Tuesday, December 22, 2020

In Tiers


This is my local park. It might seem a dull shot, but contains something quite exciting. We are in Tier 4. Full Lockdown. But the horizon, those trees, well, that is Tier 2. Freedom

I think I can make it there and back in day. In tier 4 I am permitted exercise, but once I'm over the border I could wander freely without restraint. I could even go into a pub for a substantial meal. 

The main issue is the border guards. Maybe I should take some high status goods; toilet roll, or dried pasta perhaps, in case I'm stopped.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Patch latest

Dropped D#4 off and went for a short walk round the patch. The valley is flooded; water running over the top of every bank construction and lock and off into the fields. This usually happens a couple of times each winter. The path is nevertheless still walkable but I need to take a short diversion. A couple of Bullfinches call unseen, and the hazel and hawthorn scrub sounds like it is heaving with Redwings chattering away, with the odd one flitting across gaps. Along the river bank and I can hear a Water Rail in the flooded rushy pond opposite, and a Teal calling, but can see neither. 

Birds that aren't corvids or pigeons are fairly scarce until I get past Feakes Lock, where as I chat to a house boat owner struggling with his craft in the current of the river in spate a female Sparrowhawk shoots past and a Little Egret lifts from the damp field opposite.

Up the path into the chat field and a distant Stonechat appears fleetingly. Local Stonechats are a subject of some discussion; a local birder/photographer posted a picture online and stated that a couple of pairs winter regularly in the valley and another pair on the tops. Well, that's not my experience; early spring and late autumn passage, and the odd one appears here and there in winter, but not a banker by any means. Nevertheless, a December Stonechat. Lets see if it hangs around ...

Stop at the top of the field and take a call from Mrs D. She's taken the dogs for a walk, so I should extend my walk as I came out without a key. As I finish the call there's a gronking - Raven! A pair fly over, one settles in a tree, and the other flies around, goes quite close to my house - maybe one for the house list eventually - then after a few minutes cruising around heads off towards the willow bed in the park. It's a first for my patch for me, but not unexpected as they have been seen increasingly in the area. What a huge bird it is, and is the 91st species on the patch year list.

Another patch tick is just a few yards on - Sheep. A field full of them. The local farmer is always trying new stuff, always with an eye for nature, so will be interesting to see if they pull any birds in. Carry on round the outside of the field and two Green Woodpeckers fly off and 20 Goldfinches feed in the sun on the teasels in the overgrown field.

Up and over the road and onto some more traditional farmland. Two fields both hold about ten Skylarks, one has 5 Red-Legged Partridges, and there are thrushes flying around, including 30 Fieldfare some of which settle close. Multi-coloured, flecked, large; if you saw pictures of all the other European thrushes and were asked to guess what the remaining one looked like, you'd never guess Fieldfare. And that evocative shak-shak call, always a thrill to hear. Even after 40+ years of birding I still can't quite believe that Fieldfares exist, and not only exist but are common enough to be regular on the patch and elsewhere.

A few Yellowhammers and Chaffinches around the hedgerows, a Bullfinch goes over calling, then back down past the farm and under the railway. The Stonechat has moved up toward the overgrown pond and gives some nice views.

Back across the river, stop to see some Long-tailed Tits. Perhaps a Treecreeper keeping them company? And yes there is, almost as if I've willed it into existence. I spend a few minutes watching it run up the underside of branches, pick around bark. Always a good day when you see a Treecreeper.

And that's it. Another cracking list for a couple of hours walk out of the house. And that flood - Lets keep an eye out and see if as it slows and settles some wildfowl come in. This year I've relied a lot on the patch, and it's really delivered.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Why I'm in favour of Sizewell C.

Minsmere is just about the best bird reserve in the country. Together with Westleton Heath and Dingle marshes it forms an area of outstanding wildlife. Not just the Bitterns, Marsh Harriers, Savi's Warblers, Dartford Warblers, but also Adders and Red Deer as well as so much else.

There are plans afoot to build a new nuclear power station between the current one at Sizewell B and the reserve. This will clearly impact on the wildlife of this rich and diverse area. Nor surprisingly, this has produced a lot of opposition. But I'm in favour. Here's why.

Firstly, climate change is real. As naturalists, we know this better than anyone. From the Ivy bees and Tree Bumble bees in our gardens to the three species of Egret I saw at Abberton today, our world is full of winged creatures moving north. My research indicated that, in as much as we can tell, this century will see continued warming and gradual change, but there may come a point when that gradual change breaks down and significant change, probably quite bad, occurs. And if the Clathrate Gun goes off, its Good Night Vienna.

As a civilisation we are making progress to slowing and then stopping warming. Globally, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic; As the standard of living goes up across the world, birth rates fall and the population is stabilising. Technology improvements mean significant reductions in CO2 emissions are possible. Every time we slow the increase in CO2 we give ourselves more time to develop better solutions. Climate Armageddon is not inevitable. We can solve this.

In the UK, we need to do our bit, and the most obvious target is electric vehicles. We are going to see a significant push in the next few years (I understand the EU is using 2020 as a baseline, so vehicle manufacturers have been avoiding pushing electric vehicles this year to get a low baseline and will push hard next year). But to make the most of the opportunity to reduce emissions, we need to charge these vehicles on carbon-free electricity, and the best way to do that is overnight. Given we don't have a viable means of storing electricity from variable renewable sources such as wind power or solar, it would seem we need a reliable source of instant overnight power and the best way of doing that currently is from nuclear power stations. 

Sizewell would seem to be a sensible place to build one given there is already one there. It could be the spur to improve the A12, it could help bring jobs and prosperity to the region.

And the wildlife? Well, according to my take on the plans, the plans leave much of the Minsmere/Westleton area intact. The area from the Eels foot at Eastbridge to Sizewell and Leiston may see a lot of activity, but the levels, the reserve, and the heath should be okay.

The RSPB and other are making a lot of noise, but my inner cynic wonders what the real aim is. Might it be to create a sense that wildlife compensation is required, that the 'loss' of the wildlife habitat should be recompensed by the expansion of local or other wildlife areas? Either locally around Walberswick and Westleton, or further afield? 

Reduction in CO2 emissions, cleaner environments, and an increase in wildlife areas in East Anglia? That would be win-win wouldn't it?


Friday, October 23, 2020

Zugzwang in Norfolk

Thursday in Norfolk. It had to be done. There was the Rufous-tailed Bush Chat Scrub Robin thing, which surely any serious birdwatcher should go for, then at the other end of the North Norfolk Coast there was a sprinkling of Red-Flanked Bluetails and a Dusky Warbler. But as David and I, with Mike in Covid-secure separate car, made our way north, there was a feeling that this could all end in disaster. Rare migrants seem to have a distinctive behaviour pattern: Arrive, zoom around calling frequently all excited at their new surroundings out in the open taking it all in, slowly realise they are on their own, and quickly either leave or spend their remaining time time hiding silently in thick undergrowth. We have clearly reached that last stage with two of the three, and the third, Dusky Warbler, generally bypasses the zooming around stage and goes straight to the hiding bit.

Hence we found ourselves in a large crowd in a field at Stiffkey watching the clock and in that familiar position. Not to have come? Well, they might show and that Bush Robin thing might never appear again on British soil in our lifetimes. Stay a while and leave? Well, it might appear. Stay until it appears? Well that could be all day for nothing. We were in birding Zugzwang, which as you will all know is a Chess term for a position where it is your move and every available move makes your position much worse.

We clocked a few typical birds from the field and adjacent coastal path; lots of Pink-footed Geese and Brent Geese, a Marsh Harrier, two Red Kites, Wigeon, Little Egrets, Redwings, and some passing Chaffinches with the occasional Redpoll. We even had very distant Gannet. But we took the plunge and headed for Holme, with David adding a Cattle Egret from the car at Holkham.

Holme Beach car park, currently Bluetail central, was jam-packed so we went to the Observatory. We wandered round, getting Razorbill, Red-Throated Diver, Common Scoter and Great-Crested Grebe on the sea, a fly-by Pintail, 500 Golden Plover, a Merlin carrying prey flying past (again!) and a few Redwings, then back at the obs the Warden went to the Heligoland Trap setting the Dusky Warbler off chuck-chucking and flying around. I got 'typical' views of it darting between bushes, and Mike went one better seeing it briefly on the ground under a bush.

We left to go to the Beach Car park and on the way out Mike stopped his car and leapt out - a Ring Ouzel had been in a bush besides his car and flown into a dip. We looked over this area for a while, seeing lots of Redwings and both David and Mike had subsequent views of one or more Ouzels. just fleeting views.

We finished up at the beach car park and briefly joined a small crowd staring at Bluetail-free bushes. But we were done.

Not much for a list, but it was fun. We were prepared for disappointment, so the hunt for Ouzels was a bonus, and the essence of birding.

And that felt like the end of Autumn. List-wise, its been mixed, but experience-wise its been great. The fun of being out with good company witnessing migration on a grand scale and seeking a few exotic waifs and strays amongst it all is unbeatable. The excitement of the unexpected. We've cheered, we've kicked a few grass tussocks in frustration, we've gone 'No not that bush the next one - oh its gone' quite a lot. We've said 'at least its not raining' as its started to rain, and we've ticked a few good birds and found some decent ones

But most of all we've witnessed bird migration. the older I get, the more I go birdwatching and the more birds I see, the more amazing the whole thing seems. To look at a Rabbit or Fox and think if those arms were a bit different the creature could rise up into the air and travel huge distances - just a bonkers notion. Our ornithologist forebears thought summer visitors hibernated. Flying thousands of miles away for winter and then flying thousands of miles back, seems far less likely, but is the amazing reality. And those grubs eating the cabbages in your gardens? You won't believe what happens to them. I could tell you, but you wouldn't begin to be able to imagine it. 

Anyway, the next chapter beckons, which will probably be more local with fewer rarities. Bring it on.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Norfolk Thursday 15th

NE winds onto the Norfolk coast in mid-October. Who could ask for more? so David and I pitched up at Cley at 9:30 to join what would undoubtedly be a large number of sea watchers.

Actually there was just two other people, everyone else having gone off bush-bashing. But we were playing a long game - let everyone else find the birds and trot round letter cleaning up. Well that was the plan.

We'd missed 3 Poms but there was still stuff moving; Kittiwakes, Eiders, a few Scoters, Wigeon, Brent Geese and Auks, and a couple of Red Throated Divers on the sea. And a male Mallard. There was a shout of Peregrine? And we saw a falcon with prey going across the sky. It looked very brown for a Peregrine. It was, of course, a Merlin, but the flight with prey and the bulk of the female did throw me I must admit. That dashing hunting Merlin flight? Well, it wasn't that.

We kept going for a couple of hours, at the end of which we were the only ones there. Two Little Auks sped through mid-range, and at the end of our session a party of Scoters heading east had a bird out front with a broad white trailing wing patch; nice to get Velvet Scoter on the list. We ended with a list of probables was well: a couple of very distant skuas were large and heavy (I believe the technical term for these views is 'definite Pom'), a distant party of gulls looked like Little Gulls as they were light and buoyant with a mix of all pale wings and black W but too far to clinch the dark underwing, and a female duck whizzing through was almost certainly a Long-Tailed Duck, with that distinctive pointed-wing look, but I just couldn't clinch it. But that uncertainty is one of the joys of sea-watching. 

For some reason David was mad keen to see Cattle Egret. We stopped at North Point Pools where some had been reported but with no cattle in sight we headed on. 

Holkham was our next and final stop. We soon came across a group at a bush contains a reported Blyth's Reed Warbler. The bird showed well displaying a massive bill. Nice. We went on, stared blankly at a space where a Red-flanked Bluetail had been, and ended up at the end of the wood on the dunes where a juvenile Barred Warbler was giving very decent views. Ten Cattle Egret flew distantly past giving David his target tick.

Here we heard that the Blyths had been downgraded to plain Reed. Really? Despite the tuc-tuc call reported first thing? As we turned to head back for the car the Cattle Egrets suddenly appeared flying in formation near us, before settling in the adjacent field where they gave fantastic views, perching on a cows, back, catching frogs, whilst a Great White Egret wandered serenely around. David had got his wish fulfilled in spectacular fashion..

We retraced our steps towards Lady Anne's Drive. There were birds all over, particularly Redwings and Blackbirds. Siskins called over, and once a Brambling. Goldcrests were everywhere, so much that stopping to look at birds simply because there was a movement was a waste of time, and calls were the key. We went past the Not Blyth's, gave it another look, Christ that's a hell of a bill, then as we were discussing the lack of any Chiff-Chaffs we came across a group looking at one with some Goldcrests. A quick double-note call and yes! Yellow-Browed Warbler giving excellent view for this species.

And that was our lot. There were Pallas' Warblers at Stiffkey, but it was 4:15, there was parking, ages waiting for them to appear possibly, then the two-and-a-half hour trip back. It wasn't as though we were going to accidentally stumble across a Rufous Bush-Robin was it? So we called it a day and left for home. An excellent day in Norfolk.


Friday, October 02, 2020

World's Shortest Sea Watch. Canvey Point 2nd October

A stonking big arrow on the weather chart, pointing right up the Thames. Go to Canvey Point. Just one small issue, that '99% probability of rain.' But that's alright, it just refers to the hour, not necessarily a prediction of continuous rain.

The obvious and sensible thing to do when pulling up at the point and seeing horizontal rain shooting across a lead-grey sky, would be to head instead for the centre of the island, pay a small fee in a car park, and set up in the shelter of the old coastguards base. Only a complete fool would try and birdwatch from the Point.

So, how did I get on at the Point? Well, it was really hard. And wet. The continual battering and rapid fogging of the optics meant very little could be seen. What I did manage to see were Gannets. Lots of Gannets, battling against the wind out of the estuary. Eventually a flock took off, and sixty, yes 60, Gannets were in the air at once flying slowly East. They settled again and more came in drabs from up river. But I was fighting a losing battle at this point, and after fifteen minutes it was a battle I had comprehensively lost. 

I did drive to the sensible part of town, but I was soaking and my optics useless. I couldn't stir myself to even get out of the car.

I saw on twitter the first tweet of what is likely to be an excruciating series where two local birders relaxing in the comfort of a dry wind-free sheltered area had counted a hundred Gannets, with no doubt more to come. But unless you are really experiencing ... oh forget it. I got this wrong. There is nothing more to be said. Good luck guys in the shelter. May your optics be filled with Sabines, Leaches, and other goodies.

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.