29 June 2018

A last hurrah

Plans for a big year of 200+ bird species came to a juddering halt in April with a substantial change in my working arrangements and obligations. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose...

No matter, there will be other years. And while very little has happened since my last post, I did at least manage an Easter trip to Titchwell RSPB in Norfolk where a handful of species were added to the year list - Cuckoo, Greenshank, Med Gull, Little Gull, Sanderling, Brent Goose and Ruddy Shelduck.

The year total at the end of that trip stood at 124, with no further progress since.

200 for the year now looks unlikely, but the whole excercise has already proved more than worthwhile for the Winter and early Spring experiences alone.

8 April 2018

Plan B

Sometimes the best birding days are the ones which start the worst.

With rain threatening later in the morning, I resolved to rise early and attack as much of the Draycote Reservoir site as I could before the cyclist, joggers and dog walkers arrived.

Oversleeping until 8am wasn't a great start, but arriving to find a fun run in its early stages was significantly worse. I didn't care how many avian riches the site may have been holding, I needed a Plan B.

I chose nearby Napton Reservoir in the hope of one or two Spring migrants, but I arrived to find it apparently barren of birds and also shorn to within an inch of its life by an overzealous chainsaw attack around the margins on two sides. I'm sure there's a good reason for this (it's happened once before in recent years) but I'm at a loss to see what it is.

Anyway, on with the birding. It was painfully slow to start with, but I perservered with a full circuit and eventually dug out my first Sedge Warbler of the year, skulking in the reeds at the very back of the site.

A good sized group of Swallows, perhaps a dozen in all, arrived shortly after, their ebulliant clicks and chirps the most welcome sound imaginable. 

With the arrival of an early Common Tern things were clearly picking up, and although rain was now threatening I resolved to hang on a bit longer and see if I could relocate an unidentified wagtail I'd glimpsed half an hour earlier. Patience was soon rewarded as an immaculate Yellow Wagtail landed not 20 yards from me, and then proceeded to show well for the next 10 minutes or more.

Add to all of that some great views of a female Sparrowhawk, a Bullfinch pair, a singing Blackcap, Reed Buntings right across the site and some gorgeous Skylark display flights, and you have a wonderful day forged from the least promising of beginnings.

Four year ticks take my 2018 total to 113.

Bird of the day: Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), a bird I absolutely adore. Absolutely immaculate at this time of year, with its breast and underparts a brilliant yellow that puts even a Yellowhammer in the shade. Can be hard to find around here as a breeding bird, but slightly easier during Spring or Autumn migration. Nearby Draycote is a favoured site, this is my first (I think) at Napton.

25 March 2018

Goodbye GMT, hello GWT...

Middleton Lakes continues to take top local honours in my search for 200 species in 2018.

It seems that this relatively new (to me, anyway) RSPB reserve in the far north of Warwickshire (and far south of Staffordshire or course) scores most regularly when I scan Twitter on a Saturday night looking for interesting prospects for a Sunday morning trip.

This week was no exception, with a report of a Green-winged Teal on the Jubilee scrape being a real eye-catcher. It has been at least a decade since I last saw a GWT and it would be a great one to get 'in the bag' for the year list.

With the clocks 'springing forward' overnight I arrived later than I might have liked, only to hear the dread phrase: "The Green-winged Teal was just there until about 10 minutes ago; then everything went up."

"Should still be here somewhere though," said someone else, encouragingly.

In the end it took a good half hour to relocate, but then I was able to enjoy great views of this Nearctic visitor in bright sunshine, along with a spread of waders including six recently returned Avocets, three Black-tailed Godwits, a few Redshanks, Oystercatcher, five Dunlin and a Little Ringed Plover (the latter another year tick).

With a roadside sighting of Red-legged Partridge on the journey, plus the sudden realisation I hadn't yet added Reed Bunting to my year list, the 2018 total - like the clocks - sprung forward. It has now reached 107.

I'm still not convinced 200 is a realistic target, but it's definitely keeping things interesting. And with all the summer regulars except Chiffchaff still to come, the total should see some further leaps forward over the coming weeks.

20 February 2018

The beginning of the end

Year listing has definitely added a welcome note of urgency to my birding.

The comings and goings of winter birds - the geese, the wild swans and more - interest me every year of course. But the pressure of a year list has suddenly made it all but essential to see as many of these as possible before Spring sets them northwards on their way home.

It's now mid February, and while it's not yet quite the end of winter, it's certainly the beginning of the end. With a free Saturday in the diary I therefore did a quick winter species v distance calculation and settled on a trip to Slimbridge WWT. A good call as it turned out.

The Bewick Swans have already started to return north in drips and drabs, but there are still plenty on the reserve. Likewise White-fronted Geese, Bewick Geese and an unlikely (and probably not wild) Red-breasted Goose. These winter wonders were joined by on my year list by a handful of Common Cranes, a magnificent Peregrine Falcon, more than a dozen Ruff and a flighty Little Stint.

That was an excellent 8 ticks to take the year list to 101 (noting that this also includes Ring-necked Parakeet and Egyptian Goose, both picked up on a quick trip to Regent's Park in London during the week).

If all this makes the trip sound very profunctary and  year list orientated, that would only be telling part of the story. From start to finish it was a wonderful day, with J and myself enjoying the sheer spectacle of Slimbridge every much as we did the year ticks.

Both individually and en masse, the birds were fantastic - there is little to beat the sight of a Golden Plover flock wheeling in the sunlight, of a Peregrine slicing through the mayhem, or of the wonderful White-fronts which bought Sir Peter Scott to this site so many years ago.

14 February 2018

Wading in

A weekend in Braintree, Essex means only one thing for this Warwickshire birder - coast!

Specifically the wonderful blend of tidal mudflats, saltwater marshes and open water that can be found along the Blackwater and Colne estuaries. 

This is a bleak and harsh landscape on a cold, wet and windy February day, but a veritable wonderland for waders, wildfowl and other watery types.

Hoping to start the day with a couple of less obvious year-ticks I stopped first at Abberton Reservoir. The reservoir has changed out of all recognition since I was last there a decade or so ago, but the causeways remains the same, as does its track record for Smew.

Two fine drakes and three redheads made this the largest group I'd ever seen, and together with a confiding Slavonian Grebe in full winter drabs, this was an excellent start (a lurking Great White Egret would have been not only a year tick but a life tick just a few short weeks ago, but of course that ship had recently sailed at Middleton RSPB).

So on to Fingringhoe reserve, a long-standing favourite of mine - full of Nightingale and Turtle Dove in the Summer, but today my best hope to get a few waders on the board.

I certainly wasn't disappointed, particularly with the brilliant new inter-tidal hide which gave me virtually 360 degree views of mudflats bursting with waders: Grey Plovers, a Golden Plover, Ringed Plovers, a Turnstone, Redshanks, Dunlins, Black-tailed Godwits, a handful of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knots, Oystercatchers, Curlews and an Avocet.

Add to that the Skylarks, a magnificent Great Black-backed Gull and a hunkered down male Marsh Harrier, and the year list was soon merrily bouncing along to 91.

Bird of the day: Bar-tailed Godwit (Lamosa lipponica) - I've spent many a winter hour looking at one or other of the godwit species trying to work out which it was; with them here side-by-side I was able to spend a great deal of time so picking through the differences in detail, from the shorter leg length of the 'barwit' to the greater expanse of white-edging around each back feather, which generally makes it appear more 'spangly' than the more smooth-blended 'blackwit'.

8 February 2018

200 birds or bust!

A UK life list of 213 species is a pretty meagre return for the number of years I have been birding (albeit probably a fair reflection of my stop-start commitment and general lack of expertise).

OK, so there are some good birds on the list: rarities (like Ring-necked Duck); beauties (like drake Smew); lurkers (Jack Snipe); creatures of the night (Nightjar) and childhood ambitions (Great Grey Shrike).

But with no new birds added since a Black-necked Grebe at Napton Reservoir in 2012, my life list had become distinctly moribund and in urgent need of some fresh impetus.

It was this realisation that led directly to a sudden decision to aim for the not inconsiderable number of 200 species during 2018. The target, inspired by a regular feature in Birdwatching magazine, seems to me improbable if not absurd; but that really isn't the point. The point is that I needed a kick up the arse to get out and bird more often, and this seemed as good a kick as any.

And the early report is that while I'm sure I'm already miles short of the target, I'm absolutely loving the attempt.

First up was Draycote Reservoir in early January for one of the long-staying Hawfinches (already seen over the Xmas holiday period, but needed again for this 2018 list), plus Tree Sparrow (sadly a bird that is all too easy to miss out on these days).

Next was Middleton Lakes RSPB - two consecutive Sunday trips offering up goodies including Red Kite, Pintail, Stonechat, Water Rail and Great White Egret - the latter my first lifer for more than five years!

(214 species and counting...)

A family walk along the Oxford Canal at Wormleighton turned up a Brambling (well pleased with that one, my first for many years), and a lunchtime stroll near my office revealed a pair of Mandarin drakes hidden in a lakeside creek.

Even some increased effort in garden feeding came up trumps as I spotted on the feeders my first Blackcap of the year (a now semi-regular female), plus my first ever garden Lesser Redpoll.

Five weeks in and I've recorded 73 birds - not a huge number, but many more than I would normally have noted by now. And, much more importantly, I've already enjoyed a dozen or more very special moments as a result of the challenge: from the GWE lifer to the self-found Brambling; from the rush of an unexpected Red Kite to the discovery of a community of Brown Hares within a mile of my house (and the repeated pleasure of visiting them whenever I can find a free half-hour).

So will I reach 200? Probably not, though you never know. But will I enjoy getting there (or not)? Just about guaranteed I'd say.

Bird of the month: Great White Egret (Ardea alba) - a magnificent bird, essentially a white version of our familiar Grey Heron (similar size, shape and movement). Far scarcer than the now familiar Little Egret, the GWE winters in the UK in modest - albeit slowly growing - numbers.

28 April 2017

Hunting high and low

Recent months have seen plenty of birds, but not much birding. How many times in The Hornet's Nest have I written that, or something like it?!

By which I mean of course that while dedicated birding trips have been few and far between, I never stop seeing, hearing and experiencing birds in my surroundings. From the Peregrine which flew low over my train as I headed south out of Banbury to the Cetti's Warbler which exploded into life as I crossed a river bridge on a recent lunchtime stroll, birds are always with me.

But now, having said all of that, I need to record a few notes (largely for my own benefit) regarding a recent, actual, proper birding trip to that most birding of birding destinations - Minsmere RSPB.

With Southwold being our base for a couple of days, I was able to spend the night before exploring the land to the south - Town Marsh and across the river to Walberswick.

It's a remarkable landscape to find so close to the town itself, and I had a great time with great birds: a lone Snipe among the Sand Martins on the marsh, plenty of Oystercatchers and Redshanks along the river, a few Curlews here and there, Little Egret and then a glorious one-two of Marsh Harrier gliding above a fox (Aha's classic 80s Hunting High and Low album immediately sprang to mind at this point...).

I was honestly concerned that I might have spoiled my Minsmere day by seeing so much the night before. I needn't have worried - Minsmere in April was never going to disappoint.

There were great birds to find and watch from start to finish - just short of 70 species on the day, plus some lovely non-avian moments. A detailed account would run to many pages, so I shall confine myself to a few bulleted highlights:
  • A male Ring Ouzel, a lifer (previous sightings have been unconfirmed, a couple of tails diving into hedgerows)
  • Plenty of Wheatear spread across the same field - still one of my favourite birds, rarely seen this closely or in this number
  • A spread of Sandwich Terns (if I may be permitted to invent my own collective noun) - such a striking and handsome bird
  • The usual smorgasbord of waders, including Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Turnstone, Redshank, Snipe and Oystercatcher
  • Mediterranean Gulls in a much larger number than I have previously watched - I'm not much of a gull man, but these are superb birds
  • The most extraordinary displays in front of Bittern Hide by one particularly showy male Bittern. Watched, snapped and filmed for 15 minutes but I suspect he's still there now, a full week later!
  • Snatched glimpses of Bearded Tits in flight, always a thrill
  • Great views of a male Adder, dressed in snappy green and black diamonds, and less than 2 metres from me on the edge of the woodland. Spellbinding.
Bird of the trip: Bittern (Botaurus stellaris). Perhaps it should be the Ring Ouzel as a lifer, or any of the other wonders on view among a trip total of 70+ species (the Avocet for example, one of the RSPB's highest profile conservation triumphs). But Bittern views like this don't come along every day / year / decade, and it was a spell-binding, breath-holding moment.