Saturday, December 04, 2021

Surely Abberton with these Grebes you are really spoiling us.

A Saturday morning window of opportunity, so pop down to the local park to look at the ducks. I mean drive to Abberton to see what is around. 

Quick stop at Layer De La Haye Causeway. Three Scaup females asleep in  with the Tufties and Pochard, a couple of Goosander at the over flow, and on the other side a Red-Necked Grebe happily swimming around amongst the thousands of Tufted Ducks. Then round to Hide Bay to get 3 Bewick's Swans. Nice views too as they paddled away stirring up the base of the bay before sticking their heads in to feed. A couple of Slavonian Grebes distantly from Island Hide and that was my lot. The support cast of Pintail, Black Tailed Godwit was pretty decent, and a small flock of Fieldfare was just about my first of the winter. There was a Long-Tailed Duck out there somewhere, but I've seen it already this winter and time was pressing, and I drove past the Cattle Egrets and could not be bothered to stop. 

Way back in the last century it wasn't like this. Abberton was smaller, and full access was for the select few. But then the expansion happened, and the whole reservoir was opened up, and now there's all this stuff available pretty much all winter. 

So it's clearly a big improvement, but ... part of me says birding isn't meant to be like this. You should have to work for birds like Red-Necked and Slavonian Grebe. If you went to Minsmere and saw this you'd think it a red-letter day, but its just every day at Abberton. Hanningfield is quite a decent reservoir and a bit nearer, but what's the point? 

Perhaps I grumble too much. Enjoy them whilst they are there. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

To do list

I stopped working and started birding intensively in 2015. Since then I've seen quite a few new birds, and caught up with quite a few birds that were poorly seen or only seen once birds. 

But there's a few that I haven't seen or haven't seen well since 2015, and really could and should see again. Here's the list with annotations (note doesn't include my two glaring life misses Storm Petrel and Quail, or either of the Hippos warblers, or birds that are no longer breeders eg Montagu's Harrier, Golden Oriole, or birds such as Chough which are in a specific location).

Leach's Petrel. Seen a couple at Canvey. Would like to see some more.

Honey Buzzard. - Clumber Park and one off Bempton back in the 80's. Nothing since

White-Tailed Eagle - Kent 1990's

Grey Phalarope - once in Keyhaven, 90's

Black Grouse. Once in the late 80's, again last year, but I'd like a decent view of both sexes.

Glaucous Gull - used to be regular in Yorkshire in the 80's, a couple down south, but not for a while

Puffin - regular at Bempton, occasional at Portland

Wryneck - Spurn, Portland at various times

Richard's Pipit - Wraysbury, late 80's early 90's.

Mealy Redpoll - various times in the 90's. Saw an Arctic at Aldborough a few years ago but the flock cleared off before I could pick out the Mealy's.

The list isn't as long as I thought it might be. But enough to be worth chasing.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Bet on the Bittern

To the Lea Valley with David for some photography. Firstly the Wildlife Discovery Centre, to look for Bitterns. It has lots going for it; nice clear windows, helpful staff, and a reed bed with two cuts in it that allow you to see birds walking across or going down, and best of all it actually has a Bittern. There is just one problem, which is at this time of year you are looking straight at the sun.

We do quite well, Bittern, take some photos (see above) then Water Rail, then on advice we walk up to and beyond Holyfield Farm to a flock of passerines and get 5+ Brambling, and a Cattle Egret along the way, then back to see a Kingfisher. So an excellent morning.

It struck me as we were watching the Bittern and a conversation was struck up about whether it has a preferred circuit and how often it crosses the tracks that it would be an excellent way to raise money to have a session of Bet on The Bittern. One could divide the session into 20 minute intervals, and people could place bets on whether in that time slot the Bittern was going to exit left, exit right, or stay put. I think Sky could take this up. It's a guaranteed winner.

Finally the photo. Excellent isn't it. You're going Wow DD! We knew you were going to put more effort into photos but that's a really good one particularly for someone with your photographic skills, and I'm going yes yes thanks very much all compliments on my skills much appreciated. And then you're going hang on, that's not you is it? You've nicked one of David's and claimed it as your own haven't you? And yes that is exactly what I've done. It's one of David's. You can, as always, find more of David's excellent photos here.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

They're back

I know I promised an end to rubbish photos, but .... look closely and you can see two Hawfinches.

Hatfield Forest is a traditional Hawfinch site, particularly round the Hornbeams near Bush End car park. But the early years of this century had only a few records and it wasn't until the great eruption a couple of years ago we had decent numbers. Last year there were a few in mid winter, so with numbers having been seen flying over local areas this autumn, it was time to go looking.

I'd had very little apart from 40 Siskins by the lake and 60 Redwings flying round when I saw a larger passerine slipping away over trees, and just glimpsed a long white wing bar. Not enough to tick, damn! I gave it a bit longer, and picked up one, then three flying into the tops of trees.

We know how this goes, having seen enough a couple of winters ago. They go into the tree tops then drop down slowly to the floor below, as presumably these did. I didn't go in to avoid any disturbance, and had no further views.

I've no idea how many there are. I could have seen them all in this viewing, there could be lots more scattered round. No matter, its great to have them back.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Going Nutcrackers.

A Nutcracker has been seen in Scotland. Exciting for the finder, congratulations, and good luck to those who go for it.

I was fortunate enough to see the Westleton one in 1853 or whenever it was.

My preferred order of seeing Nutcracker (or pretty much any other bird, come to that) is:

1. Find one.

2. See a few in their natural habitat.

3. Travel to see one. If its not too far and there is other stuff there.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Patch in focus

I guess most patches get a bit samey. The first year is full of 'wow - Yellowhammers!', the next year is 'good to see the Yellowhammers still here', and short after that its 'rubbish - just Yellowhammers'. 

So as I'm on year seven, I feel in need of a bit of a change of angle. And I thought photography might be it. One reason is that I noticed on the small fields and copses of my patch I tend to get closer to birds, and will spend longer on, say, a Treecreeper than I would elsewhere.

My history of bird photography in the modern era goes something like this. Bought a Canon EOS30D and 100-400 ultrasonic zoom lens back in the early 0's. Was a bit rubbish, then was very rubbish. The autofocus packed up so I was reduced to focussing manually with predictable results.

Last year I got the camera checked out, and the auto-focus has gone, and the 30D isn't really supported anymore. So a week ago I bought a used 650D from Wex Photographic.

The patch visit was okay. Raven over, a couple of Siskins over at the same time, good numbers of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings, Chaffinches, 4 Mistle Thrushes! And a Fallow Deer which turned out to be a young buck.

Here's the pick of the photos.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

More year listing

With the Worst Autumn Ever drawing to a close, time to tour round the local rarity spots and get that year list closer to 200. 

First a lay-bye SW of Earith on the A1123. A vista of flooded fields, we thought we had blown it when we scanned and saw only Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, and Little Egrets, but six Glossy Ibis took off and flew around for a while, then settled back along the near edge of the fen, mainly just on the other side of the vegetation. But they were active, and soon started giving excellent scope views.

I even got some camera shots. The light blah blah so they are mainly silhouettes. I'm particularly proud of the pin-sharp focus on the railing as four blurry birds fly past. More of that in a future post. Just time to add Marsh Harrier to the day list, then onwards.

192 in the bag (for those keeping count, 191 was Brambling over my head a couple of days ago at the local vis mig watch point), onwards in search of 193. We went north to Pymoor/Welney, but had no luck, then headed to Eldernell to view the Nene Washes. I hadn't been before, and what a huge expense of prime habitat it is. The wind was however not helping. Mike found Raven and Sparrowhawk for the day list, and we had regular small flocks of Whooper Swans moving west at low level, but just as we were giving up hope on our target we picked up three very distant Common Cranes in flight. Not a classic view, but easily good enough to get the long neck with red adornment on the head through the scope. 193. Just 7 to go now.

The Home Strait

Two significant life events recently on successive days. The first was my 60th birthday. Really? you ask? Already? I know. Feels like just yesterday I was 16, then woosh the big six-zero. How did that happen? 

Then the very next day, we were dropping D#4 off at University. Mrs D and I have a notional cut-off. The moment we drive away and leave a child at University, that's it. They have crossed the Rubicon into adulthood. All decisions are theirs to make. They own them, and the consequences of their decisions.

The moment we got home it was just the two of us. A house that had been filled with the sound of moaning joyful children was now quiet. Mrs D said, well you're on the home strait now.

D#3 was somewhat put out by the notion of my being on the home strait, a bit morbid. But I said no not at all. If you view your life, as a man, to be about raising a family, about putting food on the table, clothes on their backs, a roof over their heads, then that was it. Job done. Time to relax and enjoy. Every day is a bonus, to be enjoyed for itself, not as a step toward some future moment.

But for how long will this Nirvana last? Well, as we all know particularly after the last 18 months, that is an open question. And if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. But it seems sensible to make some kind of assessment. And my assessment is that I've got maximum ten good years. My current plan for my 70th, should I be sufficiently blessed to reach that point, is to spend my remaining years with crates of cold beer and sports on TV. 

So if I want to buy anything, buy it now. Do anything, do it now. 

And the first up on that list is ... photography!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

North Norfolk 12th Oct

A free day, and a strong NW wind onto the Norfolk coast. I'd have preferred a N or NE, but this will do. So I pitch up at Cley Coastguards (now pay and display!) and join Mike in a small line, both of us looking to get our year lists up to 200 in this year of limited opportunity.

There are lots of Razorbills(181), Guillemots(182) and Red-Throated Divers(183) close in, with later a few corpses on the shingle, and apparently some movement such as Mandarin W. I set the scope up and pretty soon I'm onto a gull with clear two-tone plumage, dark body, fore wing and leading edge and white primaries and trailing edge. A few others get onto its and yes its a Sabine's Gull(184) Fantastic. It flies W, at its leisure, and we get decent middle-distance views of this impressive bird. 

There are a steady stream of ducks moving West, mainly Teal, Wigeon and Common Scoter), but we manage to add  Great Skua, Pintail, Red-Breasted Merganser(185) to the list, see a female Merlin(186) belting west over the eye field, a Rock Pipit (187) and Purple Sandpiper(188). So we are very happy although we don't pick up the two Grey Phalaropes but no-one gets everything. And on we go.

We call in at Burnham Overy. On our way to the dunes we saw lots of Pink-footed Goose (189), a few Barnacle Geese, etc, and then I set my scope up and Mike wandered into the dunes in a futile search for any passerines (saw no migrating finches or thrushes at all all day). On my own, I scan the sea, and find, unbelievably, a small party of a few Kittiwakes and two more Sabine's Gulls heading west, their contrasting bright white and dark grey plumage almost shining in the scope.

Finally Titchwell where a Rose-Coloured Starling has been coming to join a few hundred Starlings at roost. We head out to the beach and Mike picks up Greenshank on the way out, then on the expanse of beach (it being low-tide) have some great views of Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit high up on the beach and amazingly another Purple Sandpiper this one allowing us to get quite close

The sun is setting so we head back to the freshwater marsh to join others waiting for the roost. Out on the newly shovelled mud there are a few hundred Golden Plover, 2 Ruff, various other water-related birds, and as the sun descends in the sky some Marsh Harriers cruise over to the roost in the SE corner. 

There are, however, not many Starlings, about a hundred hunched together on the mud. But as the light begins to go others come in, in tens, then hundreds. The numbers soon swell, and the flock keeps flying up in ripples and resettling. They make quite a sight, as groups bathe at the waters edge sending spray everywhere, and the birds are in a range of adult and late-juvenile plumages. Still no Rosy Pastor. As the light dims further and the temperature drops, and the numbers of Starling goes up into the thousands, it is becoming increasingly clear that the star is not going to appear on the stage tonight. It would take a miracle to see it now. People are beginning to drift off. I keep searching through the scope, and miraculously, there on the water's edge for a few second is , well ...

It's not a common Starling in standard plumage. It is quite pale cold grey underneath. It has a solid block of dark wing plumage, and in the brief time I have it is facing quarter-angle towards me so I cannot see the back well. And then it is gone. 

I'd have preferred more time to get a good look. I was expecting something a bit more buffy all over. But I recalled a photo (here) which I checked out afterwards and I think there is nothing to be gained by worrying about some weird plumage aberration in Common Starling. Where's the fun in that? Lists don't fill themselves, so there we are. Rose-Coloured Starling. 190.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A description species over my garden

I don't have a good record on submitting descriptions to rarities committees. I avoid this process mainly by not discovering birds that require descriptions to be submitted for 'acceptance'. And should I accidentally stumble upon a 'description species' I avoid it by not bothering submitting. 

I did submit a description once, many decades ago. It was a Red-Necked Grebe in Scarborough Harbour. In winter. And it was rejected because it might have been a Slavonian Grebe. Which it massively patently wasn't. Because if it had been a Slavonian Grebe, then obviously I'd have titled the description 'Slavonian Grebe'.

Anyway, forward several decades, and I was sat in my garden early one evening peering up into a blue sky looking through my Leica 8x42s at House Martins when I glanced around and saw a large bird flying towards my garden from the south. It passed by at what I would call a middling height in that it was neither a speck in the firmament nor grazing the top of the Leylandii, and took a line a couple of houses to the East so I could get a side-on view of the bird. I duly submitted my record to the Herts bird club site (and thence on to Birdguides ! WooHoo!), and then received an email requesting a description. Oh.

So here goes. It was big, in that it was Goose/Cormorant/Heron size. It was thin, long neck, thin wings, longish tail, like a flying crucifix. It was mainly white, with a bit of black on the wing, and a vaguely recall a scrappy blackish tail with an odd feather, like it was moulting. It was taking regular quick quite shallow flaps. It was in a hurry.

Taken by complete surprise at this bird belting over my garden I looked at the head, and, yes, as you have probably worked out by now, it was a Gannet. It had a Gannet's head. That long ivory bill, big eye close to the bill, pale buff mass of stuff round the base of the bill and those black lines giving the distinctive Gannet Trim all around. I didn't look at much else to be honest, given that I was aware that for a few seconds I was looking at a sight I was never going to see again and that that beguiling head is the stand-out feature IMHO. 

So now I have to fill in a form that will convince others that it was a Gannet. How do I do that? Get my Field guide and copy down the relevant bits that make it look like I carefully studied every feature and made a note? Or just say it was a Gannet. With a head like a Gannet's?

If it gets rejected, what will be the confusion species? Great White Egret? Heron? Juvenile Cormorant? Swan?

Anyway, here goes. Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

A disappointing sea watch

NE wind, autumn, Canvey Point. You know the score. 

Pitched up at 8am on a rising tide and found locals T and J already there. A good sign, firstly because they generally only appear when their considerable experience tells them sea birds will be present, and secondly because they both call out anything they see and are keen to share their expertise, which can be very welcome. Mike joined soon after.

The less good news - a bit quiet. 3 Arctic Skuas were harassing a large feeding flock of terns some way out. Then T found a Peregrine on the still exposed mud, and a scan of the mud had a Grey Plover still in summer plumage and 20 loafing Sandwich Terns. A male Common Scoter drifted in  and gave excellent scope views; I have had years when all my scoter views have been about half a mile out in passing flocks, so nice to see the bobble on the beak clearly. Mike picked up an adult Mediterranean Gull in full winter plumage, but for a while that was it; nothing much moving in the gloom.

Eventually a party of Common Terns went up river and J called two Black Terns in them, and a party of four soon after, frustratingly none of which I got.  Then on scanning an Arctic Skua came out of the mouth of the Thames, and flew straight towards us before passing just a few tens of yards off the shore. A dark juvenile, this was easily the closes I've been for a few years to this species. More scanning up river produced two terns coming out with bouncy dipping flight, and sure enough they were Black Terns, then four more appeared including one moulting adult. Having had a good look at one at Frampton earlier in the week, and noticed that whereas for a Common tern in flight the body is held level but for the Black Tern the body was going up and down as a counterweight to the movement of the wings, it was nice to use that as a clue to distant terns that they were Marsh Tern, and for that to turn out to be right. 

Two Pintail out, a Great Skua flying out of the river under the far bank, and 20 Golden Plover onto the shore, and that completed the list.

The locals seemed a bit disappointed, presumably because similar weather conditions had produced a Sabine's Gull earlier in the week, but for me from landlocked Herts there had been some excellent encounters with birds of the sea and a few decent ticks.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Under attack at Chalkney Wood.

I was attacked today, dear reader, physically attacked by a relentless and determined assailant. 

I went with Dave to Chalkney Wood in search of Butterflies. We have Hatfield Forest close too, but that's a lot of walking in the heat, and Chalkney offered a chance to see all HF can offer and more for an extra half-hour drive and without even leaving the car park. At my age, that's no contest.

Dave has given an excellent write up of the session here and provided some wonderfully spectacular photos. Purple Emperor, White Admiral, Silver-Washed Fritillary, a Hairstreak sp (for me), Painted Lady, and Southern Hawker

But it was as we returned to the car park the assault took place. We saw a Purple Emperor low down round some nettles, and to my surprise and joy it flew towards me, and kept coming, and kept coming, until it buzzed me just overhead, the noise of the wings clearly audible, then returned and buzzed me again, then did this again.

There is no doubt isn my mind this was deliberate. It wasn't just passing close, it was clearly having a go, possibly not liking my movement in its territory. Nevertheless, it was quite an experience to be that close to a Purple Emperor!

One of David's photos from his blog. Found by David quite low down, we got excellent views of the purple sheen as it opened and closed its wing.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Minsmere mid summer

15th July and the first visit this Covid-hit year to Minsmere. Our hopes of sunshine for the insects had disappeared under a forecast of cloud and wind, and we were without Dave due to injury, so feeling a little glum to be without a team member. Still, here Mike and I were at my favourite reserve. 

If, reader,  you are Dave, you didn't miss much mate. It was cloudy and windy, so zero insects, and the birds were nice but just the usual. No point in reading the dull details. Best to stop here and go and get a cup of tea. 

If you are not Dave, Wow! What a day! The fun started on the North Wall when a look up an open ditch revealed a hind Red Deer and a fawn. Here in their natural habitat they grow larger than they do on the hills of Scotland (apparently), and this hind was huge; nevertheless it slipped into the reed bed and disappeared.

Down the beach with Common Terns like a swarm of super-size flies buzzing low over us, then straight dow to the South Scrape public viewing platform to see if the long-staying Roseate Terns were around. They weren't but we had c20 Little Terns, 3 really smart adult/2cy Little Gulls, and a few Sandwich Terns. A fellow birder pointed out 3 Arctic Terns loitering on the mud. I think of these as having grey-breasts and short legs, but in reality that's Common Tern. Arctics have really deep grey breasts and absolutely tiny legs. Also could see the small-dagger shape bill in comparison to Common. Nice - can't rely on seeing these annually in the absence of being able to pop down to a suitable reservoir and string see them in Spring. Also Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet, c20 Dunlin, a Turnstone, and Mike had a brief view of a mini-wader, probably a Little Stint. We searched, but could not relocate. Oh and a few Barnacle Geese too - nice easy year ticks these. Of course they are wild.

Back up to East Hide, and the full glory of the breeding bonanza was in front of us. C200 Avocets including chicks, Common Tern chicks everywhere, some Ruff, more Spotshanks and Blackwits, and tucked in a corners a Green Sandpiper.

Round the remaining hides, back to the car park for lunch, then out to Island Mere. 2 Hobbies gave a hunting display dashing across the mere - surely one of the best wildlife sights available anywhere, a couple of Marsh Harriers, then on leaving a Great White Egret flew past. On to the Bittern Hide, and from our elevated viewpoint an actual flying Bittern and more Marsh Harriers cruising the area.

Just time to return to South Scrape to see if the Roseate Terns had reappeared. Scan their favoured island in the southern corner, and what's this? Two light-pink flushed breasts amongst the mass of Sandwich and Common Terns? pale ivory-grey backs - check; all black bills - check; bright red legs - check; metal leg-ring - check. OH MY GOD Mike! Mike! THEY ARE HERE! We spent a good half hour plus marvelling at these beauties. Slightly bull-headed, a funny trotting walk, and really quite aggressive - one bird chased off the Little Gulls. We put some others onto them (between the Little Gulls and the Arctic Tern, yes that's it, with a Med Gull just behind it). Whilst we were revelling in these birds Mike spotted 2 Spoonbills flying in to join the third one just in front of us (What? How does a Spoonbill slip in near to you unnoticed?). They fed, pecked, argued, generally gave a great display, then flew up to the East Scrape, then West Scrape. 

After an hour or so when we admired a summer-plumaged Sanderling, another Ruff, and the various waders, we realised we couldn't find the Rosy terns any more so we set off back. Just a quick look off the beach at all the terns, a couple of littles in there with their much faster wing beats, then another tern with a faster wingbeat, not a Little Tern, all black head and bill, and smaller and paler than the passing Commons - we'd found another Roseate, presumably one from the scrape.

It's not just the breadth of species, its the scale. Minsmere is full of people just out for the day, or who bird watch occasionally, and why not? An obsession with lists, rarity, and species count can blind one to the spectacle, both visual and aural, of a mass of breeding and post-breeding birds. Being on the platform on the south scrape is like being a kid in a toy shop; fantastic birds wherever you look. Both variety and quantity. Just an unbeatable place when it is on form like this.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Putting the band back together at Hickling.

With jabs done and Lockdown easing it was time to get David out to join me and Mike for a day out. The always excellent and informative Birds of The Heath had reported a veritable smorgasbord of mediterranean rarities at Hickling, so we decided to head there for a change. I'd had a brief visit in 1984 before news of a candyfloss-pink Ross's Gull at Twitchwell had us running for the exit, so this was effectively new territory for me.

A pleasant surprise was how good the roads were until a few miles from Hickling. Apart from the 20 minute wait for road-works, at which inevitably no-one was working. The less pleasant surprise was the bright warm sunshine of Hertfordshire had been replaced with a sea fret of dull, cold, and drizzle.

We got the list rolling with a tick-and-run visit to the Roller at Icklingham. A UK lifer for David, barely a week-old repeat tick for me. Then Hickling and a walk out to Stub's Mill along Brendan's Marsh. This was pristine wader habitat, and delivered with 2 Black-Winged Stilts, 2 Wood Sandpipers, 2 Green Sandpipers, a calling Greenshank and a multi-coloured collection of Ruffs in addition to the resident Avocet, Redshank, and Lapwing. the Swifts and Hirundines swooping over the marsh were joined by a Hobby belting through. We reached Stubb's Mill and had two Chinese Water Deer to add to our list - a lifer for me - and 2 Spoonbill in the waterlogged wood.

Back to the centre and round the reserve path. Slower going here - no sign of the breeding Cranes, and unsurprisingly the Swallowtail butterflies were keeping out of sight too. We had Marsh Harriers food-passing, a male Marshy over our heads, then a Cuckoo working its way through the reeds, and a fly-over Great-White Egret. Back to the View point along the road on the eastern edge of the reed bed overlooking the marsh, and here finally we had the Stilts parading around in the open with those ridiculous outsize kinked red legs. We added Dunlin and Little Ringed Plover to the list, found a further 3 Spoonbill to bring our tally to 5; quite a bit of flapping, flying, and preening from these fantastic birds. A flock of waders over was 5 Curlew and two noticeably smaller birds allowed us to add 2 Whimbrel to the day list. 

And that was it. Any disappointment we may have had from the weather and consequent lack of insects was outweighed by the sheer relief of being out with great company enjoying good birds. The time spent at the view point with mediterranean birds visible amongst a wealth of waders and associated waterbirds was just exceptional birding. Will take quite something to beat that.

My year-list now stands at 148. I find, given constraints and ambition, that a target of 200 works for me. Much more than that and I would need to be out much more and much further afield. A look through the list and I think with a decent second half I can still make 200. A great start today. Can't wait for the follow up maybe next week. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

That's not a Wood Pigeon! Twitching in Kent

Collared Pratincole. Cliffe. Been there a week or so. A suitable gap appeared in my schedule so I set off and arrived in sunshine just after 10 to find loads of cars already on site but the car park just opened, largely empty.

The walk down to the pools was to a soundtrack of Lesser Whitethroats and Nightingales and a pair of noisy Mediterranean Gulls high overhead,  Returning birders recommended good if intermittent views from the path by the Flamingo pool so I headed down there and found myself alone looking north towards the black barns where through the scope I could see a couple of throngs of birders, mainly on their phones. The target bird clearly not showing yet.

Whomever was going on about disappearing insects on the radio recently clearly hasn't been to Cliffe. Swarms of flies were all over the place. If Kent is the garden of England, The Cliffe peninsular is the messy bit behind the garden shed. Clearly more insects were out over the pools and estuary as Swifts were present in number.

A scan of the opposite crowds revealed a change in their behaviour, all were looking west, so I tracked back west and there it was, all swept back wings and pointed tail, like a large brown swallow hawking over the pools, a bird of considerable grace and style. A species I haven't seen since sometime last millennium in Kos. 

It disappeared. By that time a few birders had assembled, and we chatted as birders do, exchanging local information (Yellowhammers disappearing in east Kent apparently. Like Hen's teeth. Still common on my side of the Thames). Then it was back, and we watched it perform again. It favoured the far bank of the pool and whatever it was that was just over the hedge. I suspect the crowds at the Black Barn didn't get much better views. We filled our boots with prolonged if distant views of the bird in flight hawking over the pools. 

It was very relaxed overall. Most people seemed to be back for their second views. Nice easy birding, and when it eventually disappeared out of view I'd had my fill and it was time to go. One said 'When we saw it we thought - well that's not a wood pigeon!' which tickled us all, particularly me given the number of times I've seen distant rarities that eventually turned out to be wood pigeons, or Stock Doves'

On returning home I got the spreadsheet up to add the Pratincole to my British list which now stands at ... well, I'm not going to put that out here, with you lot reading it. It is embarrassingly low. Looking through the list of recent additions I was surprised at how little the birds meant emotionally. Good days out, but not much more. I mean I'm glad I went and saw it, but that Lisbon trip a couple of years ago definitely knocked my perceptions - because there are bucket loads of UK rarities available in number on just one morning's trip out from any southern European city or town. 

Us men need a stage, a place where we do our thing and say "This is me, this is what I do, if you are going to judge me, judge me on this." For some it is twitching. See how many birds I can tick if I put all my effort into it! But my subconscious seems to have decided twitching is not the place I make my stand. I can take it or leave it. I had a nice morning, but if I hadn't seen it I'm not sure I'd have lost much sleep over it. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Rainham Marsh on Grand Opening Up Day.

Monday 17th May. A day for the ages. A day when we take another step to freedom.

Unfortunately no-one seems to have told RSPB Rainham Marsh. The gate was closed. Mike was following so I texted to say go to Coldharbour Lane / Ferry Lane at the west end of the reserve.

From Ferry Lane a quick scope scan along the shoreline produced an Avocet, a couple of Redshanks, 4 Dunlin and a year tick in the form of a Great Black-Backed Gull. A couple of Common Terns went by on the river.

Then up to Serin Mound. A photographer said he'd had a Gropper up there - needless to say we didn't - but we did get a male and a female Marsh Harrier distantly, and a Heron being bombed by a Lapwing.

There was a large creche of about 30 Canada Geese chicks still at the fluffy stage. But elsewhere there were families of just a few chicks. Mike thought from previous reading that the creche was the offspring of first year female Canada Geese and they were being looked after by old Geese. So the other families were more experienced breeding geese looking after their own. That would make sense. 

A Cuckoo called. My experience is to look for a prominent high point to find it, and bingo there it was on top of a large bush. Excellent views. The effort these birds put into calling is quite noticeable. 

The air was full of gulls and Swifts, and amongst them 2 Hobbies cruising around. We got a great display form them as they stooped and chased. One was bringing its claws up to its mouth in flight so I guess they were finding some insects to feed on. 

Bumping into photographer again and he mentioned Wheatear and Corn Bunting from the grass-covered landfill mound. Back we went but before we got there another Wheatear along the river wall scrub. It went round a bush then completely disappeared. Anyway on we went, and after a lot of scanning found a Corn Bunting and indeed heard it singing, and another Wheatear briefly popped up.

That was it. A decent total despite, or perhaps because the reserve itself was closed.

Things you only say on local patches

Walking your local patch is a very different experience to doing a day trip to a hot spot. Unless your local patch is a hot spot, which mine isn't. Here's some things that I say to myself on my local patch walk but not on a big day trip.

1. Reed Bunting. Fantastic. What a bird a spring male is. I'll take 5 minutes to have a good look.

2. That's 4 Song Thrushes. Perhaps that's 4 pairs.

3. House Sparrows in the bush by the bridge. Just like last year. Guess they'll breed then disappear again.

4. I wonder what species that hoverfly is.

5. Please God just something for the list. A Whinchat, a Wheatear. Just something I haven't seen every day for the past month.

5. I wonder where those gulls are going.

6. What a great bird a Grey Wagtail is. I can see every feather.

7. six Swifts. That's an excellent total.

8. Little Owl not in its tree again. Wonder where it goes.

9. Bullfinch calling again. Not visible again.

10. That's 7 Whitethroats singing so far, and 3 Chiffchaffs.

11. Lapwing. Fantastic. Great record. At last something for the notebook. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Going Dotty at RSPB Frampton Marsh

 'Normality' is slowly returning, and part of that is trips to star spots without having to pretend its on my way to work, or I have any reason other than wanting to go and see some birds. So, Frampton Marsh, with Mike travelling separately and later.

The formula for a good day is to get the target birds, in this instance Dotterel, on the list as soon as possible, then just relax and enjoy the wildlife.  So how did that go?

Helpful locals directed me to the SW corner where said star bird was loafing around in the company of a few Golden Plover on the wet farmland that constitutes the SW portion of the reserve. As I approached everything went up, and a small plover amongst the Goldies was clearly it, so, Dotterel on the year list. 

Mike had arrived and gone to the sea wall. I texted the Dotterel had flown in his general direction, and when I finally got one there he directed me to some Golden Plover on the ground with an accompanying wader. They were asleep and some way off, hence only limited views were available. I must admit, I knew the Dotterel was not a full adult female, but I hadn't expected it to look so plain, the eyestripe so dull, so like a Grey Plover. Mike was circumspect about it but I was happy to tick it.

We went up the  sea wall taking in the mass of birdlife on both sides. Ruff were everywhere with the majority males in their summer finery. Honestly worth going just for these birds, but in there too were masses of Blackwits and Avocets, with Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers and a few Dunlin mainly in winter, and then two Spotted Redshanks. One was dusky, but the other jet black apart from the spangling on the back. If you showed someone all the waders apart from Spotted red and asked them to guess what the last one looked like, no-one would ever guess all Black. Just an outstanding bird. 

We carried on round, battered briefly wind rain and hail, and had the first of 5 Whimbrel on the sea-ward side. We looked hard for the Black-Necked Grebes but couldn't locate them, and later learned they may have departed as regular scrub removal may have made the habitat unsuitable this year. 

Back to the centre, a pair of unseasonal Goldeneye flying past, and then back down the main path. A warden summoned us over and showed as a Blue-Headed Wagtail giving outstanding views. The warden thought it may have some Channel Wagtail in it as it was paler than a previous bird, but to me was a classic Blue-headed; blue-grey head, face and nape, thin white super, slight white in the sub-ocular patch, white chin. My first since, ummm, well some time last century.

The fun didn't stop there. We were told a Jack Snipe had been seen yesterday right in the corner of a lagoon close to the road - and there it was, bob-bob-bobbing. Then back on the sea wall, a fellow birder shouted 'look - Whinchats!' as two Wheatears landed in front of us. I would find it a laughable mistake if I hadn't myself done the same on a couple of previous occasions. These birds were males, but sandy on the back and very bright vivid peachy/orange on the breast, making confusion on a quick view easy. Maybe Greenland birds?

We had lunch well satisfied with the haul, and decided after lunch to walk the southern wall as Mike was keen to get a better view of the Dotterel still having doubts over the first non-definitive view. We duly had it pointed out to us, and there it was, with a patchy pink breast, large well marked scapulars, and a stonking eye-stripe. Ah. Clearly the bird I had seen earlier was not this! I think best described as a learning opportunity. We carried on round adding Hare and Roe Deer to the list, a few more Whimbrel, then from the sea wall Mike picked out a Pale-Bellied Brent Goose amongst several hundred Dark Bellied Brents, and that was it apart from repeat sightings of a pair of adult Mediterranean Gulls, which might be the same ones, or not.

A fantastic day. Not just the species, but the numbers. 40+ Ruff, similar numbers of Yellow Wagtail, 3 species of hirundines plus Swift, Sedge Warblers everywhere, The constant noise of breeding colonies.

It takes a few goes to get comfortable with a place. To know the spots to go, the paths, where to stop and watch, how long to allow for, how to pace the visit. This was my third trip to Frampton, and I finally feel I'm getting to grips with the scale of the place. And what a place, simply crammed with birds.

Given the nature of this year, plenty of year ticks. Not just Dotterel, but Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Spotshank, Whimbrel, Ruff, Brent Goose. And Grey Plover, I'm having that too.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Year-listing in the Brecks

 Like many of you, three months of house arrest has left my year list in need of some TLC. Where better to start than The Brecks. I'd seen a few tweets from people calmly announcing their fantastic day totals, so ...

First stop Santon Downham. Out of the car along the track toward the LSW site, and as hoped there was Woodlark and Tree Pipit, and a male Stonechat atop a tree. Under the railway line and then some magic in a small clump of willows. These willows are over a water-filled ditch, and finches come down to drink using the willows as perches and cover. Lesser Redpolls were here in beautiful pink. When birders came by I counted 18 fly out. Lots of Siskins around and a familiar 'chip' as 2 Crossbill flew by. 

I passed a woman with a camera who didn't seem to have much clue about the LSWs and got to the site. Not seen since 7am. I gave it a while, got Nuthatch and Treecreeper for the day list, then headed back behind another watcher who had given up too. He fiddled with his phone and the call of LSW rang out. 'Oooh LSW!' I said in mock surprise at his bird-call app. He turned round and said oh you heard it too! He hadn't been fiddling with his phone at all. It was indeed the actual bird! Confirmation came at the lady with the camera who had seen two birds briefly. Clearly more clued up than I. 

On to Lynford Arboretum. I had been told Firecrest was breeding in the car park. No sound or sign of it so I decided on the out-fast strategy, whereby I go quickly to the extent of my walk and come slowly back. No sign of the Brambling at the feeders, or Hawfinch or anything much, but on the way back by the bridge a familiar faint high-pitched 'zziiziiziizii'. I gave it a few minutes and the bird revealed itself - a male Firecrest. Back to the gate for the finches and yet again 'zziizziizziizzii', and yet again male Firecrest low down, giving a shiver as it sang, fantastic. So, in little over a hundred yards three Firecrests (including the ones in the car park seen by others). It may be that the prime Firecrest trees are all down this drive, or it may be that this species is now widespread in this area.

Quite pleased with actually seeing these in tall pines; I think with Firecrest they don't ever stop moving, so if you hear one just keep looking until you see a movement and then close down on the area until it appears. And both were lower down than I expected.

I mentioned it to an old chap, and immediately he had the expression of 'thanks but the days of my hearing Firecrests have long gone'. So I carried on whilst having this sick feeling I was telling him what he was no longer able to see. How long before that is me, watching silent flocks of tits and crests?

Anyway, back via Lakenheath I thought as there were Arctic Terns on the wastelands yesterday. The sat nav took me past Weeting and a couple scoping the field opposite, so a quick pull over and Stone Curlew is now on the year list. Then Lakenheath RSPB and up to the washlands.

No terns, but plenty of Avocet and Black-Tailed Godwit. A kingfisher appeared in the near corner perched on a reed stem, and behind it a pair of Garganey swam. Then distantly amongst some feeding Redshank, a small wader. Distance and heat-haze made ID difficult, but narrowing it down, smaller than Redshank, white underneath, brownish above, longish needle bill, some bobbing but not a lot, quite slight, walking around in vegetation and muddy fringes, I found myself thinking Wood Sandpiper, but it wasn't possible to get closer as on walking round to get closer the edge it was on became hidden by vegetation. So it will have to go down as wader sp. I mentioned it to a couple of RSPB people, both of whom said they would tell someone else. Maybe someone will be able to get up there for a better view...

And that was it. Fantastic. Just nice to be back in a place with loads of birds, to be surrounded by the constant noise of flocks of finches. And to get some decent ticks too. 

Friday, March 26, 2021


Despite the lack of posts I have been birding these last few months. Quite frequently. It's just been a bit ... well, you all know.

Anyway, some decent report from the high ground west of our village, and a promising wind/cloud combination, so I met up with Mike at the local cemetery and headed up to the 'hills'.

Mike had seen a few hundred Golden Plover from a local lay-by, so we were on the look out and soon a flock was seen in the air, about 160, wheeling away. They came down just over the brow. We carried on, and on gaining a vantage point we looked but could not see them. We carried on along the ridge with the soft piping still carrying on around us, and then I noticed in the ploughed field next to us a wing, briefly raised. 

We scanned, and there, about 70 yards from us, were Golden Plover. Almost invisible, their brown mottled backs perfectly matching the ploughed field, and the ridges and furrows meant quite a lot of backs just visible. But clearly, there was the flock, and as we scanned, the flock went on and on. 

We counted, compared, counted again, blocks of 50, blocks of 10, and together with the ones we had seen go down behind us came to our final total. 880. 

A spring Golden Plover is something to behold. That bold black underbelly, neck, and face. There were a few like that. Amazing, that here in rural England a bird as spectacular as this should be in our fields. What spring birding is all about.

Local lore has it that there always used to be flocks of Golden Plover up here, but now they've gone. I would contend that there were sometimes flocks of Golden Plovers up here, and there are still sometimes flocks of Golden Plovers up here. Particularly in hard weather, or in spring and autumn migrations. But this was without doubt the biggest I've seen. If I'm blessed with longevity and still here in ten years, someone will mention Golden Plover and I'll casually drop in the day I had a flock of 880 birds. And the memory of scanning across the flock, the birds lifting their wings, softly piping away, with a dash of jet black bellies, will come back.

Apart from that it was, well, when there is nothing on the high ground, with its expanse of precision-tilled fields and field edges of uniformly constructed ditches, there really is nothing. We managed 2 pairs of Grey Partridge, 4 Red Kites, the odd Yellowhammer and Meadow Pipit, and a couple of lingering flocks of Fieldfare. Make a note. Might be the last this spring.

I got to wondering how many other species in this area could muster nearly a thousand birds. I would guess Wood Pigeon. Maybe Jackdaw. But then what. A thousand wrens? Almost certainly no. My patch walk has never got above 20. House Sparrows? I'd be surprised, the colonies are discrete and well spaced. Really cannot think of any other species that could challenge that number. So, today, Golden Plover, possibly the third or second commonest bird species in the area.

Commonly Spotted Orchids

We are fortunate in the UK in that the commonest orchids are also amongst the most beautiful. I spent a morning photographing some on the lo...