Saturday, September 12, 2020

Building the list - Oare Marshes 11 Sep

An American Golden Plover had been around on and off, and Oare is an easy run and an always productive visit so it wasn't much of a decision.

I arrived 9:30ish to a largely muddy and bird free puddle.It was clearly going to be hard. Never mind the AGP, there were no GP and hardly anything else. High tide was around 6 am so soon the estuary side would be solid mud. Time was tight to get anything on the mud.

There was a group of birders further up, they pointed out the long staying Bonaparte's Gull just in front and mentioned they'd had two Little Stint and a Curlew Sandpiper back where I'd just come from. There were lots of Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the foreshore as well as a few Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits but I could see no other waders. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling. 

By nature I am impatient and twitchy when birding. This leads to frustration and bad decisions. Yes, I am talking about that White Rumped Sandpiper again. My birding mates always help me calm down and concentrate on the birds in front of me, but without them I was struggling.

At the corner of Faversham Creek There were about 30 Avocets and the group of birders pointed out a very distant Osprey over Shellness. Could I tick it? Well ...

Down along Faversham Creek, Getting into a more relaxed state, going through the Redshanks by the waters edge. A Ruff, then a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. Phew. I really like these birds, the long legs, scaley back and apricot wash on the neck looks so neat to my eyes.

There was quite a lot going on. Lots of Bearded Tits flying round, plenty of Meadow Pipits over, then the group of birders caught up and found two Little Stints on the East Flood. Again, that pinkish wash on the neck is just gorgeous. Really neat birds even at a distance.

Round back to the road, thirty Golden Plover flew in, sadly no AGP amongst them, a Water Rail was found by other birders on the reeds edge, then a juvenile Hobby came belting through and a Cream Crown Marsh Harrier sauntered in from the east.

Back to the car park and a juvenile Whinchat had been found on a nearby bush. A quick look over the estuary again and a commotion slightly up stream on the opposite bank - an Osprey, possibly the one from earlier, doing some fishing, then slowly drifting off west with an entourage of Crows. 

In the end a decent list. I always seem to have to go through a period of calming down, of accepting that I can't magic birds up, so I have to concentrate on looking at what's in front of me. Harder than it sounds, or should be, sometimes.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

In praise of my patch.

I rarely see other people on my patch (apart from the thoroughfare that is the riverside path). Most often the farmer, occasionally dog-walkers. But recently there was a man loitering suspiciously, binoculars in hand. We got chatting and he said he was a birder who lived in the village, came here occasionally but never saw anything so preferred to go to the local reserves.

Well, how an individual chooses to watch birds is their business and no-one else's, and everyone does it differently. But the comment about never seeing anything did trigger me. I thought about it on a patch walk recently with Mike who had come over.

We walked down the lane to the park, passing the Wasp's nest. As we entered the adjacent field 2 Nuthatches were calling to each other across the field. A female Sparrowhawk cruised along the top of the hedge causing 38 Goldfinches to rise in anger above it with 2 House Martins for company. On the brambles there were loads of wasps again many coming and going from another nest entrance, and on this occasion a Hornet was cruising along the top. Always massively impressive for an insect.

Down to the river, and a few tits flying through and on their tail a Treecreeper flew into a bush above our heads. We watched it for a couple of minutes before it flew off. A classic patch bird, I haven't seen on for a few months so as always a treat to see this wonderfully patterned bird close up. 

Up into the chat field, and sadly for us no Whinchat. there have been three records of juveniles this autumn all in the same place on the wire. I have no idea if they are the same bird, but I suspect not. 

Along with the disappearing Whinchat there were fewer flocks of Willow chiffs, last night's clear sky seeming to have cleared out a few birds, but we had Whitethroat and Chaffinch.

Over the railway line and road and round a couple of fields to the higher ground. Mike was pointing out that whereas our oaks are laden with acorns this year, there were very few Hazelnuts on the tree in front of us, when there was a bustle from the hedgerow and we managed to get a sighting of three buck Fallow Deer heading off. Round the corner and 5 Red-Legged Partridge. My first for the patch were two last year, then a pair again in spring so perhaps they have bred and we now have a colony.

No Skylarks at the moment. I had 6 a couple of weeks ago but we seem to be in a lull between breeders and winter visitors.

A pause at the top to survey. A late Swift through west, some Swallows were still at the farm, a Common Buzzard high up, and then another distant Sparrowhawk, probably a female.

Back down past the field of grain. It looks a mess with lots of blue flowers, but the farmer explained to me that it is a special mix of nine flowers selected to fix nitrogen in the soil and improve nutritional quality of the grain. Some juvenile goldfinches here and 12 Linnets on the wires show it is popular with birds too.

We stopped to inspect a small tree in the hedge bearing large hard green fruit,. We didn't recognise it but the massive leaves were a give away, and further research confirmed this as a Walnut tree. 

Back down toward the river and a large overgrown hedge that recently had 2 Spotted Flycatcher. Not today but we had a Lesser Whitethroat briefly and another Sparrowhawk, this time a blue-backed orange-flush male. Some Common Darters, Migrant Hawkers and an Emperor by the river, then a Muntjac in the usual place in the wet field, and that was it.

Nothing to bother RBA or birdguides with, but a visit that never stopped to give interest. In my opinion to get the most out of a patch you have to accept it on its own terms. Understand its limitations and enjoy whatever wildlife it has to offer. Take Linnets; on a trip to Norfolk or elsewhere these are walked past with barely a look as we search for rarer offerings, but a summer plumage male is a beautiful bird and on my patch I have the time to have a god look and enjoy its fine plumage. If instead of a common bird it was confined to Mongolia, whenever a fellow birder returned from there we would ask if they saw the Linnet, and was it as beautiful as the books show? And why don't we have birds like that in the UK? But we do have them, in number, on my local patch.

This Covid year has placed a strain on all birding, but the patch has never failed to deliver. There's always something new, something I'd not previously noticed, and always a bird sighting that makes the day.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Cley sea watch - 29 Aug

The weather chart was very promising. NW gale force winds veering N in the afternoon, a bit of rain. This coincided with a gap in my social obligations. Luck me. So, I got up when I woke up and headed the 100 miles, 2hrs 30, to Cley to arrive around 8:45 ish.

A few lines of birders, I tagged on the end got my scope up and already there were a few seabirds belting east. This was going to be epic!

Lots of birds just knocking around too. Eider on the sea, Sandwich Terns going up and down, a couple of Fulmars going west and many flocks of ducks going W, mainly Teal but a few Wigeon and some Common Scoter. Some year ticks already. Then a shout from someone and an adult Little Gull fluttering along the tide line. This was going to be Epic!

I was now properly settled in, ready to get some decent sightings, and ... and ... for the next few hours or so the only thing that moved was rain. In a horizontal on-shore direction. The encroaching rain clouds seems to have cleared everything out. There were a couple of gaps in which a distant Gannet went west, and a Bonxie did a magical trick of flying towards us from the east and moving simultaneously further away, a kind of seabird moon-walk, courtesy of the gail force wind.

Around 1pm I decided that was it. I was epically wet and wind blown. There were some shadows and flickers out there on the edge of the rain belt, but nothing I could even tie down to a genus let alone species. I learned it is one thing to spot some decent onshore winds with a few showers on a weather chart, it is another to be trying to identify birds whilst stopping your tripod from falling over in a blizzard of rain.

Anyway, that early activity. Three small skua-shaped birds went east, then another one. Long arcs of gliding. The area of the line I was in was unclear, thinking Shearwaters, maybe Manx. I am no expert, or even averagely decent sea-watcher, but they weren't Manxies. Also, my optics were better (Kowa 883), and these were soft brownish. Later I spoke with someone who said the three were two Arctic Skua and a Long-tailed Skua, one of the three being clearly smaller.

Now, I don't know. But familiarity is a key indicator, and there was not much familiar about these birds. Honestly, if someone said they were all long-tailed I'd have believed it. But deciding that those telling you something other than what you want to hear don't know what they are talking about and those who tell you exactly what you want to hear are the experts is a dangerous game of self-delusion. So they will just have to go down as Skua sp.

In summary, there was lots of action before I was there, according to Birdguides there was lots of action after I was there (more long-tailed and a Sabine's), but when I was there there was naff all. There was a time when I would have been annoyed, but these days I am at peace with the fact that I cannot be everywhere all the time, I only have certain windows of opportunity, and I see what I see. Also, who knows if I'd have seen the latter birds, or agreed with the ID.

Increasingly, its the not-knowing that's the fun, the time spent trying to work out exactly what it is that's in front of me that's the excitement. Gull-Billed Tern? Yep. Saw that Alton Water one. Nice. Tick. But zero excitement factor. Brown shape hurtling past half a mile out? Now that's interesting ...

Update. Steve Gantlett posted some great photos of a Long-tailed Skua going past Cley at 11:45. I was there during and after, and no-one mentioned it. Just shows what is going past and you don't notice. 

I was struck, again, by the contrast of the various posts on twitter with confident posts with totals stated boldly and the experience of being in with several watchers and us collectively not really having a clue on what those birds passing at some distance were.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Some Luck at Abberton - 28 Aug

Birding has been a bit lacklustre. Rainham last weekend had an Avocet and a Blackwit in the bay, then absolutely nothing on the reserve, and the first trip to Canvey of the year was alright, Peregrine, Mediterranean Gull, 2 Whimbrel, Porpoise and some typical estuary stuff, but not the magic we were hoping for. Abberton has sprung into life recently, so I gave it a go. 

Arrived at Billet's farm to the sound of thunder. Went to Wigborough bay and ... nothing. No sign of the Wood Sandpiper reported this morning. Went to Abberton Church for the Black Terns, and ... almost nothing. A Spoonbill in the lagoon was nice, 10 distant Black-Tailed Godwits, 5 Common Sandpiper, and lots of Little  Egrets.

Layer De La Haye Causeway, and a chap who had told me about the Spoonbill at the church was there. Immediately we found 2 Black Terns, mid reservoir and doing that dipping thing. It's been a while since I've seen one, and it was just great to see their distinctive somewhat stubby bodies, darkish backs and caps, short tails, and the swooping flight. So, one target down.

Back to Wigborough bay and a chap told men that the Wood Sandpiper had been at Billet's Farm screen, so , back to there and a classic bit of mud with shallow pools, really excellent with good visibility (for Abberton), and three Green Sandpipers with no sign of the woods. I waited a while, enjoying the many Yellow Wagtails, then briefly a Wheatear and a Whinchat on the last few stones of a tumble down wall. Back to the Green Sandpipeers, and slowly out of a ditch crept a juvenile Wood Sandpiper, followed by another one. It paraded around in front of a Great White Egret, one of several today.  Fantastic. Wood Sandpiper is always for me a bird that punches above its rarity value; it has an elegance about it unique amongst waders.

Just when I thought that was it, back at the car park my first (and probably last) Clouded Yellow of the year. So some nice sightings at last.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Minsmere Post Lockdown

A trip to Minsmere to catch up with a friend. The reserve is 'open' but the hides are closed. Most notable however was the lack of the volunteers and other staff who normally guide you directly to the day's star features.

so ... Centre. Tens, possibly a hundred, Peacock butterflies and Red Admirals. Dragon pool - Emperor, Emerald, Common/Ruddy Darters - very common today. Bee Wolves , then Pantaloon Bee on the flowers further on. Wall Butterfly on the shingle, and the first look over the scrape from the East Hide. About 8 Spotted Redshank, similar Ruff, Blackwit, Avocet, a few Dunlin, a very distant Green Sandpiper shimmering in the heat haze. The viewing platform for the South Scrape was open, and we had Turnstone, Common Sandpiper (year tick!), two Little Gulls (adult and 1st winter) and Stonechat. Then round the reserve back for lunch.

Butterfly walk - White Admiral and Silver Washed Fritillary in good numbers down the main butterfly ride, a couple of Norfolk Hawkers, then Whin Hill and back. By that time we were almost done.

But not quite. Still time for a lifer for me. Yes, at the Stone Curlew watch point were two adult Stone Curlews and ... a juvenile! Practically full grown. It sat around looking a bit gormless whilst the parents ran around, no doubt in shock and confusion that they had actually got this far in the child-rearing process. By what mistake in the juvenile rearing process have local foxes managed to miss this one?

So that was it. It's still a good list, but many breeding birds had disappeared so, for example, no Mediterranean Gulls. There is meant to be a juvenile Cuckoo showing well at Whin Hill but with no volunteers around to guide and time pressing there wasn't time to look.

I missed the close-up views of the scrapes. Back at the centre there was a note of Curlew Sandpiper, which could have been anywhere. The far corners were pretty much a blur of heat haze so anything could have been wondering round there.

So there we have it. Still one of the best places, if not the best place, to see wildlife across all the various forms in the UK. A decent list and an enjoyable day in excellent company. Hurry back volunteers. You were missed.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Canvey Island Jewels

June/July crossover, wind and clouds. What a rubbish combination. Nevertheless Mike and I decided to have a go at that ditch at Canvey.

There was limited variety - no sign of any Southern Migrant Hawkers, but we had 100+ Ruddy Darters, and a few Emeralds to brighten up the day.

I took my trusty macro lens to help with the id, although Mike was on the case so we had no issues there. Just one small problem - my iMac has become almost completely useless since I casually and naively clicked on Yes to install the Catalina operating system. However I managed today by judicious Googling to find out how to load photos, so here goes.

First up is local speciality the Southern Emerald. Just look at those bicoloured pterostigma! And on further inspection, yellowish behind the eyes, smooth flank with no mark. Very pleased to have come across this one again.

There were plenty of Scarce Emeralds too - some really nice males. This one had me confused as it have white edges to the pterostimga but I think this is Scarce not Southern as the other features seem to be Scarce - no yellow behind eyes, slight tick mark on the side of the body.

We thought we'd finish off with a visit to Blue House Farm at North Fambridge, but the car park was closed and the alternative parking arrangements were lacking, so that was it. Short, but productive.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Spending Time at His Majesty's Pleasure - Knepp Estate, 23rd June

For those interested in natural history, a visit to Knepp Estate is becoming essential. The story of the Knepp Estate, not far from Gatwick airport, moving from an intensive farm largely devoid of wildlife to a livestock farm offering a haven for all wildlife is well known and is described in detail in the Excellent book 'Wilding' written by landowner and farmer Isabella Tree.

But there's nothing like seeing it for yourself. Still not able to go birding with others I drove down to Knepp, and was delighted when completely by coincidence Mike pulled in next to me. What are the chances of that randomly happening?

We parked at the temporary car park opposite the entrance to the farm (£5) and were given a map (see here) Walked down to the farm and then the fun started. We took the white path round to the SW corner where the UK's first nesting White Storks for years were present in a large tree in a field. Two good size young and an adult on a neighbouring branch and a good crowd. As we walked on we saw a flock of 12 Storks in the air, an amazing spectacle for the UK. We walked on up toward the west side where the white and purple walks meet, and there spent a couple of hours watching Purple Emperors. We eventually settled on a total of 11 individuals, mainly flying round the tops of oaks and then perching. Once a lower trip gave us decent views. We didn't get any on the ground but were very happy with the views we had seeing these magnificent creatures establishing and protecting their territories.

If you are going, I would suggest going to where white path meets purple at the NW corner of the white walk, from there carry on a hundred meters clockwise until there is a branch off left in the path. Take this and you will see the path extending ahead with a long open strip, a mass of sallows on the left and oaks on the right. You can see it on the aerial photo on the map as a vertical strip. Walk up to where two dead trees have fallen over, and there look into the oaks.

The story is that these butterflies suddenly and unexpectedly appeared here. But to my eye, this is a massive area of perfect Emperor habitat. The many enormous oaks are decades old, and I suspect there were sallows here for a while, so my guess its the old story that they were there all the time, but unless someone who knows their stuff goes at the right time of year on the right day and looks in the right place at the right time, no-one sees them.

This general area gave us the best wildlife sightings. In addition to His Majesty we had Silver Washed Fritillary (two distantly), White Admiral (two close up), and a variety of other more common butterflies including many Marbled White. Best for me was a male Beautiful Demoiselle that settled on a bramble - a first for me. A stunning creature, all metallic blues. And a Turtle Dove singing unseen in the distance.

We headed back to the farm, with a few Storks feeding in a field, and then just by the farm stopped at a brook and saw Large Red Damselfly and Mike picked up a slightly odd blue damselfly in flight which when it settled was clearly a White-Legged Damselfly.

The farm-related wildlife is present too - Fallow Deer, Tamworth-like russet piglets, Horses, Cattle, but not everywhere.

All in we spent about 4 hours plus walking round. It is an impressive place, and quite big. Apparently a Red-Backed Shrike spent some weeks there a couple of years ago - well there could be several pairs there and you wouldn't know. The many Turtle Doves were well hidden and of the Nightingales there was unsurprisingly no sign. But nevertheless, it is a fascinating look into the natural environment, what it might have been in centuries past, and what it may become in the future.