Monday, April 11, 2022

Tales of The Unexpected

My last post was the surprising addition of three new species for the patch list. Each in their own way not unexpected, but nevertheless quite an amazing run.

Today was the next patch visit. I was hoping for some summer visitors, a Willow Warbler, a Swallow, perhaps a Yellow Wagtail, maybe even a Wheatear or Redstart. Well, we can all dream.

I'd wandered down the Stort, got decent Blackcap views, Cetti's Warbler singing, and pairs of Mandarin and Grey Wagtail, and had walked up to and along next to the railway line when I heard the cackle of a goose, turned round and there were three geese flying in my general direction. The lower two were Canada Geese, but the third was smaller, grey, with a large white blaze round a pink bill. On continued inspection it had a few black feathers in the belly, and the forewings whilst paler were a discreet light grey rather than full off-white. Yes, here flying over a field in rural Essex, was a White Fronted Goose. 

It separated, Gained height, flew around as if looking for somewhere to land and gave a couple of dog-like yaps. Unsatisfied it turned west and flew into Herts airspace and off, thereby getting on two county patch lists.

This wasn't the end of it. Half an hour later I had walked up the side of the valley to a vantage point overlooking the town, and from there saw a grey goose flying over the far side off towards the high ground. I'd alerted the local birders on WhatsApp, and Laurence saw a distant goose silhouette leaving the area as he drove up. Close.

As you can guess, the rest of the walk failed to reach these heights. Six Fieldfare flying over then settled in a field were excellent, as was a Green Woodpecker perched in a bush and a Red Kite in a field. But honestly, not just a completely unexpected tick, but as happens on local patches a pretty decent flight view to boot.

Saturday, April 09, 2022

Patch Work

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only birder who intends to spend less time on the patch this year. The previous two years of national house arrest saw me give the fields, hedgerows, damp corners and river that make up my favoured area a thorough going over. And to be realistic, after six years of thorough birding I'm not going to add new species to the patch list.

Or so I thought. I have so far this year added three species.

First was Brambling. An omission that stood out like a sore thumb has been corrected. There was an historic record of one before I started a regular walk, And Howard Vaughn of RSPB Rainham wandered onto my patch when his car was being fixed in nearby Harlow and scored a fly over. But for me, nothing. 

I knew just where one should appear. The farmer had put down some spare grain in an overgrown corner of a field and about 50 Yellowhammers and 30 Chaffinch were there, and as there seems to be an iron law that any gathering of over twenty Chaffinches must contain at least one Brambling I searched hard, but in vain. I was walking away frustrated and downcast when a flick in an elder bush and bingo, a bright female Brambling. Patch tick #1

I've seen loads of Brambling, but every time I see one its like I'm seeing them for the first time. Yes, still impossibly colourful. that bright white lower breast and orange breast band, and those jazzy upperparts. 

Subsequently I saw two there and another one at a larger finch flock elsewhere on the patch. And a couple of other birders got them too. I got the impression that whilst Chaffinches and Yellowhammers are continually flying down to feed and back, Brambling hang back in the bushes. 

Then a couple of weeks ago I was walking through a small wood when whirrrr and explosion of wings from under my feet. No sooner had the thought 'that's a strange place for a pheasant' formed in my mind than the deep russet plumage and location brought me to Woodcock. As it flew round I got a clear view of long bill and round wings. Patch tick #2.

How pleased was I?   It's a difficult one again because they do occur in all sorts of places, and its not a surprise, but when the farmer told me there was a patch that had held Woodcock on the other side of he railway line I incorporated that into my regular walk in the hope of finding one. And here it is, on the list.

As if that wasn't enough, I was taking the dogs out just now when I noticed way up in the clear blue a gull circling. I put the bins on for no other reason than I like looking at gulls in the sky, and hang on that's got some distinct non gull-like brown markings on the wing there, that's a bit too stocky for a gull, and so Osprey made it patch tick #3. I managed to get the word out and Mike saw it from his garden. Excellent. 

So that's a surprisingly good return from the patch and its only just into April. Who knows what else is going to appear?

Monday, March 28, 2022

Spring migrants at RSPB Lakenheath

1. Where to go? It's an odd spring, lots of some migrants, but very few of some others. Garganey are here in numbers particularly at the traditional site of RSPB Lakenheath and its Washlands, so that seemed like a good place to go.

I still remember my first Garganey at Fairburn Ings in May 1977. There is something wonderfully uplifting about the arrival of this fabulously patterned bird. No spring is complete without a decent sighting of this exotic fowl. How different to the autumn when the detection of the dull brown duck amongst so many other dull brown ducks is one for the enthusiast. 

2. The Washlands. Once the mist had lifted and the sun beat down out of a clear blue sky the splendour of this large pool was revealed. Birds everywhere. Still plenty of Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, with a smattering of Shelducks all resplendent, Black-Tailed Godwits everywhere (78 in total) with some in emerging brick red, and 53 Avocets. Small parties of Snipe and Redshank added to the mayhem. Careful scanning with the scope (and some helpful guidance from a regular here) added the hoped for Garganey; 4 males and at least 3 females, and finally a Little Ringed Plover, a Dunlin, and 5 Ruff

3. The walk to Joist Fen along the river was excellent. Highlight was a Water Pipit which kindly flew in. Now in fantastical summer plumage, all peach and slate with a bright yellow leg ring on the left leg. 20 Redwings and 13 Fieldfares moved through, a sky dancing Marsh Harrier, constant Stonechats (I think about 3 pairs along this stretch)  and then a flock of 100 Golden Plover high over the Norfolk side of the river.

4. Joist Fen. Over the years I must have spent many hours here gazing out over a vast red bed hoping for a glimpse of the breeding Cranes without any success at all. But today the two resident pairs put on a decent, if distant show, flying around at frequent intervals. Circling up like some lumbering cargo plane slowly gaining hight, then gliding down to some favoured spot to presumably feed. 

When the Cranes weren't in sight we had 9 more Marsh Harriers, an obliging Water Rail, a Bearded Tit, and lots of resplendent Reed Buntings

5. Great to have the full trio back with Mike and David. Always a top day out when we get together. An excellent start to spring.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

late winter at Minsmere

It's that time of the year when the winter specialities are departing and nothing new has come in, so it gets a bit desperate. A couple of year ticks and more were up in Suffolk, so Friday saw me and David at Minsmere, Mike being unavailable.

David's foot injury has been taking a time to heal, so I promised I wouldn't thrash round the reserve, but ... we did the adder spot on the sand martin bank. Nothing. North Hide. Nothing. Adders again. Nothing. Island Mere. Nothing. Obviously there wasn't literally nothing, there was a year tick in the form of a Coal Tit, I missed a Bittern at Island Mere, and there were a lot of Marsh Harriers. We finally got the Adders around mid-day on the Sand Martin bank, two males slowly waking up before they slithered off.

If you go, walk round the north side of the dragonfly pool, and in the middle of the bank right by you is a grey pipe. They were about a metre above that, slightly right. Fantastic.

Then down the marsh side of the scrapes. It was nice in the sunshine, with plenty of Wigeon, Shoveler, Avocets, and handfuls of Black-Tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, and Pintail. So very nice. But no Smew which was our target. I popped down to the Sluice to see if the Lesser Yellowlegs was around, and it was! Fantastic views, a grey washed out Wood Sandpiper-type bird. And those legs, so bright yellow. I went back to collect David who was resting his injured foot in a hide, and dragged him round just in time to see it flying off. Sorry David.

From there it was back along the seaward side. Stonechat flycatching in the sunshine, two female Common Scoter on the sea. And a long sit on the bench to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. And that was it.

Except not quite. As we were leaving we mentioned to the staff we hadn't seen the Smew, and they pointed us towards the pool by the viewpoint, about as close to the centre as you could get, and there was the pair. a male is a tricky bird these days, and this one was fantastic. Thanks you RSPB staff.

Then as we were leaving, a herd of Red Deer on the Heath. 32, all hinds from what I could see. Just huge beasts. Scope filling views. Fantastic. 

So in the end, a very decent list. And David got his adder photos. Fantastic they are too They are on his blog, and a bonus three from David below.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Ridiculous Abberton. Again.

Red Necked Grebe can be a difficult bird to get on the year list, but over the last couple of years Abberton has delivered. I saw one towards the end of last year but this year so far the resident bird has been a bit elusive, with just the occasional record from Abberton church. So this Saturday morning I dropped Mrs D off at her usual morning session at the library and went straight there. 

I thought it was going to be hard particularly when I saw the wind roughing up the surface, but I scanned across and there it was, nonchalantly bobbing around like butter wouldn't melt in its beak. Difficult? Moi? It was mid-distance, but in the scope clear enough for me to think the vertical stripe on the face near the ears made it a bird hatched last year. Fantastic. Hadn't expected it to be that straightforward or such decent views.

And with that I did a quick couple of stops at the causeways before heading back. I saw Long-Tailed Duck, Scaup, Goosander, Smew, White Fronted Goose (now down to 16) Pink Footed Goose, Black Tailed Godwit, Ruff, Golden Plover. And I wasn't even trying. Most of these birds were ridiculously close.

I was asked, when chatting with a fellow birder in Kent on Monday (Excellent. Couldn't miss, again. Shorelark, Hen Harrier, Merlin, Glossy Ibis, Black Throated Diver, Greenshank) whether I went much to Amwell given it is in my area, and the answer is no. Its hard to explain but I think if I'm going to get in my car and go out of my immediate area, it is hard to resist the pull of Abberton. It's like having a three-star Michelin restaurant in the neighbouring town. Why would you go anywhere else?

Friday, February 04, 2022

Year listing update

Lack of posts does not mean lack of birding. I've been reasonably busy year-listing.

I'm not a great one for listing for the sake of it, But for me it gives me a target, a place to go, a plan for the day, and as a well known non-birder might have said, good birding is what happens whilst you were busy making other birding plans.

Mike and I had an owl day. Long-Eared, Little, at you-know where, and then Short-Eared Owl at Eldernell with a couple of distant Cranes. We were drawing a blank with the Shorties until a local birder pointed us to the relevant field, and in particular a small bush in the middle with a distinctive set of logs and branches and a very distinctive roosting owl. Of course, of course, how could we not have noticed the giveaway trampled grass round the edge of the field. Doh. And if I had a pound for every photo of that stump and that owl that has been in my twitter feed, I could afford my next fuel bill.

Then Old Hall Marshes. The full version. Blimey that's a long way. I had a 'doesn't seem that far' moment, and then realised the bend was not the start of the way back, but half way along the way out. Anyway, we had a couple of Merlins perched up, the second looking quite small with, on full zoom, light feather edgings on all its back feathers, so an imm male for me. 

A young (in comparison) couple, looking like they had just stepped out of an outdoors clothing catalogue, came the other day, he with rubbish binoculars. We said hello and offered them a view of the Merlin down the scope. They were thrilled, in awe of this tiny falcon, and then excitedly telling us of the Bearded Tit they had seen. It is easy to get cynical about the quality of the birds we see on our trips, dryly exchanging lists of scarce birds with other equally laconic and weary old birders, but there, in that reaction, of those two young folk probably on one of their first wildlife expeditions, is the emotional truth of our pastime. The thrill and excitement of seeing a hoped-for bird doesn't diminish over the years, even if our reactions may. We added Ruff, then Great Northern Diver off the end, but the recently reported White Fronted Geese had given us the slip.

Then the annual visit, that 'will it be worth it?' trip to WWT Welney. We paid up, paused at the cafe view over Lady Fen where a lone lady asked if we were experts? Well, modesty forbids! But I'll have a go. That pipit over there? Scope up and yes, madam, you were right to point that one out, and thank you for adding Water Pipit to the year list.

Onwards to the Main Observatory and the day's target couldn't have been easier. Nine Tundra Bean Geese, asleep right in front. The darkish heads and give-away broad white edges to the flight feathers marked them out, and soon enough they got up and wandered round. Surely the best ever view of wild geese.

At the next hide a flock of distant Swans turned out to be Bewick's Swans. I find these hard to see on an annual basis, relying on Abberton bringing in a couple each winter, but this flock was thirty strong, with a couple of juveniles, and made excellent if somewhat distant viewing. I find a view of winter geese and swans isn't really complete unless you hear them call and see them in flight, and a small group obliged by calling loudly and flying off, their slightly faster wing-beats being clear in comparison to a pair of Whoopers passing.

Finally, the key Welney Species, the one all the birders come for. It took a while, but eventually there it was, on the feeders, Tree Sparrow.

Then yesterday a small window of opportunity and it was back to Abberton. firstly Layer-Breton causeway, and a ridiculously close flock of wildfowl-collection tame White Fronted Geese. 31, plus a Pink-footed Goose. They flapped a bit showing off their barred bellies - they seemed to be mainly adults - then obliged by flying off to feed on a field, and then flew back, calling, flying around. Surely the best ever view of wild geese. 

I got Smew here too. A redhead, sitting comfortably at close range in front of its usual reed bed. I watched the geese for a while, then mentioned to a couple of birders the really easy Smew on the other side of the road, we crossed back over, and of the Smew there was absolutely no sign.

Finally, Lodge Lane on the eastern side. This is a difficult access point due to lack of parking, but top Essex Birder Darryl had recently posted a request to park in Peldon Community Centre car park and walk up, so I did. It's a non-trivial walk, but easily doable, and the views were excellent. Lots of Wigeon, a few Goosander, about 30 Dunlin, nice views of a male Marsh Harrier, and then in the distance amongst the many Great Crested Grebe, something smaller. Clearly a Grebe, more black and white and without the distinctive silhouette of Red-Necked, probably one the Slavonian that has been seen on and off over the winter. The silhouette lacked the peaked-forehead of Black-Necked but could I be sure, at this range? It was one of those moments where I have to ask what kind of birder am I? Am I  birder of integrity, who's list only contains cast iron certainties? Or am I the kind of birder who will bump up their list on the flimsiest of view? Well, there's only one answer to that. 131. Slavonian Grebe.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Shifting baselines

B&B in the Cotswolds for a very pleasant stay over the New Year (2 Brambling in the garden and pair of Raven over, as you ask. And a Red-Legged Partridge getting on to my 'birds that have hit me in the dark' list, but that is a story for another time). Chatting to the owner/farmer he was lamenting the loss of songbirds over the decades.

It got me thinking. Obviously we all agree, but is it a straightforward loss? Is there more to it?

Perhaps the biggest change is flocking; we now have a situation that is normal for North America and rainforests, which is they are largely birdless apart from 'the flock' which contains everything. I saw a comment ages ago that the return of the Sparrowhawk meant birds behaved differently, as they flock to avoid predators. It stuck in my mind. Just now the excellent Steve Gale at North Downs and Beyond tweeted 'a spectacular gathering of finches - 550 Brambling, 450 Chaffinch, 125 Linnet.' That's a lot of finches. And that's a lot of finches in one place and not somewhere else.

Why do birds flock? I guess because it helps them find food, and helps when predators are around. If there were no predators, would birds flock less if when they find food they can have it all? Would there be 55 flocks of 10 Brambling scattered round Surrey rather than one of 550?

And the second point is that baseline we hear about, the records from the 19th century of masses of birds, right through to the 1970s and 1980s; those were years of busy keepering, of crows and hawks being shot on sight. So the 'natural' baseline is in fact an unnatural baseline; it was the numbers of songbirds you get when you take predators out. 

So there we have it; a couple of random ideas. With no data to support. And a happy new year to you both all.