Saturday, January 04, 2020

Year Listing at Abberton Res.

First proper trip out of 2020 and we chose Abberton. We missed Black-Throated Diver, Black Necked Grebe, Hen Harrier, Merlin, White Fronted Goose, and Green-Winged Teal, but nevertheless were happy with our haul.

Started in the murk at West Mersea where a prolonged scouring of the sea was about to draw to a miserable close with just Red-Breasted Merganser of note, when a Great Northern Diver popped into view. We observed it occasionally surfacing between lengthy dives, explaining why it had taken us so long to see it.

Then Abberton Church, where poor light and some rain restricted our viewing to a few Goosander and a small party of Pintail amongst the many Teal and Wigeon.

A coffee at the centre then the hides. From island hides two distant Long-Tailed Ducks became close-up long-tailed ducks when they flew in our direction. Very dainty nicely marked females. A couple of Marsh Harriers appeared distantly. Then round to Hide Bay and just a Peregrine in a tree. And Great-White Egrets everywhere. Must have had at least 5 before I connected with any other heron species.

Layer-De-La-Haye causeway. A Swallow! And then a few more Goosander, and a Scaup. Round to Billet's Farm. We just missed the Hen Harrier which was a bit frustrating as we had been scanning keenly for the bird as it had been seen recently, but managed 2 Bewick's Swans, a tricky year-bird now, some Golden Plover and another Marsh Harrier. Layer Breton Causeway gave us good views of sleeping Ring-Necked Duck, and another Scaup, but not Smew. We went back to Abberton Church for some of the afore-mentioned goodies, passing some people parked by the side of the road for what must have been the White-Fronts, drew a blank again at the Church apart from 56 Corn Buntings on a wire then two close up in a bush which was very decent - won't good as good as views as those again this year I should think - then win our way past Layer Breton causeway where two Redhead Smews had appeared and swam close.

So overall pleased with a decent start to the year. No-one sees everything at Abberton as its a huge area. And its good to leave some birds for the next visit. Wouldn't want to have all the good stuff on the first visit. That would be greedy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Day in Essex

Just Mike and myself as David continues to be unavailable (get well soon!).

Start at The Naze to see if any of last weekends star birds were still around. On the walk down to the end we heard some zizz-zizz-zizzing and eventually two Firecrests revealed themselves. Still an unusual bird for me - just the second of the year - a treat to see these avian jewels.

On to the beach and up towards Stone Point, and a Shore Lark flew ahead and landed. Possibly a bird of the year as not as vivid yellow and no horns as some, still a terrific sighting. Just after  a Short-Eared Owl flew towards us and gave excellent views as it was mobbed by Meadow Pipits. A Peregrine shot past in full hunting mode. There were no Snow Buntings at the end but we had several Marsh Harriers, and a typical selection of coastal waders - Grey Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Curlew, Turnstone, a few Ringed Plover, and Oystercatcher, and the usual accompaniment of Dark-Bellied Brent Goose.

Sandwiches, then Abberton. From the Layer-De-La Hey causeway we had two distant Black-Necked Grebes, 3 Scaup, a female Smew, and over 30 Goosander. Someone kindly pointed out the Little Auk, swimmingly merrily around, diving, flapping, little more than a spec but very cute.  Then a short trip round to Wigborough  Bay, and a Bewicks Swan, a few Pintail, c10 Black-Tailed Godwit, 2 Ruff, Lapwing, Dunlin, and a couple of Stonechat. Back to the centre and the island hide and two close-in Long-Tailed Duck including a splendid female, and that was it apart from a drive by tick of 4 Cattle Egret just south of Billet's Farm.

A splendid day in Essex.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Little Bittern at Amwell

Ping! A text from Mike telling me there was a Little Bittern at Amwell. Quick explanation to Mrs D and I was on my way. At the viewpoint some folks were looking round aimlessly but a fellow birder turned up and indicated where we needed to go. 

Five minutes later after a brisk walk that took us to the 'less explored' parts of the reserve we joined a small crowd queueing up to look through a scope at some brown streaks in some vegetation. It took me ages to find it as I hadn't realised it was so close, just about fifteen yards away. It wandered slowly through dense bushes and I resigned myself to ticking most but not all of a Little Bittern.

Then, miracle, it flew! The kinked neck, the long bill, the dark primaries and secondaries! And then, knock me down with a feather, it landed in a large bush in the open and proceeded to sit there for a good half hour preening itself, occasionally stretching, having a look around.

What a bird! The shape, the beady eye, the long solid bill, the long feathers of varied colour, the bristles forming a kind of beard. I drank in the views, unlikely as they are to be repeated.

Eventually it stretched and flopped down into the long grass invisible to us. So just a few chats with fellow local birders and on my way.

Twitching at its best. If I'd seen that abroad I'd have given it 5 minutes and then been on to the next tick, but here it is the standout star of the show.

That's Little Bitterns done for me. I'm not going for another one. What would be the point in hanging around for ages somewhere to get a view not nearly as good as the one I had today?*

No photos from me. Alan Reynolds was there, as always a pleasure to bump into, and has already posted some great photos.  

* If that sounds a little maudlin I'm reminded of something a birder said many years ago after a talk he had given on his 'once in a lifetime' visit to Siberia. He said, to paraphrase, that of course it's a 'once in a lifetime' trip. why would you repeat it when you can go somewhere else for a different 'once in a lifetime' trip? Similarly, why spend my petrol money and use my birding tokens up on another Little Bittern for worse views than I got today when I can use them on a new different bird and a new experience?

Monday, November 11, 2019

End of Autumn at Cley

I thought Autumn was done. I spent 31st October morning at Canvey Point in a SE wind with a number of local stalwarts in anticipation of a host of sea birds being blown into the Thames and ... nothing. I was resigned to a year without a skua, or any notable sea movement. But the forecast for Tuesday 5th November showed a strong onshore wind in north Norfolk for the afternoon, so perhaps the chance for some fireworks? (sorry).

Dave was unavailable so just myself and Mike pitched up at Cley around 10. There was already a big crowd at the coastguards. We took the opportunity of light winds in the morning to walk up to and beyond the East Bank with a view to concentrating on the sea alter when the wind was forecast to rise.

Mike saw a Woodcock flying strongly over Arthur's Marsh, and we watched it hurtle into the fence along the beach, Tumble over and land in the beach. It seemed to be stunned, possibly injured, so we went towards it taking some time to observe this gem of a bird, nestling into the pebbles and observing us with its large eye. Surely one of my favourite birds. As we got closer it took off and flew out to sea and along the beach, so presumably all well.

The Long-Tailed Duck was still on the pool near the shelter on the east bank, and also Pintail, Brent Goose, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal, and a Marsh Harrier spooking them all. We carried on beyond the path at East Hide and had some tantalising small birds but they were Goldfinches and a Linnet. I spotted some Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Curlew out on the marsh and Mike pointed out a pristine winter Spotted Redshank much closer in - a splendid sight.

So, back to the coastguards and the sea. Our totals for occasional watches on our walk and then a concentrated with in the afternoon was as follows:

All 3 Divers in flight, 2 Black-throated and one Great Northern

Gannet over a hundred. A flock of 70 or so moved slowly west, repeatedly diving into the sea from height. surely one of the great sights of watching sea birds. All stages of plumage were seen well and close in as the wind developed.

3 Velvet Scoter, hundreds of Common Scoter, 1 Merganser, plus a few Goldeneye. All going west.

9 Pomarine Skua, 3 Arctic Skua, 3 Great Skua . All well out at sea apart form a Great Skua along the beach, and all going west.

Kittiwake in their hundreds heading east.

Little Auk 2 flying west.

Personally the highlight was the skua passage. Like most birders, I love Skuas and don't see enough of them. In particular, I don't see many Poms, so this was a chance to get to grips with them. If you haven't seen me at sea watches, I'm the guy at the end going 'what was that?' every time a skua flies past. But today my diagnosis of what I was watching chimed in with what others were saying. A heavy, consistent flight with big powerful wing beats and a substantial frame seem to fit the bill for Pom, whereas something dashing around looking for prey seems more likely to be Arctic. Crikey, next I'll be self-identifying Caspian Gulls!

And those ID books in my shelf. 'Skuas and Jaegers' by Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson. Quite the book in its time. Now rendered completely useless by the internet. So much better to go onto Youtube and see the birds flying rather than just reading up about it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Why Cudmore Grove? Why not The Naze?

As Autumn is drawing to a close and winter looms we decided to head for Mersea Island for some relaxed birding. We pitched up firstly at Victoria Esplanade and had a look through the forest of beach huts for our intended quarry, and sure enough Mike found what we were looking for; a Black Redstart. In drab female colours but possibly juvenile male due to some paleness in the wing. We spent a while watching it flycatch from a range of available perches. This stretch of shoreline, backed by pleasant West Mersea houses, has a year list for me that apart from the above has Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, and Mediterranean Gull. Better than my list for our next destination at the other end of the island, Cudmore Grove Country Park!

We arrived, paid the parking fee, and headed to the sea where we found a flock of Wigeon with a female Pintail, and a few Common Scoter close enough to see the pale head and stiff tail. A Red Throated Diver was close in still with a hint of a red throat, a couple of Diver sp few distantly, and as we headed off the path towards Stone Point there was a pair of Stonechat, Rock Pipit, and at the end a Sanderling in sparkling winter plumage.

It was high tide now and on the estuary-side of the park was a total of 54 Little Egrets, and plenty of Brent Goose, Curlew, Redshank, Grey Plover, Black-Tailed Godwit, and Dunlin. Shoveler and Teal were in every marshy pond, and today there were constant Skylarks in flight around the area.

Back toward the Strood to head off to Abberton. In my simple mind a high-tide at mid-day is always a high one (as the moon and sun are aligned), and we queued for a while to get off. It was entertaining working out who was going to try and get across first, and see the lorries coming over with water spraying over the cab., and we saw more of the same waders and geese plus a few flocks of Golden Plover flying around. For future reference, I reckon the causeway is closed an hour each side of high tide, possibly more.

Then Abberton Reservoir. And a lifer for me - the end of a rainbow. As we stood on Layer De La Hay Causeway we could clearly see both ends in the water just beyond the tideline. Birds were a bit less forthcoming, as the wind appeared to have pushed every diving duck into the inter-causeway area against the light. We had a Great White Egret on the shore line, and as we were about to go Mike called out 'Long-Tailed Duck' and a female flew around the bay and then over the Causeway into the mass of ducks. A nice way to end a relaxing day and a tidy list.

I'm not sure why I keep coming back to Cudmore Grove. My last decent bird there was a pair of Velvet Scoter a couple of winters back. The Naze is another thirty minutes away and gets far better birds, but it is hard work, and unless you get there at dawn then its hours spent waiting for small birds to flit in front of you. Today there was Little Auk and Pallas's Warbler there, but I know from my twitter feed that many birders go and miss everything, not just me. Perhaps it is best to view the Naze's rarities as prizes for those few intrepid individuals who regularly patrol the place and spend the hours searching through sycamores and hawthorn.

So that's half the answer, but the other half is that these days I trust my instincts. Like when my children ask why we don't take a particular short-cut and cut through that estate rather than queue on the main road, its because life is often best when you go with the flow and aren't fighting it. Cudmore Grove has a mix of waders and wildfowl, it has beach, sea, river, and trees. It has a good selection of waders and wildfowl in easy reach, it's always a relaxing and bird-filled trip. Perhaps it is ,as Van Morrison says, to "smell the sea and feel the sky, let your soul and spirit fly."

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Back in the homeland for a family visit, and a chance to get a truly rare bird on the list!

A stop at Fairburn Ings on the way back south, and a walk down Lin Dyke at the western edge. There was a Great White Egret but that was not the target. A Sparrowhawk shot through the bushes much to the consternation of several Blue Tits and some Redwings that erupted from nowhere, and then there it was, that harsh call I hadn't heard for years. Two of them, one each side of the path. I eventually got some great views of one of them, my first Willow Tit this century!

Here in East Herts the Willow Tit's close cousin the Marsh Tit is something of a speciality, so I've had a good look at them over the years, and the immediate things that struck me abut Willow Tit was all the things the books say; the bib was more diffuse over the lower region, that pale wing panel was clear, the cap was noticeably matt, and the cheeks seems higher and paler, the black cap more of a wide black line when seen from above. But the call is the clear and obvious thing.

Other than that, a Curlew, then off to St Aidans's and Marsh Harrier, Pintail, Stonechat.

I got to asking myself when the last time I saw a Willow Tit was, and its hard because I have not been the most assiduous record keeper in my birdwatching career, I tend to make a note of the main birds as I see them at the time, and given my travels round the country and the decline of this species it was not obvious the last time I saw them that I wasn't going to see another one for ages. I certainly haven't seen one this century. Trawling through my notes I used to keep reasonable year-lists with dates,  and I suspect it was 20th June 1987 at a local North West Leeds site. I was just finishing up at Uni and the following month would catch the train south to start my career, and in a few months would be seeing Sabine's Gulls in strange corners of South West London, but not Willow Tits.

Monday, September 30, 2019

RSPB Frampton Marsh - a review

Westerlies, rain on its way, not much around, where to go ... Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve! A new venue for me and David, Mike had called by a year or so ago.

The journey. It's about 100 miles and just over 2 hours away, as is every other place on the Norfolk/Suffolk/Wash coast. We did the M11, Road of Death (A14), A1, then the Peterborough ring road at rush hour which was 'interesting', then the A16. It was straightforward and relaxing (apart from the bit when we went round a multi-lane roundabout three times in the wrong lane much to the amusement of the locals). A good journey makes the day go so much easier.

The reserve. On the plus side, its big but not so big you cannot get round it all. It's flat, which is a definite plus to a trio of gentlemen who have acquired the heft and solidity that comes with age, and it has a range of water-related habitat. It has a centre which does coffee and snacks, and some decent hides. It has helpful staff, and a couple of car parks. On the negative side, it is possibly not a full day for the active birder, and there isn't an obvious second place to visit (Freiston shore? Deeping Lakes). However, we weren't that active today.

The birds. We arrived at the centre to see thousands of Black-Tailed Godwits roosting at high tide. We were sent down to the far corner for the Pectoral Sandpiper. On the way we stopped to be shown a couple of roosting Short-Eared Owls that had been driven up by the high Spring tide (there were 7 earlier), a Peregrine on a post and 5 Marsh Harriers. If you do this in the morning then as you look into the reserve with the sun behind you, which is a distinct plus.

We got the Pec at close quarters, then carried on round to the Marsh hide via a sign advertising Sea-Aster Mining Bee, right by some Sea Asters with accompanying bee. Not much on the mud apart from an Avocet at the first hide, then 5 Ruff at the Reedbed hide, then on the way to the 360 degree hide Mike picked up a Little Stint in flight which duly settled in front of us at reasonable distance for about 15 minutes before flying off. The 360 degree hide had plenty of Wigeon, c20 Pintail, and the Stint although now quite distant.

Coffee at the centre then back down to the sea wall. We walked back along to the Pec, still rooting around in the mud, and spent an hour studying 3 Spotted Redshanks and 5 Greenshanks all showing well, flying around and calling frequently, so quite educational for me given I don't usually encounter Spotshanks in calling distance. A couple of juv Yellow Wagtails showing well on the marsh too. We must have had a hundred or so Meadow Pipits over south in small flocks, and some small parties of Swallows and House Martins.

I'd recommend a visit if you haven't been. I'd suggest trying to have a high tide in your visit as the coming and going of thousands of Blackwits with accompanying Golden Plover was spectacular. It has the feel of a place that can get passing migrants and has the records to prove it. It's up to you whether you like a leisurely day or have some other site you want to combine it with, but I'll happily head back to spend another highly pleasurable day getting quality views of notable birds in great company.