the year. A nice show from one of the local Red Kites and a Muntjac on a footpath were the main highlights.
And so it came to New Year’s Eve. I still needed a few more birds for the yearlist, so we made the bold decision to visit Wallasea Island by public transport. It’s not easy, but the train is pretty direct to Southend, and there’s a bus service that gets to Canewdon – a village about three miles from the reserve. It was worth the trek. Buzzards and winter thrushes were seen as we made our way towards the island and as the distant reedbeds came into view we picked out our first Hen Harrier. The walk past the timber yards got us two more species: flocks of Corn Buntings were expected, but the female Merlin that floated in and landed on the mud was a real bonus. We eventually reached the main car park and set ourselves up on the sea wall to wait for Short-eared Owls. Unfortunately they weren’t playing ball. We stood and waited, with the harriers quartering in the distance, and got chatting to two women who had also come here for the owls. Eventually after a bit of scanning with Jem’s scope, I managed to pick one owl out as it sat motionless on a small island. We watched it for some time but it didn’t want to fly. Knowing we had a bus to catch and a long walk ahead of us we eventually called it a day and went to leave, when the two women offered to drive us back to Canewdon. This was very welcome as it saved our already-tired legs, and also gave us time to get a hot drink in the pub there. It had turned out to be a great day out to finish the year off, and my yearlist was now up to 166 too. I believe the Hooded Merganser from Titchwell has not been accepted as a wild bird, but I’m leaving it on the list anyway – it’s not like I’m doing it competitively.
In all, 2019 was a great year. The trip to North America was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. It brought me thirty additions to the lifelist, and most importantly it got me my holy grail bird, the Snowy Owl. It was also great to revisit Pittsburgh, and we had the best time visiting Peter, Katelyn, Jasmine and Ellen in Pittsford. Niagara Falls wasn’t bad either. Lots of good birding was done at home too, with a few birds – Merlin, Corn Bunting, Whooper Swan, Waxwing and Nightingale, for example – that we don’t see often.
And of course, we were happily oblivious as to what 2020 had in store for us…