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.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

In praise of my patch.

I rarely see other people on my patch (apart from the thoroughfare that is the riverside path). Most often the farmer, occasionally dog-walkers. But recently there was a man loitering suspiciously, binoculars in hand. We got chatting and he said he was a birder who lived in the village, came here occasionally but never saw anything so preferred to go to the local reserves.

Well, how an individual chooses to watch birds is their business and no-one else's, and everyone does it differently. But the comment about never seeing anything did trigger me. I thought about it on a patch walk recently with Mike who had come over.

We walked down the lane to the park, passing the Wasp's nest. As we entered the adjacent field 2 Nuthatches were calling to each other across the field. A female Sparrowhawk cruised along the top of the hedge causing 38 Goldfinches to rise in anger above it with 2 House Martins for company. On the brambles there were loads of wasps again many coming and going from another nest entrance, and on this occasion a Hornet was cruising along the top. Always massively impressive for an insect.

Down to the river, and a few tits flying through and on their tail a Treecreeper flew into a bush above our heads. We watched it for a couple of minutes before it flew off. A classic patch bird, I haven't seen on for a few months so as always a treat to see this wonderfully patterned bird close up. 

Up into the chat field, and sadly for us no Whinchat. there have been three records of juveniles this autumn all in the same place on the wire. I have no idea if they are the same bird, but I suspect not. 

Along with the disappearing Whinchat there were fewer flocks of Willow chiffs, last night's clear sky seeming to have cleared out a few birds, but we had Whitethroat and Chaffinch.

Over the railway line and road and round a couple of fields to the higher ground. Mike was pointing out that whereas our oaks are laden with acorns this year, there were very few Hazelnuts on the tree in front of us, when there was a bustle from the hedgerow and we managed to get a sighting of three buck Fallow Deer heading off. Round the corner and 5 Red-Legged Partridge. My first for the patch were two last year, then a pair again in spring so perhaps they have bred and we now have a colony.

No Skylarks at the moment. I had 6 a couple of weeks ago but we seem to be in a lull between breeders and winter visitors.

A pause at the top to survey. A late Swift through west, some Swallows were still at the farm, a Common Buzzard high up, and then another distant Sparrowhawk, probably a female.

Back down past the field of grain. It looks a mess with lots of blue flowers, but the farmer explained to me that it is a special mix of nine flowers selected to fix nitrogen in the soil and improve nutritional quality of the grain. Some juvenile goldfinches here and 12 Linnets on the wires show it is popular with birds too.

We stopped to inspect a small tree in the hedge bearing large hard green fruit,. We didn't recognise it but the massive leaves were a give away, and further research confirmed this as a Walnut tree. 

Back down toward the river and a large overgrown hedge that recently had 2 Spotted Flycatcher. Not today but we had a Lesser Whitethroat briefly and another Sparrowhawk, this time a blue-backed orange-flush male. Some Common Darters, Migrant Hawkers and an Emperor by the river, then a Muntjac in the usual place in the wet field, and that was it.

Nothing to bother RBA or birdguides with, but a visit that never stopped to give interest. In my opinion to get the most out of a patch you have to accept it on its own terms. Understand its limitations and enjoy whatever wildlife it has to offer. Take Linnets; on a trip to Norfolk or elsewhere these are walked past with barely a look as we search for rarer offerings, but a summer plumage male is a beautiful bird and on my patch I have the time to have a god look and enjoy its fine plumage. If instead of a common bird it was confined to Mongolia, whenever a fellow birder returned from there we would ask if they saw the Linnet, and was it as beautiful as the books show? And why don't we have birds like that in the UK? But we do have them, in number, on my local patch.

This Covid year has placed a strain on all birding, but the patch has never failed to deliver. There's always something new, something I'd not previously noticed, and always a bird sighting that makes the day.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Cley sea watch - 29 Aug

The weather chart was very promising. NW gale force winds veering N in the afternoon, a bit of rain. This coincided with a gap in my social obligations. Luck me. So, I got up when I woke up and headed the 100 miles, 2hrs 30, to Cley to arrive around 8:45 ish.

A few lines of birders, I tagged on the end got my scope up and already there were a few seabirds belting east. This was going to be epic!

Lots of birds just knocking around too. Eider on the sea, Sandwich Terns going up and down, a couple of Fulmars going west and many flocks of ducks going W, mainly Teal but a few Wigeon and some Common Scoter. Some year ticks already. Then a shout from someone and an adult Little Gull fluttering along the tide line. This was going to be Epic!

I was now properly settled in, ready to get some decent sightings, and ... and ... for the next few hours or so the only thing that moved was rain. In a horizontal on-shore direction. The encroaching rain clouds seems to have cleared everything out. There were a couple of gaps in which a distant Gannet went west, and a Bonxie did a magical trick of flying towards us from the east and moving simultaneously further away, a kind of seabird moon-walk, courtesy of the gail force wind.

Around 1pm I decided that was it. I was epically wet and wind blown. There were some shadows and flickers out there on the edge of the rain belt, but nothing I could even tie down to a genus let alone species. I learned it is one thing to spot some decent onshore winds with a few showers on a weather chart, it is another to be trying to identify birds whilst stopping your tripod from falling over in a blizzard of rain.

Anyway, that early activity. Three small skua-shaped birds went east, then another one. Long arcs of gliding. The area of the line I was in was unclear, thinking Shearwaters, maybe Manx. I am no expert, or even averagely decent sea-watcher, but they weren't Manxies. Also, my optics were better (Kowa 883), and these were soft brownish. Later I spoke with someone who said the three were two Arctic Skua and a Long-tailed Skua, one of the three being clearly smaller.

Now, I don't know. But familiarity is a key indicator, and there was not much familiar about these birds. Honestly, if someone said they were all long-tailed I'd have believed it. But deciding that those telling you something other than what you want to hear don't know what they are talking about and those who tell you exactly what you want to hear are the experts is a dangerous game of self-delusion. So they will just have to go down as Skua sp.

In summary, there was lots of action before I was there, according to Birdguides there was lots of action after I was there (more long-tailed and a Sabine's), but when I was there there was naff all. There was a time when I would have been annoyed, but these days I am at peace with the fact that I cannot be everywhere all the time, I only have certain windows of opportunity, and I see what I see. Also, who knows if I'd have seen the latter birds, or agreed with the ID.

Increasingly, its the not-knowing that's the fun, the time spent trying to work out exactly what it is that's in front of me that's the excitement. Gull-Billed Tern? Yep. Saw that Alton Water one. Nice. Tick. But zero excitement factor. Brown shape hurtling past half a mile out? Now that's interesting ...

Update. Steve Gantlett posted some great photos of a Long-tailed Skua going past Cley at 11:45. I was there during and after, and no-one mentioned it. Just shows what is going past and you don't notice. 

I was struck, again, by the contrast of the various posts on twitter with confident posts with totals stated boldly and the experience of being in with several watchers and us collectively not really having a clue on what those birds passing at some distance were.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Some Luck at Abberton - 28 Aug

Birding has been a bit lacklustre. Rainham last weekend had an Avocet and a Blackwit in the bay, then absolutely nothing on the reserve, and the first trip to Canvey of the year was alright, Peregrine, Mediterranean Gull, 2 Whimbrel, Porpoise and some typical estuary stuff, but not the magic we were hoping for. Abberton has sprung into life recently, so I gave it a go. 

Arrived at Billet's farm to the sound of thunder. Went to Wigborough bay and ... nothing. No sign of the Wood Sandpiper reported this morning. Went to Abberton Church for the Black Terns, and ... almost nothing. A Spoonbill in the lagoon was nice, 10 distant Black-Tailed Godwits, 5 Common Sandpiper, and lots of Little  Egrets.

Layer De La Haye Causeway, and a chap who had told me about the Spoonbill at the church was there. Immediately we found 2 Black Terns, mid reservoir and doing that dipping thing. It's been a while since I've seen one, and it was just great to see their distinctive somewhat stubby bodies, darkish backs and caps, short tails, and the swooping flight. So, one target down.

Back to Wigborough bay and a chap told men that the Wood Sandpiper had been at Billet's Farm screen, so , back to there and a classic bit of mud with shallow pools, really excellent with good visibility (for Abberton), and three Green Sandpipers with no sign of the woods. I waited a while, enjoying the many Yellow Wagtails, then briefly a Wheatear and a Whinchat on the last few stones of a tumble down wall. Back to the Green Sandpipeers, and slowly out of a ditch crept a juvenile Wood Sandpiper, followed by another one. It paraded around in front of a Great White Egret, one of several today.  Fantastic. Wood Sandpiper is always for me a bird that punches above its rarity value; it has an elegance about it unique amongst waders.

Just when I thought that was it, back at the car park my first (and probably last) Clouded Yellow of the year. So some nice sightings at last.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Minsmere Post Lockdown

A trip to Minsmere to catch up with a friend. The reserve is 'open' but the hides are closed. Most notable however was the lack of the volunteers and other staff who normally guide you directly to the day's star features.

so ... Centre. Tens, possibly a hundred, Peacock butterflies and Red Admirals. Dragon pool - Emperor, Emerald, Common/Ruddy Darters - very common today. Bee Wolves , then Pantaloon Bee on the flowers further on. Wall Butterfly on the shingle, and the first look over the scrape from the East Hide. About 8 Spotted Redshank, similar Ruff, Blackwit, Avocet, a few Dunlin, a very distant Green Sandpiper shimmering in the heat haze. The viewing platform for the South Scrape was open, and we had Turnstone, Common Sandpiper (year tick!), two Little Gulls (adult and 1st winter) and Stonechat. Then round the reserve back for lunch.

Butterfly walk - White Admiral and Silver Washed Fritillary in good numbers down the main butterfly ride, a couple of Norfolk Hawkers, then Whin Hill and back. By that time we were almost done.

But not quite. Still time for a lifer for me. Yes, at the Stone Curlew watch point were two adult Stone Curlews and ... a juvenile! Practically full grown. It sat around looking a bit gormless whilst the parents ran around, no doubt in shock and confusion that they had actually got this far in the child-rearing process. By what mistake in the juvenile rearing process have local foxes managed to miss this one?

So that was it. It's still a good list, but many breeding birds had disappeared so, for example, no Mediterranean Gulls. There is meant to be a juvenile Cuckoo showing well at Whin Hill but with no volunteers around to guide and time pressing there wasn't time to look.

I missed the close-up views of the scrapes. Back at the centre there was a note of Curlew Sandpiper, which could have been anywhere. The far corners were pretty much a blur of heat haze so anything could have been wondering round there.

So there we have it. Still one of the best places, if not the best place, to see wildlife across all the various forms in the UK. A decent list and an enjoyable day in excellent company. Hurry back volunteers. You were missed.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Canvey Island Jewels

June/July crossover, wind and clouds. What a rubbish combination. Nevertheless Mike and I decided to have a go at that ditch at Canvey.

There was limited variety - no sign of any Southern Migrant Hawkers, but we had 100+ Ruddy Darters, and a few Emeralds to brighten up the day.

I took my trusty macro lens to help with the id, although Mike was on the case so we had no issues there. Just one small problem - my iMac has become almost completely useless since I casually and naively clicked on Yes to install the Catalina operating system. However I managed today by judicious Googling to find out how to load photos, so here goes.

First up is local speciality the Southern Emerald. Just look at those bicoloured pterostigma! And on further inspection, yellowish behind the eyes, smooth flank with no mark. Very pleased to have come across this one again.

There were plenty of Scarce Emeralds too - some really nice males. This one had me confused as it have white edges to the pterostimga but I think this is Scarce not Southern as the other features seem to be Scarce - no yellow behind eyes, slight tick mark on the side of the body.

We thought we'd finish off with a visit to Blue House Farm at North Fambridge, but the car park was closed and the alternative parking arrangements were lacking, so that was it. Short, but productive.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Spending Time at His Majesty's Pleasure - Knepp Estate, 23rd June

For those interested in natural history, a visit to Knepp Estate is becoming essential. The story of the Knepp Estate, not far from Gatwick airport, moving from an intensive farm largely devoid of wildlife to a livestock farm offering a haven for all wildlife is well known and is described in detail in the Excellent book 'Wilding' written by landowner and farmer Isabella Tree.

But there's nothing like seeing it for yourself. Still not able to go birding with others I drove down to Knepp, and was delighted when completely by coincidence Mike pulled in next to me. What are the chances of that randomly happening?

We parked at the temporary car park opposite the entrance to the farm (£5) and were given a map (see here) Walked down to the farm and then the fun started. We took the white path round to the SW corner where the UK's first nesting White Storks for years were present in a large tree in a field. Two good size young and an adult on a neighbouring branch and a good crowd. As we walked on we saw a flock of 12 Storks in the air, an amazing spectacle for the UK. We walked on up toward the west side where the white and purple walks meet, and there spent a couple of hours watching Purple Emperors. We eventually settled on a total of 11 individuals, mainly flying round the tops of oaks and then perching. Once a lower trip gave us decent views. We didn't get any on the ground but were very happy with the views we had seeing these magnificent creatures establishing and protecting their territories.

If you are going, I would suggest going to where white path meets purple at the NW corner of the white walk, from there carry on a hundred meters clockwise until there is a branch off left in the path. Take this and you will see the path extending ahead with a long open strip, a mass of sallows on the left and oaks on the right. You can see it on the aerial photo on the map as a vertical strip. Walk up to where two dead trees have fallen over, and there look into the oaks.

The story is that these butterflies suddenly and unexpectedly appeared here. But to my eye, this is a massive area of perfect Emperor habitat. The many enormous oaks are decades old, and I suspect there were sallows here for a while, so my guess its the old story that they were there all the time, but unless someone who knows their stuff goes at the right time of year on the right day and looks in the right place at the right time, no-one sees them.

This general area gave us the best wildlife sightings. In addition to His Majesty we had Silver Washed Fritillary (two distantly), White Admiral (two close up), and a variety of other more common butterflies including many Marbled White. Best for me was a male Beautiful Demoiselle that settled on a bramble - a first for me. A stunning creature, all metallic blues. And a Turtle Dove singing unseen in the distance.

We headed back to the farm, with a few Storks feeding in a field, and then just by the farm stopped at a brook and saw Large Red Damselfly and Mike picked up a slightly odd blue damselfly in flight which when it settled was clearly a White-Legged Damselfly.

The farm-related wildlife is present too - Fallow Deer, Tamworth-like russet piglets, Horses, Cattle, but not everywhere.

All in we spent about 4 hours plus walking round. It is an impressive place, and quite big. Apparently a Red-Backed Shrike spent some weeks there a couple of years ago - well there could be several pairs there and you wouldn't know. The many Turtle Doves were well hidden and of the Nightingales there was unsurprisingly no sign. But nevertheless, it is a fascinating look into the natural environment, what it might have been in centuries past, and what it may become in the future.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Saved by Insects - Weeting on Bank Holiday

Travel relaxations implemented, so blew the dust off the scope and headed off to Weeting for some summer sun and birds. By sheer coincidence Mike was there too! I had a target list of Stone Curlew, Tree Pipit, Turtle Dove, and coincidentally so did Mike.

We knew the reserve would probably be closed, and it was. We had hoped Stone Curlews would be in the field opposite but they weren't, or at least not visible to us. I assume we were a bit early, in that the Stone Curlews are probably still happily raising chicks on the reserve, blissfully unaware they are not raising young birds to fly back to wherever next year, but simply spending all their time and energy making a snack for Mr Fox. Soon the inevitable will happen and the birds will spend the rest of the summer in the field over the road rooted to the spot in a state of catatonic existential misery. 

We got Cuckoo, Lapwing, Curlew, and loads of Rooks, but nothing else. We then headed up the path in the woods north, and soon had a dragonfly. Clearly a Chaser, I went through my mental check list - four spots on the wings? No. Broad depressed body? No. Well I guess that just leaves Scarce Chaser. Fortunately Mike was on the case and was soon confirming that wow yes that absolutely was a Scarce Chaser! Long story short there were quite a few, over 10 in total across the woods. We did get some great views of those chevrons down the spine and the clear yellow flush at the base of the wings. I even saw one 'breathing' in that the two halves of its abdomen rhythmically slightly separated. No idea what that was about. (From twitter it seems Monday was the day when lots emerged).

A little further on we saw our first Green Hairstreak. We went on to see a further ten or so, with some nice views of closed wings on broom. Another first for the year. Smashing butterflies.

We walked over to Hockwold Heath which looked splendid but in the heat the birds were hard to come by. We had a nice pair of Stonechats and more Curlew, and were pretty sure we heard a Stone Curlew but couldn't see one. 

We walked back with Mike picking out some Roe Deer hiding on the wood - very hard to see - to complete an excellent list despite not having seen any of our target birds.

We though we would try Santon Warren, and to our surprise found that whereas in March you more or less have the place to yourself apart form a handful of birders, on a May bank holiday it is heaving.  We parked (luckily just two spaces), dodged the picnics, walked out our usual walk west and found a Tree Pipit immediately flying up and doing its song flight. Hard to come by now in the south we were very pleased. That was just about the last decent bird we saw, but we to a Broad-bodied Chaser perching nicely, showing us the clear difference in shape to Scarce, and a nice row of yellow flank spots. Then on the way back a Light Emerald Moth, which I think is quite common but was nevertheless a nice surprise for us.

So, that was it. Great to be out and seeing nature in full flow across many different classes. Birding is back!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Schrodinger's Birdwatch.

One of the philosophical conundrums that Quantum Mechanics raised when it first appeared was on the nature of light. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? And the answer, roughly, is that if you are looking for it to be a wave, it's a wave, and if you are looking for it to be a particle, it's a particle. Waves and particles are concepts, and reality is under no obligation to exactly line up with your concepts.


Off I went for my daily patch watch today. Overcast, dull, overnight rain, surely some migrants? Well, no. The pair of Mandarin in their usual place, some Blackcaps and Chiffchaff singing, a Whitethroat, then over the railway line and up to the fields. The usual Yellowhammers and Linnets, then a stop to scan the horizons noting a Red Kite and a Sparrowhawk over, then four Fallow Deer marching out of a hedgerow, giving me a look up and down, and slowly trotting off. A pair of Red-Legged Partridges, the solitary bird now having found a mate. Then back down past the scrape and home with a stop to look for a singing Sedge Warbler from the river-side by the scrape.

Now Steve Gale, over at the excellent North Downs And Beyond, doesn't think birding the patch is really on at the moment. Or rather, he says the lockdown law says it isn't on. The guidelines are for exercise only, not to carry on birding.


Off I went for my daily exercise today. Overcast, dull, overnight rain. The pair of Mandarin in their usual place, I heard some some Blackcaps and Chiffchaff singing, a Whitethroat, then over the railway line and up to the fields. The usual Yellowhammers and Linnets  then after what was a decent stretch of walking up an incline, a brief rest during which a Red Kite and a Sparrowhawk flew over. Then four Fallow Deer marching out of a hedgerow. Clearly I had to stop then to avoid spooking them, and I watched as they looked me up and down, then slowly trotted off. A pair of Red-Legged Partridges, the solitary bird now having found a mate. Then back down past the scrape and home. I stopped for a brief rest opposite where a Sedge Warbler was singing and stepped back into the wood to let a jogger past and maintain distance.

So. Birdwatching? Exercise? I guess what you see is up to you.

Friday, April 17, 2020

a Spring in my step

8:30 and I'm out on the patch again, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be*. First up is two Sparrowhawks displaying over the village. I have a feeling they are nesting along a tree-lined brook as I frequently see them in this area. They both look like females to me so maybe they are marking the edge of joint territories.

Down by the river and the first Lesser Whitethroat of the year bursts into song just a few feet from my head. I peer through the foliage trying to see it, and see a bird fly off after which there is no more song ...

Then its business-as-usual, singing Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and a Whitethroat, all down by the river area. Then up the path toward the farmland and its Yellowhammers and Linnets and a very distant Red Kite, and then as I'm having my umpteenth scan of a ploughed field Boom! There, about 100 yards away, is a male Wheatear.

Wheatears are on the patch list, but not for about ten years. There was a distant spring when a pair were on an adjacent field for a few days, and another spring day a couple of years later when there was one by the river, but then nothing. I've had them over the other side of the valley at Tharbies on a few occasions, and Mike had one up there yesterday, and top local birder and photographer Jason Ward had one a few miles south at Latton Common, but here, up to now, nothing. Not a peep. Or a chackk.

It just sat there for a while. It looked cold grey colour. Now I'm no expert as you will have gathered by now, but it looked the normal type, not one of those Greenland varieties. I looked a way for a few minutes whilst I sent a quick text to Mike to gloat inform him, and when I looked back it was sat there again, but a metre or so to the left.

After a while of this I wondered if there were any more Wheatears. It was a heavily ploughed field, and after some scanning another male revealed itself. They were soon running around, and I left them feeding. I had spent so long watching them I think I may have gone over my government-mandated hour so hurried on home.

It's the kind of sighting that makes you wonder how many you've missed. It was hard work, a lot of scanning, and they could easily get in a rut left by the deep plough. Anyway I didn't miss them. And they are on the patch and year list. Fantastic.

* This is a lie. There are a lot of places I'd rather be.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Do You Really Know What a Sedge Warbler Looks Like?

Or, more correctly, do I?

It was towards the end of a reasonable but unspectacular patch walk. Three Redwings the highlight, perched quietly in some trees, possibly the last of winter. But other decent sightings; a Jay in a tree giving that Buzzard call, some nice Yellowhammers, good views of Linnet, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, distant Red Kite, then on the home stretch along the navigation a lady pointed out a pair of Mandarin under the opposite bank (from a safe distance), and then a Willow Warbler singing unseen from the middle of a thicket, probably the same bird I heard yesterday.

I noticed a movement down by the water's edge. A Chiff. And a second one. Oh hang on...

The two bird were silently picking their way through a mass of twigs all just coming into leaf. The second was a Sedge Warbler. Normally, Sedge Warblers are easy, bursting up from bushes giving their distinctive rattling churring song, but this was the first for a few months, and wasn't singing. In the end it was reasonably straightforward; heavy eyestripe, which was what first gave it away, browner and dumpier than the chiff, rusty rump, slight streaking on the back, and a stout tail. But it was good to have a decent look at it. It is seeing birds in unexpected places at unexpected times that makes for mistakes. Now, I obviously have no independent adjudication to point out that its was something else, but it was nice to slowly unpick this bird and get all the features. And that Chiff? The supercilium was quite strong continuing well behind the eye, longish primaries and pale legs, so if I had to guess I'd say Willow Warbler. But I don't have to guess, I can leave it as a Chiff.

This lockdown lark is making me think again about our birds. The everyday birds, the Blue Tits, the Linnets, the Mallards, are all spectacular in their own way. With nothing else to do it's a pleasure to spend time enjoying them.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

We'll be a long time in lockdown ...

A slow steady rise in the numbers of Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat. Some Fallow Deer showing well. The Mandarin around again. Quite nice all in, which is just as well because we birders are going to be here for some time. Possibly the rest of this year and into next. Here's why I think this.

There are two ways out of this pandemic; Vaccine or Herd Immunity. We'd all prefer a vaccine, but there is a long period of testing of any candidate, possibly (I believe) up to two years. We could shorten it, but that is risky as that testing period is there for a reason. Meanwhile, our economy will slide into depression and life will become more difficult. A prolonged shutdown will cost lives as we will be unable to look after everyone who needs it. If you thought being unable to get your hands on toilet roll was frustrating, wait until we start running out of food. So we will have to open up the economy at a point where we don't have a vaccine

That points to some kind of herd immunity strategy. The Herd Immunity strategy is based round the notion that there are vulnerable people who if they get the virus may die, and there are less vulnerable people who will nearly all live if they get the virus. If we can keep the vulnerable ('old') people isolated whilst we get the proportion of the population who have had the virus to over 60%  then the vulnerable people could be let out again as the level of immunity in the community means the virus is unlikely to spread.

Optimistic calculations say we currently have around 20% immunity currently. So we need to go through what we have been through another three times.

A managed Herd Immunity has always been the underlying principle of the government strategy because of the sheer practical impossibility of the alternative. We are currently trying to 'flatten the curve'. That means get the demand down and the capacity of the health service up to a point where it can manage the demand. We are likely to achieve that in the next few weeks.

Hence, by the end of April we will be looking at lifting the lockdown in some way. The strategy will be, I think, to get the economy moving, allow the virus to spread amongst the younger section of the population (because we cannot realistically prevent that), which will increase health care demand, and keep the vulnerable people isolated.

I think this is going to be the way of things for a few years. We will evolve into a society that lives with the virus, rebuilding our businesses and social lives in ways the avoid close contact.

During this phase it will be important to keep the demand on the health service as low as possible, and keep vulnerable people locked up. I wouldn't be surprised if families are allowed to go on holiday, for instance, but not with old people.

Where does that leave birders? Well, isolated at home I fear. Most birders are over 50, myself included, and enough people my age have had very bad experiences, not just Boris, to make me think getting it would not be a wise move. So I think the government will say that trips that are not work related or involve taking young people on holiday or out socially will remain banned. And that means most of our birding trips.

I think there's also a problem for nature reserves building. Take Minsmere, the gold standard of bird reserves. Most people who go there are over 60, never mind 50. They spend much of their time sat in hides. It isn't possible to socially isolate in a hide, so they will be shut. It's going to be pretty hard to watch the scrape, or scan for Bitterns from the Bittern hide, if we can't go into hides. So if reserves do open up, I think there will be new ways of allowing people to see the key areas, eg long screens with gaps and people moving freely behind.

But that's a while off. Meanwhile allowing pensioners to all head off on a day to the coast adds potential strain on the NHS, exposes NHS staff to more virus, and for that reason it isn't going to happen.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Slow Steady March of Spring.

My daily routine is now settled. Get up and do the full patch. Through the now flattened corner field, into the small wood by the river, look over the lower park area, along to Feakes Lock, up through the loop field along the railway (a few trains, all completely empty), past SLRS, up to the farm, then over the top fields, down back across the railway line and home. Lucky me can just manage all that in the one hour the government allows.

This daily routine gives as near a complete picture of what is happening on the patch that I can imagine doing, and the headline is that it is slow going. Here's the notable sightings.

24th March - Water Rail at SLRS. Grey Wagtail over. Blackcap m first for the year. Fieldfare 3.
25th March - Barn Owl by the railway line in the evening
26th March - Mandarin - a pair all over the patch, very noisily, presumably looking for a nest site. Treecreeper, down to the mead near Old Harlow - Lapwing, Snipe, and Gadwall.
28th March - Kingfisher, Little Egret, Cetti's Warbler! back after the Beast from the East. Redwing 15 N and c30 Fieldfare
31st March - Golden Plover 35 in the middle of a field on the high eastern section. first for the patch. Also 13 Fieldfare.
4th April - Blackcap
6th April - Yellow Wagtail 1 calling and flying over, Mandarin pair on the backwater quietly swimming around, now settled presumably.
7th April - Teal 5 on SLRS
8th April - nothing to report
9th April - 2 House Martin, 1 Whitethroat. The Water Rail out in the open at SLRS.
10th April - The Water Rail having a good long feeding session. 3 Blackcap, 2 Whitethroat., 3 Black-Headed Gulls over.

The insect life has been emerging too. Peacock, Comma, and Small tortoiseshell have been out in decent numbers, and after a gap today saw Brimstone as well as my first Orange tip Butterfly of the year. The years first Vestal Cuckoo Bee too. There have been Fox,  Muntjac deer, and Pipistrelle Bat too.

This birding is like the birding I did as a school boy, when trips to coastal hot-spots were beyond my means and I had to make do with whatever was in my local park. Time spent quietly checking a bush to see what is moving in there, taking time to enjoy close-up Great-Spotted Woodpecker, finding Long-tailed tit nests. Slowly the summer visitors are turning up, and the insects are appearing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lockdown Patch watching

So here we are. For the next three months weeks at least, its the patch for me, for us all. Not that today this is a problem. Sun shining, spring clicking into gear, this could be interesting.

Lockdown day #1, and an opportunity to get round the patch on my government-mandated daily walk. Chiffchaff silently flitting through the trees a nice start, although there's been a few for a week or so now. A Muntjac deer giving me a long stare (aren't you supposed to be indoors?), a Grey Wagtail over, inexplicably my first on the patch this year, then woah! what's this? Picking round the edge of the now overgrown pond just over the river, tail up in the air, bright red beak, yes its a Water Rail! I guess they live here, but I've not seen one for two years on the patch, so its a nice opportunity to spend some time looking at this shy swamp-dweller at a reasonable range. Patch watching at its best.

A little further on and there's a quiet chuntering from the middle of a bush. A familiar summer sound. eventually, the chunterer pops out, and as expected it is the patch's first Blackcap of the year. A stop to look up to the park over the horse field; Buzzard in a tree, distant Sparrowhawk and Red Kite. A little further on and there's the sound of some chattering from a small hedgerow. Starling-like. I look through the bushes and cannot see anything there.

Up through the loop field, a Meadow Pipit through from the south, unclear if its a migrant or not. Then I see Starlings up from that hedgerow. I count 120. Amazing. Not seen anything like this many for a while, so I assume these are migrants.

Over the railway line and up the other side. Quieter here, but there are a few Fieldfares in the long hedge here, new arrivals. Some Yellowhammers and Linnets, back down past the pond, Green Woodpecker in a tree, and there's a Red Kite in the field having a good hunt. Something small starts flying around. A hirundine? No its a Pipistrelle Bat, possibly disturbed by the Kite.

Spring starting to appear all over. Bee Fly, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, and Peacock Butterfly all seen today.

The patch, truth be told, has been quite good recently. Firstly Mike came over (when such trips were legal) and on a long bash through we had two Mandarin fly in and Mike picked up a Peregrine going through, as well as some deer tracks. A later visit saw few birds but did see five Fallow Deer running off including two full-antlered stags. Even my dog walk in the park has been productive, with a gull going over showing pure white underwings. As it turned and revealed those translucent primaries this was clearly an adult Mediterranean Gull, the first for a while.

Suddenly I'm quite looking forward to this regular walk.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dave-less in the Brecks.

Its late February so its The Brecks for more year ticks. But unfortunately Dave is still laid up with a foot problem. For now, The Fun Boy Three is just two. Dave has asked how we got on, so this, Dave, is how we did.

A sunny start at Cockley Cley. As we pulled in there were three raptors circling over the distant wood, a Common Buzzard, a male Goshawk (126), and a Ringtail Hen Harrier! Blimey, there's a surprise for a start. We were out of the van and looking and could hear Woodlark (127) singing. It seemed to come from all angles, and we had a while trying to locate the source of the song, but then we realised it was right over our heads. Marvellous. About 200 Fieldfare there as well.

Well, Dave, you know what Goshawk views there are like. Good if you were a field or two closer. It was a decent view for Cockley Cley of a male in display flight, but you wouldn't have bothered getting your camera out of the car.

A couple pulled up alongside and asked if we were going for the Shrike. We said we thought it was a bit of a distance, and they said no just a few miles, so we loaded up birdguides and off we went.  We saw it. It was difficult parking as it was a farm road with lots of other birders there, so we didn't hang around. It was distant. Remember the one we saw at Holkham? We were at one end of Holkham and the bird was at the other? A grey golf ball in a bush a mile away at 60x? It was like that. Great Grey Shrike. Probably that species. Might have been a fluffy toy nailed to a perch. I'm ticking it anyway. 128.

Lynford Arboretum. A tale of the unexpected. We were directed to two Tawny Owls roosting way up in a pine (129, thats all 5 of the UK owls, sight views, still in Feb). Picked up the usual woodland goodies - Coal Tit (130, yes first for the year for me) a few Siskin (131), 3 Marsh Tit, and two Grey Wagtail on the river (132). Then down to the Paddock and three Hawfinches feeding on the ground including one male with burnished ginger head. Nice, but again wouldn't have bothered with your camera. Not as good as those views we had in Hatfield Forest a couple of winters ago.

A detour to Santon Downham with LSW on the target list, possibly Otter. As usual there was a crowd standing by a nest hole, but we soon gave up, neither of us being the best at waiting for birds. Remember where we had Woodlark last year? They were there again. But no finches. In contrast to last year, deathly quiet. Not a Redpoll or Brambling anywhere.

We finished up at RSPB Lakenheath, hoping for Cranes that had been seen recently in the afternoons here. We did the new photography hide, with 8 splendid Reed Buntings - you would have enjoyed that, and will do the next time we come, then up to the Washlands with decent numbers of Wigeon and Shoveler and bizarrely a male Goosander, but again not nearly as good as the Abberton views. then that long hack down the river bank in light rain along the muddy walk until finally we got to Joist Fen. We had a Bittern (133), briefly in flight, ticked but it will be disappointing if that's the best we do this year, then a pinging Bearded Tit (134) showed itself on the edge of the reeds, a sparkling male doing the splits and generally showing off. You might have got your camera out for that. And then we were directed towards a new digging area where there were a couple of Water Pipits (135). Possibly slightly greyer now than November birds, quite distant, certainly not as good views as the one we had in front of the Draper Hide at Rye Meads a couple of years back.

Then the long trudge back, broken only by seeing a distant flock of Swans just over the railway line. c100, which the telescope on zoom showed to be Whooper Swans (136), with only the heads being visible over the trainline.

Then that was it. We didn't see any Cranes. We didn't get rained on much, but blimey it was cold out at Lakenheath, and it was a long muddy walk. Not help by the gate being locked when we returned and having to climb over the fence.

Get well soon mate. We miss you and need you back on our trips.

Black Brants, Lumpers and Splitters

Black Brant has been a bogey bird for me. I've been places where they've been seen, eg Ferrybridge, and not seen them. I've seen some that turned out to be hybrids. I was approaching the conclusion that the ability to see something slightly different to the main flock and pronounce it a separate species rather than something that was just part of the variation of the main species was something a bit beyond me as a birder. Perhaps by nature I'm a Lumper not a splitter.

So, imagine my surprise then whilst scanning a party of Dark-Bellied Brent Geese at Swale NNR, when boom! there it was gleaming away, my very own Black Brant. White blaze on a dark flank, thick white neck ring, and a very black back. This latter feature is the one I'd noticed in photos, so was particularly welcome.

The acid test on finding an unusual bird is whether if you look away, or if the flock shuffles round, you can refind it. This one I could pick out with its back to me just because of the exceptional darkness of the back. Smashing. Just for the record, we had Merlin and Peregrine on the trip back at Elmley; Hen Harriers there were none.

I noticed that Birdguides has very few records of Black Brant for Kent, neither does the Kent OS site. I assume locals can't be bothered reporting them. Other Brent flocks have them all year round, so there doesn't seem a particular reason why Kent shouldn't get them.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Elmley Long-Earedonomics.

Long Eared Owl. There can't be many birds as charismatic as a Long-Eared Owl. Not particularly scarce - not Great-Grey Shrike scarce, for example, they are increasingly difficult to see. Mainly because that small minority of photographers who will keep getting closer and closer until they flush whatever bird they have chosen to pursue means that roosts are now kept secret, and anyway many roosts are often not in places suitable for viewing. LEO was top of my target list for 2020, so when they appeared at Elmley off I went.

Elmley was a bit of a surprise. It has slipped off my radar following the RSPBs departure and the farm began running the reserve themselves. The packed car park showed it clearly hasn't slipped off everyone's radar, and groups of people admiring two perched LEOs showed why they were there. That is when they weren't admiring a Short-Eared Owl perched up close up to the car park or taking the short walk to see a pair of Little Owls. Even so, despite the fences, I gather some photographers have been breaching the borders to try and get closer.

The LEO's were fantastic. Prolonged views from 20m distance. My understanding from twitter is that a tall LEO with erect ear tufts is a stressed LEO, and a fluffy bird with flattened ear tufts is a happy LEO, in which case these were happy birds, with one very happy watcher ticking them off for the first time in years.

There were three distinct groups present. Birders like myself, men with long lens cameras either taking pictures of the LEO or waiting for the SEO, and groups of women with bridge cameras having a fun day out. That's a mix of people I've only seen elsewhere at Minsmere.

In the light of that, having an honesty box requesting £5 per car seemed a bit naive. So when I returned with Mike the following week it wasn't a surprise to see a man on the gate asking for £5. He said they'd had a day with 300 cars and found £10 in the box. Even allowing for artistic licence, that's a bit of a miserable return.

Lets just do the numbers. 300 cars, £5 each, is £1,500. Were that to happen 7 days a week that's just over £10K. If that happened every week of the year that's about £500K.

Now, that isn't going to happen. But something like that might happen. Revenue could easily be north of £100K, and I don't know much about farming economics but I feel that would raise some eyebrows in the farm office. And that's before you've opened the farm cafe with coffee and cakes. Garden Centres that are successful, from observation, are basically cafe/restaurants that sell plants as a hobby. I'm guessing the same could apply for nature reserves; the wildlife gets the punters on the premises, and the cafe takes profit from a captive and willing crowd.

All of which goes to show that LEOs could be big business. Perhaps other reserves could plant clumps of bushes to attract them near their car park. We could have competing LEO roosts. When it comes to finding the bird that tops the list for combined charisma and scarcity, LEO is right at the top, so why not use their star quality to raise money for their welfare?

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

HS2, Brexit, the EU. A moan

I don't do politics on here, as I don't particularly appreciate being lectured by my fellow birders so I assume they won't want lecturing back, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. But ...

I cannot help noticing that some of my fellow birders think we should have stayed in the EU, and also think we shouldn't build HS2. And my view is you can believe either of these, but it is hard to believe both these at the same time.

The demographic consequences of staying in the EU were helpfully made clear in a projection by the European Commission made in 2018. It's here. And what it projects for the UK population is:

2018 66 million
2020 67 million
2030 71 million
2040 75 million
2050 78 million

so from 2018 to 2050 that's an increase of 12 million. The increase alone is a greater number of people than the current populations of medium sized European nation such as Belgium, Czechia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden. And, furthermore, a decade or two later we become the most populous nation in Europe.

The increase is largely due to immigration. Quite a lot of this will happen anyway, in the EU or out. Now, it isn't the purpose of this post to discuss whether that's a good thing or not, but it is the purpose to point out that having an increase in the population of, roughly, Sweden or Belgium, requires an increase in the infrastructure of the magnitude of roughly, Sweden or Belgium. Thats lots and lots of roads, airport, power stations, trains, hospitals, houses, towns, cities etc etc. That's lots and lots of green spaces, nature reserves, wildlife havens, all gone. It means digging up ancient woodland and buiilding HS2. It means that nice new A14 that goes through uninterrupted fields between Cambridge and Huntingdon is eventually going to go through new towns.

The 'good' news, is that this increase which is also replicated in Sweden and Belgium to some extent, is matched by population reductions in Eastern and Southern Europe. Also, in many countries, people are increasingly deserting rural areas and moving to cities. So there are big opportunities for widespread rewilding, big reserves, big increases in wildlife populations.

But not here in the UK. Here in the UK its building, building, building for the rest of most of our lives.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Black Grouse Theory

The last few years have seen some mirky corners of my UK list properly cleaned out. One brief view of a Nightjar silhouette? Now a decent view of birds flying round and churring. Fleeting view of Goshawk? Prolonged view of several at Cockley Cley on several occasions. Short brief view of Little Auk, may have been a Starling? Close up fly-byes and one on a reservoir.

One dingy-record remains. A bird ticked, but not experienced. Black Grouse. A brief view of Blackcock lekking at distance. Not the lekk itself, as that was just over a hillock. Just birds in the air. Good enough to tick, in the small hours of a bird race sometime last century. Roll forward thirty years, and family business in Leeds gave me an opportunity to spend the morning correcting this state of affairs.

But where to look? Unlike some of our local rarities such as Stone Curlew (Weeting Heath, or Minsmere entrance road), Goshawk (see above), or Savi's Warbler (Minsmere, Island Hide, bushes at the back left corner of the mere), information on where to see Black Grouse is difficult. Lekks are closely guarded secrets for obvious reasons, but general winter habitat?

Careful curating of my twitter feed gave some clues. The southernmost English population to my knowledge is in Swaledale, and specifically the northern tributary of Arkengarthdale. The 'road' from Langthwaite to Barnard Castle goes past Shaw Farm, a local centre for aiding the status of Black Grouse. Other names that popped up were Whaw, a village in Arkengarthdale a few miles north of Langthwaite, and West Stonesdale which is the dale from England's highest pub, the Tan Hill inn down to Keld, the village at the top of Swaledale. So, 8am out the door ...

The sun shone as I left Reeth heading north, and I started stopping off at likely-looking spots on the road and scanning. My working theory was that Red Grouse like the moorland heather-rich tops, but Black Grouse prefer the wooded edges lower down the slope avoiding the barren windswept moors themselves. I searched diligently, found lots of likely looking blobs, but when I got the scope on them they were either stones or clods of earth casting shadows, or rabbits. And there were lots of rabbits. Odd how, when you remove every predator from a grassy landscape, that the place should become over-run with rabbits.

I was soon on open moor where I connected with a few Red Grouse, and a couple of distant waders in flight that were probable Golden Plover, but other than that is was barren, and I found myself at Tan Hill Inn where I stopped for a bacon sandwich. Yes, that Tan Hill Inn. the one where Vera was filmed (partly), the one that gets cut off by snow every winter, the one that is on TV so often Mrs DD feels she knows personally the young couple who run the place.

On down West Stonesdale, Its a beautiful little dale, and the area round Keld is for my money England's finest landscape, but Black Grouse there were none. I started getting a bit desperate, stopping at places not on my itinerary and searching. In the end I thought, well Whaw was on the list twice, so go back.

Find Black Grouse at Whaw? I couldn't even find Whaw. I eventually decided the collection of odd buildings and huts on the far side of the valley were Whaw, so I pulled in by the side of the road, set up the scope and had a good look among the edges of a few stands of bushes and trees. Nothing. Just a flock of Fieldfare and Starlings.

More out of desperation than anything else I decided to scan the moorland at the top of the opposite hill. Bracken, heather, grand, and rocks. Lots of little outcrops, grey, brown, and black in the low afternoon light. Scanning back one of the black clods seemed to have moved. And then a grouse-like head appeared. Could it be? I kept watching, and soon realised there were two blackish birds and a brown one. One of the blackish birds lifted its tail to show off all-white under tail coverts. Prolonged views at 60x were enough to rule out the classic confusion species of Dark-Bellied Brent Goose and Moorhen. I scanned further and found two Red Grouse and another Blackcock. This bird, slightly lower down, showed all the features. White under tail, white crescent on the wings. At last. All that stood between me and fantastic views was half a mile of valley. I decide not to try and get closer, but headed off, turning in the road at a point that I later found out was the actual hamlet off Whaw, and headed back to Leeds. No longer with just one distant view of Black Grouse on my list, but two distant views of Black Grouse.

If you want to see Black Grouse in winter, then, weather permitting, you can go on the road from Langthwaite to Tan Hill, stop just north of Langthwaite and scan the distant tops of hills with a good telescope. On the OS Map it is opposite Wood House looking toward Low Moor. There are some roads near there so if you trust your vehicle on these single-lane tarmac tracks you could try and get closer, or if you fancy a walk you can park at Langthwaite (£), walk up to Shaw Farm and then across the moors to Whaw and back down the valley to Langthwaite. The grouse could be anywhere, on the tops of moors as well as on the edges.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Year Listing at Abberton Res.

First proper trip out of 2020 and we chose Abberton. We missed Black-Throated Diver, Black Necked Grebe, Hen Harrier, Merlin, White Fronted Goose, and Green-Winged Teal, but nevertheless were happy with our haul.

Started in the murk at West Mersea where a prolonged scouring of the sea was about to draw to a miserable close with just Red-Breasted Merganser of note, when a Great Northern Diver popped into view. We observed it occasionally surfacing between lengthy dives, explaining why it had taken us so long to see it.

Then Abberton Church, where poor light and some rain restricted our viewing to a few Goosander and a small party of Pintail amongst the many Teal and Wigeon.

A coffee at the centre then the hides. From island hides two distant Long-Tailed Ducks became close-up long-tailed ducks when they flew in our direction. Very dainty nicely marked females. A couple of Marsh Harriers appeared distantly. Then round to Hide Bay and just a Peregrine in a tree. And Great-White Egrets everywhere. Must have had at least 5 before I connected with any other heron species.

Layer-De-La-Haye causeway. A Swallow! And then a few more Goosander, and a Scaup. Round to Billet's Farm. We just missed the Hen Harrier which was a bit frustrating as we had been scanning keenly for the bird as it had been seen recently, but managed 2 Bewick's Swans, a tricky year-bird now, some Golden Plover and another Marsh Harrier. Layer Breton Causeway gave us good views of sleeping Ring-Necked Duck, and another Scaup, but not Smew. We went back to Abberton Church for some of the afore-mentioned goodies, passing some people parked by the side of the road for what must have been the White-Fronts, drew a blank again at the Church apart from 56 Corn Buntings on a wire then two close up in a bush which was very decent - won't good as good as views as those again this year I should think - then win our way past Layer Breton causeway where two Redhead Smews had appeared and swam close.

So overall pleased with a decent start to the year. No-one sees everything at Abberton as its a huge area. And its good to leave some birds for the next visit. Wouldn't want to have all the good stuff on the first visit. That would be greedy.

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...