Sunday, September 05, 2021

A disappointing sea watch

NE wind, autumn, Canvey Point. You know the score. 

Pitched up at 8am on a rising tide and found locals T and J already there. A good sign, firstly because they generally only appear when their considerable experience tells them sea birds will be present, and secondly because they both call out anything they see and are keen to share their expertise, which can be very welcome. Mike joined soon after.

The less good news - a bit quiet. 3 Arctic Skuas were harassing a large feeding flock of terns some way out. Then T found a Peregrine on the still exposed mud, and a scan of the mud had a Grey Plover still in summer plumage and 20 loafing Sandwich Terns. A male Common Scoter drifted in  and gave excellent scope views; I have had years when all my scoter views have been about half a mile out in passing flocks, so nice to see the bobble on the beak clearly. Mike picked up an adult Mediterranean Gull in full winter plumage, but for a while that was it; nothing much moving in the gloom.

Eventually a party of Common Terns went up river and J called two Black Terns in them, and a party of four soon after, frustratingly none of which I got.  Then on scanning an Arctic Skua came out of the mouth of the Thames, and flew straight towards us before passing just a few tens of yards off the shore. A dark juvenile, this was easily the closes I've been for a few years to this species. More scanning up river produced two terns coming out with bouncy dipping flight, and sure enough they were Black Terns, then four more appeared including one moulting adult. Having had a good look at one at Frampton earlier in the week, and noticed that whereas for a Common tern in flight the body is held level but for the Black Tern the body was going up and down as a counterweight to the movement of the wings, it was nice to use that as a clue to distant terns that they were Marsh Tern, and for that to turn out to be right. 

Two Pintail out, a Great Skua flying out of the river under the far bank, and 20 Golden Plover onto the shore, and that completed the list.

The locals seemed a bit disappointed, presumably because similar weather conditions had produced a Sabine's Gull earlier in the week, but for me from landlocked Herts there had been some excellent encounters with birds of the sea and a few decent ticks.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Under attack at Chalkney Wood.

I was attacked today, dear reader, physically attacked by a relentless and determined assailant. 

I went with Dave to Chalkney Wood in search of Butterflies. We have Hatfield Forest close too, but that's a lot of walking in the heat, and Chalkney offered a chance to see all HF can offer and more for an extra half-hour drive and without even leaving the car park. At my age, that's no contest.

Dave has given an excellent write up of the session here and provided some wonderfully spectacular photos. Purple Emperor, White Admiral, Silver-Washed Fritillary, a Hairstreak sp (for me), Painted Lady, and Southern Hawker

But it was as we returned to the car park the assault took place. We saw a Purple Emperor low down round some nettles, and to my surprise and joy it flew towards me, and kept coming, and kept coming, until it buzzed me just overhead, the noise of the wings clearly audible, then returned and buzzed me again, then did this again.

There is no doubt isn my mind this was deliberate. It wasn't just passing close, it was clearly having a go, possibly not liking my movement in its territory. Nevertheless, it was quite an experience to be that close to a Purple Emperor!


One of David's photos from his blog. Found by David quite low down, we got excellent views of the purple sheen as it opened and closed its wing.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Minsmere mid summer

15th July and the first visit this Covid-hit year to Minsmere. Our hopes of sunshine for the insects had disappeared under a forecast of cloud and wind, and we were without Dave due to injury, so feeling a little glum to be without a team member. Still, here Mike and I were at my favourite reserve. 

If, reader,  you are Dave, you didn't miss much mate. It was cloudy and windy, so zero insects, and the birds were nice but just the usual. No point in reading the dull details. Best to stop here and go and get a cup of tea. 

If you are not Dave, Wow! What a day! The fun started on the North Wall when a look up an open ditch revealed a hind Red Deer and a fawn. Here in their natural habitat they grow larger than they do on the hills of Scotland (apparently), and this hind was huge; nevertheless it slipped into the reed bed and disappeared.

Down the beach with Common Terns like a swarm of super-size flies buzzing low over us, then straight dow to the South Scrape public viewing platform to see if the long-staying Roseate Terns were around. They weren't but we had c20 Little Terns, 3 really smart adult/2cy Little Gulls, and a few Sandwich Terns. A fellow birder pointed out 3 Arctic Terns loitering on the mud. I think of these as having grey-breasts and short legs, but in reality that's Common Tern. Arctics have really deep grey breasts and absolutely tiny legs. Also could see the small-dagger shape bill in comparison to Common. Nice - can't rely on seeing these annually in the absence of being able to pop down to a suitable reservoir and string see them in Spring. Also Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet, c20 Dunlin, a Turnstone, and Mike had a brief view of a mini-wader, probably a Little Stint. We searched, but could not relocate. Oh and a few Barnacle Geese too - nice easy year ticks these. Of course they are wild.

Back up to East Hide, and the full glory of the breeding bonanza was in front of us. C200 Avocets including chicks, Common Tern chicks everywhere, some Ruff, more Spotshanks and Blackwits, and tucked in a corners a Green Sandpiper.

Round the remaining hides, back to the car park for lunch, then out to Island Mere. 2 Hobbies gave a hunting display dashing across the mere - surely one of the best wildlife sights available anywhere, a couple of Marsh Harriers, then on leaving a Great White Egret flew past. On to the Bittern Hide, and from our elevated viewpoint an actual flying Bittern and more Marsh Harriers cruising the area.

Just time to return to South Scrape to see if the Roseate Terns had reappeared. Scan their favoured island in the southern corner, and what's this? Two light-pink flushed breasts amongst the mass of Sandwich and Common Terns? pale ivory-grey backs - check; all black bills - check; bright red legs - check; metal leg-ring - check. OH MY GOD Mike! Mike! THEY ARE HERE! We spent a good half hour plus marvelling at these beauties. Slightly bull-headed, a funny trotting walk, and really quite aggressive - one bird chased off the Little Gulls. We put some others onto them (between the Little Gulls and the Arctic Tern, yes that's it, with a Med Gull just behind it). Whilst we were revelling in these birds Mike spotted 2 Spoonbills flying in to join the third one just in front of us (What? How does a Spoonbill slip in near to you unnoticed?). They fed, pecked, argued, generally gave a great display, then flew up to the East Scrape, then West Scrape. 

After an hour or so when we admired a summer-plumaged Sanderling, another Ruff, and the various waders, we realised we couldn't find the Rosy terns any more so we set off back. Just a quick look off the beach at all the terns, a couple of littles in there with their much faster wing beats, then another tern with a faster wingbeat, not a Little Tern, all black head and bill, and smaller and paler than the passing Commons - we'd found another Roseate, presumably one from the scrape.

It's not just the breadth of species, its the scale. Minsmere is full of people just out for the day, or who bird watch occasionally, and why not? An obsession with lists, rarity, and species count can blind one to the spectacle, both visual and aural, of a mass of breeding and post-breeding birds. Being on the platform on the south scrape is like being a kid in a toy shop; fantastic birds wherever you look. Both variety and quantity. Just an unbeatable place when it is on form like this.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Putting the band back together at Hickling.

With jabs done and Lockdown easing it was time to get David out to join me and Mike for a day out. The always excellent and informative Birds of The Heath had reported a veritable smorgasbord of mediterranean rarities at Hickling, so we decided to head there for a change. I'd had a brief visit in 1984 before news of a candyfloss-pink Ross's Gull at Twitchwell had us running for the exit, so this was effectively new territory for me.

A pleasant surprise was how good the roads were until a few miles from Hickling. Apart from the 20 minute wait for road-works, at which inevitably no-one was working. The less pleasant surprise was the bright warm sunshine of Hertfordshire had been replaced with a sea fret of dull, cold, and drizzle.

We got the list rolling with a tick-and-run visit to the Roller at Icklingham. A UK lifer for David, barely a week-old repeat tick for me. Then Hickling and a walk out to Stub's Mill along Brendan's Marsh. This was pristine wader habitat, and delivered with 2 Black-Winged Stilts, 2 Wood Sandpipers, 2 Green Sandpipers, a calling Greenshank and a multi-coloured collection of Ruffs in addition to the resident Avocet, Redshank, and Lapwing. the Swifts and Hirundines swooping over the marsh were joined by a Hobby belting through. We reached Stubb's Mill and had two Chinese Water Deer to add to our list - a lifer for me - and 2 Spoonbill in the waterlogged wood.

Back to the centre and round the reserve path. Slower going here - no sign of the breeding Cranes, and unsurprisingly the Swallowtail butterflies were keeping out of sight too. We had Marsh Harriers food-passing, a male Marshy over our heads, then a Cuckoo working its way through the reeds, and a fly-over Great-White Egret. Back to the View point along the road on the eastern edge of the reed bed overlooking the marsh, and here finally we had the Stilts parading around in the open with those ridiculous outsize kinked red legs. We added Dunlin and Little Ringed Plover to the list, found a further 3 Spoonbill to bring our tally to 5; quite a bit of flapping, flying, and preening from these fantastic birds. A flock of waders over was 5 Curlew and two noticeably smaller birds allowed us to add 2 Whimbrel to the day list. 

And that was it. Any disappointment we may have had from the weather and consequent lack of insects was outweighed by the sheer relief of being out with great company enjoying good birds. The time spent at the view point with mediterranean birds visible amongst a wealth of waders and associated waterbirds was just exceptional birding. Will take quite something to beat that.

My year-list now stands at 148. I find, given constraints and ambition, that a target of 200 works for me. Much more than that and I would need to be out much more and much further afield. A look through the list and I think with a decent second half I can still make 200. A great start today. Can't wait for the follow up maybe next week. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

That's not a Wood Pigeon! Twitching in Kent

Collared Pratincole. Cliffe. Been there a week or so. A suitable gap appeared in my schedule so I set off and arrived in sunshine just after 10 to find loads of cars already on site but the car park just opened, largely empty.

The walk down to the pools was to a soundtrack of Lesser Whitethroats and Nightingales and a pair of noisy Mediterranean Gulls high overhead,  Returning birders recommended good if intermittent views from the path by the Flamingo pool so I headed down there and found myself alone looking north towards the black barns where through the scope I could see a couple of throngs of birders, mainly on their phones. The target bird clearly not showing yet.

Whomever was going on about disappearing insects on the radio recently clearly hasn't been to Cliffe. Swarms of flies were all over the place. If Kent is the garden of England, The Cliffe peninsular is the messy bit behind the garden shed. Clearly more insects were out over the pools and estuary as Swifts were present in number.

A scan of the opposite crowds revealed a change in their behaviour, all were looking west, so I tracked back west and there it was, all swept back wings and pointed tail, like a large brown swallow hawking over the pools, a bird of considerable grace and style. A species I haven't seen since sometime last millennium in Kos. 

It disappeared. By that time a few birders had assembled, and we chatted as birders do, exchanging local information (Yellowhammers disappearing in east Kent apparently. Like Hen's teeth. Still common on my side of the Thames). Then it was back, and we watched it perform again. It favoured the far bank of the pool and whatever it was that was just over the hedge. I suspect the crowds at the Black Barn didn't get much better views. We filled our boots with prolonged if distant views of the bird in flight hawking over the pools. 

It was very relaxed overall. Most people seemed to be back for their second views. Nice easy birding, and when it eventually disappeared out of view I'd had my fill and it was time to go. One said 'When we saw it we thought - well that's not a wood pigeon!' which tickled us all, particularly me given the number of times I've seen distant rarities that eventually turned out to be wood pigeons, or Stock Doves'

On returning home I got the spreadsheet up to add the Pratincole to my British list which now stands at ... well, I'm not going to put that out here, with you lot reading it. It is embarrassingly low. Looking through the list of recent additions I was surprised at how little the birds meant emotionally. Good days out, but not much more. I mean I'm glad I went and saw it, but that Lisbon trip a couple of years ago definitely knocked my perceptions - because there are bucket loads of UK rarities available in number on just one morning's trip out from any southern European city or town. 

Us men need a stage, a place where we do our thing and say "This is me, this is what I do, if you are going to judge me, judge me on this." For some it is twitching. See how many birds I can tick if I put all my effort into it! But my subconscious seems to have decided twitching is not the place I make my stand. I can take it or leave it. I had a nice morning, but if I hadn't seen it I'm not sure I'd have lost much sleep over it. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Rainham Marsh on Grand Opening Up Day.

Monday 17th May. A day for the ages. A day when we take another step to freedom.

Unfortunately no-one seems to have told RSPB Rainham Marsh. The gate was closed. Mike was following so I texted to say go to Coldharbour Lane / Ferry Lane at the west end of the reserve.

From Ferry Lane a quick scope scan along the shoreline produced an Avocet, a couple of Redshanks, 4 Dunlin and a year tick in the form of a Great Black-Backed Gull. A couple of Common Terns went by on the river.

Then up to Serin Mound. A photographer said he'd had a Gropper up there - needless to say we didn't - but we did get a male and a female Marsh Harrier distantly, and a Heron being bombed by a Lapwing.

There was a large creche of about 30 Canada Geese chicks still at the fluffy stage. But elsewhere there were families of just a few chicks. Mike thought from previous reading that the creche was the offspring of first year female Canada Geese and they were being looked after by old Geese. So the other families were more experienced breeding geese looking after their own. That would make sense. 

A Cuckoo called. My experience is to look for a prominent high point to find it, and bingo there it was on top of a large bush. Excellent views. The effort these birds put into calling is quite noticeable. 

The air was full of gulls and Swifts, and amongst them 2 Hobbies cruising around. We got a great display form them as they stooped and chased. One was bringing its claws up to its mouth in flight so I guess they were finding some insects to feed on. 

Bumping into photographer again and he mentioned Wheatear and Corn Bunting from the grass-covered landfill mound. Back we went but before we got there another Wheatear along the river wall scrub. It went round a bush then completely disappeared. Anyway on we went, and after a lot of scanning found a Corn Bunting and indeed heard it singing, and another Wheatear briefly popped up.

That was it. A decent total despite, or perhaps because the reserve itself was closed.

Things you only say on local patches

Walking your local patch is a very different experience to doing a day trip to a hot spot. Unless your local patch is a hot spot, which mine isn't. Here's some things that I say to myself on my local patch walk but not on a big day trip.

1. Reed Bunting. Fantastic. What a bird a spring male is. I'll take 5 minutes to have a good look.

2. That's 4 Song Thrushes. Perhaps that's 4 pairs.

3. House Sparrows in the bush by the bridge. Just like last year. Guess they'll breed then disappear again.

4. I wonder what species that hoverfly is.

5. Please God just something for the list. A Whinchat, a Wheatear. Just something I haven't seen every day for the past month.

5. I wonder where those gulls are going.

6. What a great bird a Grey Wagtail is. I can see every feather.

7. six Swifts. That's an excellent total.

8. Little Owl not in its tree again. Wonder where it goes.

9. Bullfinch calling again. Not visible again.

10. That's 7 Whitethroats singing so far, and 3 Chiffchaffs.

11. Lapwing. Fantastic. Great record. At last something for the notebook. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Going Dotty at RSPB Frampton Marsh

 'Normality' is slowly returning, and part of that is trips to star spots without having to pretend its on my way to work, or I have any reason other than wanting to go and see some birds. So, Frampton Marsh, with Mike travelling separately and later.

The formula for a good day is to get the target birds, in this instance Dotterel, on the list as soon as possible, then just relax and enjoy the wildlife.  So how did that go?

Helpful locals directed me to the SW corner where said star bird was loafing around in the company of a few Golden Plover on the wet farmland that constitutes the SW portion of the reserve. As I approached everything went up, and a small plover amongst the Goldies was clearly it, so, Dotterel on the year list. 

Mike had arrived and gone to the sea wall. I texted the Dotterel had flown in his general direction, and when I finally got one there he directed me to some Golden Plover on the ground with an accompanying wader. They were asleep and some way off, hence only limited views were available. I must admit, I knew the Dotterel was not a full adult female, but I hadn't expected it to look so plain, the eyestripe so dull, so like a Grey Plover. Mike was circumspect about it but I was happy to tick it.

We went up the  sea wall taking in the mass of birdlife on both sides. Ruff were everywhere with the majority males in their summer finery. Honestly worth going just for these birds, but in there too were masses of Blackwits and Avocets, with Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers and a few Dunlin mainly in winter, and then two Spotted Redshanks. One was dusky, but the other jet black apart from the spangling on the back. If you showed someone all the waders apart from Spotted red and asked them to guess what the last one looked like, no-one would ever guess all Black. Just an outstanding bird. 

We carried on round, battered briefly wind rain and hail, and had the first of 5 Whimbrel on the sea-ward side. We looked hard for the Black-Necked Grebes but couldn't locate them, and later learned they may have departed as regular scrub removal may have made the habitat unsuitable this year. 

Back to the centre, a pair of unseasonal Goldeneye flying past, and then back down the main path. A warden summoned us over and showed as a Blue-Headed Wagtail giving outstanding views. The warden thought it may have some Channel Wagtail in it as it was paler than a previous bird, but to me was a classic Blue-headed; blue-grey head, face and nape, thin white super, slight white in the sub-ocular patch, white chin. My first since, ummm, well some time last century.

The fun didn't stop there. We were told a Jack Snipe had been seen yesterday right in the corner of a lagoon close to the road - and there it was, bob-bob-bobbing. Then back on the sea wall, a fellow birder shouted 'look - Whinchats!' as two Wheatears landed in front of us. I would find it a laughable mistake if I hadn't myself done the same on a couple of previous occasions. These birds were males, but sandy on the back and very bright vivid peachy/orange on the breast, making confusion on a quick view easy. Maybe Greenland birds?

We had lunch well satisfied with the haul, and decided after lunch to walk the southern wall as Mike was keen to get a better view of the Dotterel still having doubts over the first non-definitive view. We duly had it pointed out to us, and there it was, with a patchy pink breast, large well marked scapulars, and a stonking eye-stripe. Ah. Clearly the bird I had seen earlier was not this! I think best described as a learning opportunity. We carried on round adding Hare and Roe Deer to the list, a few more Whimbrel, then from the sea wall Mike picked out a Pale-Bellied Brent Goose amongst several hundred Dark Bellied Brents, and that was it apart from repeat sightings of a pair of adult Mediterranean Gulls, which might be the same ones, or not.

A fantastic day. Not just the species, but the numbers. 40+ Ruff, similar numbers of Yellow Wagtail, 3 species of hirundines plus Swift, Sedge Warblers everywhere, The constant noise of breeding colonies.

It takes a few goes to get comfortable with a place. To know the spots to go, the paths, where to stop and watch, how long to allow for, how to pace the visit. This was my third trip to Frampton, and I finally feel I'm getting to grips with the scale of the place. And what a place, simply crammed with birds.

Given the nature of this year, plenty of year ticks. Not just Dotterel, but Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Spotshank, Whimbrel, Ruff, Brent Goose. And Grey Plover, I'm having that too.