Thursday, November 08, 2018

Wallasea Island

For a while now, Wallasea Island has been the next big thing. Powered by the diggings of Crossrail, the RSPB were going to make this the next Minsmere, a place where expanding populations of Mediterranean and continental birds would make their homes.

It has all gone quiet for a while, with very few records coming from the reserve, until recently when winter raptors and owls have been recorded and most recently a Rough-Legged Buzzard. Time for David and myself to make our Wallasea Island debuts.

We got their early afternoon, satnav having thankfully guided us there in the absence of any signs. We parked in the 'car park' and headed up to the sea wall for a scan over the reserve in the slowly waning light. Lots of rough fields, some spaced out groups of cattle, some distant lagoons. On the estuary side, mud. In the distance a female Hen Harrier, and then flocks of Golden Plover and more common estuary waders, and a distant group of ten Black-tailed Godwits.

We had learned that the best place for the roost was by a gate just before the entrance, so we returned to the car park. On arriving there was a strange unfamiliar wader-like call. I looked up and a female Merlin was belting over which then proceeded to put up flocks of Lapwings and Plovers as it dashed low across the reserve. I guess that strange call was waderese for 'Merlin!'

We made our way to the gate where a couple of people were already present and started scanning, Apart from a couple of Kestrels hovering there wasn't much. Just a female Sparrowhawk through Then I got the scope on to one of the kestrels, and as it sank to the ground realised it was considerably bigger! Dam and Blast! Yet another in this blog's roll call of missed opportunities. Surely, at half a mile, there would be no second chance on this probable Rough-Legged.

Repeat scanning of the area produced a large raptor sat on the bank. Zooming in, it was buzzard-like with a whitish head. Then, it took off and miraculously flew towards us. It flew around at a range of about 200 yards, hovered, flew round some more, hovered some more, then sat on a bank. Whilst a couple of crows sat in attendance. Wow! Full white tail, white feather edges, whitish on the upper primary base, pale underneath with dark breast and dark tail band, the lot. We got ten minutes or so, possibly longer, until it flew down into the field out of site. Quite the best views either of us have ever had of Rough-Legged Buzzard.

And that was pretty much it. Just a flock of 35 Corn Buntings flying around, 6 Marsh Harriers, and a distant Barn Owl.

So on its own terms, Wallasea Island is doing okay. I guess over the years the RSPB will start to deliver infrastructure, and a bit more variety of birds. But for now, at just over an hour's distance, it is well worth adding to the list of local places worth visiting.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Dream list in Norfolk

What a list! E/NE wind on the Norfolk coast in Late October (29th). Start the Day at Cley with White-Billed Diver, a distant White-Tailed Eagle coming over Salthouse, and a handful of Little Auks; go to Salthouse for the Stejneger’s Stonechat, Then Titchwell just in time for the Red-flanked Bluetail, and finally Red-Necked Grebe and some passage on the sea. Truly a list of dreams.

And dreams is unfortunately what that list is, because someone, no prizes for guessing who, managed to convince his mates that the place to start was Titchwell, not Cley. The first unpleasant surprise was that in contrast to the empty roads through Swafham and Fakenham, Kings' Lynn on a Monday morning has turned into the M25 on a Friday afternoon. Whilst seabirds whizzed along the Norfolk coast, we sat stationary on the A149. Eventually, we pulled up at Titchwell to a car park busy with birds. 4 Chiffchaffs and a Brambling. We strolled down to the beach to hear that we had just missed a Little Auk. Not to worry, they were clearly passing and it was just a matter of time. We got the Red-Necked Grebe off the shore, and a few other birds in the swell including a mystery grebe which I kept getting confused with the Red-Necked Grebe. Others claimed it as a Slavonian, and I wouldn't argue, but the few occasions I saw it didn't give me a conclusive view. So we left not having seen any decent seabirds, no Little Auks, and with the news from Cley about the White Billed Diver and the Eagle in our ears.

We returned to the car park, having a minor drenching on the way back, then a good look round the centre again with more Thrushes and calling Redpoll sp. Then a leisurely lunch in the car park. I note these prosaic details because when we arrived at Cley, where we found out that there was nothing on the sea, we learned that there had been a Red-Flanked Bluetail seen on the path back at Titchwell. I suspect it was the rain that brought it down. Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, it may not have been known by the reserve staff at the time we left, but I sincerely hope that whenever they were informed someone got right down to the car park to stop anyone leaving without having the option of going to see it. All I can say is that when it comes to communicating what is around to the punters, RSPB Minsmere sets the standard.

So to that Stonechat. The Stejnegerjgerjgers whatever. It was nice, performed well, had a bit of Whinchat about it, but lets face it, we are all waiting for that paternity test to come back so we can tick it. We did get to hear about the moment the White-Billed Diver had flown by, and how the watchers got really excited when they saw that banana bill gleaming in the sun. Fantastic. I'm really happy for them.

We heard that RFB had been seen back at Titchwell, so back we went, and spent the last half hour of useful daylight standing by a freezing clump of sueda bushes with a group of cold disgruntled watchers. And then tantalisingly, my luck changed. Just me and one other saw the bird fly between bushes. It was only a nano-second, no red, no blue, just a flash of pale grey, but absolutely, definitely it. Out of deference to my travelling companions who missed it, I have graciously decided not to tick it. And, to be honest, having had one in touching distance for about half an hour a few years ago, a fly-by doesn't really hit the spot.

Then back to the gridlock of metropolitan King's Lynn. Just as well I had my travelling companions to turn what could have been a seriously miserable trip back into something much more relaxed and enjoyable. And there we have it.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Inland sea-watch and The Beast From The North

A flex day for Mike meant a chance to put the band back together again even if for just one day. I inspected the weather map and saw a repeat of the strong NE winds in the Thames Estuary which had recently brought seabirds galour to the Oare Marshes, and at just after 9 we were looking into a blank expanse of intertidal mud and low-tide estuary from the Sea Hide by the mouth of the Oare. "It doesn't seem an obvious place for a sea-watch" said David, helpfully, and as 60+ Avocets settled in front of us, I could see his point.

We walked round the reserve collecting c20 Ruff, c60 Golden Plover, and 1000+ Black-tailed Godwits but with none of the rarer waders for which the reserve is renown. It was turning into a bit of a disappointment when as we headed back to the car Mike spotted a Great Skua over the reserve - sea birds at last! A Peregrine appeared over the car, a massive female we would guess, and as we headed back to the sea watching hide now on a rising tide and buffeted by a howling NE wind we were treated by 7 Gannets high up drifting slowly inland.

An hour later we were heading back to the car with 4 Arctic Skuas, another 15-odd mainly juvenile Gannets, an adult Little Gull and a few Commic Terns to the good. The Swale channel in front of us and the winds had brought these birds in quite close too. Well, close for a sea-watch. Not bad for a marshland reserve!

And so, on the way back to Stortford we came to the Beluga. Riverside Saxon Way duly located, we were met by a birder heading back on his phone who kindly paused to indicate it was just off-shore, and there it was, a large disc of porcelain-coloured blubber rotating through the water and then gone. We watched it for an hour or so getting several decent views as it appeared to happily hunt along our stretch of river about 50-100 metres out; a surprisingly prominent spine, no dorsal fin, a marbled pale grey appearance, a blast from the air hole as it was about to surface and a nice length of body arcing through the water. I would guess 2m-3m long. A much better than expected series of views of this completely unexpected creature, and a collection of a spectators with many more women and young folk than attend the average twitch.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Welney Wonderland

The moment when the magic of the place hit home was when we picked up a Merlin whizzing down the back of the washes, past the three Common Cranes, just behind the grazing family party of Whooper Swans, and down on to the deck. This could be some piece of bogy tundra well beyond the arctic circle. And all from a large lounge which is certainly the most luxurious place to see birds I've encountered in the UK.

I hadn't been to Welney WWT for a while. Probably because if you're going to go all the way to Welney, you may as well carry on to the Norfolk coast, and also, its quite expensive. But the chance of seeing my second Pallid Harrier in three days (lol!) as well as the possibility of seeing Common Crane, a bird whose expansion in the UK had managed to pass me by, saw David and me handing over our money and heading across the wooden walkway to view the washes.

That Merlin moment didn't happen until after we had gone the full length north from the main hide to find the Harrier, only to be told it had been seen early and scooted off north somewhere. We did catch up with a couple of Marsh Harriers, one of which came really quite close, and a few Ruff amongst the Teal. A couple of distant Hobbies patrolled the far side of the wash, and Kestrels and Snipe kept us busy in the search for the Harrier. And three enormous Cranes drifted close by back toward the main hide. Wow.

The path was out of the path of the howling wind so had a surprising number of insects. We got Wall Butterfly - new for the year for both of us, one in a prolonged spiralling fight with a Small Copper; plenty of Migrant Hawkers often resting up out of the wind, and even a Willow Emerald. This species is becoming the Little Egret of the Damsel fly world. Last year we were thrilled to find one. This year we are delighted to see so many. Next year we will be disappointed not to see one in the usual places. The year after that we will have stopped counting them.

Time for lunch in the clean and overpriced modern cafe, up on the second floor to give a good view of Lady Fen. And what a view, as 9 Common Cranes flew around the fields, bickering and arguing with each other. It seemed there were three parties of three, with each having two adults and a drab brownish bird of the year. We almost overlooked the Tree Sparrows on the feeders, a treat for us Southerners.

Then back to the main hide to find the three Cranes still there, so 12 in total. A scan along the waters edge had single Avocet, three Black-tailed Godwit, and a couple of Dunlin with many wigeon and Teal there too. Then four Cranes flew in and we had seven birds doing the full Crane thing at a distance of, I would guess, between 50 and 100 yards. Those birds filled the scope view without having to touch the zoom. Jumping, jostling, then head-down arse-up feeding, and a bit more of that slow, languid flight and bounding landing. And then the Merlin doing what Merlins do. We quite forgot we hadn't seen that Harrier.

Here's a couple of photos. If you are thinking those are quite good for me, that's because they were taken by David. For more, see his excellent blog

Cranes from the main hide. 

Migrant Hawker resting out of the wind.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Spurn Point on migration fest weekend

I stayed with my mother in Leeds on Saturday night, returning to Hertfordshire on Sunday. A quick look at the map will reveal that a straight line from Leeds to Herts practically goes past the front door of Spurn Point; just a small detour required, would be rude not to. And by coincidence, it is day two the Spurn Migration Festival, so I am curious. The only downer is the solid west wind that clears Spurn of interesting bird like a dose of salts.

I arrive and check #migfest and a Corncrake has just been seen! A lifer for me, I head down to the location and join a crowd of 40 looking at a field with grass much taller than any Corncrake. Surely a futile gesture but no! There it is! and soon I am looking at my first Corncrake through the scope. The head is peeking round above the grass, and I am somewhat surprised that a Corncrake should be that big, and so, well, there's no other way to put this, so like a Pheasant. Slowly the truth dawns on the crowd, but hang on there it is! next to the Pheasant is a much smaller bird. We all get onto that, and there are two small birds, and they are baby pheasants. Oh well.

I parked back at migration-festival central and walk up to Kilnsea wetlands. No repeat of last years experience, just a few Wigeon, three Black-Tailed Godwits, some Dunlin, a Common Sandpiper and a Ringed Plover. And lots of Greylag Geese.

On to Beacon Lane Ponds, and there are three cracking female Roe Deer in a field and beyond them I can just make out about a hundred Golden Plover. Sadly no repeat of last year's Merlin on the ponds, not much at all in fact, until I get back to the Discovery Centre and a crowd looking at a flock of Sparrows, and soon the reason becomes apparent when a Common Rosefinch pops up. So dull it makes the Sparrows look flamboyant, it is nevertheless a neat bird, and has a touch of pink on the bill which I believe makes it a first-year male. A Whinchat appears alongside it, and we soon forget about the Rosefinch and concentrate on this.

Flushed with unexpected success and informed by the walkie-talkies which seem to be present at every group, I go to the sea-watching hut and join a line looking out to sea. A Great Skua was reported, and it took a while to realise that the dot in the distance was what they were watching. Then an Arctic Skua, and much purring from the line about the splendid close views we were getting as the bird went north a mere half a mile out.

Then briefly back to Kilnsea Wetlands. No sign of the Curlew Sandpiper, but a Pintail and a first-winter Mediterranean Gull are nice additions to the list, then its time for home.

The main feature was the number of people there who had come for the festival, and in particular the number of young folk. It was great to be amongst so many birders. But call me an old moaner, I have noticed when ladies of a certain age get together in a hide they develop list fever and start seeing all sorts of things. I felt a bit of a killjoy telling some ladies that three Citrine Wagtails would be an exceptional sightings, and that most sightings at this time of year are juvenile birds and not bright yellow. Perhaps in future I should just shut up and let them enjoy their birds, real or imagined.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Lessons in bees

I was out on Chobham Common when we came across a bumble bee with an orange-red tail and a faint white band on the thorax. It was similar to a male Red-Tailed bumble bee, but not with the same as ones I was used to from my patch. so /i took lots of photos, and was going through them at home when I cropped one and got this.

... and just have a look at the hairs on the leg. Bright orange! clearly this is a Red-Shanked Carder Bee. No need to look any further, so I triumphantly tweet this out, and somewhat arrogantly copy in the wonderful Steven Falk, author of the excellent The Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. I duly wait the applause, and instead get a tweet back saying this is just a male Red-Tailed Bumble Bee. Surely he must be wrong! So I protest and back comes a polite tweet pointing out that the extra photo I attached shows white on the face, and this is diagnostic of Red-Tailed Bumble bee, and that Red-Tailed Bumble bees have red whiskers on their legs too.

So that is me told. I have clearly not got my Bee eye in yet and am still having basic difficulties understanding the variety of the common bees. Like those people who take pictures of young Blackbirds and think they have something rare. Anyway, I am now wiser, and very grateful for Mr Falk sharing his expertise with people bombarding him with mis-identified photos of common bees, something he does regularly and with patience and charm; we are indeed lucky to have naturalists so generous with their time and expertise.

Meanwhile this tweet has embarrassingly got a life of its own. Despite the complete mis-identification, lots of people are now liking this and retweeting it. It has become my most popular tweet. I'm tempted to delete it ...

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Chobham Common

D#3 wanted a lift to and from Thorpe Park. So, a day SW of London. David suggested Chobham Common, and that's where we went. Well, we actually went to Cobham, but soon realised our mistake.

Bird-wise it was quiet; a few glimpses of Dartford Warbler, several Stonechats, and a flock of about 40 birds that had Willow Warblers, Blue, Great, Coal and long-tailed tit, and a Spotted Flycatcher. But we did find Grayling butterflies all over the place, much to our surprise.

This was the first time for me I've seen them close too without a strong wind, so the first time I got to see their upper parts - in flight only. A really nice if unspectacular butterfly. After a while David noticed something about their behaviour, mainly because as we moved to take the best side-on shot our shadows were in danger of impinging on the butterflies. We eventually worked out what we think was going on.

The butterflies land with their fore-wing up revealing the eye, then slide that down, then slowly shuffle round until their wings face the sun, and then lean slightly so their wings are perpendicular to the sun's rays. Then they soak up the maximum heat they can. Quite something!

just landed. Giving us the eye.
Settling. No eye
note the location of the shadows. Side on to the sun.

A few more nameless insects. Possibly Heather Mining bee (really should stop thinking that every dark slim bee is a honey bee), no-idea on the wasp, oh, and a bumble be that deserves a post of its own ...

Does this bee get more interesting? Well, yes and no. Mainly no.