Friday, January 26, 2024

Hello Old Friend

What a year its been for notable birds. It started off with Canvasback at Abberton, then Northern Waterthrush at Maldon, then Surf Scoter at Holkham. There was a decent supporting cast too - Snow Bunting at Mersea Island, and Snow Bunts and Shore Lark at Holkham. Then a bit of local action - Smew and Red Crested Pochard at Amwell, and Bittern at Fishers Green. Finally White-Billed Diver off Southend Pier.

Yes reader, I missed them all. Some just weren't there when I was, and that Surf-Scoter; well, it became clear when, as we drove down the road to the Coastguards at Cley and saw the brick shelter repeatedly dwarfed by crashing towering spray, that we had miscalculated and there was zero chance of seeing it. Zero. As for the Diver, I never even got out of my chair.

So when it was mooted that we take a family outing to St Albans I leapt at it. Yes, sure, lets visit the Cathedral. A wonderful building. And just a couple of hours later I was stood in the Cathedral grounds with a lady with binoculars pointing out the long-staying Black Redstart in a tree. A decent sighting at last!

It was a female so lacks the showy pizazz of the males. But it was all Redstart. Non-stop flicking, constantly busy, occasionally adopting a jaunty pose. 

Every bird species DNA seems to extend to all aspects of its habits and behaviour. This bird, when seen, instantly summed up the essence of all the previous  Black Redstarts I've seen. An instant memory of encounters past. Hello old friend!

Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 and all that.

In stats: 5 lifers. 215 year list. Didn't keep a local list for the first time in ages.

Overall a bit more relaxed and targeted this year with average results. The year-list did its job in keeping me going to different places.

1. Lifers. Alpine Swift, Blue-Winged Teal, Brown Booby, Canvasback, American Golden Plover. And about time too for a couple of those. But all good fun.

2. Birds I missed this year. There's a few. 

Black Redstart, Snow Bunting, Shore Lark Grey Partridge, Water Pipit. White-Fronted Goose, Goshawk, Garden Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Tree Pipit, Yellow, Browed Warbler, Jack Snipe...

A few of these I could go and see right now, and a few more could be done with a trip to Holkham. When I first started doing this more seriously back in 2015/16 it was a revelation that I could go to Holkham and see Shore Larks and Snow Buntings, and for a few years that continued to be fun, but after a while it becomes an exercise in ticking. This year's birding simply didn't involve bumping into these birds (Garden Warbler has always been scarce on my patch). I reserve the right to go and twitch these next year, as it will have been over a year since I saw them ...

Common Crossbill has become a much harder bird in the Brecks recently, but there was a record of them at Lynford so maybe next year.

3. Local. Again, back in 2015/16 one of the fascinations was to see just what occurred in the fields and woods in walking distance of my house. And whilst most trips mainly involve seeing nothing, there's been a decent list in total. But this year, particularly post-covid, has felt a bit diminishing returns. So I've done fewer trips but nevertheless saw Wheatear, Mediterranean Gull, Redpoll, Brambling, Stonechat, and even on a dog walk where I decided not to take my binoculars had a Marsh Harrier belting south over the park. I may do more of this next year.

4. Things that didn't happen: - Didn't get to see Whinchat or Redstart locally mainly due to lack of walks at suitable times. Didn't get a local vis mig passage. Didn't get a good October day in Norfolk with Yellow-Browed warblers in number and other migrants. Didn't get a strong late winter Northerly on the Norfolk coast, one of those Skua/Little Auk winds. This winter period hasn't delivered much of what one might hope for - no White-winged gulls, few geese, 

5. Good days. Had a lot of those. Frampton was great - just masses of great waders, and a memorable day at Minsmere. But again, a change of emphasis - two trips to Titchwell where we just did the reserve and kept chasing to a minimum. Great fun will do that again next year. And its no coincidence that my good days were all spent in the company of Mike and/or Dave. Am just very fortunate to have these two for birding companions - both top birders and great company. Thanks guys.

6. Memorable sights. American Black Tern and many Arctic Terns all at close range at Long Nanny. Hadn't expected to be that close. Male Hen Harrier at Eldernell. Always a fantastic sight. Grey-Headed Wagtail at Titchwell - not really expected and great views. Lady Orchids in Kent - so many! A flock of Woodlarks in a quarry on Westleton Heath, Pink-Footed Geese just arriving in Norfolk in September, Velvet Scoters at Abberton, and the sheer number of Short-Eared Owls at Wallasea. 

7. Blasts from the past. Black Guillemot - been a few years since I saw one of them. Same Waxwing, Buff-Breasted Sandpiper, and Montagu's Harrier. Genuinely though I would never see another one of those in the UK. 

... and so to next year. Am still keen. Bit the bullet and rejoined the National Trust so will do more Hatfield Forest. But as I get older and now I know what is possible, I'm feeling a bit more Zen about the whole birding thing so may just be spending more time going to places and seeing what's there rather than just chasing the list. 

Thanks for reading. Hope I can make your visits to this site worthwhile next year. 

Thursday, December 07, 2023

SEOs at Wallasea Island

We'd been reading the records from Wallasea Island of decent numbers of Short-Eared Owls and thought it worth a go. My record with winter SEOs is generally mixed - if they are showing its been brief and distant. Would we be lucky at Wallasea?

We needn't have worried. On arrival we stopped by a car with photographers in action, and a quick scan produced two SEOs in flight. One took exception to a Kestrel and mobbed it at height above our heads. On scanning we found another SEO, just behind a passing male Hen Harrier. Nice.

We went down to the car park, saw a flock of eight Corn Buntings, and then onto the reserve towards the hide but not as far. There were more owls towards the sea wall, and with this number they were constantly hunting and taking exception to other owls being in their areas, so we had a real treat. Another Hen Harrier, this time a Ringtail, quartered the fields around the hide and towards the sea wall.

We didn't spend a lot of time searching the wildfowl and waders, but still detected plenty of Pintails amongst the many Wigeon and Shoveler, several flocks of Golden Plover, and Black-Tailed Godwits and a few Avocets.

It was warm, still, and sunny, and quite fantastic. As time ticked by we got an atmospheric sunset and then with owls still quartering called it a day.

I reckon we had seven Owls. We turned up at 2pm and the owls were busy. If you are thinking of going I would get there an hour or so before then.

Finally some photos. Veteran readers will immediately assume this excellent set are not mine, and you would be right. These are courtesy of David, more on his excellent blog


Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Twitch twitch

Not a lot of time to nip out the last couple of weeks, but when rarities turn up on your doorstep it makes sense to create a little time. So two days after the escaped Canvasback turned up at Abberton Mike and I went to see it. The football-crowd scrum of the first weekend had dispersed but there were enough people to put us on to it, and it turned out to be quite easy, convenient, close in. A very nice bird.

I managed to squeeze in another trip to Abberton a week after to see the Velvet Scoters from the Church view point. Birds can be hard from here given the expanse of water, but these three kindly swam around directly in front. Normally just a brief flash of white in a distant scoter flock, or a white wing bar on a passing sea duck, these were comfortably the best views I've ever had. Zooming in on the scope revealed fine detail on the face patches and elsewhere I'd never previously appreciated. A search through the flock of tufts managed to locate a couple of Scaup and a female Common Scoter. A Brent Goose had attracted some attention, but personally I find it hard to get excited about one individual bird at the reservoir when just over the hill there are hundreds of them.

This week saw me in Weymouth on family business, so I took the binoculars in case the American Golden Plover was still at Lodmoor. And indeed it was. On arrival my heart sank as a flock of 500 Goodies flew high overhead; my experience is these birds can remain airborne for a long long time. But they began to settle and soon it was picked out. I managed a glimpse down someone's scope - many thanks - and it was quite straightforward, being smaller, greyer, with a big white super onto the from of the forehead and a darkish cap. A touch of Wood Sandpiper in there I thought.

So that's two decent ticks for very little effort, which is always very welcome. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Nothing to see in Norfolk.

So often our trips to Norfolk involve lining up the star birds and going from one location to another ticking them off, or not, as the case may be. Generally we start at Cley and end up at Titchwell. But with nothing on offer and some interesting winds we were free to build a list from scratch. Mike and I chose to spend all day at Titchwell to give it a proper going over, out talisman and chief raptor-finder David being unfortunately laid up - get well soon David.

Our arrival coincided with low tide, and in distinctly variable conditions with low cloud drifting across we decided to hit the Fen trail. But before we'd even got out of the car park Mike had some Fieldfares over and a few Chaffinches, all going west.

There was a constant trickle of birds overhead as we made our way east; Redwings, Chaffinches, a few tight knots of Starlings, and in amongst we had some Siskins and a handful of Redpolls, which we were able to get eyes on as well as hear. There were frequent loud chattering parties of Pink-Footed Geese going over, often unseen in clouds despite sounding close. Later in the day we had large skeins of tens or low hundreds making their way south-east onto the coast. Just an everyday tick for Norfolk, nevertheless the sight and sound of these birds arriving from Iceland or Greenland is for me one of the best birding spectacles on offer in our corner of England.

There were plenty of Blackbirds around, and as we passed a reed bed lots of pinging and eventually 7 Bearded Reedlings took off and headed west, and a Great White Egret flew over.

Back in the car park for lunch we had a single Brambling call overhead and as it turned I caught its white rump. Not a bad bird to get on my 'whilst having lunch' list.

Heading out to the coast we went past a freshmarsh full of water but few birds; we had a few Pintail flying over but none we could see on the ground, and just twenty or so Golden Plover doing occasional circuits. Otherwise just the standard Black-Tailed godwits and Avocets.

All was quiet when we hit the beach, with not much having been seen, but with some patience the collective watchers assembled a list of Razorbill, Common Scoter, and a couple of Red-throated Divers all on the water. Further out just on the edge of what my scope could identify there seemed to be a line of Little Gulls constantly moving west, and we managed to get a minimum of three adults and one first-winter close enough to be identified comfortably at 60x. Other than that three Red-Breasted Merganser flew past and more thrushes flew in over the water with a few Fieldfare in amongst, and Starling must have hit the low thousands in total for the day as small parties were constantly going west. Three Sandwich Terns flew west as well as a couple of Gannets, and another tern; sea watching is one of the ultimate tests of Birding ID skill and I keep failing it so I can only record this as Commic.

There was a call of Hen Harrier! and Mike managed to get onto a ringtail hunting over the point but I was too slow and couldn't get it on my day list. Disappointment was soon washed away when Mike picked up a Short-Eared Owl over the point and we watched it for about ten minutes as it slowly got higher and higher and drifted out to sea. I'm always amazed at how these birds seemingly built for short-range hunting manage to migrate so far. 

That was pretty much it, apart from a Chiffchaff on a final sweep of the Fen trail. 

So all in this was a really enjoyable day. We may not have had the exotic buntings and warblers of a more northerly coastal point, but everything we saw we came across ourselves. Perhaps a template for future trips.

And there was a bonus from the RSPB. As a member I pay for them to maintain some decent birding habitat for folks like me to birdwatch on, but the folks presenting the overnight moth catch at the centre are very much an added free benefit. Having seen so many social media posts of Merveille-du-jour it was nice to be able to see one close up. My moth knowledge isn't good enough to appreciate the significance of what I was being shown in the other pots but some migratory ones were intriguing. Thank you RSPB. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

Rarities as MacGuffins. Brown Booby.

Family business meant I had to drive from Hertfordshire to Ilkley. A quick look at a map shows Teesside, currently home to a Brown Booby, is practical on the way! So I find myself at 2 in the afternoon driving along the desolate Road of Destruction that is the road to South Gare, a place I have known of for years since as a student on occasion I went birding the other side of the estuary, but before today have never been.

First stop is a crowd of birders looking the wrong way. They are scouring a desolate rock-strewn plane and within seconds they are putting me on to a Wryneck perched on a bush. Tremendous stuff, but just a brief view before onto the target bird.

Parked, picking my way down the rubble between buildings to the men with cameras, and I am put onto the target bird sat on a buoy mid-estuary. Fantastic. 

Target duly ticked, I start to scour the estuary and it is full of birds. Gannets, hundreds of Auks, some Kittiwakes, and amongst them some Sandwich Terns, Common/Arctic Terns, an Eider, and a couple of skuas. One of them is obviously an Arctic Skua, very agile and busy, but that other one, a pale bird with vivid flashes, well that seems a different beast all together. I should note, at this point, that the Tees off South Gare is but a narrow stream compared to the wide ocean that is the Thames off Canvey. All the birds on the far side are pretty easy to see and identify too if you have more skills than I possess.

I'd become aware the Booby had flown off, and I was annoyed with myself. Ticked but not much more; I had no idea what it looked like in flight, how it ate, etc. I spent a couple of hours looking for it and also in a break went back for the Wryneck which was once again co-operating as it quietly picked its way round boulders and small bushes, close enough to fill a scope view. It's easy to see why in cover even just slightly thicker and higher these birds can disappear for hours. 

Most of all, I just talked to other birders. To a woman down from Northumberland, exchanging children-at-university stories, and with a local birder as we looked for the Booby. During one of these chats the pale juvenile skua reappeared and satisfied us that its lazy lumbering heavy-bellied approach was consistent only with Pomarine Skua

Finally the Booby reappeared off North Gare, flying back and forth in the wind with some light harassment from gulls. An elegant flyer with a longer tail than I expected. Then it started tacking across the estuary, flying west into the gale, drifting back, flying west again, until it was on our side and it flew round the Pilots Pier a couple of times and landed. Great views of this bird, its big yellowish feet, its subtle blue hints round the eye. Fantastic views unlikely ever to be repeated by me.

A smashing trip, with the Booby being a MacGuffin. A MacGuffins is a plot device, believed to be named by Alfred Hitchcock, which serves as a driver or central theme for the plot but enables the real drama, the characters and other plots to take centre stage. Here the Booby was excellent, but the other birds and the chats with local birders made the day complete. Rarities so often seem to be the excuse for a day out, not the main reason.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Minsmere - When Birding Dreams Come True.

To be a birder is to be a perpetual optimist. Today is going to be the day. The day when rarities just pop up on front of you, when bushes drip birds, when your wildlife dreams are realised.

Mike, Dave and I did our usual speculation of what we might see as we sped crawled towards Westleton Heath hoping a SE breeze would deposit rarities. Top of my list was Honey Buzzard; a bird blown over from the continent, or perhaps, if rumours and occasional sightings were true, a local bird. But maybe some passerine migrants, or some decent waders. Mike wanted some year ticks he'd missed out on so far - Dartford Warbler, Grayling Butterfly, Common Emerald. Dave, after extended health-related lay-offs, wanted to just get out with his camera and photograph some wildlife, preferably the massive green Bush Cricket he'd read about at Minsmere.

We started at Westleton Heath, retracing last year's steps to the Deer watchpoint. We got Grayling Butterfly almost immediately performing well on heather, then were immediately into a family party of Stonechats; a harsh churr churr and a Dartford Warbler shot past my head. A family party soon appeared and gave unusually confiding views on an old Gorse bush.

Walking past the quarry a lark dropped into the open area and as I approached to investigate further a small flock lifted with quiet whistles and settled a  few yards further. We spent a good half hour enjoying this feast of Woodlarks, counting at least eight and possibly a few more. Woodlark was a possible bird on the list but we never thought it would be this number and these views.

On to the deer watchpoint and in a repeat of last year we had six Stone Curlews including one out in the open. A splendid list and we could have gone home happy at that point.

Mike and I returned to the car and David hang back to take some photos. When he eventually appeared it was to ask us why we hadn't responded to his calls when what was clearly a juvenile Honey Buzzard had flown over his head. After congratulating David we said not to worry, it was probably still around and we would surely bump into it later. Said with my fingers crossed behind my back.

We pitched up at Minsmere car park and scanned the sky for large raptors duly found one circling; dark brown back, but a white forehead and white underneath - an Osprey, and from the neat solid back probably an adult. We watched this circle for a while, had a Hobby flying underneath it, and as it slid away a gaggle of RSPB staff appeared and got a glimpse of it.

On through the Dragonfly pond - Common Emerald ticked, then onto the shore and East Hide. We had 2 Curlew Sandpipers, and good numbers of other waders. A few duck flew in and we added Wigeon and three Pintail to the list; then on to South Scrape and a Sandwich Tern and a few more waders.

On having South scrape and heading further down the dunes Mike suddenly stopped and pointed to a creature in the grass - unmistakeably a Great Green Bush Cricket ponderously crawling around. A huge insect, just a few on a skewer would make a decent serving. Dave duly clicked away delighted to have got onto one.

Then as we scanned over the reserve a large raptor appeared slowly circling over the Island Mere Reedbed. As soon as we got on it we know what it was, and through the scope it was all there. Large floppy-ended wings held flat, narrow wing base, small greyish protruding head, tail spread again a slight greyish from above. For Dave it was a case of Hello Old Friend; the juvenile Honey Buzzard was back. It was harassed by a Marsh Harrier which was notably smaller, and then as it continued out a Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard joined in. 

Books go on about telling Common and Honey apart but honestly on a good view its just not an issue. Its blindingly unmistakably obvious. The bird was seen by various groups, and all those ladies with their cameras who tag along with their husbands, the ones who can't tell a Whinchat from a Stonechat and aren't bothered about it, they were all pretty sure they'd seen a Honey Buzzard. 

On to the sluice bushes, and a small party of chats hoping around on the sward; two Whinchats, a Wheatear, and seven Stonechats. We didn't see the Wryneck reported from here, and neither did we meet anyone who'd seen it. 

And that was more or less it. A Kingfisher flew across the path. A Green Sandpiper appeared. But then as the afternoon heat reached a peak we called it a day and headed back.

wow what a list. Woodlark flock, Stone Curlew flock, Honey Buzzard, Osprey, Curlew Sandpiper plus various seasonal goodies. All the main birds self-found and unexpected. It's one thing to go on a twitch for a rare bird and to see it, but to go out with no particular expectations and fill your boots like we did today is the stuff of dreams. The best of birding with, as always, the best of company.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Hatfield Forest 1st August

A trip, with camera, round our local forest. We came across a couple of Silver-Washed Fritillaries doing their bit to ensure there's some fritillaries around next year.

Here's the happy couple, with the female on the right indicating a certain willingness to proceed.

The whole process was quite elaborate with lots of fluttering of wings. Good to have these butterflies in number in the forest.

Elsewhere there were more butterflies. There are three species in the photo below.

You can really only see two, but the Comma moved off allowing a decent view of the third.

Always amazed at the style and neatness of the Purple Hairstreak's face!

UPDATE: ** Thanks to Mike for pointing out that this is not a Purple Hairstreak but is a White-Letter Hairstreak. On checking the books it matches quite clearly. That's not just a first for me for Hatfield Forest but a Lifer - thanks Mike! **

It wasn't just butterflies. The Orchid bible Harrop states HF has Violet Helleborines. After asking some of the local Naturalists and doing a bit of hunting around I found some gone-over spikes last Autumn. This time they were in full bloom. We are indeed fortunate to have these so close to us.

Kent part 2

Bonsai Bank had a lot more than just masses of Lady Orchids and Fly orchids. We had single Greater Butterfly Orchid, several White Helleborines, and there were still some Early Purple Orchids.

The weather wasn't ideal for Butterflies, but we did get a few Duke of Burgundies.

We went on to Yocklett's Bank and then Parkgate Down. The issue at both was parking, but we managed to find places both times.

Yocklett's Bank had similar to Bonsai Bank but more. The Greater Butterfly Orchid was in flower. Also a Turtle Dove purring loudly. 

Greater Butterfly Orchid

Parkgate had magnificent Monkey Orchids in decent numbers. Just mad exploding golf-balls of vivid purple colour. Our appreciation was only slightly diminished by learning these had all been relocated from another site a while ago.

For an exploratory trip this was excellent and I think I will be back for more next year.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Going Nuclear.

I know, I know, its very bad form to observe a couple of months of silence and then return for a rant. But here we are.

I'm getting increasingly fed up with the 'green' lobby and their sheer logic-defying brainlessness. But lets not spend half a day going over that. Instead let's just consider the available options on 'green energy' and look for the best solution.

I worked on computer systems in banks for many years, and my experience is that lots of people are keen to sell you there latest wacky idea as though its the future, but if you want actual results on a realistic timescale, you go with something that is proven to work.

And what is proven to work, if you are shopping for an energy form that doesn't emit Carbon Dioxode, is available whenever you need it, doesn't need non-existent storage solutions, is Nuclear. It is proven in many places over many years. We start from a point of known technology, known results. 

If you want to invest in new 'green' energy generation methods that would be Nuclear Fusion. Lawrence Livermore Labs in the US have repeated the process of generating energy over a short period, which gives real hope that developments can extend the performance. It's in as good a position for an experimental technology as one can reasonably ask for. 

This is just obvious isn't it?

Thursday, June 01, 2023

In Kent with the Ladies (part 1)

To Kent to see orchids. If you have an interest in wildlife beyond just birds, then Orchids appear on your horizon, and then the reserves in Kent near Canterbury and their fantastic flora get mentioned, so it was very much an ambition to visit at the right time. 

We got excellent directions from Peter Alfrey's blog here and also consulted Orchid Hunter's video. These made all the difference and meant the day went smoothly. Thanks to both of those.

And what a day. First up Bonsai Bank in Denge Wood.

There were Lady Orchids well scattered in excellent condition throughout the bank. It is frankly weird and wonderfully bizarre to go into an English woodland and see flowers like this in this number. As if a stately home over the fence had accidentally seeded some exotic flowers. And in close-up the ladies in their bonnets are a real picture.

We had been hoping to see Fly Orchids and we were told of a couple of spikes just round to the left after entering. We saw those and more. Orchid Hunter (see above) says when you see a Fly Orchid get down and look carefully, and by following that advice we ended up with twenty spikes in clusters throughout the area. A cracking flower.

There was more to see, which I will reveal in a second post

Hello Old Friend

What a year its been for notable birds. It started off with Canvasback at Abberton, then Northern Waterthrush at Maldon, then Surf Scoter at...