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.

January

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

February

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

March

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

April

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

May

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

June

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

July

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

August

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.

WhinchatWhinchat

September

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

October

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

November

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

December

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

GoosanderGoosander

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.

StonechatStonechat

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

WhinchatWhinchat

RedstartRedstart

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

KestrelKestrel

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.

RedstartRedstart

WhinchatWhinchat

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…

StarlingStarling

GoldfinchesGoldfinches

StonechatStonechat

Common BuzzardCommon Buzzard

Thames SunsetThames Sunset

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Norfolk in July

Jem and I have now been to Norfolk several times over the last two or three years, but it’s always been in the autumn or winter. This time we decided to give it a go in summer, so we booked a three-day tour with our usual company: the Bird ID Company.

We got settled in at our quaint B&B in Wells on the Thursday afternoon and went for a self-guided stroll along the harbour and out to the beach. Oystercatchers were plentiful, and a Marsh Harrier hunted over the field alongside the football ground. The tide was out and the meandering channel that stretched out to the sea was packed with holidaymakers swimming with their dogs. This was when we noticed something different about one of the Black-headed Gulls that lined the water’s edge. It was larger, had no black wingtips, and it’s dark hood came down to the back of its neck: our second ever (and first self-found) Mediterranean Gull.

Jem then noticed a dog-like head that kept popping up in the channel, which turned out to be a seal. On the other side of the channel was a group of Sandwich Terns, and our walk back into Wells also brought us a Curlew and several Pied Wagtails. And the tour hadn’t even begun yet…

Overnight we were hit by an awesome and intense electrical storm, which meant the air was cool and fresh when Marcus picked us up in the morning. The plan was to look for raptors, and it wasn’t long before we had seen Red Kite, Kestrel and a distant Buzzard. Bull finches and Siskins were heard in the trees, and there were several Yellowhammers calling from the treetops. We also had brief views of Brown Hare, Red-legged and Grey Partridges, and a good look at a worn Painted Lady butterfly, along with various Skipper species.

Painted LadyPainted Lady

After a short look for Turtle Doves – which brought us a Stock Dove instead – it was off to Titchwell to see what we could find there. Lots of Black-tailed Godwits were here, still mostly in summer plumage, along with Ruff, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and a single Curlew Sandpiper. Young Bearded Tits were seen in the muddy reedbed margins, and there were also Spoonbills, Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Gull. A shower blew through as we scanned the coast from the beach, and this also brought Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Scoter, and four Eider. Back on the reserve Marsh Harriers floated around.

Black-tailed GodwitsBlack-tailed Godwits

RuffRuff

Dunlin with Curlew SandpiperDunlin with Curlew Sandpiper

Little GullLittle Gull

Marsh HarrierMarsh Harrier

We returned to Wells for an early tea before getting over to Holt to meet up with Marcus again. Firstly we made our way back towards the coast to Cley, and as we neared we saw our first Barn Owl hunting over a village meadow. After watching for a few minutes the owl moved onto another meadow so we moved on too, to Blakeney Freshes. Here we saw two more Barn Owls, one that headed from a nest box along the woodland to the west, and one that was hunting over the marsh between us and the sea. This third owl hunted successfully in the time we were there, flying past us on three occasions, each time clutching prey on its talons before heading back to its nest in the village. While we were here we also watched a Marsh Harrier, a Sparrowhawk and several Bearded Tits in the long grasses in front of the windmill.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Barn OwlBarn Owl

Then it was off to the heath as the light began to fade so that we could get into position for Nightjars. It took a little while before we first heard some churring – and we had a Woodcock fly over in the meantime – and eventually a male appeared and perched on a silver birch stump. As it waited a female fluttered past and he showed off his wing patches. It was difficult to tell how many birds were around, but we had two flybys and heard at least two, and probably more, males churring before it got too dark to see any more and we headed home.

Barn OwlNightjar

Day Two saw an early start as we met Marcus in Fakenham and then drove down towards Thetford to look for Stone-curlews. We got two Red Kites straight away, and lots of corvids and a few Red-legged Partridges in the pig farm, but nothing else so we went on to Lakenheath Fen. At the first pool we got Reed Warblers and Kingfishers straight away, and then a Bittern flew out of the reedbed and landed on the margins right in front of us before awkwardly clambering out of sight. There were lots of dragonflies and damselflies around, but surprisingly no Hobbies. At the next pool I noticed a second Bittern in flight going across the tops of the reedbeds, which was eventually joined by a second bird before they went down into the reeds. We also saw four Common Cranes flying in the distance. It took a long time scanning the landscape to see where they’d landed, but eventually we relocated them. Marsh Harriers and a Common Buzzard were hunting too, and as we turned and headed back we saw a second family group of Cranes.

Barn OwlRed Kite

Barn OwlKingfisher

Barn OwlBittern

Barn OwlMarsh Harrier

After lunch it was off to Weeting Heath to see the Stone-curlews. We heard them calling from the moment we stepped out of the car and it was easy to find them once we’d settled in the hide. I didn’t count the birds, but there were several – both adults and young – partly hidden amongst yellow flowers. There were also at least two Kestrels flying around right in front of the hide. Following this we made our way to a location close to Grimes’ Graves, where we watched a number of species moving up and down a line of tree stumps and rocks. There were adult and juvenile Stonechats, Yellowhammers, Whitethroats, and at least one Tree Pipit which perched obligingly on a stump for enough time to allow me to get several photos.

Barn OwlStone-curlew

Barn OwlStonechat

Barn OwlTree Pipit

Barn OwlWhitethroat

We finished the day at Lynford Arboretum. The non-native trees were very quiet, aside from a single perched Kestrel, but a pond-side deciduous glade brought us lots of woodland species, including Long-tailed Tit, Chaffinch and at least two Treecreepers.

Barn OwlKestrel

Day Three was an even earlier start as we headed off in grim rain to Cley. Here we settled in a hide to see what was on the pools and scrapes. There were Marsh Harriers quartering, Common and Green Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits and more. Avocets chased the small waders away whenever possible, leaving themselves open to attack from the harriers. Several Spoonbills also arrived on one of the scrapes, adults and begging juveniles. By this time the rain had moved on and the sun was out, so we relocated to the northern side of the reserve to see what else was about. There were Sand Martins, Linnets and Goldfinches fluttering around, although not a lot of different species on the pools, aside from a Yellow-legged Gull, a family of Bearded Tits and some Greenshank. Out on the sea we had some Gannets and a Little Tern: the first I’ve seen in the UK.

Barn OwlCommon Sandpiper

Barn OwlLittle Ringed Plover

Barn OwlReed Warbler

Barn OwlSedge Warbler

Next it was off inland to Kelling Heath to look for Dartford Warblers, despite a strong wind. At the first location we heard one chattering, but it took a lot of effort to get a look, and that was only very brief. As we waited for it reappear, Marcus pointed out a large raptor overhead, which turned to be a Honey Buzzard – a real rarity here. There were also Linnets, Yellowhammers and a Kestrel here. We moved on to look for more Dartford Warblers at a different part of the site, and we succeeded again. One bird perched in the open for a couple of seconds but again they didn’t hang around for long. With too many people around we had no luck with Woodlarks, but on the way back a tit flock moving through the bushes brought us a bonus Goldcrest. Returning to Cley the wind had increased further and a walk along the East Bank brought us very little, but a scrape out on the marsh was hosting lots of Sandwich and Common Terns, both Godwits, Dunlin, Knot and a smart Turnstone still with some summer plumage.

Barn OwlHoney Buzzard

Barn OwlLinnet

Barn OwlYellowhammer

Barn OwlGrayling

Marcus dropped Jem and I in Cley so we could get our bus home. Despite being the first guided birding tour I’d ever been on that hadn’t brought me a new life tick, it was still one of the best UK tours to date, and I’m looking forward to our next visit.

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Spring and Summer Catchup

In between holidays we’ve done a reasonable amount of local birding, but I’m only going to go through the not-necessarily-chronological highlights, rather than spend loads of time trying to remember everything

It started with a day out at Bramfield before I went to Finland. The highlight was undoubtedly our first Cuckoo sighting of the year, which we heard just as the road left the wooded areas north of Hertford. It took a bit of work but I eventually spotted the bird through the heat haze on a distant tree. The hedgerows brought our first Whitethroats of the year too, and there were the usual Red Kites and Buzzards. We got chatting to a farmer who told us of a good area for Crossbills, but we’ll probably check that out next time we visit instead.

Another sunny day, this time at Staines Moor, brought Redshanks, Kestrels, Meadow Pipits, Common Whitethroats and Skylarks.

RedshankRedshank

Meadow PipitMeadow Pipit

GoldfinchesGoldfinches

KestrelKestrel

SkylarkSkylark

An afternoon walk around the close brought us a nice Lesser Black-backed Gull (which I originally thought might’ve been a Yellow-legged Gull until confirmation from Birdforum put me straight). There were also fledgeling Long-tailed Tits, young Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and a brief flypast from a Kingfisher. The wharf our cloe is on is also home to a large family of Canada Geese which we see in our garden most days, and sometimes in the car park too. There’s usually a young Greylag with them as well.

Long-tailed TitLong-tailed Tit

Lesser Black-backed GullLesser Black-backed Gull

Great Spotted WoodpeckerGreat Spotted Woodpecker

There have been two visits to Rainham Marshes: the first on a cool and breezy day just after I got back from Finland. There were Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers, plus a nice Redshank that perched on a fence post and called for some time. The second visit was made in the hope of adding Bearded Tit and Hobby to our yearlists, and we were successful in both counts. It’s been a bumper year for breeding Beardies at Rainham and we saw several young birds amongst the reeds around the Dragonfly Pool. As we waited a Hobby swooped through from the direction of the river wall, but it was just a passing visit. Added bonuses included our first Green Sandpiper of the year, and a nice view of one of the resident Kingfishers.

WhitethroatWhitethroat

LapwingLapwing

RedshankRedshank

Sedge WarblerSedge Warbler

Reed WarblerReed Warbler

KingfisherKingfisher

Bearded TitBearded Tit

Speaking of Kingfishers, we also had a good view of them – as we usually do – at Rye Meads. Plenty of Common Terns were also seen, as well as Blackcaps, squabbling Buzzards and a basking male Blackbird.

BlackcapBlackcap

BlackbirdBlackbird

KingfisherKingfisher

BuzzardsBuzzards

The reservoirs next door to our close also brought us our first Common Sandpipers of the year, along with more Common Terns. An afternoon wander around the wharf that our close is on also brought a Lesser Black-backed Gull, newly-fledged Long-tailed Tits, a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and a Kingfisher.

Common TernsCommon Terns

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Return to Finland

Yikes. I’ve neglected my blog, and now I’ve got loads of stuff stacked up. Time clear the backlog…

In May of 2014 Jem and I went on Birdfinders’ 4-day owl tour to Finland. Overall it was a great birding tour, well-guided, and with lots of great views of some very special birds. Unfortunately Jem’s illness on the final morning meant we stayed behind in the hotel for the morning’s birding, and that lead to me missing out on most of the species I’d wanted to see most. With the exception of Hawk Owl and Little Tern, I came away from Finland without any having seen any new species. Hawk Owl was my priority target – so it could’ve been a lot worse – but there were a number of species that I’d really wanted to see which the group successfully found on that final day.

So, I borrowed some money and decided to return this year. It was exactly the same tour, with the same guides: Peter Lansdown for Birdfinders and Antti Vierimaa for Finnature – so straight away I new that this was going to be an enjoyable trip again.

For the record, the species we missed out on the final morning last year were: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rustic Bunting, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Willow Grouse and Smew. On top of this we missed a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that flew through our hotel car park whilst we were checking out on the third day, and our views of Dotterel flying away against a bright sky meant we didn’t feel we’d really seen them – certainly not well enough to identify anything diagnostic. Since then we’ve managed to find Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Smew and the Red Grouse subspecies of Willow Grouse so they were no longer important targets for me.

The big one, however, was Hazelhen. I’d heard one peeping from in the deep forest on my first trip to Sweden in 2009, we completely failed to find any on my second trip to Sweden in 2012, and in Finland last year I somehow managed to be the only person in the entire group who didn’t see one (due to my location at the back of the second minibus) when two were spotted by a forest track. Even Jem saw them, briefly. I did hear one again though, near to the Pygmy Owl site. With Lesser Spotted Woodpecker finally seen earlier this spring after years of attempts and extraordinary near-misses, Hazelhen was my new top target species.

Right, I’d better get on with things and actually begin the tour report…

I will, however, begin with a mention of the evening preceding the tour. Due to the early flight out of Heathrow on the Friday morning and the fact that we no longer live in Putney, I spent the night in the cheapest hotel I could find near to the airport. The EasyHotel – part of the EasyJet brand – is quite bizarre. Nestled at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac in Harlington, it has all the expected bright orange livery of EasyJet’s planes. It has a real university halls-of-residence feel about it, with narrow corridors, minimal staff and facilities and tiny rooms similar to boat cabins, complete with an en-suite shower-and-loo ‘wet-room’ combo that was small enough that you could actually sit on the toilet and shower at the same time. And it was all made of the thick wipe-clean plastic and metal that you find in new train carriages. Absolutely functional, clean and practical, but just a bit weird at the same time. From my window I could watch planes taking off from the end of Runway 09L.

After three short hours’ sleep I was up and out listening to a Blackbird which was, despite the darkness, singing cheerily opposite the bus stop. I met up with Peter and the rest of group in the terminal and everything went as planned, arriving at Helsinki pretty much to schedule. Just before we boarded our follow-on flight to Oulu we noticed the destination on the screen above the gate change to Copenhagen. Bemused, we asked the staff what was going on and we were told that we would need to go to a different gate to catch another plane because “this plane is broken”. We were probably delayed only about an hour in total, and Antti was there to meet us at Oulu. Compared with last year, the noticeable difference was the weather. It was raining fairly heavily, and was quite cool. Last year we had almost unbroken sunshine and unseasonal scorching temperatures throughout much of the daytime. After getting settled in the hotel we had a wander along the stream out the back to the edge of the bay. Arctic and Common Terns were flying around, and there was a nice group of Ruff – with the males displaying in their breeding plumage. Garganey, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Wood Sandpiper, Knot, Snipe and Common Crane were also seen. Pied Flycatchers and Fieldfares were around the hotel car park, and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was heard calling too.

We went back in for dinner (just as the rain finally stopped and things began to dry up), and then went out for the first bit of owl hunting. My big plan had been to (selfishly) make sure I was in the front minibus this year. Last year Jem and I were in the rear minibus as we were picked up at the airport and the groups stuck to their respective vehicles throughout the tour – which was what worked against me with the Hazelhens. I made sure I was in Antti’s minibus this time, and I felt smug that my plan was working.

Firstly we located a pair of Ural Owls near to their nest. They weren’t that far away from us, and the pine trees weren’t too dense, but it was incredibly difficult to get binoculars and scopes onto them, simply because every narrow tree looked identical to the one next to it! Every so often I managed to get my bins onto one of the birds as it perched on a branch, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t find it with my camera. Then we drove on towards a Pygmy Owl site. On the way we had great views of Black Grouse which had flown up and perched onto some bare trees in a woodland clearing, and we also saw female Capercaillie too. Antti saw a brief Hazelhen at one point, but the rest of us didn’t manage to get onto it. The Pygmy Owl site didn’t work for us this time. Antti tried his best in the hope that the male would be nearby and would come and investigate, but he decided not to show. A Goshawk was squawking from a nest nearby too, but it was too sensitive a site for us to have a look. A couple of us spotted a Goldcrest flitting in the trees above, but we had to give up on the Pygmy Owl and return to the hotel. On the way we stopped at a very open area with just a few dead trees, but one of which contained a Hawk Owl nest hole. Nothing appeared from the nest itself, but an adult owl soon appeared from behind us and called from a treetop. It really gave us a great look at how it got its name: when I first saw it in flight I was convinced for a second I was watching a Sparrowhawk.

Day Two began with my worst nightmare: as we waited in the car park to get into the minibuses, a request was made for us to rotate personnel as not everybody in the second minibus had seen the Black Grouse as well as we had the previous evening. I knew right then that my chances of finally seeing a Hazelhen were diminishing fast. As we left the hotel and made our way through Oulu I got a very brief glimpse of a Short-eared Owl flying across a field and out of sight behind a strip of trees, but I was the only person to see it. And of course, Hazelhen was seen by the front vehicle as we made our way through the forest, but not by the rest of us. A stop by a woodland margin brought my first tick of the tour (and crossed one off the target list): a Rustic Bunting that was initially elusive and flighty as it sang in the treetops, but which eventually came out and plonked itself nicely on a branch whereby everyone could get a great look (#446 on the lifelist). Crossbills also flew overhead, calling as they went.

Rustic BuntingRustic Bunting

After breakfast back at the hotel, we were back out to look for Tengmalm’s Owls. On the way we had a pleasant surprise: a pair of Woodcock sat on a grassy bank right next to the road as we passed an industrial site. Despite being just a couple of metres away from the minibus, they happily posed for photos in the bright sunshine. Then it was on to the Tengmalm’s nesting box. Antti knew there were owlets inside, and we could hear their calls too, but it took a long time before one eventually plucked up the courage to come out and have a look. It was the first Tengmalm’s owlet I’d seen, and it sat in the nest box entrance for some time even showing its feet – the first time I’ve seen more than just a head of this species! At least that proved that they do actually have bodies… After a while we decided to leave the owls in peace, and as we did so I looked back at the box from a side-on angle and got a few quick shots of the owlet poking its head out to make sure we really were leaving. Next was a nesting site for Black Woodpeckers. The trees in this location were mostly fairly low, but they were quite tightly packed together – quite unlike the very open clearing we saw them at last year – but a pair of adults flew in regular circuits around the taller trees surrounding the site. Very difficult for photography this time, but better flight views than I’d had before of the species. I’ve not had much luck with my camera equipment this year after cracking my new camera body on a stone staircase in the Cairngorms back in February, and this time I slipped on a rock as we left the woodpeckers and banged the end of my very expensive telephoto lens on it. Luckily, the only damage was a small cut to the rubber coating on the end of the hood.

WoodcockWoodcock

Tengmalm's OwlTengmalm’s Owl

Black WoodpeckerBlack Woodpecker

The afternoon saw us go out to find Great Grey Owls. As we stopped the minibuses by the side of a woodland one of the huge birds flew straight across the road about fifty yards ahead of us. We got out and got in position and soon found the female sat on her massive nest – we didn’t even need to leave the road to be able to view it. I couldn’t see it myself, but apparently there was a an owlet in the nest with her. The male who we had just seen flying across the road was perched regally on a branch of a tree nearby and gave us great views too. After this show we headed off back towards Oulu to a site where Pallid Harrier had been nesting. On the way I saw a hawk above the road in one of the villages we drove though, but with nobody else getting a look I’ll have to assume it was most likely a Sparrowhawk. As we looked across the field in front of us I saw a distant raptor, which turned out to be a White-tailed Eagle being mobbed by a Marsh Harrier. Then another raptor flew from somewhere behind us and then went low across the field in front. It was definitely a harrier but despite lots of discussion it couldn’t be agreed on definitively. In the end, it was decided that it most likely was the Pallid Harrier we were waiting for. Soon after this along came another White-tailed Eagle, this time being chased by a gull. We saw two long items hanging from its talons and initially assumed that it was a falconer’s bird with jesses attached, but as it flew right over our heads we could see it was actually clutching a fish and the strings were its entrails – and that also told us why the gull was putting up such a chase. Definitely the best views of White-tailed Eagle I’ve ever had. Back at the hotel I managed to get a few snaps of a Pied Flycatcher that seemed to be living in a nesting box on one of the nearby tree trunks.

Great Grey OwlGreat Grey Owl

White-tailed EagleWhite-tailed Eagle

Day Three saw us go back out in search of the Pygmy Owl. On the way we had Black Grouse and Capercaillie again, but the male owl again was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, Antti quietly lined us up and let us each have a very careful peek into the nest box where the tiny female was sat (presumably on eggs) and clicked her bill at each of us in turn. Leaving the site I saw my first Siskin in years, singing from the top of a conifer. We roved around looking for possible Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers, but had to make do with a Whinchat, Common Redpoll, and I saw a nice male Bullfinch feeding in a garden as we drove back to the hotel. A brief look around the bay before leaving Oulu for the drive north-east brought us another Common Crane and a Caspian Tern.

Black GrouseBlack Grouse

Unlike last year when we made a few stops – to eat, and to look for Hawk Owls – this time we drove directly to Kuusamo and had lunch after we’d settled into the hotel. Firstly, we went off down a road through the woods on the opposite of the lake to look for grouse. A Hazelhen was eventually heard, responding to Antti’s whistle, and after a while movement was spotted in some dense scrub. I got my bins onto it and could see some cryptic plumage and a head – it was my Hazelhen at long last (#447) – but despite Antti’s tireless efforts (encouraged by the fact that there were still several of us who had this species as a top priority), we couldn’t get anything more than a split-second glimpse as it moved behind the vegetation. It was only a few yards away, but it goes to show just how secretive these birds can be. A nice Mountain Hare came out and sat nearby for a few moments too, but no further luck on the Hazelhen. A drive to the end of the track took us to another Tengmalm’s Owl location, but there was nobody home so we drove off out of Kuusamo to look for other specialities. At one stage we stopped to check out a wader in a field – which turned out to be a Curlew – and as we did so Peter pointed out a flock of Waxwings in the trees lining the other side of the road. They were happily munching and didn’t seem bothered by us at all, so I went a bit crazy with the photos. Nicely backlit by the sun but very difficult to focus on, I still got a few shots that I’m happy with. Moving along we stopped at a lay-by at the foot of a hill. Straight away we found Siberian Jays – and Antti obviously knew what to expect because he had food for them and they happily came down to eat from his hand (#448). I’d been very unlucky to miss out on Siberian Jays the last time I was in Sweden – it was only the second time ever that they’d failed to show at their feeding station – and we obviously missed them last year, so this was a good experience. After a while we decided to head up the hillside, and as we did so a Black Kite floated overhead. Halfway up we stopped for Three-toed Woodpecker. A woodpecker was heard, and briefly seen by Antti and myself flying through the trees behind us, but most people didn’t get onto it. There were very nice views of the landscape from the top of the hill but no sign of the Rosefinch that had been reported there in previous days. We did, however, hear a Common Redstart in the trees further down. On the way back we stopped very briefly (Antti was trying to get us back to the hotel in time for dinner) at a roadside clearing and we got further views of a pair of nesting Hawk Owls. Luckily I was quick with the camera and tripod and managed to get a couple of nice shots, despite the gloomy conditions.

Bohemian WaxwingBohemian Waxwing

Siberian JaySiberian Jay

Hawk OwlHawk Owl

For the final morning we were up at 5am and returned to the roads around the lake. There was still ice on top and there was a nice White-tailed Eagle sitting on it, which then left when another one arrived and decided to start an aerial fight. Good close views of Muskrats were had, and then it was off to look for grouse again. This time we got the views we had hoped for. We stopped by a patch of denser woodland and out came a Hazelhen, which then proceeded to run around the minibuses and switch from one side of the road to the other. The light wasn’t good for taking anything other than poor-quality record shots, but the views of the bird with just our eyes were fantastic, and well worth returning to Finland for! And there was another bonus: Antti drove us to the end of the track to look for Bluethroats…and we found them. I’ve wanted to see a Bluethroat for years and never managed it – there was even one at Rye Meads recently but it didn’t stay long enough for us to get over there – and I certainly hadn’t been expecting to see one on this tour. There were at least two of them, but they were quick and skittish, always landing deep in the middle of the scrubby bushes so the views were mostly tantalising at best. But eventually one of them sat and sang in a position for long enough to get a few shots (#449). There were of the red-spotted race too, which was the one I’d wanted to see most. Whilst here we also had Red-necked Grebes out on the lake.

HazelhenHazelhen

BluethroatBluethroat

We then tried for Willow Grouse, but with time running out we didn’t try for long and had to admit defeat on that one. Then it was off to a Siberian Tit nesting site. We stood near the box for some time with no luck, but then one flew straight in and then popped out and left the area. Luckily I managed to see it land in some distant trees and actually got a really good look though my binoculars before it disappeared (#450). We also went to another Tengmalm’s Owl nest box and this time got an adult female who popped her head out and gave us a good a glare. A Cuckoo was heard calling nearby too. A very smart Black-throated Diver was also seen on a small lake as we headed back to the hotel to get ready to go home. It was a long drive back to Oulu Airport, but we made it and the flights back to London were as uneventful as ever, but that was fine by me. One thing to note was that in Lesbos the previous month we bumped into Killian Mullarney of the Collins Guide fame a few times throughout the week. On Day Four in Finland we stopped a couple of times for comfort breaks on the way back to Oulu Airport and there he was again, eating in one of the roadside cafes. He’ll think I’m following him…

Tengmalm's OwlTengmalm’s Owl

In all, it was another very, very good trip. Of my main targets I didn’t manage to get Red-flanked Bluetail or Dotterel – spring has come around a bit later this year and they simply hadn’t arrived in that part of Finland yet – but I did finally get my Hazelhen, plus the Rustic Bunting, Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit. The Bluethroats were an unexpected bonus too, meaning I added five new species and brought my lifelist up to 450. The thing that was striking for me was the difference in temperature compared with last year. It was the same weekend of the year so the dates were out by just one day, but where we’d had scorching heat throughout the daytimes with only one day of significant cloud last year, this year was a combination of occasional sun and plenty of cloud with much lower temperatures, not to mention the rain on the first day. On the final morning as we watched the White-tailed Eagles on the lake there were even a couple of flakes of snow (the temperature on Day Four reached 33°C last year). The guiding was as good as it gets, with Antti’s patience and determination to get us good Hazelhen views being quite remarkable, and the food was as good as last year too.

I feel from a general birding point of view I’ve probably ‘done’ Finland now (or at least the broader part of Finland) but I would definitely return again in the future, perhaps with more emphasis on photography tours. The same could be said for Sweden. I love these northern Taiga Forests and the species they contain so I hope there will be future visits, even if not imminent ones.

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Lesbos – Spring Birding

At the beginning of the year Jem and I decided that we wanted to go on a birding holiday to Austria. We chose one from Oriole Birding which fitted the bill nicely. Unfortunately, as we went ahead to book it, we were told that the guide had suffered an injury and wouldn’t be well enough to lead the tour this year. So then I spent a couple of days going through brochures and websites looking for alternative options, which I collated in a spreadsheet. Each time Jem and I went through the pros and cons we ended up arriving at the same shortlist of three, and eventually the decision was made to book our places on Birdfinders’ tour to Lesbos.

Day One was spent travelling: by Tube to Heathrow, and then flights to Athens and then the short hop to Mytilene. We arrived late in the evening and then our guide, Neil, collected our minibus and we headed off to our hotel on the outskirts of Mithymna/Molivos in the north of the island (puncturing a tyre as we arrived).

The first full morning was spent relatively close by. We began on the coastal hills at Kavaki, where we started with my first life tick of the tour: a pair of Ruddy Shelduck (#416 on the lifelist), as well as a nice Black-eared Wheatear and a brief Common Cuckoo. Moving up the hillside track we got several Eastern Subalpine Warblers (#417), a showy Sardinian Warbler, and a brief Rüppell’s Warbler (#418). It was a cool and damp day and we then moved on firstly to the Kalloni Raptor Watchpoint where we got views of Marsh Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-footed Falcon, and Short-toed Eagle, as well as Western Rock Nuthatch (#419) and Cretzschmar’s Bunting (#420). Then it was down into the town so we could get the tyre replaced, stopping first to look for European Scops Owls in the trees around a mini football pitch. Known by birders as ‘Scops Copse’ it proved to be aptly named as we eventually managed to find three of the reported six owls (#421). Next we moved on to the Kalloni Saltpans to find lots of waders, such as Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Ruff, Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper, and Common and Little Terns. There was also a Black Stork with a drooped wing. In the afternoon we moved on to the nearby Tsiknias River where we found Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Great Reed Warbler, Red-footed Falcon, Nightingale, Black-crowned Night-heron, Penduline Tit, and my first Collared Flycatcher (#422). Not a bad start to the tour, especially considering the damp weather.

Scops OwlScops Owl

Collared FlycatcherCollared Flycatcher

Day Three began at Kavaki again, giving us good views of a Turtle Dove and distant views of Yelkouan’s Shearwaters (#423), along with some Dolphins in the bay. As we headed towards Sigri we stopped at various spots to find Cirl Bunting, more Subalpine Warblers, a Sombre Tit (#424), and a couple of Hoopoes. Blue Rock Thrush (#425) was seen at another stop nearby. We then ascended to the Ipsilou Monastery, getting good views on the way of Isabelline Wheatear (#426), as well as Woodchat Shrikes and a flock of Bee-eaters overhead. At the top we got better views of the Western Rock Nuthatch, a very showy, singing Cinereous Bunting (#427), and a brief flyover from an Eleonora’s Falcon (#428). Northern Wheatear and a second Sombre Tit were seen here too, along with a large Glass Lizard. We descended after lunch and made our way to Sigri, where we found three Golden Orioles calling together, several Zitting Cisticolas, a Common Redstart, and Spotted and Collared Flycatchers. Moving on to the ford we saw several more flycatchers, a Cetti’s Warbler and a Wood Warbler. On the way back towards Sigri itself we had a harrier fly over our heads. We had a lot of debate over whether it was Montagu’s or Pallid, and it was only after putting the photos on Birdforum once I was back home that it was eventually identified as Pallid.

Turtle DoveTurtle Dove

Black-eared WheatearBlack-eared Wheatear

Sombre TitSombre Tit

Eastern Subalpine WarblerEastern Subalpine Warbler

Isabelline WheatearIsabelline Wheatear

Cinereous BuntingCinereous Bunting

Crested LarkCrested Lark

Mithymna SunsetMithymna Sunset

Day Four saw us head back out to the Kalloni area and on to the Christou to have a look at a real mega: the first Demoiselle Crane (#429) ever for Lesbos, and only the sixth record for Greece. It was fairly distant but close enough to see its features, and then we had an added bonus when a Red-backed Shrike (#430) perched on a tree nearby. Following that we found a nice Little Bittern at the pool at Skala Kallonis, and then we headed on to Metochi Lake where we found Little Crake (#431). I saw two birds, but apparently there were six there. Various hirundines hawked around and I saw a Common Cuckoo fly past too. We moved along to the Potamia Valley riverside, getting a Masked Shrike (#432) on the way. Here we saw a nice Long-legged Buzzard and a bright European Green Lizard on a rock by the path. The next stop was the Achlederi Forest, where we had both Serin and another Masked Shrike by the car park. A walk up the forest track brought us Krüper’s Nuthatch (#433). There were two birds, very mobile either side of the path and it was difficult to get good views, but it was just good enough to see some diagnostics. We also had a Scarce Swallowtail butterfly here. On the way back we found a Short-toed Treecreeper (#434) and heard a Mistle Thrush. We returned to the Saltpans to have a look at plenty of Whiskered Terns, a Marsh Sandpiper, and a Spur-winged Plover (#435). It was whilst watching the Marsh Sandpiper on a pool across the main road that everything suddenly scattered. Surprisingly, I seemed to be the only member of the group who noticed the raptor floating – not very high – above our heads, but eventually most of the group got on to it and it proved to be our second Pallid Harrier, and this was followed ten minutes later by a third.

Demoiselle CraneDemoiselle Crane

Little BitternLittle Bittern

Long-legged BuzzardLong-legged Buzzard

Masked ShrikeMasked Shrike

Black-winged StiltBlack-winged Stilt

Kentish PloverKentish Plover

Pallid HarrierPallid Harrier

The first stop on Day Five was at the hillside chapel of Aghios Ioannis. Here we had both Lesser and Common Whitethroats, Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Cirl Bunting and both Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes. Moving on to the Makara Valley in cloudy conditions we had Peregrine and Red-footed Falcons, Crag Martin, Alpine Swift, and the highlight of the morning: a European Roller (#436) which perched obligingly on a rock below a rocky cliff face. We made it down to the beach for some sea watching to get Yelkouan’s and Scopoli’s (#437) Shearwaters and we also had another Turtle Dove, Cetti’s Warbler, and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (#438). We then headed towards Sigri via the Meladia Valley, seeing a number of Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Wheatears on the way. Arriving at the ford where another group was trying to locate a Marsh Warbler, we got our first Black-headed Bunting (#439). We headed back the way we came and eventually stopped high on a valley hillside to look for Rock Petronia. Jem and I were tired and decided to relax in the minibus, until a shout of “Great Spotted Cuckoo!” woke us up and we bounced out of the vehicle. On the slope below us was one single tree with a cuckoo sat in the top of it (#440). We watched for some time, and then a second bird appeared amongst the leaves a bit lower down. It was an unexpected and very welcome bonus. After that little show we headed back to the hotel, with a Middle Spotted Woodpecker seen flying across the road in front of us at one point too.

Cirl BuntingCirl Bunting

European RollerEuropean Roller

Cretzschmar's BuntingCretzschmar’s Bunting

Woodchat ShrikeWoodchat Shrike

Black-headed BuntingBlack-headed Bunting

Great Spotted CuckooGreat Spotted Cuckoo

Day Six began back around the Saltpans, bringing us a Citrine Wagtail (#441) and several Squacco Herons. There was at least one more Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in the trees, plus distant views of the Little Owl again. Corn Buntings and Black-headed Bunting were here, and after seeing a distant flock of Garganey in flight, we also had a fourth Pallid Harrier in the distance. Back along the edge of the pans we had a flock of Gull-billed Terns overhead and a low-flying Short-toed Eagle that we could almost have reached up and touched. We moved on round to the shore side meadow and got Greater Short-toed Lark and Red-throated Pipit (#442). We stopped at the Madaros Valley silos for some lunch and had yet another harrier – this time a Montagu’s – fly straight through, and a nice Hoopoe briefly up on a wire, but I couldn’t get a photo. A few minutes later presumably the same bird was sat calling from another wire. Luckily it was screened by a large tree and I was able to sneak up and then get some snaps through a gap in the branches. We then headed off for a walk up the valley, getting an Eastern Orphean Warbler (#443) on the way. Three Hobbies, a Black Stork, and then two White Storks were seen overhead, as well as another Short-toed Eagle. On the way back towards the hotel we stopped at the Scops Copse again to have a look in better conditions than we’d had on Monday, and this time we located five birds. Then we had another stop at the Raptor Watchpoint. Here we had Lesser Kestrel, Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle, Eleonora’s Falcon, Cretzschmar’s Bunting and Woodchat Shrike, plus a Starred Agama lizard on the rocks.

Squacco HeronsSquacco Herons

Eastern Olivaceous WarblerEastern Olivaceous Warbler

Corn BuntingCorn Bunting

Short-toed EagleShort-toed Eagle

HoopoeHoopoe

Scops OwlScops Owl

Eleonora's FalconEleonora’s Falcon

Day Seven began with a search for Olive-tree Warbler, which most of us didn’t manage to see, but we instead got Nightingales and more Subalpine Warblers. Moving on we had a roadside stop to watch Middle Spotted Woodpeckers attending their nest in a dead tree. There were also Cirl Buntings and Rock Petronias here. We carried on up to the Petrified Forest road where we finally got to see a couple of Chukars (#444) as they bobbed amongst the rocks. We descended to Sigri again and as we arrived we had three shrike species all together in one small meadow: Woodchat, Red-backed and Lesser Grey (#445). The flycatchers were still in the same place, and Golden Orioles were calling nearby, whilst two Lesser Kestrels circled overhead. After lunch at the nearby beach we headed back to watch the Middle Spotted Woodpeckers again. A big surprise was a Griffon Vulture floating over the opposite hill, being mobbed by a buzzard. There was also another Eleonora’s Falcon here, and a Western Rock Nuthatch on a small cliff face. On the way back we stopped at Aghios Taxiarchis again to look for the Olive-tree Warbler that we missed this morning. Still no sign, but there were more shrikes – all three species again – Nightingale and Sombre Tit.

ChukarsChukars

Red-backed ShrikeRed-backed Shrike

Middle Spotted WoodpeckerMiddle Spotted Woodpecker

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture

Lesser Grey ShrikeLesser Grey Shrike

For the final morning we headed back out to Kavaki to look for more warblers. I wanted a good photo of a Subalpine so some of us went up the hill path looking for them, whilst the rest of the group stayed on the coast-side of the road and had great views of Rüppell’s Warbler. Although I saw Subalpine well, I still couldn’t quite get the shots I wanted. I did see some good butterflies though, including Scarce Swallowtail and Painted Lady. We then returned to the hotel to get packed, and also got a good opportunity to look at the Middle-eastern subspecies of Jay which was in the trees just outside our balcony. And then it was off to the airport.

JayJay

In all I added 30 new species to my lifelist. We managed to get almost everything that we’d hoped to see – with only Collared Pratincole failing to show up. There were very few negatives – perhaps I’d have liked to have seen Krüper’s Nuthatch a bit better, and Red-footed Falcon too – but there were so many highlights that outweighed those few picky things. Seeing my first Scops Owls (I’d heard them calling in Serbia) – and seeing several of them close-up – was a massive highlight for me, along with the Sylvia warblers, shrikes, buntings, Roller and raptors. The Demoiselle Crane and Great Spotted Cuckoos were extra bonuses too. We were also lucky with the weather, and the photography opportunities that it allowed. It started off a bit cool and damp, but then was mostly warm and sunny for the rest of the week, but without getting too scorching. Having said that, it would’ve been nice if the hotel pool had been filled…

This was definitely one of the best trips I’ve been on and I’d definitely return to Lesbos in the future, although we missed out on so few species this time that it would probably be difficult to find many new birds…

The full photo album can be viewed on my Flickr page.

Prints of many of my photos from the tour can be ordered here.

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Pre-Lesbos Catch-up

After the fun we had in the Cairngorms back in early February, we’ve managed a number of days out-and-about since to see what’s around and to add to our UK yearlist.

It began with a damp Saturday morning in Kensington Gardens. The main plan was to look for the owls, and we soon found the male Tawny Owl sat above the nest hole in the usual tree, with his feathers fluffing about in the breeze. The Little Owls were nowhere to be seen, but we did get an unusually-confiding Green Woodpecker which was rooting about in the grass near to the Leaf Store. Using a small tree as a screen I was able to get within a few feet of him, and I managed to get the best close-up photos I’ve ever managed of this normally-skittish species. There was also a young Greater Scaup on the Round Pond, slowly coming into his adult plumage.

Tawny OwlTawny Owl

Greater ScaupGreater Scaup

Green WoodpeckerGreen WoodpeckerGreen Woodpecker

The following weekend took us to Tower Hamlets Cemetery. I hadn’t been over there for at least a couple of years, but it’s great for the usual woodland species, and there had been reports of a Firecrest amongst the Goldcrests. Jem had never seen a Firecrest – and I’d only seen two before – so off we went. The Goldcrests were found quite quickly in one particular glade, and then I spotted the Firecrest nearby, looking for insects on the side of a gravestone. Photos were difficult to get as these birds just won’t stay still for more than a fraction of a second, but I managed a few record shots before we decided to wander around the cemetery a bit more. Lots of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen together – probably a family group – and I also managed to get an interesting shot of another Goldcrest as it opened its wings whilst scaling a tree trunk.

FirecrestFirecrest

GoldcrestGoldcrest

March came around and we decided to spend a day down at Thursley Common in Surrey. It was the first really nice, sunny day of early spring and it brought us a few interesting species. We started with Woodlarks, a Kestrel and a female Stonechat (surprisingly, our first of the year), and then we eventually managed to get a decent look at the annual Great Grey Shrike. We met up with Dev and Michelle for lunch nearby and then we returned for another walk around the Common. The Woodlarks were seen again, and I’m pretty sure we had a Dartford Warbler fly past us too, but it wasn’t a definite tickable sighting.

WoodlarkWoodlark

KestrelKestrel

Great Grey ShrikeGreat Grey Shrike

Jem’s dad was racing at Dungeness the following weekend, so we took the opportunity to have a good look around the RSPB reserve again. Bright, warm sunshine again, but unfortunately it was very breezy this time and most of the birds were keeping a low profile. Goldeneyes were seen on one of the main lakes, and we also got first views of a Cetti’s Warbler for the year. One of the Great White Egrets was also seen flapping around and I managed to creep up on a nicely-perched Kestrel and get a few shots. There were also a few Tree Sparrows lurking around by the feeders at the car park.

KestrelKestrel

The following weekend proved to be an exciting one. As anyone who reads my blog will know, the bird that has proved most elusive for me over the years has been the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I’ve had one fly past my head in Serbia, a couple fly away over treetops in the New Forest, I’ve located a nest tree in Bushy Park, and had one go through the hotel car park in Finland whilst I’ve been stuck inside checking out, but I’ve never had a proper look at one – at least not anywhere near well enough to see I’ve ‘seen’ one. But that all changed thanks to a number of regular reports on Twitter and on the Hertfordshire Bird Club’s website. We found out there was a regular male at Stocker’s Lake on the edge of Rickmansworth – with a female possibly on the nest – so we took the Tube all the way out there and made our way to the lakes. It’s a great place for birding. Throughout the day we found Treecreepers, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, our first Chiffchaffs of the spring, a nice Sparrowhawk, several Redwing and a number of active Goldcrests. We knew the the LSWs had mostly been seen on an island in one corner of the lake, so we got ourselves to a good viewing spot on one of the banks. It was actually the perfect location, both for bird and birdwatcher: the island was close enough that we could see most of the trees well with our binoculars, yet it was far enough away from the edge of the lake that there wouldn’t be disturbance. We waited for a while with no luck, and then another local birder arrived and set his scope up. Still no sign for a while, but eventually a woodpecker flew from the south side of the lake into one of the trees on the island. I got my binoculars on it, and it was unmistakeable. The gent with the scope let us have better views too, and so I finally got my nemesis bird! It was too far away for good photos, but I managed a couple of low-quality record shots. After a few minutes the bird disappeared, so the other birder left to go round the rest of the lake. Two more birders arrived a short while later and the bird then returned before flying high over our heads towards a wooded area to the west. That was #415 on my global lifelist.

Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerLesser Spotted Woodpecker

Spring was definitely on its way, and the following weekend we saw reports of the first Wheatear at the reservoirs next door, so we spent a Sunday afternoon in the sunshine wandering around. We found one Wheatear on the eastern bank of the Lockwood and I was able to shuffle along slowly and get some shots that I was happy with. Lots of Egyptian Geese around too, and we also got some Grey Wagtails. We bumped into a group of young birders who mentioned they were going to be looking for the Barn Owl that had been recently seen on Tottenham Marshes just north of the Lockwood, so Jem and I decided to join them later on. It took a little while for the owl to appear, but it eventually crossed the canal right in front of us and did a few circuits of the eastern part of the marsh. A couple of guys notified us of some thieves who were around – apparently armed with a knife – so we decided it would be best to head off home before they saw my camera equipment. Whether it was true or no we don’t know, but we’d had great views of the owl and it was beginning to get dark anyway.

Wheatear

Barn Owl

Barn OwlBarn Owl

The following Saturday was spent at a location we’d never been to before: Staines Reservoirs. We obviously know the Moor nearby very well now, but we didn’t realise that the causeway between the north and south basins of was publicly-accessible. With the northern basin drained for maintenance, it gave us added incentive to have a look for ourselves. As with many of our trips out so far this year, it was windy, and also a bit grey and damp, but we made the best of it and got good views of the Great Northern Diver that had been on the south basin for several days. The six Black-necked Grebes were also found eventually, but they were very distant. Large numbers of Pied Wagtails were noted, and a nice flock of Linnets were pecking around in the north basin. We also saw a Red Kite waft over the housing in between the north basin and Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Just before we left we got close views of a Little Ringed Plover and some Meadow Pipits on the grassy bank.

Great Northern DiverGreat Northern Diver

Early April was spent with a walk down the canal to Walthamstow Marshes. Not a huge amount was seen, but we had a nice Fieldfare on the Marshes and then got a nice little compendium of birds down beside the Springfield Marina. There were Robins, House Sparrows, Chaffinches, a Mistle Thrush, and some Starlings. I’d taken my old, battered Sigma 70-200/2.8 lens with 1.4x teleconverter in the expectation of getting just a few record shots of anything that looked interesting. This combination of old lens and TC is what I’d normally call ‘convenient’ rather than high-quality. Light transmission is affected by the TC, and focusing tends to be far less accurate than normal, and overall image quality is definitely poorer than using the lens on its own (which is in itself poorer in IQ than my usual 500/4.5 prime lens). So I was very pleasantly surprised to see that one of the Starling photos came out absolutely crystal clear and pin sharp! I’d rank it as one of the best photos I’ve taken so far this year. On the way back to the flat we had the added bonus of a flock of Greenfinches taking turns to feed from a makeshift bird feeder than someone had installed outside a high-level flat, and a fox on the opposite side of the canal carrying a large fish in its mouth.

StarlingStarling

Red FoxRed Fox

Easter Monday was bright and warm, so we decided to give Rainham Marshes a visit for the first time in a while. We got probably more than thirty Redshanks, lots of Goldfinches, a few Shelduck and Lapwing, some Oystercatchers, a male Marsh Harrier, and a Water Vole happily munching on a stalk. The main highlight, however, was a pair of Garganey that had been on one of the pools near to the woodland area for a few days. Views weren’t great because they kept going in and out of the grasses, but they were good enough. They’re the first Garganey I’d ever seen in the UK.

Water VoleWater Vole

Next stop was the Wetland Centre. We’d not been since last year, so we were well overdue a visit. Again, it was a day of bright sunshine. Plenty of Lapwings around, as well as a Sparrowhawk that soared overhead from the Barnes end of the site. We also had good views of Redshanks and Little Ringed Plovers from the Peacock Tower, as well as our first Sand Martins of the year. We also managed to see a female Blackcap and three Common Lizards – one that ran under Jem’s foot near the Summer Route and two in the logpiles.

Marsh FrogMarsh Frog

BlackcapBlackcap

Common LizardCommon Lizard

The pre-holiday spring birding came to an end with a wander around the reservoirs one Saturday afternoon. The Kingfishers were in full voice, there were lots of Chaffinches, Great Tits and Blue Tits around, and I’m pretty sure I also got a brief sight of a Marsh Tit too, but I wasn’t able to get a photo for confirmation. My first House Martins of the year were grabbing insects on the wing too. The following day we went up to Essex to have lunch with Jem’s grandparents. Behind the marina restaurant we saw Greenshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Meadow Pipits, and we heard our first Cuckoo of the year. A few days later a Short-eared Owl had been reported on consecutive evenings where the Barn Owl had been a few weeks earlier, so Jem and I went up to have a look on the eve of our holiday. No luck unfortunately, but it got us into the mood for the holiday ahead…

Grey SquirrelGrey Squirrel

ChaffinchChaffinch

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Scotland, at last…

Jem and I had wanted to visit Scotland for some Highland birding for a while, and Heatherlea’s 2-for-1 special offer gave us the perfect opportunity, and we booked a five-day break with three days of guided birding for early February.

Well, it wasn’t the best of starts. Things started to go wrong on the Friday night when my TV broke. Luckily it’s just within its extended warranty, so that’ll be sorted soon. Anyway, everything initially seemed to be going to plan on the Saturday morning: we got the DLR to London City Airport, got checked-in, and the new self-service bag weighing system SEEMED to be a good idea. We even saw the Hairy Bikers in one of the cafes while we waited to board our plane. And the flight was fine too. But it all went wrong when we arrived at Inverness.

My luggage hadn’t made it. There had only been about twenty passengers on the plane, and only about five of them had checked baggage, but mine still somehow managed to go missing. I reported it to Flybe’s staff and a lady filled out a PIR form and gave me a copy of it, saying that hopefully it’ll be on the following day’s flight. So we got the bus into Inverness, then the train to Aviemore, where I had to buy replacement boots, waterproof trousers, and other supplies.

Aviemore itself had plenty of snow around, so the boots were the main priority. We had plenty of time though, and we treated ourselves to a haggis toastie for lunch, and then we saw a Sparrowhawk while we waited to be picked up by Jonny. On the minibus to the hotel we found ourselves holidaying with two Sheffield United fans. Luckily the rivalry was good-humoured, so that wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been… Once in the hotel I realised two things: the new self-weighing system for baggage doesn’t give you a label stub like you’d normally get after dropping your bags off, and the member of staff who’d filled out my PIR form had forgotten to provide any reference number. This wasn’t going well.

Sunday

Sunday morning saw the holiday begin properly. The first stop was to look for Black Grouse. Despite being told that they were showing well by another tour guide we met whilst he was dealing with his broken-down vehicle, they were nowhere to be seen. We did instead get Red Grouse in the snowy hillsides, and a very, very distant Golden Eagle. It was too far away for me to tick though.

Next was the coniferous forest at Tomvaich where we got great views of Common Crossbills. I’d seen them before in Sweden and Norfolk, but I’d never seen them well. Following this we made our way to Loch Garten. By the car park we had great views of Crested Tits and Coal Tits coming to various feeders. A photography tour group were set up for close-up shots, but they hogged the best position in the best light and I didn’t get a look in.

The afternoon saw us scan the gulls at Granish Dump to see if there were any rarities, without success, then we had brief views of a Peregrine at Craigellachie Rock in Aviemore, and we finished with a nice walk through the hillside forest at Glen Festie, where we had Goldcrests and a Treecreeper.

001Red Grouse

001Common Crossbill

001Crested Tit

001

001Coal Tits

Monday

Monday morning saw us walking through the snow in a hillside forest. The target was Capercaillie, and we didn’t fail. Being at the front of the line I was the only person to see every one of the birds, however none of the views were great, being fleeting glimpses as they flew from the trees as we neared. In the way back I was at the back of the line, and a small mammal swam through a stream in front of me, most likely being a Common Shrew.

The next stop was Strathdearn to look for Golden Eagles. At the viewpoint from Daltomach we had Buzzards, Kestrels and Ravens, and after a while we moved off to Coignafearn so we could stop for lunch. There was a nice Mountain Hare on the hillside behind us, and we eventually managed, as we drive away, to see a distant Golden Eagle. We kept track of it and it eventually got nearer and nearer, and landed on the side of the mountain on our left. After a few minutes it took off again and slowly soared above us, and was then joined by a second bird.

I’ve wanted to see Golden Eagles since I was a child, and even coming up to Scotland I didn’t dare hope for more than a distant glimpse, so to get two of them soaring right over our heads and give a show like that was unbelievable and something I’ll never forget. It was #412 on my lifelist.

After this we drove off to Cairn Gorm to look for Snow Buntings and Ptarmigan. At the Coir Cas ski centre we had Snow Buntings right by the car park. In beautiful sunlight a flock was regularly eating from a small mound by a picnic area. To get to this area we had to ascend a flight of stone stairs which surprisingly hadn’t been cleared of snow and ice. I got up okay, but just as we reached the mound someone beeped their car horn and the birds flew away. With Ptarmigan still to see we turned back, and I ended up falling down the steps and cracking my new camera on the stone wall. One of the control dials on the top is cracked, but luckily the camera seems to still be working fine.

Behind the ski centre we positioned ourselves with scopes pointing at the crest of the mountain above, where there were three Ptarmigan, camouflaged against the snow (#413). Distant views, but not disappointingly so. When we returned to the car park the Snow Buntings had come back, but sadly the mountainside was now in shadow and the photographic opportunities were less impressive.

We moved onto the Coire na Ciste car park to scan the area. More Red Grouse were seen here, and some Reindeer.

Luckily, upon arriving back at the hotel I found my luggage had finally turned up, 48 hours late.

001

001Golden Eagles

001Ptarmigan

001Snow Bunting

001Cairn Gorm Landscape

Tuesday

Tuesday morning began with us finally getting some Black Grouse. They were fairly distant, but well-viewable with scopes and binoculars. Red Grouse and another nice Mountain Hare were also seen here. On we went towards the coast, stopping to look at various small passerines, such as Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings, plus some Whooper Swans. Spey Bay brought us Goosander, Red-throated Diver and Long-tailed Duck. We stopped at a large pond near Spynie to look at Goldeneye and a pair of Goosander, and then went on to Lossiemouth for more Long-tailed Ducks, another diver, various waders including Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling and Turnstone, Rock Pipit, and my first Iceland Gull (#414).

Various stops along the coast brought us more Long-tailed Ducks, Eider, and a Purple Sandpiper at Hopeman. We also saw a Sparrowhawk near RAF Lossiemouth which sent up huge flocks of Linnet and an impressive flock of Corn Buntings. We finished the tour with some sea watching at Roseisle.

001Mountain Hare

001Yellowhammer

001Turnstone

001Red-throated Diver

001Iceland Gull with Herring Gulls and Wigeon

001Long-tailed Duck

001Knot

Wednesday

Jem and I had time to spare on Wednesday morning and spent some of this watching Red Squirrels around the hotel. Back in Aviemore we had some very nice Buzzards, and then had three more at Inverness Airport while we waited for our flight to be called.

In all it was a fantastic tour. Despite the problems of my luggage not arriving, and then slipping on the steps on Cairn Gorm and breaking my new camera, we got almost everything we’d hoped to see, and very good views of nearly all the target species. We enjoyed the hotel, the guides, the food, and the stunning landscape. We’d definitely go back in the future…but next time we’ll get the train…

001Red Squirrel

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January – A Good Start to the Year

New Year’s Day saw Jem’s parents very kindly take us to Wallasea Island in Essex for our first ever visit. Despite grey skies ans strong winds off the Crouch, we were met as soon as we arrived in the car park by an awesome female Hen Harrier. On the grass directly in front of the car park we had a mobile flock of Corn Buntings, and there were Marsh Harriers and Buzzards quartering the marsh too. From up on the river wall we got – thanks to some other birders – a very distant Rough-legged Buzzard, plus several waders on the mud on the river side. Sadly the strong winds kept the Short-eared Owls away (there had been up to six of them reported in the preceding days. I was pretty sure there was at least one Peregrine over the marsh once we’d returned to the car too. On the way back to London we had a Black-backed Gull species, Little Egrets, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker on a telegraph pole.

I then invested in a new camera. It’s the upgrade of my trusty Sony A77 (imaginatively named the A77 II) and on the face of it doesn’t appear to be much different (it even has the same number of pixels), but the main thing is the new AF system, and that’s what convinced me to invest.

The next trip was a mid-afternoon jaunt over to Fairlop Waters for the first time in a while because of a reported Short-eared Owl. We met another local birder there who seemed to know where we should be looking, but after while it looked like we were going to be unlucky. In the meantime we got Redwings and Fieldfares, and a nice Sparrowhawk too. Then Jem spied the owl as it emerged from the scrub and then began to do circuits of the nature reserve area. We moved back to our original position in between the main lake and the reserve and we were treated to a number of flypasts as the light eventually began to fade. It was difficult to get uninterrupted lines-of-sight because of the all the random trees and bushes, but the AF system in the new camera did a surprisingly good job of locking on to a difficult subject in very poor lighting conditions.

DSC00036

DSC00067Short-eared Owl

The following weekend took us to Amwell to try to get our first Smew. Despite fine sunshine for most of the afternoon and being in the correct location for them, the Smew didn’t put in an appearance. We did instead Get a Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Kingfisher and Goldeneye, and we finished off with great views of the regular Barn Owl as it hunted over the reeds. The following day we had a quick wander around the reservoirs next door to see what we could find. We couldn’t find the recent adult Greater Scaup, but we think we saw a younger bird instead. A Kingfisher flew past us as we walked down the side of the East Warwick, and we had a circling Sparrowhawk overhead too. An obliging Robin gave me a good opportunity to really test the AF of my new camera on a close subject.

DSC00168Barn Owl

DSC00254Robin

DSC00296Sparrowhawk

Then it was off to Bramfield for our first visit of the year. The main target was Hawfinch as they’d been seen in the village again, but we got a surprising start with two Red Kites as soon as we’d left Hertford North Station. On the way out of Hertford we got lots of Coal Tits and lots of Redwings. Common Buzzards and Kestrels were seen as we neared the village, but then we noticed a raptor that seemed slightly different. I initially assumed it was a Common Buzzard as it was a similar size to one that was circling nearby, but it’s shape seemed slightly more harrier-like with longer wings and tail proportions. When it caught the sun, in my binoculars I saw a very prominent white rump/tail patch on an otherwise brown upperside, which made me think of a female Hen Harrier even more. The problem was that we were there for the Hawfinches and we were already later than we’d planned, so when we lost sight of the bird we walked on. But then we turned round and it had reappeared behind the house on the corner of the main road where we usually see Yellowhammers and Redpolls. The bird was hovering, unlike a Common Buzzard and less flickery than a Kestrel would, so I began to wonder if it was a Rough-legged Buzzard instead. Typically, just as I tried to get my camera onto the bird, it stooped and disappeared from view. It didn’t reappear quickly so we headed on into the churchyard for the Hawfinches whilst I made mental notes of what we’d just seen.

The Hawfinches were there – as were a number of birders with bins and scopes – but the birds were very difficult to see. There were at least two birds, in one tree, but our views were either shadowy silhouettes or brief glimpses as the sun caught them as they bounced amongst the branches. Luckily, I managed to fire off a few shots of one individual as it’s head was illuminated just before they all flew off. Again, the camera’s quick and accurate AF showed its worth. Soon after a birding couple arrived and asked us if we’d seen the Hawfinches, but by then they had left the churchyard. The couple were disappointed as they assumed they would miss out on them, but they were at least upbeat because they’d seen a Rough-legged Buzzard on their walk over from Stapleford – which means they undoubtedly saw the same bird as us! By the end of the day we’d added both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Greenfinches, Fieldfares, Brown Hares and Jays to the list. When I returned home I checked my guide books for Rough-legged Buzzard and it was absolutely bang-on for what we saw. I’ve submitted the record to the Hertfordshire Bird Recorder, so I hope it’ll be accepted. Even if it isn’t accepted officially we know 100% what we both saw, and it’s good that other people had seen it too.

DSC00444

DSC00452Hawfinch

The final trip out of a very productive January took us back to Amwell in a surprise snowstorm. This time we were in luck and it didn’t take us long to see the two drake Smew (lifelist #411), even if they were distant and only seen through heavy snow. The Goldeneye were still there, and after we moved off to the James Hide to get out of the weather and have our lunch we had a very nice time watching lots of Reed Buntings and Long-tailed Tits on the feeders. A Kingfisher briefly flew to the branch right in front of the hide, but I wasn’t quite quick enough with the camera. A Water Rail also jumped out from right in front of the hide and quickly snuck into the reeds. Three Buzzards were seen, a couple of Little Grebes, lots of Cormorants, robins, Lapwings and Gulls too, but the Barn Owl didn’t make an appearance this time. By the end of the month the yearlist was already up to 74. It’s going to be a good year…

DSC00512Canada Geese with Smew

DSC00559Reed Bunting

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