Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sawbridgeworth Marsh roost Dec 30th

I called in at Sawbridgeworth Marsh at 3pm for the roost.

I’d been here earlier in December with Mike, and courtesy of his superior skills had an excellent set of birds including 2 Water Rail, 1 Woodcock, 1 Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 23 Fieldfare, 6 Bullfinch, and 43 Reed Bunting.

Today I was on my todd. Without Mike's expertise I had to do a certain amount of guesswork with distant corvids and small silhouettes in the gloom that gave one brief call and then diver into cover. Nevertheless I clocked up the following.

Woodpigeon c250 rough count
Redwing 3 N
Greenfinch 5SW, 9 NE
Cormorant 2 (1 ad with a missing primary on right wing, 1 juv N)
Kestrel 1
Magpie 2N
Bullfinch 2 calling
Corvids - mainly Jackdaw I think 173S
Starling 5W
Snipe 3E high - probably disturbed from somewhere and trying to find a roost.
Green Woodpecker 2
Yellowhammer 5E
Mallard 4N
Reed Bunting 14 in
Meadow Pipit 12 in
Lapwing 35 NW
Water Rail 2 heard
Blackbird roost calling.
Fieldfare 6 in
Carrion Crow 5 in.

The Reed Buntings call once and then dive in from a height. They arrive over a period and drift in individually or in small numbers. In contrast the Meadow Pipits fly around for a while, as if unable to find the exact ideal spot, and then drop in. It seems strange that when faced with the same apparently identical problem of how to get into a roost these two birds should adopt such different strategies.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Weymouth in mid-winter

A brief hiatus in the mid-winter rush. We were down at Weymouth for a couple of days, but with one thing and another I didn’t get to see any birds. Instead we went for a freezing walk on Britain’s best beach.

Apart from the usual shells and weed, the beach was littered with what I assume were sea squirts; semi-translucent rubber-like things about a couple of inches long that if you trod on them sent a jet of water out the end. The first time I’ve seen this on the beach, and presumably was a result of the stiff SE wind of recent days.

There were about 50 Carrion Crows searching for scraps along the beach too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Winter Hibernation

I'm sending the blog into hibernation for the winter, with possibly a brief flurry of activity around Christmas.

There's no point in blogging unless you're going to do it regularly, and I'm simply not doing enough to maintain a flow of worthwhile entries at the moment.

This weekend was a case in point. There's a Rough-Legged Buzzard just up the A10. There's Serins and more at Rainham. And with the cold weather coming, a trip to Amwell for the gull roost could have been profitable.

So, how did it go?

9:am. D#1 has a maths course in Hatfield. Long-tailed tits round the house! That's an hour round trip to drop her off ( a few Redwings from the car).
Then D#4 plays football at the local club from 10:30 - 11:30 (well, he runs round after other children playing football to be more accurate). I spend a pleasant hour freezing my **** off and chewing the fat with other dads. Mistle thrush and a few BHGs.
Back to Hatfield to pick up D#1. Back at 1:15om, a quick sandwich then off to the British Museum with D#3 and D#1. D#3 has been doing Egyptians and wants to see the Mummies. The British Museum is just about my favourite (indoor) place in the UK, and we have a great time looking at the statues, hieroglyphics, and mummies. "Look - that writing is different to the other writing" I say, pointing to some inscription at the top of a piece of stone. "That's because it's a Pharoah's name daddy" says D#3. Ah. I'll shut up then.
5pm. Back to Sawbo in the dark.

Sunday isn't any better. 10:15 - drop D#1 for a swimming lesson. Starlings round the building. Then take D#2 for his lesson. Have a swim myself! Then home by 12. Off to the supermarket as I haven't yet been this weekend (see above). Dinner, and then its 3 o'clock. I could do the roost at Sawbo Marsh, but there's some stuff to do round the house to do with Kids bedrooms, and then its dark.

Realistically, that's how its going to be for the forseeable future. After Easter I'll be able to get out at the start and end of the day, and with luck see a few things.

So, apart from a brief hello at Christmas, that's it until the days lengthen again.

Until then, keep warm, and may the God of Birding litter your path with rarities!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Atlas count

Did a new square for the timed atlas count - and its the square with SLRS. Same old same old, but a Grey Wagtail was overdue for the patch this year.

The strangest thing was a couple of Bats. I thought they were Snipe at first, but once the binoculars were on the truth was out. They were bigger than Pipistrelles, and a golden brown, so I'm guessing Noctule.

This is the first time I've had proper views of a decent size bat through binoculars in daylight. And what a weird thing it is - like watching a hamster fly. It seems to be against nature for animals to be cruising around up in the sky.

Monday, November 10, 2008

SLRS Nov 8

There’s been some good birds in the area in the last few days; Great White Egret, Woodlark, but those birds were seen by proper birders who put a lot of hours in, not someone who strolls occasionally round their local patch with their eyes closed.

The scrape was full, and had just two ducks; a female Gadwall and a female Teal. A snipe flew over, and some BH Gulls were around. The solitary Lapwing was joined by a flock of 30.

A flock of 20 Skylarks flew over, then a few Meadow Pipits in the rough grass. Over by Feakes Lock there was the same flock of Buntings and finches that had been there a few weeks previously. I’d guess 20 Yellowhammers, 2 Reed Buntings, 20 Chaffinch, a few Goldfinches, some Dunnocks going mental, a Song Thrush, a Goldcrest, and a continual presence of Redwings.

The Cormorant tree, with a Cormorant.

If you look carefully, you can see the smoke from breakfast being cooked.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Merlinless at Trim's Green

One of the problems of having four children is that you can't spend you weekends sat on the Norfolk coast or heading off to Kent for the latest rarity. Time is strictly limited to an odd half hour here or there, and you have to do what you can in the time available.

A Merlin was seen on a few occasions during the week at Trim's Green. By the time I was free to go and look for it on Saturday ("need some flour from the supermarket"), it was a day too late. I sat around for half an hour in the apology for daylight that was Saturday lunchtime. The usual suspects came and went. 70 Goldies, a mixed flock of finches and buntings, and a few Skylarks over.

I assumed that the presence of finches etc flying happily round the new farm buildings meant the Merlin was long gone. Of course it may be some kind of Avian game of Dare, or the finches' version of the Pamplona Bull run - lets all go and sit in that tree and wait for the Merlin, and see if we can all get away in time.

Back on Sunday evening ("just taking the bottles to the recycling point"), with similar results. 35 Goldies in the Tharbies fiels sparkled in the low sun. When I turn up they all crouch in the ground, but after a few minutes they start running around, and splendid they were.

There's Goldies in here. Honestly.

Merlin Central - last week.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Popped in to Stourhead on the way back. Not as productive for birds as others have found , but the combination of low sun and dark clouds made for some spectacular views between the hail storms.

After that we headed home. We were held for an hour whilst someone was helicoptered off the A303. then D#4 projectile vomitted all over the car, and finally as the temperature dropped below zero we had a blizzard on the M25, with the snow beginning to settle on the windscreen and articulated lorries hurtling down the middle lane. But apart from that it was fine.

Is Radipole worth a visit?

When staying in Weymouth we are in close proximity to Radipole, but I rarely go there. I thought I'd take the camera for a walk round the reserve and see what turned up.

I started (Monday 8 am) on the SW side, and stopped opposite the RSPB centre. There was the usual healthy collection of commoner water birds - Great-Crested and Little Grebes (about 10 of the latter), Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal, Shelduck, and lots of gulls.

A kingfisher perched on a reed for a couple of ticks (not common for me here), a Cetti's Warbler sang from a nearby bush, and a male Stonechat showed some interest.

There weren't many BH Gulls present, but there were a large number of Mediterranean Gulls amongst them. I counted 13, a mix of adult, 1st and 2nd Winter, but this is a small fraction of the numbers here recently (this pic taken from the other side later).

I checked for one of the varieties of Herring Gull that have been seen here recently, but the best I could come up with was this. Any comments?

I went up to the Buddleia loop and looked NW across the mere to north hide. Here's the view, with a Common Buzzard in the middle.

There was a constant pinging from the opposite bank, and eventually 4 Bearded Reedlings flew up and off. Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail made their presence known with calls, and there were 30 Gadwall, more Shovellers, and 2 Pochards.

Back via the centre where there were 8 Snipe, and of course Hooded Merganser on the boating lake.

So not a bad list. But the problem with Radipole is that list doesn't change much during the winter. You could see Bittern if you were lucky or persistent, and maybe a Scaup will turn up amongst the Pochards, but it has lost quite a lot of the variety over the years. I'll fish out my records from winter visits over the years soon for a comparison.

Land of the Dead

Back in Weymouth for half term, we headed north to Wiltshire, and the area where Mrs D grew up.

The landscape of Wiltshire is one defined largely by the long-dead. Apart from well known sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, there are hundreds of ancient barrows, and every hill seems to have a hill-fort on top and strip-lychetts on the side.

We started in Devizes at the museum, which was having an exhibition of some of the gold artefacts found 200 years ago in Bush Barrow. Then braved the weather to visit a couple of the less famous sites. Firstly West Kennet Longbarrow, a set of three burial chambers that pre-dates Stonehenge by a couple of thousand years.

I have no idea whether the fine layers of sates between the Sarsens are original or added later.

The barrow is close to Silbury hill. The purpose of this huge manmade structure has so far eluded archaeologists. One theory is that the surrounding depression would have been flooded in Neolithic times so making the hill a large island.

Finally we headed up to Avebury. We approached from the south past the avenue.

My appreciation of this landscape has been helped by reading Time Team’s France Pryor excellent “Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans.“

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's in a name?

An Amur Falcon originally identified as a Red-Footed Falcon is causing some frustration on certain bird forums. The essence of the posts is “because you useless idiots failed to identify an obvious Amur Falcon I’ve been denied an opportunity to add a bird to my UK list”. People are drawing attention to the underwing pattern in various photos and reduced to spluttering incredulity, but even from my limited experience, I know that modern cameras produce much better images than were available to the eye at the time; light and colour balancing and magnification allow us to see features at our leisure that were not evident as the bird was hurtling past.

I don’t keep a close eye on these things, but I think over the last two years most additions to the UK list have been identified after the original sighting from photos posted on the internet. Good birdwatchers are being outed as useless because they failed to correctly identify a bird they weren’t expecting and had never previously seen.

Now fortunately we have a data point that should cheer up all those birders who are less than perfect. Graham Catley owns up on his blog to overlooking a 2nd for Europe. He even took a photograph of it, but only registered whilst news came through of the sighting.

Now I’ve never met Graham, but whilst a birder in Yorkshire in the 1980’s I was aware of his reputation as an expert birder, and its clear from his blog that he hasn’t spent the intervening twenty years sat on his backside. So if an expert birder like Graham overlooks a new bird, then what chance have you or me (particularly me) got?

Most things are obvious in retrospect. Einstein’s theories of relativity make sense once they’ve been explained to you, but it took a genius to see it. The banking collapse was inevitable once it had happened, but few predicted it before hand. The evidence all points to the fact that when presented with an unexpected and unfamiliar bird, many experienced birders don’t identify it correctly at the time.

On this occasion, I think the name has subconsciously influenced people’s reactions. An Amur falcon sounds completely different to a Red-footed Falcon – how could you possibly confuse birds with such different names? If the bird was known by its old name – Eastern Red-footed Falcon – then I think people may have been more prepared to accept some id confusion.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Vis Mig

I’ve been following Visible Migration records for a while (eg here and more locally here). The Vis Mig yahoo group were having a big day today, so I thought I’d have a go.

The watch was taking place from 7-10, so at 7:30 prompt I arrived at my chosen place, Harlow Town Park. My recollection of many visits to the park was a clear vista over the Stort valley. It’s funny how your memory plays tricks, because as soon as I got there I realised it was unsuitable. It’s a great park, but the view is primarily of tree tops. Also, a difficulty is knowing whether some birds are genuinely migrating or simply moving round the park.

Anyway: here’s the records.
7:30 to 7:45. Redwing 10 NW, Sisking calling (3?), Jay 1 around.
7:45 to 8:00 Chaffinch 3N, Woodpigeon 400 W, Meadow Pipit 1 calling, Goldfinch c5W, Cormorant 3E
8:00 to 8:20 (I was interrupted by a curious passer by at this point) Redwing 8W, Grey Wagtail 1E (one of the park birds I think), Chaffinch 2N, Greenfinch 5 S
8:20 Lapwing c200 over the valley, with c50 Starlings, 1 Sparrowhawk.

At this point I decided to cut my losses. There weren’t many birds, and my calls are a bit crap as well; for instance I thought I heard a Yellowhammer early on, but as that would be an unusual record for the park, I’d prefer to see it.

Most moving birds seemed to be over the Stort, too far in the distance to ID from the park. I think its worth continuing to find a reasonable spot from which to view migration, but Harlow Town Park isn’t it.

I went home via Trim’s Green. 3 Golden Plover, several Skylarks up and singing. And nothing else.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


It was a beautiful morning – surely there won’t be a better one this year – so I sat in the garden with my camera. The house is in the centre of the town, and the garden is small – think half a tennis court – and surrounded by hedgerows and trees.

There was the usual stuff – Starling, Magpie, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, a few Blackbirds, Robin, and Wood Pigeons over. This morning there was a Goldcrest, and a Meadow Pipit and Skylark over.

Suddenly there were birds around. Finches and Jackdaws flew over, and a tight-knit group of Starling went past. This is invariably a sign of a Sparrowhawk in the area, and one shot into the garden next door, sat in a tree for a couple of minutes, then shot out again.

As usual there was some traffic from Stansted, and courtesy of the internet we can see this one gets around a bit.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rockit at SLRS

Every now and then my lackadaisical approach to birding catches me out. I mean it’s not as though I don’t know what a Rock Pipit looks like, as I see them regularly at Portland Bill, but they're birds you just walk past. I’ve never really sat down and looked at one in detail.

So this morning I popped down to SLRS for the first time in a while, and there on the mud is a pipit. And my first thought was “that looks like a Rock Pipit”, and my second thought was “how do I clinch it?” And I realised I don’t know.

It was dark brown/grey on the back, heavily marked on the breast in splodges (as if the colours had run); an eye ring and no particular supercilium. The bill was dark and stout, and the legs had a pinkish tinge. In some lights it seemed to have a yellowish vent. But it didn’t really have anything definitive.

Never mind, I had my brand new mobile phone, specially selected for its impressive Zeiss lens and optical zoom facility. I’d just take a few pictures to confirm the id at my leisure.

Well, taking a picture seemed just impossible. By the time I’d found the exact location of the phone on the lens required to get a picture, the bird had moved, and I ended up with a collection of pictures of mud, close up. The kind of pictures that normally feature Buzz Aldrin in his Moon buggy, not pipits.

I was saved by the arrival of a couple of Meadow Pipits, which posed next to the target bird. Completely different. Phew. Rich Brown with fine black markings, bright pink legs, a thin beak you could just reach out and snap off. When I moved position and had to refind the Rockit it was obvious which one it was.

Otherwise the scrape, just a small puddle now, held 2 Lapwings, 10 Snipe, and 18 Moorhen. Slowly the local specialities appeared; a mixed flock of about 30 at Feakes Lock held Yellowhammers, Reed Bunting, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. Bullfinches were occasional throughout; otherwise a couple of Sparrowhawks, a Green Woodpecker, a GSW, and 2 Jays. The whole area looked particularly fantastic today, the colours of the autumn leaves standing out against the clear blue sky.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

local stuff

The weather forecast had been cancelled and been replaced with a reading from the old testament. Gale force winds, torrential rain, floods. All scheduled for exactly the brief period of time this weekend when I'm free. I managed a few minutes at Trim's Green, mainly on the ploughed field that has been delivering this autumn, before the plague of frogs arrived.

The field held 330 Golden Plover (a local record for me), and roughly 100 Lapwing, 50 BHG, 200 Starling. A few Goldies still had the remains of black bellies, and some looked greyer than others, but the distance and the gale force wind made counting and finding any variety amongst them impossible.

There were 8 Red-Legged Partridges at Lysander Park, and earlier a Common Buzzard was seen in the distance struggling south over East Sawbo - a tick for the house list.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Weymouth Sunday 28th Sept

Lodmoor for an hour on Sunday morning with D#1. 2 smart Little Stints, 3 Dunlin, a Ringed Plover, and 2 juvenile Ruff, identical in their elegant warm buff but one was twice the size of the other. A few Snipe and Gadwall. On a couple of occasions the reserve rang to the pinging of small parties of Bearded Tits flying around, and at least one party head off high and SW, off to start a new colony somewhere.

Then at lunchtime we went for a short walk round Portland Bill. We failed to see Firecrest at Culverwell and a Yellow-Browed Warbler near the obs, but migrants were somewhat surprisingly in evidence - I thought the clear sky and warm weather would have meant they all cleared off. We had a sprinkling of Wheatears and Pied Wagtails on the east cliffs, a swarm of hirondines over the top fields, and in the obs garden masses of Goldcrests and Chiffs in constant motion, making taking photos almost impossible. A Common Buzzard was receiving the attentions of the local crows, and we had 2 Sparrowhawks and 3 Kestrels . And a Clouded Yellow Butterfly too - have there been many of these this year?

We’ve walked the ease cliffs on the Bill on many occasions, but for some reason had not seen the enormous ammonite impression in some of the exposed rock - a foot across. And having read recently of exposed beaches millions of years old, looked again at some of the rock surfaces - is that an ancient beach? Anyone with geological knowledge please comment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mr Angry’s back

I Remembered why I don’t like twitching today.

I mean, when there’s twenty or so birders in a line resting against the sea wall at Rainham waiting for a couple of hours for a Wryneck to appear, and the folks at one end of the line see it, you’d think some kind of information might flow to the other end. Just a hand pointing, a look, or “it’s out”.

But no. By the time we finally enquired if they’d seen anything it was “oh yes it was out on that Cow Parsley half way up. It’s gone now. Would you like to see my photo?” No, I’d like to stick your camera up your backside.

I didn’t say that of course, I admired the excellent photo, and instantly opened a new list, of birds that others have photographed whilst I missed it. #1. Wryneck.

I suppose its just me, and I’m being unreasonable. Luckily, I’d had a twenty minute spell with D#1 when we had admired Whinchat , hunting Hobby,and some nice Wigeon and Teal on the Thames, and had spent some more time with the family at the at the brand new play area and scoffing some cake, and had notched up a distant Sparrowhawk, but all the same, I think I’m better off not going twitching.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

fifteen lumps of mud

It was a busy day today - Dipper taxis were fully booked. I sneaked a half hour at the high ground on the way to the Supermarket and found a large troop of metal-detectorists on the ploughed fields on the north side of the old airfield. The one I spoke to was a bit disgruntled - paid thirty quid and hadn't found much. The way he described the local area was intriguing. Whereas I see habitat, fly-ways, and viewing points, he saw ancient tracks, forgotten camps, farms and villages, and Tudor farmhouses with piles of old coins dropped over the centuries.

I went back to the field north of Tharbies which has been subject to a fine ploughing. There were a few gulls, and fifteen incongruous lumps of mud. Through the scope these turned out to be, as expected, Golden Plover. As time passed they became more active and started walking round and wing-lifting (apparently something they seem to do to signal to distant birds). In the end I got to over twenty birds, but their disguise against the mud was just amazing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Trims Green

A hobby was hunting over central Sawbo today as I did the 3:15 school run. Suitable inspired, I went up to Trims Green from 4-5

About 90% of the birds here are either Wood Pigeons or Collared Doves. A tree by Morris's Farm was heaving with the later.

Once again I failed to see the Osprey. A Sparrowhawk female chased a Grey Partridge, and then came close by before hiding in a tree.

Three Lapwings flew past in the distance, but there was no sign of the Goldies Graeme had here recently. I moved on to the field by Tharbies Farm, and eventually teased 4 Meadow Pipits out of it. Round to Blount's Farm for a few Linnets, then completed the circuit back to the field by tharbies and found a covey of 9 Red-Legged Partridge, with just a couple of young.

When the wind is in the east, Airplanes landing at Stansted come in from the south west. As all Flight-Simulator owners know, they hit the beacon at Gilston, and come in over Trims Green. Here's a regular visitor.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dipping the local Osprey

It started on Saturday. I was at the pool where D#1,2 were having a half hour lesson. Just as I'd sat down the phone pinged, and Mike was texting me about an Osprey that had just left Trim's Green. Just time for me to go and find it. I'd hoped that a flock of crows or gulls would lead me to it, but I drew a blank.

I went up this morning to see if a stray Honey Buzzard was drifting over, and had been there about 5 minutes when I got another text from Mike saying the Osprey had flown off 5 minutes previously. Fantastic. I saw 3 Lapwings, a flock of 6 Jays, a Yellow Wagtail, 4 Skylarks, a few Linnets, a small flock of Swallows, 3 vocal Kestrels, and a couple of local birders too, but no Osprey.

I returned late afternoon, and it was dead. I stopped by a nearby field and checked. Completely empty. I just had one last look at the sky, picked up a distant falcon; as it drifted high over I could see it was a tatty Peregrine, my first for this area. I stopped again at Blount's Farm and had a smashing male Sparrowhawk fly slowly over.

So in the last two weeks this square mile of farmland has produced Kestrel, Hobby, Merlin, Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Osprey! Testament to the success of wildlife conservation measures

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Canvey part II

I thought I’d blown it again. The weather map showed light easterlies but as I drove along Canvey sea front it was absolutely still, not a leaf moving.

I joined a local watcher at the point, and slowly things appeared. A male Common Scoter in the middle, a couple of Arctic Skuas in the far distance, and then a Marsh Harrier battling across the Thames.

The gulls all went up over the point, as if to announce that Mr Osprey had arrived for breakfast, and there it was hovering over the bay, against the backdrop of Westcliff-on-Sea.

The tide was on its way up, and over the next hour we added Guillemot, more Common Scoter, Wigeon, Brent Geese, lots of Little Egret, Grey Plover, Curlew, Oystercatcher, and Barwit.

Then the wind picked up, and immediately The Expert arrived. He was shown the Osprey (“still here I see”) and the day's list read to him. He decided to grace us with his presence, and started picking out more birds. First up was a speck on the horizon pronounced as a juv Sabines Gull. We mumbled our thanks, and listened as we had a running commentary on its ID as it progresses east, and yes it did have a distinct two-tone appearance and yes in the sun the primaries were almost translucent, but if I'd been on my own there's no way I could have ID'd it. He proceeded to identify four distant Little Tern, and then got stuck into a passing Arctic Tern somewhere in Kent. At least I saw the two pale juvenile Arctic Skuas that headed off east. A Common Buzzard drifted over.

The Osprey reappeared. “Its heading off” The Expert announced, and indeed it did, slowly heading over to the Isle of Grain. And as it was nearly lunchtime, I headed off too.

Rarity chasing in Cambridgeshire part 2.

Last post left you on the edge of your seats as your intrepid birders ticked off the first of three potential rarities and headed off in sea...