Jack Twite: The Year’s End

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.

Northern WheatearNorthern Wheatear

Rock PipitRock Pipit

Looking West from Beachy HeadLooking West from Beachy Head

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.

Meadow PipitMeadow Pipit


Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

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.

Jack SnipeJack Snipe

Greater Scaup

Greater ScaupGreater Scaup

Little EgretLittle Egret

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.

Coal TitCoal Tit

Great TitGreat Tit

Blue TitBlue Tit

Grey HeronGrey Heron

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.

Lapwing & Golden PloverLapwing & Golden Plover

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.

Great Crested GrebeGreat Crested Grebe

Tufted DuckTufted Duck


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.


Tottenham Marsh in the MistTottenham Marsh in the Mist

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!

Hen HarrierHen Harrier


Corn BuntingCorn Bunting

Hen HarrierHen Harrier


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…

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Very late with this update, but I’ve been busy putting together a large-format kit, and there have been a number of prior engagements that have taken my time up too, but here goes…

Since the last update which ended with the report of Hen Harrier Day at Rainham Jem and I have enjoyed a few brief local wanderings, but not enough to really make a full update on its own.

The first highlight of the month-or-so before the Norfolk trip was the annual pilgrimage to Rutland Water for Birdfair. This time Jem’s mum came along too to see what the fuss is all about. We met up with various good people who we’ve come to know over the years, including David Lindo, Peter Jones and Clare Evans, and we were lucky in arriving just in time to meet Chris Packham and get a signed copy of his book which we’d failed to do at Hen Harrier Day. I also purchased Owls of the World by James Duncan (a completely new book, even though I have an older book of the same title by the same author), the new Britain’s Birds guidebook by Hume, Still, Swash, Harrop and Tipling, and Jem got Gerard Gorman’s Woodpeckers of the World. We had a nice chat with Mr Gorman and he gave me advice on where to go for the White-backed Woodpecker – the only European woodpecker that I haven’t seen yet (I did see a reintroduction bird in Sweden a few years ago, but I don’t count it). We spent some time – as we always do – testing out the latest binoculars in the Optics Marquee. I tested the 10×42 offerings by Swarovski (EL range: around £1800), Zeiss (Victory SF: around £1750), and the brand-new Leica (Noctivid: around £2080). They were all very, very nice…and I can’t afford any of them. We also managed to add Great White Egret to the yearlist as it was viewable from the Swarovski Tower. Another nice extra for us is that we had some spare time to wait at Oakham Station on the way home, so we went into the pub next door and tried some nice beers (I had Osprey, Jem had Panther, and Jem’s mum had Blue Moon).

Birding-wise we managed three weekend outings: the first was to the reservoirs to look for the reported Spotted Flycatcher. We met up with a few of the local birders: David, Jamie and Lol, and eventually found at least two of the birds. It was tough getting photos as they were flitting across a particularly gloomy pathway, but Jem and I decided to stay there whilst the others went off to look for waders. Eventually persistence paid off and I managed to get a few shots.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher

Willow WarblerWillow Warbler

Next, Jem and I decided to make our first visit to the recently-opened Woodberry Wetlands near Stoke Newington. Plenty of standard wetland species were seen (various ducks and gulls, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots and Moorhens, etc), but no sign of the Water Rail that had been reported, and virtually nothing in the way of passerines. There was a late Swift overhead, but nothing else of real interest for us. The cafe was busy (and very ‘hipster’ in its offerings and prices), and there was an army of staff clearing various plants and foliage by the boardwalk. I wouldn’t say we were disappointed, but neither were we particularly impressed. I’d put it down as somewhere that has plenty of potential but probably needs a bit longer to settle in.

Finally, there was another afternoon spent at the reservoirs – this time on the northern side – and it was very productive. A wander up the eastern bank of the Lockwood brought us Common Sandpipers, loads of Pied Wagtails, a Sparrowhawk, and a very smart Dunlin which allowed me to get surprisingly close. We don’t normally head up the drainage channel but we’d heard of a couple of Greenshank up there and so we had a look (we hadn’t seen any so far this year). And although it was a real struggle to get a position where we cold see the only patch of mud, we were eventually rewarded with views. A Common Buzzard also floated high overhead. On the way back I decided to have a quick scan of the pylon at the southern end of the Lockwood and as I did so, a Peregrine swooped down and went on a sortie around the trees on the edge of the Low Maynard. It wasn’t a successful mission, and he returned to the pylon and gave us some very nice views.

Black-headed GullBlack-headed Gull







Greenshank & Little EgretsGreenshank & Little Egrets



An added note: I recently tried to calibrate the AF adjustment on my two long lenses: the Sigma 500mm and the newly-acquired Sony 70-400mm using my cameras built-in adjustment facility and a home-made focus target. Both appeared to be back-focusing and required some reasonable adjustment of around -8. The 500mm is now almost like a new lens in its ability to hit focus spot-on (the Dunlin proved to be a perfect subject and I was really happy with the results), however I’m having some issues with the 70-400mm which seems to be struggling to take sharp photos, especially at its long end. It’s most likely something that I’m doing (or not doing), so more work is needed here.

And so, it was finally off to Norfolk!

We finally managed to get things organised so that we would get to see the ‘wader spectacular’ at Snettisham, but that would be on the Wednesday morning. Wanting to make a week of it but still keep things under control financially, we booked to stay at Wells from the Tuesday afternoon until the Sunday, with guided birding on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. We also booked our trains from Tottenham Hale to Kings Lynn rather than from Kings Cross. It costs a small amount more and means changing at Cambridge, but it means not having to deal with the Underground. We also had the added bonus(?) of seeing the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the platform at Cambridge. He gave me a particularly unpleasant look.

Having dealt with the issue of the Coasthopper bus service no longer picking up from Kings Lynn Station (without receiving any notification of the changes), we arrived in Wells about 45 minutes later than planned and headed down the quayside for a late lunch and to do some timelapse photography. There were Turnstones and Redshank down on the mud and Curlew and Little Egrets on the saltmarsh. I was also planning – in the event of some clear weather – to try some astrophotography, so suggested that we take a wander eastwards along the East Fleet to a spot where Marcus had taken us a couple of years back at North Point. On the way we saw a nice Grey Plover, still in summer plumage, and a Greenshank. As we continued east I noticed a familiar brown shape floating off the marsh: a Short-eared Owl. We headed along the bank and waited and after a short while the owl returned, hunting between various scrubby bushes. After a while the owl headed off out of sight, and I joked to Jem that a Barn Owl would turn up next. Seconds later one did! The Barn Owl hunted around the same bushes as the SEO, and then passed over into the grassy meadow between us and the houses, eventually catching what looked like a very large beetle. By then it was getting dark so we headed back to our B&B. Not a bad start to the trip.

Wells QuaysideWells Quayside

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

Barn Owl

Barn OwlBarn Owl

Wednesday was an early start so Marcus could gather everyone together and head off to Snettisham. It was worryingly foggy for most of the journey, but luckily it was clearer once we arrived at Snettisham and straight away we could see the Oystercatchers being pushed along the mud by the incoming tide. There were also Grey Plovers, Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, Curlew and of course the dense numbers of Knot. The tide continued to push in rapidly and the birds occasionally took to the air in dense clouds. Some of them headed straight over to the pits behind us, but most returned to the mud and got pushed further and further to the end of the Wash. Eventually, they started to swarm together in larger numbers and began to streak over us as they ran out of mud to settle on. We made our way round to the most southerly of the hides to get views of the waders clustered on the small islands and around the margins. There was a nice Bar-tailed Godwit washing in front of us, and a solitary Curlew Sandpiper too. Most of the Oystercatchers were on a bank on one side, and most of the Knot were crowding together on an island just ahead, with a few Black-tailed Godwits and the occasional Oystercatcher for good measure. I tried various experiments with my photos: mainly with longer exposures to try to capture the movement of the Knots and the stillness of the Oystercatchers. Marcus pointed out some distant Spotted Redshanks too. After a while we headed round to a second hide where a single Little Stint was eventually picked up roosting amongst Dunlin and Redshank. Back out on the Wash the waders had begun to stream back as the tide receded. Both a Marsh Harrier and a Red Kite were floating overhead, making the smaller waders a bit nervous.

Knot & Oystercatchers

Knot & OystercatchersKnot & Oystercatchers


Knot & Oystercatcher

Knot & OystercatcherKnot & Oystercatcher

Little Stint amongst Dunlin, Redshank & Black-tailed GodwitLittle Stint amongst Dunlin, Redshank & Black-tailed Godwit

After the show was over we headed off to Titchwell for the afternoon. It was busier than we’d ever seen before and we struggled to get parked. After lunch in the woodland we headed out to the fresh marshes to look for a Pectoral Sandpiper that had been seen well and quite regularly, but unfortunately we just missed it by a matter of a few minutes. More Curlew Sandpiper and some very smart Ruff were enjoyed, and a large group of Golden Plover were sat on a muddy scrape. After reaching the beach we managed to see a very distant Arctic Skua chasing a Sandwich Tern, a Red-throated Diver that had come close into shore, and a seal. On the way back there was still no sign of the Pectoral Sandpiper, but instead we had a nice Hobby fly right over us and we eventually managed to get onto a group of Bearded Tits in the reedbeds.


Curlew SandpiperCurlew Sandpiper


Thursday was our day off, but we decided to make the most of it and get ourselves out of bed at a reasonable time and headed off down to the quayside and then along to Wells Woods. It was sunny and quite hot and the tide was right in, and by the time we started the walk from the car park a lot of the birds had hidden themselves away in the shade. We did manage to find a few interesting birds along the main path towards Holkham, including Coal Tits, Jays, Blackcaps, a Marsh Harrier that had probably just come in off the sea, a couple of Jays and a Stonechat, but the highlight was when we heard a call that we didn’t recognise. We followed it to some scrubby bushes and could see the silhouette of a small warbler. Eventually it moved through a tree and I got a brief but clear view of it: a Yellow-browed Warbler. My first for four years, and Jem’s first ever. We turned back after reaching Lady Anne’s Drive, and stopped for lunch once we arrived back at the car park by the caravan park. After a short shower while we waited we headed off onto the beach as the tide had gone out, exposing large areas of sandy mud, which was now covered with Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and a few Sanderling. A large flock of Brent Geese had also come in. I had developed a headache so we started to head back towards Wells, stopping to watch lots of Curlew, Ringed Plover, and a surprise Wheatear which hopped out onto the path in front of us. The evening was clear and starry, so after dinner we headed out to the footpath at the end of our road to a spot away from the streetlamps and I set up to photograph the night sky. I can’t remember ever seeing skies as clear as this in the UK, and we could even see the Milky Way with the naked eye. The ideal lens for this subject is something with a very wide angle of view, and a very wide maximum aperture. Something like a 12mm f/1.2 would be perfect, but sadly they’re incredibly difficult to manufacture so we have to compromise. I have a Sony 16-50mm f/2.8, which is probably the best compromise because I use a camera with an APS-C sensor. The field of view is closer to 24mm, so not as wide as I’d like. Anyway, it did a pretty decent job, although with the lens wide open there was a fair amount of coma visible in the stars. I’m thinking of getting a manual 24mm f/1.4 in the near future, but it’ll obviously make the field of view even narrower, unless I also get a full-frame camera. I also managed to locate the Andromeda galaxy and zoomed into it a bit. Not an amazing photo, but certainly quite interesting. I also had some fun illuminating Jem with a small LED torch. A Tawny Owl hooted nearby whilst we were out.



Milky WayMilky Way

Jem with the Milky WayJem with the Milky Way

Friday was back on the guided birding trail. Marcus took us straight out to Wells Woods again, and it wasn’t long before we caught up with another Yellow-browed Warbler. They’re very skittish and it took a while before I managed to get any reasonable photos. I’m also having a bit of trouble with my newly-acquired 70-400mm lens. It’s great when I actually manage to get it in focus, but it seems to be affected by camera shake a lot more than my 500mm is. I had also focus-adjusted it recently and it had similar back-focus issues to the 500mm, but while the 500mm is now behaving like a new lens at the top of its game, I’m still struggling with the 70-400mm. I’m wondering if it’s something to do with the way I’ve been holding the lens (the front element extends right out when zoomed) and it’s exacerbating the vibration. I did get a few decent shots though, notably of a scruffy Goldcrest and, after we’d got back to Wells for lunch, another nice Wheatear. Before that we’d managed to get some good views of Garden Warbler (my first for two years), a Pied Flycatcher, Kestrel, Common Buzzards, a Red Kite and a brief Sparrowhawk, plus Coal Tits, a Great Tit dismantling a caterpillar, a skein of Pink-footed Geese and a couple of Treecreepers.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler

Garden WarblerGarden Warbler



Pink-footed GeesePink-footed Geese

The afternoon saw us head over to Stiffkey Fen where the pool was hosting around 30 Spoonbills and a lot of Greylags. There were plenty of waders here: Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank, etc, plus a single Snipe (before a second one flew in and landed out of sight), and lots of lots of Wigeon that were being regularly added-to by incoming birds. We headed along the bank and down to the harbour edge where we watched the distant seals basking on Blakeney Point, and we also watched a Peregrine soaring around and a distant Gannet. On the way back I noticed two Greenshank that had appeared on the water, and a Kingfisher zoomed past across the reeds and along a channel. We finished off by heading to the nearby coastal marsh and bumped in to a group of birders who told us there was nothing around aside from a Red-breasted Flycatcher in the nearby woodland. We tried for the bird, but had to admit defeat. A nice Kestrel was perched on a mound of hay in the adjacent field, so we had to make do with that.



Saturday morning started with a breezy wander in the clifftop scrub by Beeston Bump near Sheringham. The plan was to try to find a Wryneck that had been there in previous days, but the stronger wind and the large number of dog walkers meant we had to console ourselves with a number of hirundines coming in off the sea. We then headed off towards Cley, starting with at least a couple of Wheatears, a Snipe, and an overhead Buzzard as we made our way to the new Babcock Hide on the Salthouse Marshes. Once inside we got to compare male and female Ruff (the female being called a reeve), and a Black-tailed Godwit that briefly landed alongside. A Hobby came past at high speed too.



Black-tailed Godwit with Ruff and ReeveBlack-tailed Godwit with Ruff and Reeve

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit

After lunch beside the visitor centre at Cley we headed out to the hides. There was lots of good action (causing the Golden Plover to flock in panic) from the Marsh Harriers – I actually managed to get some photos from fairly close-in for once – and there were a couple of Little Stints out on the mud amongst various other waders. The most interesting bird here was a Caspian Gull: the first that Jem and I had seen in the UK. We switched to the hide next-door which was significantly busier, and everybody was enjoying a very close Common Snipe nozzling in the damp grass only a few feet in front of the hide. After a while, a Mute Swan came over and scared the Snipe away, but not before it posed elegantly right out in the open on a mud track. We also heard Bearded Tits in the reeds ahead, but they were keeping out of the wind. Eventually we went out to the beach car park and then walked along to the viewing platform. On the way we had a distant Guillemot, some Brent Geese and a Marsh Harrier arriving off the sea, a couple of Reed Buntings on the fence, and a nice pair of Whinchat too. There was one final Wheatear on a fence on the shingle and a distant Gannet over the sea as we made our way back to the car and then back to Wells.

Caspian GullCaspian Gull

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier

Common SnipeCommon Snipe

Reed BuntingReed Bunting

Jem and I had open rail tickets so we didn’t have to rush about too much on the Sunday, choosing instead to wander around Wells for a few hours and then to have lunch. Plenty of waders were on the East Fleet, including several Curlew, and the Grey Plover from the first afternoon was still there. At the quayside in Wells we noticed a very contrasty juvenile gull. We considered it might be another Caspian Gull, but we weren’t sure – and Marcus confirmed via email that it was a Greater Black-back. I also did another timelapse, this time of the boats heading out towards the sea. After lunch in a cafe we collected our things and caught the bus back to Kings Lynn and then the train back to London. On the way we noticed a Green Woodpecker in a Cambridgeshire field – the first for the trip!

Overall, it was another very nice break in Norfolk. The weather was very good for the majority of the time, with warm, sunny days and a few clear nights as well. The highlight was definitely the wader spectacular at Snettisham, which we’ve finally seen after planning to see it for several years now. I’m also happy with some of the photos I took, especially since micro-adjusting the focus for my 500mm telephoto. If there was any disappointment at all, it was that I didn’t manage to see any species that I hadn’t seen before. That’s not the reason we go, but what made it a bit disappointing is that there plenty of species that had been around – Dotterel, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Pectoral Sandpiper, for example – that we missed out on. And in the weeks since our visit there have been many more interesting species drop in. On the plus side, Jem saw her first ever Yellow-browed Warblers – and they were the first for me since my first Norfolk visit back in 2012. It was also good to catch up with several species that had been missing from the yearlist too, and of course the bonus self-found owls on the first day. Our next booked trip is to the Forest of Dean in March, and then we’re hoping to go to Poland in May, so our next Norfolk tour will have to wait until next autumn.

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Rose, Honey, Jars…

I don’t normally go for obscure blog titles, but sometimes you have to keep people guessing…

Anyway, after we returned from Spain we decided that we needed to relax a bit after an intense – and very satisfying – season of spring birding. After a couple of weekends of recharging we headed out to Rainham for a day. Annoyingly, the rail line from Blackhorse Road to Barking which is by far our most direct route is currently out of action while major engineering works and electrification of the line is in progress. This makes it much more difficult to get out to Rainham, but we decided to make a day of it with the plan of hopefully seeing one of the regularly-reported Cuckoos and perhaps some Bearded Tits too. It’s not been a great year for Cuckoo sightings for us mainly as we hadn’t seen or even heard a single one in the UK this year, and although we heard several in Spain we still didn’t actually see any. And we like Cuckoos.

We started from the western end at Rainham Station and then headed through the marsh instead of taking the longer route by the river. Plenty to see at that end, but no Cuckoos. Marsh Harriers and Kestrels were seen over the Silt Lagoons, and they were joined briefly by a Hobby as well. A female Black-tailed Skimmer also perched obliging for us on some dry cut grass by the path. As we reached Wennington Marsh we got hit by a short, sharp shower, but soon enough the sun returned and we continued our stroll towards the reserve, enjoying Linnets on the way. Then we had our bit of luck. A bird flying parallel to the river between us and the MDZ caught our eye: a female Cuckoo heading eastwards, past the visitor centre and high over the trees towards Purfleet. Only a brief sighting, but a very welcome one. After the obligatory lunch and cake in the visitor centre we headed off for a loop around the reserve. No Bearded Tits unfortunately, but there were more Marsh Harriers, some Cetti’s, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Whitethroats and a smattering of waders. All in all a decent day out.

I had a dental checkup back in Oxted on the Monday morning so I headed down on the Sunday afternoon to see the folks. Of course, once I was there I idly checked Twitter to be greeted with the news that a stunning male Common Rosefinch had been found on Walthamstow Marshes. The Rosefinch is a bird that Jem and I were both interested in seeing, but which even our trips abroad hadn’t produced for us. It continued to be reported on the Monday, up until early-afternoon so Jem and I decided to try our luck after work, eventually getting down to the favoured spot around 8pm-ish. No sign of it, so after a good walk around the area we headed home, assuming the bird had gone. Then it showed well all day on the Tuesday so again we headed down after work, and a cyclist on the towpath spotted our binoculars and told us how well it was showing. When we arrived it hadn’t been seen for around half and hour, and it didn’t show again. Another hour and a half stood there and still not a peep. Drastic measures were called for. We got up before 5am on Wednesday and headed down before work, choosing the spot where the rail lines cross over as that’s where it had mainly been singing from early in the day. After a good hour or so the bird began to sing from the scrub behind the fence. But of course it didn’t show. We bumped into Gordon who we’d met in Norfolk last year, and I also exchanged phone numbers with a sound recordist while he checked out a different part of the marsh. Eventually Jem and I had to leave for work…and naturally, I then received the news that the bird finally appeared about ten minutes after we’d left. Wednesday night we tried again and yet again there was no sign of it, although that could’ve been a good thing as the regular singing tree in the middle of the marsh was hosting a determined-looking Sparrowhawk instead. We also bumped into David who we first met a few weeks earlier when watching the Garganey on the East Warwick, and he was with Jamie who’d discovered the bird in the first place on the Sunday evening. They had no joy relocating it either, although they did hear it singing from the reeds a little later on. By this time Jem and I were exhausted so we decided to give it a miss completely on Thursday, and of course it showed well for all observers until late in the evening…

And so it was back early on Friday morning. We arrived by the rail underpass again and straight away heard the bird singing again. It flew up into the sky and headed off through the out-of-bounds scrub, but all we saw was a brief silhouette against the sky. Another birder was carefully trying to follow it around, but after a short while the singing stopped so we decided to head round to the tree on the marsh again. More birders arrived but it wasn’t looking good. At 7.30 we decided to head back to the flat, and just as we were packing up to go Jem and I heard it singing, this time from a TV aerial on the flats beside the pub on the other side of the canal. Luckily we located it and even got a look through a gentleman’s scope before it flew off behind the houses and out of sight. Finally we felt we’d seen it properly, if only for about 30 seconds. I’d managed to get a couple of very distant photos, but in the overcast morning gloom they’re barely even record shots. So on Saturday, with nice bright sunshine, we headed down after lunch to get the fine views in perfect conditions that we’d been hoping for. Except we didn’t get them. Four hours of waiting around between the singing tree and the pub and not a sign of it. No individual bird has given us such a runaround before, but at least we can say we did see it, albeit briefly and from distance. It’s times like this we’re glad we’re not regular twitchers. We only went to see this bird as it was something we were particularly interested in seeing and it was within walking distance of home. The plus side is that it made us a bit fitter: in all we walked a total of 25.6 miles and we now know the marshes a bit better than we did before…

On the Sunday we decided to head down to Oxted again to visit the folks and then Mum and Dad took us out to Ashdown Forest to look for Nightjars. Sadly it was far breezier than we were expecting, although it was still quite warm. A number of birds were heard calling and churring as the sun went down, but all I got was a very brief glimpse of one as it flew between the trees.

The following weekend took us to a new spot: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. On my very first birding holiday – with Naturetrek to Sweden in the spring of 2009 – there was a couple on the trip who told me about Wicken Fen (their local patch), and it sounded like somewhere worth visiting. The downside was that it’s not the easiest place to get to without your own transport, which is why it’s taken so long to finally visit. We actually managed to get there before the visitor centre opened, and it was already hot. After enjoying the Swallows and House Martins that were zipping around the entrance buildings, we made our way along the boardwalk towards the butterfly trail. In the now-scorching sunshine we didn’t see an awful lot of birds. A handful of Reed and Sedge Warblers were heard in the scrub, and a Whitethroat or two seen, but it was mostly invertebrates that we were seeing: dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies. As the morning wore on we were enjoying ourselves, but I was feeling a bit off because despite the good light I hadn’t really taken any photos. At the start of the butterfly trail, just as we were deciding which direction to head in, I looked up and noticed two Buzzards floating overhead in the clear blue sky. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to them, but then decided I might as well take a few shots, so I grabbed a handful of frames of one of the birds and thought little more of it. It was only when reviewing the images on the back of the camera once I’d found some shade that I noticed the bird I’d photographed seemed to be a bit different from your average Common Buzzard. I checked against a raptor guide in the shop in the visitor centre and started to get a bit excited that I’d photographed a Honey Buzzard. We’d had seen one in Norfolk last year and I saw loads of them on a diving trip in the Red Sea a few years back, but I still decided to wait until I’d got a few more opinions from people who know better than I do, but happily it appears that I was right. I reported to the Cambridgeshire recorder the following day and hopefully it’ll be accepted. It’s my first ever entirely self-found rarity (without photo evidence our Rough-legged Buzzard at Bramfield last year was considered ‘unproven’, even though I was 99% sure). My only annoyance is that I didn’t get a photo of the second bird over Wicken – it may have been a pair.

Honey BuzzardHoney Buzzard

Common DarterCommon Darter



After lunch we headed back out towards more open marshland areas alongside drainage channels. With a few white clouds bubbling around it was a bit more comfortable and the birdlife much more active. We had more Sedge and Reed Warblers, a nice Willow Warbler, a few Goldfinches, a Lapwing, several Grey Herons, at least three distant Marsh Harriers, and in a tiny patch of reeds right in front of where we’d sat we had at least two Bearded Tits – our first of the year. We liked Wicken Fen, and we’ll definitely return.

Bearded TitBearded Tit

Willow WarblerWillow Warbler

Red-eyed DamselflyRed-eyed Damselfly

At the recent Farnborough Air Show I’d had some issues with one of my lenses. I bought a mint-condition Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX IF lens all the way back in 2005 and it’s served me very well, but the last couple of years it’s started to get a bit tired, bashed-about, and generally nearing retirement age. At Farnborough I found it was struggling to focus as quickly and accurately as it had in the past, so I looked into various options for replacement. In the end, rather than getting the new HSM OS version of the same lens, or a used copy of Sony or Minolta’s equivalents, I found a very good deal on Sony’s 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM (Mk.I) on the London Camera Exchange’s website, so I went ahead and made the purchase. It’s a bit heavier and bulkier and I’m not overly keen on the extending front element, but last weekend I took it out to Kensington Gardens to give it a try out. We started by looking for the two newer Little Owl nests. We think we found the correct location over by the Henry Moore sculpture but couldn’t find any owls, then we found the nest hole near the Albert Memorial, but no sign of the owls there either, and eventually headed over to the nest we’ve known for years – and no luck there either. Instead I tested the lens over by the Long Water, getting shots of Starlings, Egyptian Geese, Blackbirds, a Black-tailed Skimmer that kept landing on the path, some Red-crested Pochards in eclipse plumage, a few Parakeets, and a nice juvenile Blackcap. The lens focuses quickly, silently and accurately, and when it gets the focus spot-on it’s very sharp with lovely colours and smooth bokeh. I like it a lot.

Feral PigeonFeral Pigeon


Black-tailed SkimmerBlack-tailed Skimmer

Lesser Black-backed GullLesser Black-backed Gull



And so to this weekend, and the long-awaited Hen Harrier Day. When the events began back in 2014 I hoped they’d eventually manage to organise one down in the south-east somewhere, but I certainly wasn’t in my wildest dreams expecting it to come to one of our favourite local patches within two years. So we managed to get up early and off to Rainham, and in glorious sunshine. Chris Packham, Mark Avery, Charlie Moores and Mike Clarke were all there to inspire us with passionate words, there was the Peregrine EnChantica vocal ensemble serenading us, a raffle (we didn’t win), and plenty of merchandise from BAWC. Wildlife-wise we saw a Water Vole munching his breakfast, lots of Marsh Frogs and Small Red-eyed Damselflies, flocks of Goldfinches, male Reed Bunting, and a distant Marsh Harrier over Wennington. I’d hoped to get a chance to buy Chris Packham’s latest book and get it signed, but he was inevitably swarmed by fans and we sadly didn’t have time to hang around long once the speeches were done. Hopefully I’ll get another chance at Birdfair. As we left the spot where the speeches had taken place, a curved-billed wader flew overhead. Annoyingly I didn’t have time to get my camera onto it so I can’t say whether it was a Curlew or Whimbrel. We haven’t seen the latter yet this year so it would’ve been a nice addition to the yearlist. Hen Harrier Day was a fine event though, and we’re already looking forward to next year.

Water VoleWater Vole


Marsh FrogMarsh Frog

Hen Harrier Day

Hen Harrier Day

Hen Harrier Day

Charlie MooresCharlie Moores

Mark AveryMark Avery

Mike ClarkeMike Clarke

Hen Harrier Day

Chris PackhamChris Packham

Henry Hen Harrier

Henry Hen HarrierHenry Hen Harrier

Peregrina EnChanticaPeregrina EnChantica

Hen Harrier Day

Marsh FrogsMarsh Frogs

Small Red-eyed DamselfliesSmall Red-eyed Damselflies

The reason we couldn’t stay long is that we’d arranged to return to Ashdown Forest in the evening via Mum and Dad’s to give the Nightjars a final go. We got down to the car park near Wych Cross at the right time and the conditions were pretty much perfect: warm, still, and their were plenty of insects in the air. However, we were to end up disappointed again. One bird made a few calls and put out a few seconds of churring but it didn’t show itself, and that was all we got. There were probably at least three birds in the area when we tried a few weeks ago so maybe most of them have already started on their journey south. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

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Spanish Pyrenees

So, after a very successful spring back home, it was off to the Spanish Pyrenees with Naturetrek for our big holiday of the year.

Day One (Sunday) was basically the travel day. We had the convenience of flying to Zaragoza from Stansted, so that meant an easy train trip from Tottenham Hale direct to the airport, but the downside was that we were flying with Ryanair, which seems to be the only airline whose cabin baggage restrictions meant my new rucksack is just too big, forcing me to take my older, smaller one. Jem took my binoculars in her bag so I still managed to take most of the stuff I wanted to take. After a fairly uneventful flight – although I was surprised that the seats on Ryanair planes don’t even have pockets for magazines and things, which is surely taking their cost-cutting a bit too far – and a bit of rough descent into Zaragoza, we met the rest of our group and the guides, Phil and David, and also the hotel proprietor, Peter, who drove one of the minibuses for the journey north through the foothills to our base in Berdún. Leaving Zaragoza we noticed lots of Black Kites, a single Marsh Harrier, and a few Crested Larks. We also had a brief stop near the Mallos de Riglos to take a few photos and view the Griffon Vultures that were circling around the pinnacles in a very blustery wind. Soon after leaving we noticed an Egyptian Vulture float over the road – which at the time was best view I’d ever had of the species after seeing just one juvenile high up in the sky when we were in Andalucía back in 2013. After settling into the hotel and having a fine dinner, Jem and I headed to the one of the lookout points at the top of the village where I took a few long-exposure photos. My plan was to try to photograph the Milky Way at some stage during the week, but that would obviously be dependent on the weather.

Mallos de RiglosMallos de Riglos

Day Two began with great views of a Black Redstart in the garden in front of our room. After breakfast we walked on a winding track around the outskirts of the village to a riverside area described as the ‘badlands’. On the way down we noticed more Black Kites, Red Kites, a couple of Egyptian Vultures, and a large kettle of several dozen Griffon Vultures preparing for their day’s soaring. One Red Kite appeared to be carrying nesting material, but when I zoomed in on the photos I took I could see that it was carrying – as well as a ball of fibrous stuff – a small bird, probably a Great Tit. We also saw our first Melodious Warbler (#453 on the lifelist) singing from a nearby branch, and several Corn and Cirl Buntings, and a bit of a rarity: a Black Stork flying overhead. A Grey Wagtail flew over when we reached the bridge over the river, and on the other side we had at least two Golden Orioles fly past us, and a brief look at a Bee-eater too. On the way back up the track to the village we had further views of the Melodious Warbler, brief views of a Serin flying around, and a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in some scrubby trees. We also found a rather unwell-looking bat under the eaves of a small outhouse building as we made our way back to the hotel for lunch.

Black KiteBlack Kite

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting

Red Kite with PreyRed Kite with Prey

After lunch it was off to the Aragón River a short distance away for a second walk. Whilst here I noticed one of many small blue butterflies flitting around. For no particular reason I decided to have a look at one individual that I saw landing in a tussock and I suddenly realised it was struggling – it had been caught by a Crowned Mantis. I’ve always been interested in the mantid family of insects but I’d never seen one in the wild before, so this was particularly interesting. It didn’t seem to be too bothered as we all took close-up photos of it while it munched on its meal. Moving on we had a Marsh Harrier, lots more butterflies, a second mantis that had recently shed its skin, and at the end of the track, a Sparrowhawk which circled in front of us and then went into the woodland on the opposite bank, and then a Short-toed Treecreeper on the way back. More Orioles were heard but not seen. We bumped into another tour group on the way back and they told us that there were Bee-eaters near to where we’d parked our minibuses. As we neared I could see at least one Bee-eater perched by the nesting bank, but when we got closer it had gone. We waited a while but we only got a very brief further look, and I didn’t manage to get any photos.

Crowned Mantis with ButterflyCrowned Mantis with Butterfly


Day Three began with a short walk high on a wooded hillside near the Hermitage of the Virgin of la Peña. We picked up views – eventually – of our first Western Bonelli’s Warblers (#454) and the Western subspecies of the Subalpine Warbler (which may well be split into a full species in the not-too-distant future). It took some coaxing to be able to get a view of either of these species, and I was particularly happy with the Subalpine Warbler as it’s one of my favourite birds and my attempts to get photos of the many Eastern subspecies we saw in Lesvos last year didn’t get me the results I wanted. One individual this time – after we eventually located it – perched obligingly for me and I managed to get a few frames. We also had a good look at a pair of Firecrests here, and there was a calling Cuckoo somewhere in the forest valley below. Next we made our way to the vulture feeding hide. There were a few vultures floating around, a nice Stonechat which perched several times right in front of the hide, and another Cuckoo calling somewhere nearby. Sadly, the man with the pig carcasses didn’t show up – for the second consecutive year for this tour. So we had to make do without the spectacle of the vulture feed, but we did get further Subalpine Warbler views as we walked back to the minibuses, plus a couple of Psammodromus lizards on a rock. A Short-toed Eagle floated past just before we left.

Western Subalpine WarblerWestern Subalpine Warbler

Large PsammodromusLarge Psammodromus

We had lunch at the monasteries of St Juan de la Peña, where a short woodland walk brought us further views of Firecrests, plus Crossbills, a Crested Tit and a Nuthatch. Moving up through more woodland to a lookout point where we got a spectacular Pyrenean vista, we heard a calling Black Woodpecker below us. I didn’t see it myself, but some of the group did. Back at base we had dinner and then headed out for our first attempt at finding an Eagle Owl. The light levels dropped and just before it got too dark a large owl-shaped silhouette floated off out the tops of the wooded hillside and off into the distance. Definitely our first Eagle Owl (#455), but not the greatest of views. As we drove off we soon found a Nightjar sat in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, as Phil turned off the minibus engine the headlights went out too, and the bird decided it was time to leave. We got a good close view of a hare on the way back, but no more Nightjars.


Day Four was our first real trip up at altitude as we made our way up to the Aisa Valley. Just as we were arriving David noticed a large raptor overhead, and excitedly identified it as a juvenile Lammergeier (#456). It wasn’t a bad view either, although it was against a bland white cloudy sky. The walk along the valley was a fairly long one, though not too challenging. We had broken cloud and warm sun all the way and we noted our first Alpine Choughs (#457), lots of Red-billed Choughs, distant Pyrenean Chamois, my first Citril Finch (#458), and various raptors overhead. Jem and I had the idea – when we booked the holiday – that we’d like to see some nice alpine meadows and this really gave us that. At least half the group were more botanically-focused and they had a wealth of orchids, saxifrages, helleborines and gentians throughout the week, and there seemed to be plenty for them to see here in particular. I was mainly keeping my eyes upwards to check out the raptors soaring over the mountaintops but I also took some time to photograph the landscapes and mountain streams. After a picnic lunch on a mound at the end of the valley some of us took the opportunity to climb up onto a higher ridge. This was the most challenging climb of the whole week – and probably the most challenging climb I’ve ever done – particularly as I was carrying a camera with 500mm lens attached, a tripod, and a heavy rucksack. As we slowly inched our way up I noticed an interesting raptor fly through the cleft just over our heads and a few minutes later it reappeared in front and headed off over the mountain ridge – an adult Lammergeier. We also noted the Rock Buntings on the rocky edge. When we finally got up onto the ridge we found ourselves at the snow line. The group moved on a bit further but Jem and I stopped to check out a dark thrush-like bird on a nearby bush. We assumed it was a Blue Rock Thrush, but were later told that it was unlikely, so was probably just a Blackbird looking a bit iridescent in the light. The downside of this distraction is that we didn’t notice the Lammergeier returning and floating right over us. I got some snaps as it flew away giving the rest of the group better views, but I was disappointed to have missed the chance to get better photos. As we began to head back down two more Lammergeiers appeared high in the sky and were driven off by an angry Golden Eagle. The Lammergeiers were seen off pretty quickly and headed back down through the valley and I managed to get a couple of shots of them against the snow and rock, but I had to admit defeat in getting anything special. Still, it wasn’t a photography tour, and so just seeing the birds is more than good enough for us. On the return leg we got a few more interesting sights: a pair of confiding Yellowhammers in the grass, a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush on a rocky slope, an Alpine Marmot that bounded past, and a Red-backed Shrike. This was the most exhausting day of the holiday and my feet were pretty sore (I’d also managed to fill my left hand with splinters when ascending the steep ridge), but it really helped us get in shape for the rest of the week.

Juvenile LammergeierJuvenile Lammergeier

Aisa ValleyAisa Valley




Day Five was a drive south for a walk between the villages of Agüero and Murillo de Gállego. We began around the foot of the Mallos de Agüero – similar to those at nearby Riglos – and enjoyed the many Griffon Vultures and occasional Egyptian Vultures overhead. We found our first Western Orphean Warbler (#459) here, as well as Sardinian Warblers, Western Subalpine Warblers, Firecrests, and a Blue Rock Thrush that Jem found perched on a tree with a large centipede in its beak. The walk towards Murillo de Gállego brought us purring Turtle Doves, a few Bee-eaters (skittish as usual), Woodchat Shrikes, a brief flypast from a Golden Oriole, a singing Woodlark, yet another calling-but-hidden Cuckoo, more Red and Black Kites, a Booted Eagle, and lots more flowers and butterflies. The low-point of the holiday came after our picnic lunch when we all headed off through the village to a cafe for ice-cream whilst our guides were taken back to Agüero to pick up the minibuses. Jem was at the back of the group and somehow went missing and I ended up walking through the maze of narrow streets, calling her name in the burning heat. Luckily she’d found her way to the cafe via a parallel route. Panic over, but I desperately needed the ice-lolly to cool me down.

Western Orphean WarblerWestern Orphean Warbler

Blue Rock ThrushBlue Rock Thrush


Booted EagleBooted Eagle

After this we drove up to the Castillo de Loarre for an hour’s birding before heading back to the hotel, and we saw a pair of aerobatic Peregrines on the way. Up here we had a stunning Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush sat on top of one of the castle walls right in front of us. Plenty of raptors soared overhead, including the usual Griffons and also a few Honey Buzzards and another Peregrine. There were Red-billed Choughs and Crag Martins all around, and I was the only member of the group that managed to get a look at a Hoopoe which flew out of the castle wall and around the rocks in front. We also found a huge grasshopper on the way back to the minibuses. We were in the second minibus on this day, driven by David, and we had some luck here. As we drove out onto the main roads we had the windows down and heard a Wryneck calling from the trees beside a junction. A very quick stop, but we got great views of the bird as it perched on an exposed branch in front of us. After our evening meal some of us went for a walk up through the village where I took a few more evening landscape shots. We had a drink at Phil and David’s hotel where David and I discussed the surprising lack of Scops Owls in the village. After Jem and I returned to our hotel I went out into the garden to try to photograph the night sky, when a male Scops started to call in the next field. Jem and I explored the surrounding roads to see if we could get a look at it, when a female began to respond from a tree right behind our room. We located the tree and I made some recordings, but even with a torch we couldn’t see the owl. Eventually it relocated to a nearby telegraph wire and we got a brief look at her before she moved on.

Honey BuzzardHoney Buzzard

Rufous-tailed Rock ThrushRufous-tailed Rock Thrush

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture

Melodious WarblerMelodious Warbler


Evening view from BerdúnEvening view from Berdún

Day Six was back up the mountains, this time up to Portalet on the French border. On the way we made a brief stop at a roadside to see the rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid – which even had its own warden looking after it from a lay-by on the other side of the road – before we left the minibuses at the small square at Portalet. There was a Short-toed Eagle hovering just to the south and plenty of Black Redstarts around the track as we made our way up to the plateau and across the border into France. A small pond-like area of water brought us our first Water Pipits of the trip. There were several marmots around here, including one that we watched eating all the orchids in one particular meadow. We also found several Northern Wheatears and at least one Pyrenean Chamois up on the crest of the mountain ridge. After a lunch at an especially windy spot, those of us who wanted to see an Alpine Accentor set off up the steep mountainside to look for it amongst the rocky scree. Unfortunately, none were to be found, although we did find more Black Redstarts and another Chamois. Two very high Golden Eagles soared overhead and we also had a Red Kite come down over us, but it was a relatively light day on the raptor front. After a quick ice-cream stop in the cafe back in Portalet we headed back down to lower altitudes and back towards the village. After another fine evening meal we headed off for a second go at seeing the Eagle Owl. This time we had better luck as the owl swooped around the treetops and even briefly perched, silhouetted against the sky. After a few minutes it had gone and we began to notice storm clouds closing in and distant lightning. The drive back didn’t bring us any Nightjars this time, but we watched as the storm moved parallel to us and we just made it back to the hotel as it hit. I took the opportunity to try to photograph some of the lightning as it mainly skirted the village. I didn’t quite get the photos I was looking for, but I did get to hear the Scops Owls calling again, although a bit more distant this time.

Alpine MarmotsAlpine Marmots

Northern WheatearNorthern Wheatear

Pyrenean ChamoisPyrenean Chamois

Eurasian Eagle OwlEurasian Eagle Owl

Day Seven and it was back up to altitude on a cool and cloudy morning, eventually arriving at the Refugio de Gabardito where we left the minibuses and headed off along a forest trail. There were some good close encounters with raptors – especially Griffon Vultures – as they circled above the valley close to our eye level, and we’d also found an obliging Crested Tit and a brief Treecreeper. The reason for the walk was to reach the rock face at the end of the track in the hope of finding a Wallcreeper. We were prepared for anything up to a two-hour wait, but luckily it only took a few minutes for David to locate one high above our heads (#460). We watched it flitting around between the various rock faces and and ledges, and at one stage it even stayed in one place long enough to get the scope onto it. Other birds around here included lots of hirundines and a Kestrel which landed on a prominent ledge. A few more distant Lammergeiers were also seen from here, floating above the crest of the opposite mountain. We made our way back through the forest and had lunch by the refuge (where the cafe owner had angrily prevented us from using his picnic tables – and therefore ensured that none of us were going to be buying anything from him). It was still cool and cloudy up here, but we enjoyed watching the cows with their bells jangling, and there was a flock of Citril Finches that passed through the trees a couple of times too.

Crested TitCrested Tit

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture



After lunch we drove back down the mountain and went for a walk along the Foz de Biniés gorge. By now it was burning hot, so the occasional shade cast by the cliffs was very helpful. Again, it was a great spot for raptors. Loads of Griffons, a couple of Egyptians, and a few Kites floated up and down the gorge. We looked for Dippers without any luck, but there were at least a couple of Grey Wagtails calling from the water below. I also managed to get a look at a Blackcap for the first time on the trip. At the end of the walk we had a good look at several butterflies drinking from a wet tyre track, and a Hobby with damaged tail feathers flew over too. When the minibuses picked us up it was just nice to get out of the sun – the only time all week that we’d felt a bit uncomfortable. Back at the hotel I was somewhat sidetracked by news of the Play-off Final. Had I not been here in Spain I’d have been at Wembley cheering Wednesday on, but sadly they fell short and will have to spend at least another season outside the Premier League. After dinner I tried to get some photos of the Milky Way again. It was a shame not to have had a proper cloudless night sky all week, but this was at least the best opportunity I’d had. I wandered around the village, taking shots from various locations, but the best celestial views I got were found from the hotel garden anyway.

Egyptian VultureEgyptian Vulture

Griffon Vulture

Griffon VultureGriffon Vultures



The final day saw us check out of the hotel and get back on the road south. We stopped at a couple of locations near to Huesca, the first being a kind of reservoir. On the way we saw more Bee-eaters and had our first good views of a Hoopoe flying towards its nest site in an old out-building. When we got out of the minibuses by the reservoir we got good looks at Calandra Larks and a Greater Short-toed Lark that flew over our heads. There was also a new species for us: Western Cattle Egret (#461), plus Red-crested Pochards, a Woodchat Shrike, a Marsh Harrier, a couple of Purple Herons (the best views I’ve had of these to date), and a Little Ringed Plover. We also heard Great Reed Warbler, but couldn’t get a look. Then it was finally off to the Castillo de Montearagón for lunch. Here we had good views of both Black-eared and Black Wheatears, and I also got a final life tick: a Thekla Lark (#462) that sat on a rocky outcrop for a few moments. As we tried to relocate the Black Wheatear after it had flown down the hillside from the castle walls a small falcon flew straight past me. Nobody else saw it apart from Jem, but it looked good for Lesser Kestrel. After that it was the final drive back to Zaragoza and our flight home. Lots of Black Kites and a couple more Bee-eaters were seen, but nothing else to add to the list.

Western Cattle EgretWestern Cattle Egret

Purple HeronPurple Heron

So, a pretty good holiday. I saw ten new life species: Melodious Warbler, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Lammergeier, Alpine Chough, Citril Finch, Western Orphean Warbler, Wallcreeper, Western Cattle Egret and Thekla Lark, taking my global lifelist up to 462. The only real failure was the Alpine Accentor, but my three main targets were the Lammergeier, Wallcreeper and Eagle Owl – if we’d seen no other new species I’d still have come away very happy. The vulture feeding would have been nice to see but there wasn’t much we could do about that. I was also happy to have seen the Western Subalpine Warbler for the first time even though it’s not a full species yet. If I counted correctly we saw 106 different bird species. Aside from the birds it was interesting to see so many butterflies, and the Crowned Mantis was also a highlight. Although I’m not really into flowers the botanical focus made it refreshingly different to the trips we normally go on, and I really enjoyed the clean air, the alpine meadows and the stunning mountain landscapes. The guides were very good – working well together and displaying an incredible wealth of knowledge across all the different flora and fauna. And the hotel was also very nice with friendly hosts, comfortable rooms, and great food and wine. And weather was very comfortable for the most part too with minimal rain and plenty of sun. We chose our holiday well!

A full album of photos can be found on my Flickr page.

Prints of some of the photos can be purchased here.

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Spring Update

Spring has been very rewarding this year. After we returned from Wales the birds started to arrive, and we’ve even got ourselves a life tick – and one from this year’s list of five targets, no less.

Firstly, it was a day out at Rainham on Good Friday. The plan to get some reasonable photos of the Short-eared Owls in decent light was still ongoing, and luckily the owls hadn’t yet headed off back to Scandinavia. And we weren’t disappointed. After a lunch in the visitor centre we headed off along the river wall, and soon enough an owl came floating along the ditch along the southern perimeter of the reserve. There were at least two owls – maybe three – on this afternoon and they seemed to appear for short bursts of hunting over the marshes and then disappearing off over the landfill site. Luckily I was in position on a few occasions and got a handful of shots that I’m happy with. No award-winners, but definitely the best images I’ve managed of these birds so far, and we left fairly satisfied at last!

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owls

The next trip was a Saturday at Bramfield – our first visit in about a year. It was a lovely sunny day as we set off from Hertford North Station, and we had plenty of good birds to see on the walk. Nuthatches featured highly, as did a close Buzzard. We took a slightly different route from usual, heading across the fields and through a clump of trees. There were Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Pheasants on the way. We reached the village and had our lunch in the churchyard as usual, enjoying various woodland birds including Great Spotted Woodpecker and Greenfinch, and several Red Kites circling overhead. As we finished our lunch the clouds came over and it even started to rain. A large flock of Goldfinches flew into the tops of the trees in the garden of the Old Rectory. We decided, since we were in Bramfield after all, to check them all out closely, and lo and behold there was one Hawfinch among them. This was a surprise for this late in the year, and especially as there hadn’t been any reports on social media of them for several weeks. Sadly, the flock was very mobile and each time it returned the birds stayed only for a few moments and I wasn’t able to get a record shot. As the rain got heavier we headed home, but on the way we got our first Yellowhammer of the year, singing from the top of a tree at the north end of the village.


The following weekend we went to the Museum of London to see the crime exhibition before it ended, and afterwards we headed to Docklands to check out Russia Dock Parkland and Stave Hill Ecological Park. I visited several times in 2008 to look for the breeding Kingfishers there (I failed), and hadn’t been back since. There had been a report of a male Redstart, so that gave us a good reason to have a look. It took a while of wandering around before we worked out exactly which part we should be looking in, but once we found the right section we found the Redstart straight away. There were also Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and a Great-spotted Woodpecker, but the Redstart was the star of the show and after a while I was able to get some decent snaps of him on the pathway and even on one of the stone tors. We don’t normally catch up with Redstarts until later in the year so this was an exciting day.



Next it was back to Rainham. We’ve never seen a Grasshopper Warbler before, although we’ve heard a few, here at Rainham, at Rye Meads, and last summer at Lakenheath, but there were at least three reported to be showing well at various spots along the river wall, so we headed off fairly early and got our reward – but not before my glasses had broken – and then thanks to some other birders just outside the visitor centre we got ourselves our first Common Terns of the year and a Little Gull. The first gropper was seen sporadically amongst the brambles and bushes in and around a ditch (#452 on the lifelist). It came out and reeled for a good minute at one stage, despite the fact that it was actually pretty poor conditions – cloudy, cold and windy. We also had our first Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers of the year. A second gropper was found reeling in another tree but the MDZ Hide brought no luck with the Kingfishers. In fact they hadn’t been seen for a few days so we were expecting the worst, but apparently they’re now back. After lunch – where two Arctic Terns were pointed out to us travelling up river – we headed home and relaxed, but a report of a Black Tern at the reservoirs gave us reason for a late afternoon wander. The Black Tern was long gone but we did get lots of Common Terns, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and more. We also managed to almost get locked in for the night because we’d made an error with the closing times!

Grasshopper WarblerGrasshopper Warbler

Reed BuntingReed Bunting

The following morning was warm and sunny, and the reports of a showy Pied Flycatcher on Regent’s Park was all we needed to head out. There were a couple of birders in position when we arrived and the bird showed almost straight away. There were also Chiffchaffs around, but the flycatcher was keeping us well distracted as it flew from tree to tree and occasionally perched nicely in the sunshine. The first I’ve seen in the UK since September 2012.

Pied FlycatcherPied Flycatcher

We hadn’t been to Staines Moor since the Barred Warbler visit back in September, so with more decent weather we made our way over on the last weekend in April. There were Stonechats perching nicely, several Green Woodpeckers, a Red Kite, Kestrels, House Martins, Swallows, Sand Martins, Little Egrets, Common Terns, Reed Buntings, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Linnets, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and a Sparrowhawk. We were hoping for Yellow Wagtails but failed with them. As we ended the day walking down the path alongside the KGVI Reservoir I noticed a falcon perched on a fencepost. Initially I thought it was a Merlin, but when I got the bins onto it it turned out to be a cracking Hobby. It sat for some time before eventually flying off over the reservoir and out of sight.




Another nice weekend came along and we’d planned to go to King’s Lynn with Jem’s dad who was racing there on the Sunday morning. Unfortunately we overslept and he had to go on his own, leaving us very annoyed with ourselves. We got up anyway and decided to make the most of the decent weather by wandering around the reservoirs. Our first Lesser Whitethroats of the year were found along the Coppermill Stream, our first Swifts of the year whizzed past, and the local male Peregrine flew over us and went towards one of the pylons. When we caught up with him he was tearing a pigeon apart. My photos later showed that the pigeon had a leg ring – maybe a racing pigeon? We had no luck in looking for the Wood Warbler that had been at the southern end of the East Warwick earlier in the week, but we enjoyed Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs. Common Terns, Greenfinches, a Wheatear and one very bold member of the resident family of foxes. The reeds alongside the West Warwick also got us our first Reed Warbler of the year. We went over to visit Jem’s parents in the afternoon and had a walk around Fairlop Water and Claybury Woodland. More Whitethroats were the main species of the afternoon as it started to get cooler, but at Claybury we also had the bonus of Green Woodpeckers and a nice Sparrowhawk overhead.

Peregrine with PigeonPeregrine with Pigeon


Red FoxRed Fox


Bank Holiday Monday gave us the chance to get up extra early for the dawn chorus – something our usual laziness causes us to miss out on. Knowing there had been another Grasshopper Warbler up on Tottenham Marshes, we decided that was the place to head for. The weather wasn’t great – mostly cloudy and with a hint of rain in the air – and when we reached Wild Marsh East we were disappointed. A few Whitethroats and little else, but as we wandered around I kept thinking I could hear a buzzing sound, which Jem couldn’t hear. Eventually it got louder and louder and we realised that it was the gropper reeling from a clump of brambles. I didn’t have my longest lens with me so I tried to edge closer, and incredibly the bird didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. I eventually managed to get within about ten feet of him, but still he just kept on singing. By the time we left I had over 600 photos and a couple of minutes of video. There was also a good hirundine flock over the Banbury Reservoir to the north. Despite the weather it had been a satisfying morning.

Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler

The following weekend we decided to spend the Sunday at Stocker’s Lake in Rickmansworth. We’d only been there once before: last spring to finally get our first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a great place to wander round and there had been reports of Cuckoos there – which we’ve so far failed to find this year. No luck with the Cuckoo, and no luck finding the Spotted Flycatcher that had been reported along one of the paths, but we did get a Kingfisher, a pair of Stock Doves, a Grey Wagtail, several Whitethroats, a Red Kite, a Sparrowhawk and a Buzzard. Plenty of Common Terns were flapping around, and there were a couple of Red-crested Pochards too. A nice day out, if unspectacular.

Stock DoveStock Dove

And so the final birding before we head off to Spain was a couple of after-work wanders around the reservoirs, firstly to the Lockwood where we saw the Black-necked Grebes, a Little Ringed Plover, lots of Common Sandpipers, and a rarity for the site: a Sanderling. All four were firsts for the year, and we got pretty good views of all, despite grey cloud and diminishing light. A couple of days later and we were back, this time to the East Warwick for a stunning male Garganey. We only found it thanks to a local birder who’d seen it fly from the West Warwick which is where we’d initially headed. Plenty more Common Terns were seen, and the male Peregrine flew over and startled everything as usual, before perching on his favourite pylon. Song Thrushes, Dunnocks and Greenfinches were also perching in the evening sunshine. The British yearlist is now up to 140 species. We’re a few waders short of where we’d usually be at this stage, but we’ve got lots of species we wouldn’t normally have found yet. No Cuckoo as yet, but there’s still time.



Last weekend I had to go to Amsterdam for work on the Saturday, and I was too tired for anything on the Sunday. The main highlight was a close encounter with a Buzzard as our cab took us from the airport to the venue in the north of the city. I also noticed lots of Grey Herons and some noisy Parakeets.

And so, next stop the Spanish Pyrenees…

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Ceredigion Birding

It was time for our first birding break of the year, having not been away at all since July, and knowing that we won’t be going on our main holiday until late May. There were a few ideas bouncing around: the usual jaunt up to Norfolk, a possible Naturetrek tour to the Forest of Dean, or something different. After a bit of research we found the Mid-wales Birdwatching site, and given the convenience of being able to get the National Express from Victoria Coach Station and then being dropped right outside the hotel in Ponterwyd nearly seven hours later, we decided that it would be a good choice.

We met John on the first morning, after we’d already enjoyed Red Kites, Chaffinches and nuthatch around the hotel, and he took us first to his own home to show us a Red Kite nest nearby. His garden was also attracting Siskins and Nuthatches, and a rabbit that shot out from under the decking. As we moved on we passed two Buzzards perched on lakeside trees.




The rest of the day was spent mostly in the Aberystwyth area. We started at the harbour and then walked southwards between the Afon Ystwyth and Tanybwlch Beach, finding a pair of Goosander, Rock and Meadow Pipits, a Raven and a Chough – the first we’d ever seen in the UK. A pair of Stonechats were at the end of the beach, collecting nesting material. On the stroll back I noticed a mustelid slinking along the rocky river edge – which turned out to be my first ever Stoat. After a lunch on the beach rocks we headed off inland to the Bwlch Nant yr Arian forest for the daily Red Kite feeding. John counted around 55 birds as I was concentrating on getting photos, which was a lot harder than I was expecting when you realise how big they are, but the chaos of dozens in the sky together made it very challenging to get decent compositions in focus. John was actually a bit disappointed as there are often far greater numbers of birds feeding here.



Rock PipitRock Pipit

Red Kite

Red Kite

Red Kites

Red Kites

Red KitesRed Kites

After the feeding was pretty much done and the spectacle was coming to an end we headed back to Aberystwyth for the rest of the afternoon. We started by checking the rocks off the promenade for Purple Sandpipers, but couldn’t see any. Then we checked around the landward side of the old college building for the resident Black Redstart. We stayed for a while but saw nothing, but then got a brief glimpse of it on a wall at the end. It took a while but we eventually found it sunning itself on a bar of scaffolding. It was the first I’d seen n the UK in three years. After getting great close views we turned back to the rocks and I eventually managed to get my eye in and noticed nine Purple Sandpipers all roosting together on a rock right under our noses. After that we got ready for the Starling roost at the pier. It began with a small flock of perhaps a couple of dozen, and more and more small groups arrived, eventually joining up to make a flock of a few hundred. Then all of a sudden much larger flocks began to appear and join up, probably doubling, tripling and quadrupling it each time. I don’t know how many were in the flock by the time the swarming mass eventually finished the aerobatics and headed under the pier to settle, but there must’ve been several thousand. By a very long way it was the most impressive Starling murmuration we’ve ever seen, even if it wasn’t quite as spectacular as the famous mesmerising mega-murmurations that occur in certain places. Good enough for us anyway.

Rock PipitRock Pipit

Black RedstartBlack Redstart

Purple SandpipersPurple Sandpipers


Day Two was much cloudier and a bit cool, but we headed straight out to Borth Bog by the coast for a real rarity: a Glossy Ibis. It had been seen well the previous day, so we were pretty excited at the chance of seeing a bird that Jem and I had only previously seen abroad. We’d only just arrived and were walking down a track alongside the bog when the Ibis was pointed out to us, circling in the sky. It did this several times, and getting plenty of altitude on occasion, before eventually floating back down to earth. Unfortunately it always landed somewhere where we couldn’t see it – probably in tall grasses or deep ditches – so I only managed to get record shots of it airborne, and mostly against a dull grey sky.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy IbisGlossy Ibis

After that we went a short distance to the edge of the Dyfi Estuary, alongside Ynyslas Boatyard. Sadly no Merlins appeared, but we did get both Grey Plover and Curlew on the mud in front. Next we headed to a spot by the Afon Cletwr near to Tre’r-ddol to have lunch. John was hoping for Dipper, but instead we got a pair of Grey Wagtails bobbing around amongst the rocks. A good tit flock moved through the trees to our left – at least one Goldcrest and a Treecreeper were there. We followed up with a short walk on the bank towards the Dyfi where we got Little Egret and a flock of Barnacle Geese that swarmed around in front of us.

The afternoon was spent at the nearby Ynys-hir RSPB reserve, noted for its recent hosting of Springwatch. The feeders in front of the visitor centre brought in spectacular numbers of woodland birds. Plenty of Chaffinches, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Siskin, a Nuthatch and a Great Spotted Woodpecker were feeding here. We then wandered around the reserve, failing to find the regularly-seen Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but instead getting another Treecreeper, lots of Teal, a Moorhen, Kingfisher, Red Kite and a brief Green Sandpiper. We eventually headed back towards Ponterwyd by a more scenic route, with plenty more Red Kites and Buzzards, and a quick but unsuccessful stop in the hope of finding Crossbills.

The final day began with hazy sunshine and we headed straight off to a wooded river to look again for Dippers. John knew there was a breeding pair at this location, and after a short while being distracted by more Grey Wagtails we got our first glimpse as one few off across the water and around a bend. A few minutes later we got much better looks on the other side of the bridge we were stood on, with one of the two birds obligingly sat by the water’s edge for some time. One of the wagtails even came to hang out with the Dipper for a minute or so. As we moved off we saw a raptor float over the hillside trees – a hawk. It looked large, but it was only there for a few moments before disappearing behind the treetops – a possible male Goshawk, but without a better look we had to err on the side of caution and put it down as a female Sparrowhawk. There were also more Buzzards here, including one with missing primaries.


Red-throated DiverRed-throated Diver

The rest of the day was spent along the coast in the New Quay area. A quick beachside stop brought us a single Red-throated Diver fairly close in, but which then headed further and further away as soon as I got my camera onto it. Jem spotted a distant seal in the sea too. Lots more Red Kites floated around here, as well as more Buzzards and a single soaring Sparrowhawk. We had our picnic lunch on the quay at New Quay before heading off up onto the clifftops. From here we had views of the first few Shags and Guillemots that had arrived, plus a handful of Kittiwakes and a hovering Kestrel, though no sign of any Razorbills. A single Fulmar circled over the water for a minute or so, and as we reached the endpoint of our walk we had a further Chough and a pair of nesting Ravens. On the way back I was occupied by getting further photos of Red Kites and Buzzards that were being held up in the wind, and then Jem noticed a Black Redstart in the clifftop scrub, along with a Stonechat. Jem was on good form with her spotting, and as we eventually began to pick up pace towards the village she found a fresh Wheatear on a grassy patch. It gave us great views – and plenty of photos – and was a fitting end to a great few days of birding.


Shag & GuillemotsShag & Guillemots






Red KiteRed Kite



We were very happy with our choice of break, and we’d definitely be interested in returning in the future. We were lucky with the weather – with plenty of sunshine and only a few hours of cloud on the Saturday morning, and we were well-guided and looked after by John. The hotel was good too, especially the food which left us suitably stuffed every evening. We didn’t miss out on much either, and we added an unexpected Peregrine to our list as we headed down the M40 at the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border.

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A Whole New Year…

Only a few months late with this, but I’ve been busy…

So, how has 2016 begun? Not too bad so far, despite the slightly odd weather. As the year has progressed it’s actually become colder, but we still seem to be having few weekend days of decent sunshine and so my photography hasn’t been particularly great as yet.

The first trip of note was an afternoon at Rainham in early January, with Meadow Pipits, Marsh Harriers and Short-eared Owls the highlight. The owls have been very visible since mid-October, with up to eight being recorded at a time. Most of our visits over the winter have brought us two or three birds at at time, and only once in good sunlight and calm conditions, so I’m still not managing to get the shots I crave.

Meadow PipitMeadow Pipit

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

Next was a weekend visiting Dev in Woking. We spent a few hours on the Saturday at Thursday Common where we saw not one but two Great Grey Shrikes – and the best views we’ve had of them there. We even saw one successfully catch some prey – probably a beetle or something – and from a distance we watched it trying to impale the meal onto a branch. Stonechats were also seen, and a very brief glimpse of a Dartford Warbler as it flew into a bush. We waited a while but it didn’t reappear. After lunch we tried Frensham as we’d never been there before, and a late afternoon walk from the Great Pond up to a ridge overlooking the Little Pond got us several Goldcrests at close range. The following morning, just as we were about to leave, a Red Kite floated past Dev’s 10th-floor flat. Unfortunately my camera was packed away and by the time I’d got it ready the bird was getting further away, but I did get a few nice snaps.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey ShrikeGreat Grey Shrike

Red KiteRed Kite

Jem’s dad was racing near Norwich one wet Sunday morning so we went along too and he dropped us off at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen reserve. I’d been there once before on my first Norfolk tour and knew it was good. We arrived before the visitor centre had opened, so from the car park we watched great flock of Siskin – a species I’ve seen very little of over the years. The feeders outside the centre were bringing in lots of the usual woodland birds, including Coal Tits, and then we noticed a Marsh Tit amongst them – the first I’ve seen in in three years. After wandering down a path we saw more Siskins, our first Lesser Redpoll in two years, a Song Thrush calling from a tree, and another Marsh Tit (or it could’ve been the same one again). The rest of the reserve brought us very little because of the persistent rain, and we struggled to get round without sinking too far into the mud. The Marsh Harriers were good to watch though. After a lunch by the seaside in Great Yarmouth we went off the main road briefly (back near to Strumpshaw Fen) and successfully found a hunting Barn Owl. Only distant views, but then we got very good close views of several Red-legged Partridges who were sharing a ploughed field with an interestingly-coloured dark blue Pheasant.



Marsh TitMarsh Tit

Red-legged PartridgeRed-legged Partridge

Next was an hour or so at Tower Hamlets Cemetery to look for the Firecrest (there seems to be at least one every winter). Last year it was a case of finding the Goldcrest flock and then searching for the odd one out, but this time we were surprised at the almost total lack of any bird life, save for a few corvids overhead. We wandered around for a while wondering where everything was when Jem noticed movement in the holly bush that we happened to have stopped next to. And out it popped – a Firecrest! We watched it for about a minute and I managed to get a couple of snaps as it stopped for the briefest moment in an open part of the bush, and then it was off. A Redwing was also in the same bush, a Wren fluttered around at the base of it, and a tit flock went past a few yards away containing at least one Coal Tit. I checked Twitter and read that there was a a couple of Greater Scaup and a male Goldeneye on the Lockwood Reservoir, so we made our way home and after a brief lunch did a lap of the reservoir. The Scaups were found straight away but the Goldeneye took a while, and it got chased across the water by a gull so I didn’t manage to get many decent shots of it. Shelduck, Little Egrets and at least two Kingfishers added to a satisfying day.




The following weekend we decided to have an afternoon stroll around Kensington Gardens. Hanging around by the Leaf Store brought us all the usual woodland birds: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Goldcrest, Woodpigeon, Chaffinch, etc, and just as I was trying to get a shot of one of the Coal Tits Jem called excitedly. She’d found another Firecrest! I got my binoculars on it and saw it really well for a brief moment with its orange crest fanned right out in the sunshine – something I’d never seen before. Sadly it was only passing through and it went before I managed to get my camera on it. We waited around for about 45 minutes but it didn’t return, but we did get good views of our first Nuthatch and Treecreeper of the year – two species I didn’t get until late summer last year. We also got a good look at the male Little Owl in the traditional nest tree (I’ve since found out that there are at least two more families elsewhere in the Gardens), we added Lesser Black-backed Gull to the yearlist, and then we successfully found the Black Swan that’s been living on the Serpentine recently. An odd sight for Central London.

Great TitGreat Tit

Little OwlLittle Owl

Coal TitCoal Tit




Black SwanBlack Swan

February came to an end with two trips. Firstly to Essex as Jem’s dad was racing near Basildon. He dropped us off at the Wat Tyler Country Park, although it was too early and the gates weren’t yet open, so we went round to Vange Marshes instead. It was very windy and overcast but our first Sparrowhawk of the year was seen, as well as our first Avocets and Great Black-backed Gulls. There were also lots of Black-tailed Godwits there. We went back round to Wat Tyler – seeing a nice Kestrel on the way – and got the key to a hide from the RSPB visitor centre. The Bittern that had been seen recently was hiding, but we did get our first Snipe of the year. We then went around the outskirts of the site and saw two Barn Owls occupying two nest boxes.

Black-tailed GodwitBlack-tailed Godwit


Barn Owl

Barn OwlBarn Owls

Finally we had a Saturday afternoon back at Rainham. The Short-eared Owls are still being seen and I’m still envious of the great photos people have been getting in perfect sunlight, but it was another failure for us. It was far too windy – so much so that we didn’t see a single owl: the first time we’ve failed all winter. There were plenty of Pipits – most of which I couldn’t identify because they all look the same to me – a Fieldfare, several Pintail, a couple of Reed buntings, a Curlew, several Redshank and three Marsh Harriers, so it wasn’t a complete waste of a day. There was a big flock of Dunlin in the distance too, which is always nice to see.

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier

Not a lot of birding on Mother’s Day weekend, but we saw a Buzzard near Riddlesdown as we were on the train down to Oxted, and two more over my parents’ house, which was good because I’ve only seen a Buzzard in the Oxted area once before and that was closer to the A25. In the back garden there were Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, a Jay, a Blackbird, a couple of Robins, a few Collared Doves, and two Stock Doves to take our yearlist up to 89.

And so the start to the year, and basically the transition from winter into spring, ended with a Saturday at Amwell – our first visit in about a year. And there were some interesting sightings. Buzzards floated overhead – at least three at one stage – all the usual waders, ducks and gulls, including Goldeneye and our first Oystercatcher of the year, and plenty of Little Egrets and Lapwings. We spent much of our time in one of the hides watching Reed Buntings, Coal Tits, Great Tits, Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, a Pheasant and a rat at the feeders, and there were Goldcrests in the trees outside. We hoped for a Kingfisher but we had no luck this time. We eventually moved around to the larger hide on the opposite side of the lake and waited for the regular Barn Owl to appear. Again we had no luck, but what we did get was a good view of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds below, and a few feet away a brief view of a Bittern – both firsts for the year. There was also a Muntjac Deer in the reeds opposite. Annoyingly we missed out on the female Smew. The Smew reports had dried up in the preceding days so we never ventured over to that end of the lake, but later that evening we heard that the Smew had indeed been seen that day. Oh well, can’t see everything…



Long-tailed TitLong-tailed Tit

Reed BuntingReed Bunting


Muntjac DeerMuntjac Deer

Canada GeeseCanada Geese

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Review of the Year – 2015

2014 hadn’t been a great birding year for me, certainly as far as seeing new species goes, with only twelve species being added to the lifelist, and many of our trips were affected by either bad weather or illness. Before 2015 had even begun we’d already booked ourselves on a winter tour to Scotland and I’d booked myself a return to Finland in the hope of seeing some of the species I’d missed in 2014.


It was a very good start to 2015. On New Year’s Day we visited Wallasea Island for the first time, getting a female Hen Harrier as soon as we arrived in the car park, followed by flocks of Corn Buntings in the grass in front of us. Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, various waders, and a distant Rough-legged Buzzard all got the year off to a great start. I bought myself a new camera – the upgraded MkII edition of my Sony A77 – and tested it out on a fine late-afternoon Short-eared Owl at Fairlop Waters. Trips to Amwell to look for the Smew (we failed, but still got a nice Barn Owl), and Bramfield for Hawfinches (we succeeded) followed. On our arrival in Bramfield we also got another Rough-legged Buzzard which I reported to the Hertfordshire Bird Recorder. I didn’t manage to get photos, but I’m sure of the ID and so hopefully it’ll be accepted. We finished the month by going back to Amwell in a blizzard, and this time we finally got our first ever Smews.

Canada Geese with SmewCanada Geese with Smew


The month began with a 5-day break in Scotland with Heatherlea. Despite the issues of my luggage not making onto our flight, leaving me in the snowy Cairngorms with just the most basic of clothing, and also cracking my brand new camera when I slipped down snow-covered steps (luckily only causing cosmetic damage), it was a great little break. Crested Tits, Snow Buntings, Common Crossbills, Capercaillie, Black and Red Grouse and Mountain Hares were all great to see, and we added three to the lifelist in Iceland Gull, Ptarmigan and Golden Eagle. The eagles were the highlights for me – one of the experiences of my life. We’d had a very distant one high in the sky on the first morning, but on the second afternoon we had a fantastic close-up flyover by a juvenile which landed on the hillside in front of us. When it took to the air again a second juvenile drifted overhead to join it. A fantastic moment. February also saw a day at Kensington Gardens to see Tawny Owl and Scaup, and a morning at Tower Hamlets Cemetery where we saw a Firecrest (Jem’s first) amongst a lot of Goldcrests.

001Golden Eagles


A day out at Thursley Common brought us nice views of the Great Grey Shrike, Woodlark, and a (probable) flyover Dartford Warbler, and that was followed by a day at Dungeness RSPB brought us Cetti’s Warbler, Kestrels, Tree Sparrows and a Great White Egret. The following weekend was huge – I finally got to see a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! We’d heard about a potentially-nesting pair at Stocker’s Lake in Rickmansworth, and so we made the trip over and got great views of the male. The bird that had eluded me for so long! By late March some spring weather brought our first Wheatear of the year at the reservoirs next-door, and that same evening we headed up the canal to the northern end of the Tottenham Marshes to get great views of a Barn Owl that had been seen regularly for several days. We also visited Staines Reservoir for the first time, seeing Black-necked Grebes, lots of Linnets and Pied Wagtails, a Red Kite, and a Great Northern Diver.

Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerLesser Spotted Woodpecker


The month began with a good walk down the canal to Walthamstow Marshes where we got good close-up views of Starling, Robin, Mistle Thrush and Greenfinch, and the Easter Weekend was nice and warm so we spent Easter Monday at Rainham, getting amongst other things, my first Garganeys in the UK. We also had a day at the London Wetland Centre – our only visit of the year – where the highlight for me was a female Blackcap. The big news of April was our main holiday of the year – Lesbos. The migration hadn’t quite reached full-strength, but the warm weather we had for most of the week meant plenty was coming in. In all I ended up adding 30 species to the lifelist over the course of the eight days. This included Lesbos’s first Demoiselle Crane, Great Spotted Cuckoos, Masked, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, both Western Rock and Kruper’s Nuthatch, Black-headed, Cretzschmar’s and Cinereous Buntings, Isabelline Wheatear, Eleonora’s Falcons, Scops Owls, a Roller, Sombre Tits, Chukar Partridges, and Subalpine, Ruppell’s, Eastern Olivaceous and Eastern Orphean Warblers, amongst others. Several Pallid Harriers, Middle-spotted Woodpeckers, loads of waders and terns, and various other raptors were also great to see. We only chose this holiday because the Austria trip we’d originally decided on had been cancelled, but it turned out to be a holiday that it will be very difficult to top. It was only April and I’d already beaten last year’s lifelist additions almost three times over.

Scops OwlScops Owl


Another good month. A day out at Bramfield brought us our first Cuckoo of the year (although we had heard one in Essex a few weeks previously), as well as our first Common Whitethroats, but the main news for this month was my return to Finland. Despite being the exact same weekend as the trip the previous year, the weather could not have been more different – rainy when we arrived, and then mainly cold and grey the rest of the time, even bringing a few flakes of snow on the last morning. Rustic Bunting was found quite early on, with much of the rest of the time spent looking for owls and woodpeckers. We did well with Tengmalm’s, Ural and Great Grey, but Pygmy Owl was elusive, with us eventually being allowed a quick peek into a nestbox to see a female. I was the only participant who managed to see a Short-eared, which was surprising given the numbers we saw the previous year. Black Grouse and Capercaillie were seen well, but we again struggled with my most sought-after bird: Hazelhen. Siberian Jay was found easily at a feeding station, with a great flock of Waxwings and a Black Kite in the vicinity, and we managed good views of Hawk Owls at two locations. A difficult Harrier – possibly Pallid – was seen without a confirmed ID, and we had a fantastic flyover by a White-tailed Eagle carrying a large fish. We finally had our Hazelhen (we’d had a very poor through-the-trees glimpse the previous afternoon, but it wasn’t much of a look) which did circuits around the minibuses. It was followed by a surprise addition – my first Bluethroats. The final bird was a Siberian Tit which brought my lifelist up to 450. Of all the targets I had, we only failed with Red-flanked Bluetail and Dotterel (none had arrived in the area yet because of the cold weather), but I was more than happy with everything else. Certainly an enjoyable return to a country I really love. The end of the month took us to Rainham Marshes and Staines Moor to get some more warblers, pipits and waders.

Tengmalm's OwlTengmalm’s Owl


This was a quiet month but we had a good wander around our wharf, finding young Long-tailed Tits and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. A trip to Rye Meads on a warm sunny day brought us Blackcaps and Buzzards, plus more good views of the resident Kingfishers. There was also a wander around Fairlop Waters one afternoon, bringing us plenty of good insects. Another trip to Rainham this month brought a couple of birds we’d struggled to find thus far: a Hobby, and Bearded Tits, which had a very good breeding year. We enjoyed the striped juveniles perching on sculptures in the Dragonfly Pool.

Bearded TitBearded Tit


I invested in a new macro lens. I really love the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 that I’ve had for best part of a decade, but the increased torque from the AF motor in the Sony A700 I bought in 2008 eventually stripped the plastic gear inside the lens whilst on a diving holiday in the Red Sea. I got the lens fixed, but it was never the same again and suffered from a grinding sensation when focusing, although it did still work okay and the optical quality was still outstanding. Anyway, I felt I could use a little extra distance between the lens and the subject – especially when photographing insects – so I upgraded to the Sigma 150mm f/2.8. It’s a lovely lens, although I’m a little unsure about the optical stabilisation it has – when switched on you can really feel the floating element moving around inside – so I usually have it turned off and stick with the camera’s in-built stabilisation. I haven’t used the lens as much as I’d have liked yet, but that’s mainly been due to the weather we’ve had and the changing of the seasons. I have noticed that when used as a standard telephoto lens, the macro lens’s image quality is absolutely superb. I photographed a Little Owl in Kensington Gardens – where I also finally got my first Nuthatch of the year – and I couldn’t believe how crisp the shot was. This month also saw us have our annual trip to Norfolk, guided by Marcus of the Bird ID Company. It was the first time we’d visited outside autumn or winter, so we had some great new experiences. Highlights were hunting Barn Owls on the Blakeney Freshes, Nightjars near Holt, Stone Curlews at Weeting Heath (our first in the UK), and Dartford Warblers and a Honey Buzzard at Kelling. It actually turned out to be the first guided tour I’ve been on where I didn’t get a new life tick, but the tour was so good that I barely noticed.

Barn OwlBarn Owl


Another trip to Fairlop in warm sunshine gave me another chance to play with the macro lens. Plenty of good butterflies, plus a few dragonflies and crickets. I’d also got a monopod and quick-release head to help stabilise. I need to work on the techniques a bit, but I’m happy with the results so far. Towards the end of the month we had a very quick look one afternoon at three Common Scoters that had arrived on the Lockwood Reservoir, and then a few days later we spent a day at Wanstead Flats to look for some recently-arrived migrants. We got good views of Whinchats and a Spotted Flycatcher, and brief views of Lesser Whitethroats and a couple of Common Redstarts – all firsts for the year.



I suppose you could say we went on a ‘twitch’, which we don’t normally do. We hadn’t been to Staines Moor since May so we decided to give it a visit whilst a rare Barred Warbler was present. Initially we were distracted by some really good Hobby action at the southern end of the Moor, but eventually made our way to the bushes to have a look at the warbler, which showed very nicely for us. More Redstarts, plus Woodcock and Snipe as we made our way home, finished the day off – although we later found out that we’d missed out on a Wryneck that had appeared late in the day near the Barred Warbler’s bushes. The following day we were led around Wormwood Scrubs by David Lindo. Whinchats and Redstarts were the highlights in more warm sunshine.

Barred WarblerBarred Warbler


Another visit to Rainham – which was fast becoming our most-visited location for the year – in warm sunshine again. Not a huge amount going on this time, but it was nice and relaxing anyway. Stonechats, Goldfinches and a Buzzard were the highlights. We also explored the West Warwick Reservoir for the first time – we’d always bypassed it on our walks around the reservoirs. It held a nice juvenile Black-necked Grebe, and there were plenty of Stonechats and a Mistle Thrush too. A female Goosander was also on No.4 Reservoir. Then things started to get exciting. The first Short-eared Owls were being reported, and we were lucky to get a full hour watching one hunting at Rainham in the late afternoon. It successfully caught prey twice, but was regularly mobbed by the three resident Marsh Harriers. We returned a fortnight later in sunnier conditions to get better views as at least four owls were active in late-afternoon sunshine.

Black-necked GrebeBlack-necked Grebe


And I was back at Rainham again to see the owls as I had a few days off of work. Horrible conditions with strong wind off the Thames and some rain, but I watched two owls on the landfill site until it got dark. More Goosander and our first Fieldfares of the year were at the reservoirs the following weekend. Probably the quietest month for us, birding-wise, but that was caused mainly by the fact that it seemed to rain pretty much every weekend.

Short-eared OwlsShort-eared Owls


The best thing to happen in early December was one morning as I walked towards Tottenham Hale Station to get the train to work. As I passed the Tottenham Locks a few pigeons crossed my path, soon followed by something altogether different. It was small and quick, with fast, flappy wingbeats, dark blue-grey on the upperparts and a definite falcon silhouette. It passed over the lock and southwards down the canal where I lost it in the darkness of the trees. Without photos and without having someone else there to confirm I can’t be 100%, but I’m pretty close to positive that I’d just seen only my fourth ever Merlin – a male. I know there have been reports of them in the area occasionally, especially over the reservoirs, but I wasn’t really expecting to see one on the way to work. It would’ve been potentially visible from the flat too, so I could even class it as a garden tick! An afternoon at Fairlop brought us a look at the Great Northern Diver that has been in residence for several weeks (and is still there even now). I saw my first ever Little Owl at Fairlop in the spring of 2011, in the field opposite the riding school, but since then never had any luck at this particular site (and I hadn’t read any further reports either). We decided to have a quick check anyway before it got too dark, and lo-and-behold, two owls were sat in the very tree I’d seen them in almost five years ago. One even had a quick fly into the darkness of a second nearby tree. One more visit to Rainham was spent entirely on the riverside path, rather than going into the reserve itself. The weather wasn’t great, but we had a very brief glimpse of a Short-eared Owl over the crest of the landfill site. Little else was seen aside from a Curlew feeding by the river and some nice views of the Marsh Harriers hunting, but we got into conversation with a gentleman and as we were just about to leave because it was getting dark, an owl floated down past us and landed on the marsh. It was too dark to get a great look, but the owl sat there on the grass until we couldn’t see anymore. Christmas was spent at Mum and Dad’s in Surrey, and they do get some good birds in the back garden, mainly due to a combination of well-stocked feeders and a good band of woodland behind. Two Nuthatches – only the second and third Nuthatches I’d seen all year – and some Coal Tits were the highlights for me. As the year drew to a close Jem and I had a day at Rye Meads. A Kingfisher was seen briefly, and a Common Buzzard too. A solitary Green Sandpiper was feeding near to one of the hides, but the highlight was a Brambling in amongst a large flock of Chaffinches that were feeding on seeds that had been spread on a track by the staff. It was our first Brambling in almost four years, and a great way to end off the year. We also got a sneaky Chiffchaff in the back garden on New Year’s Eve.

Little OwlsLittle Owls

So, it’s been a great year all round. No fewer than 41 new additions to lifelist brought it up to 451, including my two most elusive birds: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Hazelhen. The Lesbos holiday had been fantastic, and I got most of the species I wanted from my return to Finland, with only a couple of omissions. Boosted by the trip to Scotland I added several species to my British list too, which now stands at 220. Of the five species on my annual target list, I only managed to get the LSW and Golden Eagle – so Jack Snipe, Twite and Grasshopper Warbler will be carried over into 2016. I also saw a Montagu’s Harrier in the UK this year, but for obvious reasons have not been able to say when and where it was. The last few months of the year didn’t bring us an awful lot, but the influx of Short-eared Owls and the Brambling at Rye Meads more than made up for it.

I did my first ever UK yearlist in 2014 and ended up with 166. 2015 brought me no fewer than 185. There were some surprising absentees though: no confirmed Willow Warbler (might’ve seen more than one, but without photos or hearing them sing I’m not confident enough of the ID), no confirmed Willow or Marsh Tits (although I suspect a bird I saw at the Reservoirs one spring afternoon was most likely a Marsh Tit), no Redpoll, no Puffin, Gannet, Razorbill or Guillemot, no Red-breasted Merganser, and no Black Redstart for the second year in a row.

As well as all the birding, 2015 was a year in which I broadened my horizons photographically. I started timelapsing, using the wonderful TriggerTrap Mobile app as an intervalometer (and I’ve now purchased the full version of the LRTimelapse software), I had one of my older DSLRs converted to 720nm infra-red, I’ve purchased a proper lightmeter – a used Sekonic L-558) to help increase my exposure skills, and I’ve invested in my first ever medium format camera – a used Bronica SQ-A with three lenses, waist-level viewfinder, speedgrip and 120 film magazine. There will be blog posts dedicated to these new photographic pursuits in due course.

Short-eared Owl

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Owls. Owls Everywhere…

We’ve had a very mild autumn so far, and after the passing-through of the Redstarts, Whinchats, Wrynecks, etc, the next step has been the influx of species that might want to hang around for the winter.

The first day out of note was a Sunday lunchtime/afternoon around the reservoirs next door in early October. A Black-necked Grebe had been reported on the West Warwick – the only one of the ten reservoirs in the chain that we’d never actually visited before – so we headed over to have a look for ourselves. There was plenty to see all along the trackside bank – Goldfinches, a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a Mistle Thrush, and at least three Stonechats. As we neared the southern end of the reservoir we noticed that some other birders on the opposite side were observing something – and that something turned out to be the grebe. A couple also told us of the location of a Goosander which I’d mentioned to them but didn’t know where exactly it had been seen. The grebe was watchable for some time before drifting out towards the middle of the reservoir, and then we headed back across the site to look for the Goosander. There was a fishing competition taking place which meant we couldn’t spend much time around the other reservoirs, but the Goosander was eventually located out near the eastern bank of Number Four, so we did a clockwise circuit and got reasonable views as it – of course – moved off towards the middle of the water as we got near.

Stonechat & Canary WharfStonechat & Canary Wharf

Black-necked GrebeBlack-necked Grebe


The following weekend saw us head back over to Rainham Marshes. It turned out be a relatively quiet day on the RSPB reserve, but it brought us our first Golden Plovers of the year, along with several Snipe, and our first Pintails too. There had been reports in the preceding days of at least a couple of Short-eared Owls – though they had been mainly observed on the Dartford side of the river. After we’d had lunch and decided to head off, we though it might be an idea to do the long walk back to Rainham, just in case there was a Shortie over the Silt Lagoons. After a quick look at a Rock Pipit on the tideline we stopped on the Serin Mound for a few minutes to scan the marsh, and after a few minutes Jem frantically got my attention – just in time for me to turn around and watch a Short-eared Owl float up from the direction of the river and soar straight over our heads and up the landfill site behind us. After a few minutes it went out of sight, but then we relocated it back on the Wennington Marsh down below us, hunting over the grasses. We watched it for a full 45 minutes – unfortunately in only very poor light – during which time it came into aerial conflict with two Marsh Harriers. We saw the owl successfully catch prey on at least two occasions, but we think it dropped one rodent whilst avoiding a harrier attack. It was only when a third harrier appeared that the owl finally gave up, and made its escape back over our heads and over the crest of the landfill site. Just as the display came to an end the heavens opened and we made our retreat too, back to Rainham Station in the pouring rain.


Rock PipitRock Pipit

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl & Marsh HarrierShort-eared Owl & Marsh Harrier

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

Over the following week the reports of owls increased dramatically, with eight recorded at Rainham on one day. My issue is that I never seem to get to photograph them in good light – it’s always either under horrible grey cloud or when the light has faded too much at sunset – so I’m always extremely envious when I see people up and down the country showing off their beautiful ‘golden hour’ shots. The Short-eared Owl is my favourite bird to watch (the Long-eared Owl is my favourite bird, but in daytime they only seem to be roosting – and I’ve never seen one in the UK anyway), so it’s a big thing for me to try to get some good-quality Shortie shots.

The following Saturday was sunny, and so we made our way back to Rainham in the hope of getting a good look in better conditions. We arrived from the Rainham end, just in case there were any owls over the lagoon, but our only view was of a distant bird being mobbed high above the landfill. As we reached the Serin Mound I noticed groups of birders on the river wall, so we headed straight down to the car park where a line of birders was positioned above Aveley Bay. Straight away I noticed one owl sat on the grass near to the water’s edge. The other birders said it was only one they could see at that time, but that others had been seen briefly over the landfill. The owl sat there preening, and aside from a quick fly-around to a new position, did very little as the sun dropped at an alarming speed. Suddenly, a second bird that had been well hidden a few feet behind popped up and started to hunt, and then our owl did the same. We moved around the path to get better views as the owls hunted over the marshes. We watched – and talked to other birders – until the sun had gone and the night rolled in, still getting occasional glimpses in the gloom. I don’t know how many owls we saw, but there were reports of at least five that afternoon. I got better shots than I’d managed before, but still nothing of a quality anywhere close to what I’d like. I shall persevere.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared Owl

And so to last week. I used up the last few days of my annual leave and had to stay in to receive some parcels and have our electricity meter replaced, but the weather was poor anyway. On the final day – the Tuesday – I decided to go out in the afternoon, despite the leaden skies and blustery wind, and head back to Rainham just really for the sake of getting out of the flat. I arrived from the Purfleet end at around 3pm and decided to spend my time on the river wall path. It was much windier than I would’ve liked, so I pretty much gave up any hope of seeing any owls. There was a Curlew feeding on a strip of mud and a few other waders – Lapwings and Redshanks mainly – dotted along the water’s edge. There weren’t many people around either – just one birder who passed me on his way back towards Purfleet (I assume he’d given up for the day) and a couple who were edging their way towards Aveley Bay. All of a sudden, I looked towards them and noticed that an owl was airborne and flying towards the landfill site, where it landed in the grass on the slope. I made my way over to the car park and waited, after it took off and started to hunt it was joined by a second owl. After a few minutes I lost sight of them and headed round to the Serin Mound, and one flew straight past me as I reached the mound. I looked across Wennington Marsh and noticed a third owl in the distance, in the company of two Marsh Harriers and a Kestrel. The original two owls were keeping to the landfill site, occasionally hunting low over my side, but then going over the crest and out of sight. After a while I noticed one had returned to my side and was perched on a fence post, but it was almost impossible to see in the gloom. When the second owl returned they hunted around the mound together, and gave me one good opportunity to get a decent shot as they both landed on fence posts and I was able to try a few longer exposures in order to get cleaner shots. Eventually one image came out fairly well – at least good enough to stick up on social media anyway. I also made a couple of video clips while the opportunity was there, but they won’t win me any Oscars. Eventually the light faded too much, I lost sight of the owls and it started to rain too. I headed back along the river wall towards Purfleet as night rolled in. On the way I had a couple of close owl encounters – perhaps of different birds to the ones I’d already seen – but in the darkness it was too difficult to see any more than enough to ID them as Shorties as their wings caught the light.

Short-eared OwlsShort-eared Owls

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Summer Birding (post-Norfolk)

I recently bought myself a new Macro lens: a Sigma 150mm f/2.8, and a monopod to help stabilise it. So far I’ve tested it on the Banded Demoiselles around the close, and also on invertebrates at Fairlop Waters (Gatekeeper, Ruddy Darter, Brown Argus, Speckled Bush Cricket). I also took it along to Kensington Gardens, where one of the resident Little Owls was sunning himself out in the open. I also finally saw my first Nuthatch of the year here – a bird I’d normally get onto my yearlist in January.

Banded DemoiselleBanded Demoiselle

Little OwlLittle Owl

Holly BlueHolly Blue

Ruddy DarterRuddy Darter

Speckled Bush CricketSpeckled Bush Cricket

Brown ArgusBrown Argus

Brown ArgusBrown Argus

Brown ArgusBrown Argus

It was around this time that we also had a quick wander around the reservoirs next door to see three Common Scoters that had been on the Lockwood for several days. We were extremely pushed for time, so I only managed very distant shots before needing to leave.

Common ScotersCommon Scoters

Next came a very productive Saturday with a few hours spent on Wanstead Flats. A number of early-autumn migrants had been reported in the preceding days, so we decided to have a look around for ourselves. The first bird of significance was a distant – and very brief – Common Redstart. In fact there was a pair of them, but we only saw them for a moment before they disappeared into some bushes. Next we found a Spotted Flycatcher on top of a tree, which flew out to grab passing insects a few times before relocating. We moved around the areas of long grass and spaced bushes and found two more firsts for the year: Whinchats perching on the thistles, and at least two Lesser Whitethroats in a bush. A Common Buzzard soared overhead as we made our way back to where we’d originally seen the Redstarts, and with a bit of persistence we relocated the male. Not easy getting a good look at him, but I did manage a partially-obscured photo.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher



The following weekend were back in Oxted for a Christening. I showed Jem around the town as she’d not really seen much of it before, and we saw a few bits and pieces flying around, but not much of note, although we did hear a Buzzard calling near to Mohammed al-Fayed’s mansion. Rabbits and squirrels made up most of animal sightings, but there was a Great Spotted Woodpecker high up on a tree by the railway line.

A week later it was back to some proper birding, and a full-on weekend of it. I’d bought some new Merrell boots as my old Mountain Warehouse ones weren’t really cutting anymore, and we decided to give Staines Moor a visit for the first time since the spring – spurred on by the news of the Barred Warbler that had been showing very nicely for more than a week. We arrived from the southern end as we normally do and had a very nice time watching a family of Hobbies hawking around. We eventually made our way up to the Barred Warbler’s location and were rewarded with great views, and we didn’t even have to wait long (#451 on the lifelist). Whitethroats and Redstarts were also seen amongst the same bushes, and we also had Chiffchaffs, Kestrels, Little Egrets and more. Towards the end of the afternoon we went through Stanwell Moor to look for the Little Owls that seem to be a regular sight, but unfortunately there were people tending to the horses in the paddock and the owls were nowhere to be seen. As we walked back through Staines Moor towards Staines for our train home we went slightly off the main path amongst the tall grasses. Two birds were flushed, the first a brown, long-billed wader that took off with a loud ‘gronk’ sound and flew in a twisting way into the sky, and then a similar wader, slightly smaller but otherwise almost identical, but with a more direct flight. A lot of mental note-taking was made and the results were Woodcock and Snipe. The Snipe was actually very easy to identify, but the Woodcock was flying directly away from us and so took a bit more effort. Once we were on the train home I went on Twitter to find out that the Barred Warbler had gone in to roost and the birders who had arrived late didn’t see it, but instead they had a Wryneck in the same bushes! Oh well.

Barred WarblerBarred Warbler


The following day was spent as part of a group shown around Wormwood Scrubs by David Lindo. A Sparrowhawk and Kestrels were seen early on, and we enjoyed the Roesel’s Bush Crickets – a species I first saw in our back garden when I was a teenager – and there plenty of Swallows and House Martins flying through. A Whitethroat, several Whinchats and at least one female Redstart were also seen. Green Woodpeckers called as they flew from tree to tree. No Wrynecks, although David did show us where one had been seen several years back.



Since then Jem has been to the USA to visit her newborn niece, and last Saturday was my birthday which saw me go to see Sheffield Wednesday’s last-minute victory at Brentford, and then on Sunday we went for a family meal down near Lingfield. Little in the way of birding has been done on those two weekends, but the first Sunday saw me attempt to look for recently-reported Black Redstarts on the north bank of the Thames at Blackwall Basin. It was a failure, but I’ve recently started learning how to do timelapses and I managed to get a couple of those done in the Docklands area and posted here: https://vimeo.com/user44063137. Interestingly, on the Saturday afternoon I tried the first one from the end of our wharf and while I was in the middle of it a Kingfisher came up and perched on a nearby branch. There will be a separate post regarding my recent photographic exploits anyway.

Dad gave us a lift back to Croydon after the birthday meal last Sunday so we could get an easier train back to London, and on the way we took a little detour down some lanes. A gentleman named Jack Barnes has been reporting back from his local patch in the Warlingham/Woldingham area in the last couple of years, and he has taken a lot of outstanding photos. Growing up in Oxted, we have a reasonable knowledge of the area and I’ve worked out where he’s had great sightings of Short-eared Owls during the autumn and winter. Dad knows that particular area well and took us through on our way to Croydon, so any visits to the family over the coming months may have to coincide with a quick detour to see if the owls are around.

And so to this weekend. Jem and I had a bit of a lie-in yesterday, but managed to haul ourselves out of bed in order to get a few hours down at Rainham Marshes. A Sparrowhawk was the first bird of note as we waited at Barking Station for our train to Purfleet. The conditions were like none I’d ever had at Rainham before – almost no breeze at all, bright, warm sunshine, but a foggy haze that stayed almost throughout the day. We arrived in time to grab a late lunch – noticing the Harbour Seals on the opposite bank – from the visitor centre and then made our way into the reserve. Straight away we had more than a dozen Redshank on the pools in the south-east corner, and from the first hide we had several Snipe too. There was a surprising number of late dragonflies hawking on the boardwalk as we wandered westwards, and a pair of Stonechats – our first of the season – were flitting between bushes. A Kingfisher flew around us in a wide arc, and a Kestrel swooped directly overhead. there were at least a couple of Little Egrets, and a good flock of Greylag Geese around the northern edges. We had no luck with Bearded Tits this time, but we did instead get distant views of a Wheatear feeding on a low grassy bank. Another birder called out “harrier!” as a raptor passed us in silhouette against the late afternoon sun, I got a few shots of it in silhouette and thought little about it until later when I looked back at the photos and realised it was actually a Buzzard. We did get a distant female Marsh Harrier a short time later as we left the reserve and strolled along the riverside bank, and we also saw a distant flock of Golden Plover – our first of the year – and so it’s becoming clear that autumn is well and truly here…




Common BuzzardCommon Buzzard

Thames SunsetThames Sunset

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