2014 hadn’t been a great birding year for me, certainly as far as seeing new species goes, with only twelve species being added to the lifelist, and many of our trips were affected by either bad weather or illness. Before 2015 had even begun we’d already booked ourselves on a winter tour to Scotland and I’d booked myself a return to Finland in the hope of seeing some of the species I’d missed in 2014.
It was a very good start to 2015. On New Year’s Day we visited Wallasea Island for the first time, getting a female Hen Harrier as soon as we arrived in the car park, followed by flocks of Corn Buntings in the grass in front of us. Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, various waders, and a distant Rough-legged Buzzard all got the year off to a great start. I bought myself a new camera – the upgraded MkII edition of my Sony A77 – and tested it out on a fine late-afternoon Short-eared Owl at Fairlop Waters. Trips to Amwell to look for the Smew (we failed, but still got a nice Barn Owl), and Bramfield for Hawfinches (we succeeded) followed. On our arrival in Bramfield we also got another Rough-legged Buzzard which I reported to the Hertfordshire Bird Recorder. I didn’t manage to get photos, but I’m sure of the ID and so hopefully it’ll be accepted. We finished the month by going back to Amwell in a blizzard, and this time we finally got our first ever Smews.
Canada Geese with Smew
The month began with a 5-day break in Scotland with Heatherlea. Despite the issues of my luggage not making onto our flight, leaving me in the snowy Cairngorms with just the most basic of clothing, and also cracking my brand new camera when I slipped down snow-covered steps (luckily only causing cosmetic damage), it was a great little break. Crested Tits, Snow Buntings, Common Crossbills, Capercaillie, Black and Red Grouse and Mountain Hares were all great to see, and we added three to the lifelist in Iceland Gull, Ptarmigan and Golden Eagle. The eagles were the highlights for me – one of the experiences of my life. We’d had a very distant one high in the sky on the first morning, but on the second afternoon we had a fantastic close-up flyover by a juvenile which landed on the hillside in front of us. When it took to the air again a second juvenile drifted overhead to join it. A fantastic moment. February also saw a day at Kensington Gardens to see Tawny Owl and Scaup, and a morning at Tower Hamlets Cemetery where we saw a Firecrest (Jem’s first) amongst a lot of Goldcrests.
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 Woodpecker
The month began with a good walk down the canal to Walthamstow Marshes where we got good close-up views of Starling, Robin, Mistle Thrush and Greenfinch, and the Easter Weekend was nice and warm so we spent Easter Monday at Rainham, getting amongst other things, my first Garganeys in the UK. We also had a day at the London Wetland Centre – our only visit of the year – where the highlight for me was a female Blackcap. The big news of April was our main holiday of the year – Lesbos. The migration hadn’t quite reached full-strength, but the warm weather we had for most of the week meant plenty was coming in. In all I ended up adding 30 species to the lifelist over the course of the eight days. This included Lesbos’s first Demoiselle Crane, Great Spotted Cuckoos, Masked, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, both Western Rock and Kruper’s Nuthatch, Black-headed, Cretzschmar’s and Cinereous Buntings, Isabelline Wheatear, Eleonora’s Falcons, Scops Owls, a Roller, Sombre Tits, Chukar Partridges, and Subalpine, Ruppell’s, Eastern Olivaceous and Eastern Orphean Warblers, amongst others. Several Pallid Harriers, Middle-spotted Woodpeckers, loads of waders and terns, and various other raptors were also great to see. We only chose this holiday because the Austria trip we’d originally decided on had been cancelled, but it turned out to be a holiday that it will be very difficult to top. It was only April and I’d already beaten last year’s lifelist additions almost three times over.
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.
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.
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.
Another trip to Fairlop in warm sunshine gave me another chance to play with the macro lens. Plenty of good butterflies, plus a few dragonflies and crickets. I’d also got a monopod and quick-release head to help stabilise. I need to work on the techniques a bit, but I’m happy with the results so far. Towards the end of the month we had a very quick look one afternoon at three Common Scoters that had arrived on the Lockwood Reservoir, and then a few days later we spent a day at Wanstead Flats to look for some recently-arrived migrants. We got good views of Whinchats and a Spotted Flycatcher, and brief views of Lesser Whitethroats and a couple of Common Redstarts – all firsts for the year.
I suppose you could say we went on a ‘twitch’, which we don’t normally do. We hadn’t been to Staines Moor since May so we decided to give it a visit whilst a rare Barred Warbler was present. Initially we were distracted by some really good Hobby action at the southern end of the Moor, but eventually made our way to the bushes to have a look at the warbler, which showed very nicely for us. More Redstarts, plus Woodcock and Snipe as we made our way home, finished the day off – although we later found out that we’d missed out on a Wryneck that had appeared late in the day near the Barred Warbler’s bushes. The following day we were led around Wormwood Scrubs by David Lindo. Whinchats and Redstarts were the highlights in more warm sunshine.
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.
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.
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.
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.