28 August 2006

Trial and error at Draycote

Had a lovely family day at Draycote Reservoir today - myself, J, our son Charlie (mainly asleep in the pushchair) and my parents. Either side of a ferocious shower the weather was lovely, bright and breezy, and we walked clockwise from the visitor centre to the valve tower and back.

A family day with good birding? You bet. First of all there were hundreds of House Martins, Sand Martins and Swallows. A Sparrowhawk flew right across the water and a Kestrel patrolled the fields at Draycote Bank.

Then at Hensborough Bank we found a small group of waders - two Lapwing, three juvenile Ringed Plover, and two initially unidentified waders. I studied them for some time, thinking first of Dunlin, and then, when I found no evidence of black markings on their bellies, considered Curlew Sandpiper (nope, not elongated enough, and no pale supercilium). Finally, seeing white stripes on the back, I went for Little Stint.

Wrong! A quick posting of some photos on Birdforum allowed several wader experts to help put me right - these were in fact juvenile Dunlin. No shame in making a mistake, only in failing to find out why. I am now settling down with a beer, my Collins fieldguide and a grim determination not to make the same mistake again. Cheers.

(Conclusion - (i) I got carried away with white stripes on the back of the birds, and forgot to stay focused on basic form and size; (ii) Collins is a good fieldguide; (iii) London Pride is an exceptionally good beer).

27 August 2006

Old friends reunited at Leam Valley

It was a morning for old friends at Leam Valley, finding some of the more elusive residents which I see infrequently enough for each sighting to make a red letter day.

The first were the two Kingfishers which flashed by in front of the hide. One returned moments later to sit on a nearby pole for a quick photo opportunity. Sadly, poor light and little time made for a poor photo, but a nice memory nevertheless.

Second was a female Sparrowhawk which dashed across the path in front of me as I left the hide. I got only the briefest of glimpses, but the long brown hooped tail that sped away from me was unmistakeable.

Third was a Blackcap, a brown-headed female in this case, but it is months since I have seen either gender of this lovely little warbler in Warwickshire. And finally, I heard a Garden Warbler - a bird almost impossible to see since it likes to hide deep within the scrub, singing long and loud.

These encounters helped make for a pleasant morning, despite the weather. August has been a much-needed wet month, and although it is not yet officially autumn, this morning felt like it. A little too warm perhaps, but grey and drab, the view across the Leam Valley scrape an unrelenting duotone of muted green and brown (interupted only by the purple loosestrife, an occasional flash of purple-blue speculum from an eclipse-Mallard, or a fly-past by my friends the Kingfishers).

Among the other highlights of the morning were four Great Spotted Woodpeckers (one sitting opposite me for 15 or more minutes), several Green Woodpeckers, a Jay, plenty of Goldcrest, a female Blackcap, Swallows and House Martins, two Buzzards (one mobbed briefly by 60 or more Greenfinches), and a shoal of perhaps 30 chub, some up to 40cms long, sliding elegantly along the river shallows en masse.

Elephant Hawk Moth

This monster turned up on my drive today - the 8cm long larvae of the Elephant Hawk Moth.

So-called because of the perceived similarity between its head and a (slightly short) elephant trunk, this is a very large caterpillar indeed, with two false eyes designed to frighten off predators. When disturbed it retracts its head into its body, and it can also swell up, enlarging the false eyes. It will also raise its head and move from side to side to deter the predator. Posted by Picasa

26 August 2006

Mighty Midget 2 ED - A quick review

Birding is a hobby you can enjoy for virtually no cost - £50 will buy you a perfectly reasonable pair of binoculars, £10 a field guide, and perhaps £2 for a notebook.

Unfortunately, there are also many many ways in which you can spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds, and I, like so many birders of my acquaintance, am weak.

So the latest bit of kit is an Opticron Mighty Midget 2 ED travelscope, a small scope designed to fit into a pocket or shoulder bag as I walk around the patch (my main scope, plus tripod, weight about 4kg and so don't tend to get brought out on longish patch walks).

I use an hdf zoom eyepiece on it and together they provide a very impressive optical set up. Bright and distortion-free up to 30x or so, getting darker after that but still perfectly usable up to 36x. A Cullman shoulder pod is almost an essential accessory, making the MM2 an absolute pleasure to use (no more panicking to pull down tripod legs).

I have used the MM2 for some handheld digiscoping - the best so far is this Chaffinch, taken at Draycote Reservoir. With adaptor, shutter release and so on I am sure I could get better pictures, but that is not the point - this is a lightweight take anywhere bit of kit, so handheld is the way to go - record shots and stuff for The Hornet's Nest mainly.

The only problem I have is with cases and lens covers. The eyepiece cover was abysmal - cheap plastic, loose fitting, and I lost it this morning as I knew I soon would. There is also no stay on case available, just a 'grippa' case which doesn't cover the lens hood or eyepiece. My only solution for now is to employ the grippa case with a baby's sock pressed into service as an eyepiece cover.

It might be a great bit of kit, but I don't half look a 'nana now! Posted by Picasa

20 August 2006

All purple at Ufton, Napton and Brandon

I took some of my own advice this morning and again broke my normal patch routine.

Having awoken reasonably early (6.20am being, in my book, not a bad effort for a Sunday), I decided to go to Ufton Fields and see if the early-ness of the hour helped me fare better than generally of late.

And lo and behold, it did. I'm not claiming that the place was stuffed to the gills with rare warblers, passage waders and the like, but it was certainly livelier than I had seen it for a while.

Ufton is a difficult place to bird anyway, largely comprising dense woodland and pools with a shortage of obvious viewpoints, as well as a path that follows the circumference of the site, leaving a large interior area in which the birds can remain endlessly hidden.

However, today was pretty good, with 80 or more House Martins twittering high over the site when I arrived, and trees seemingly dripping with young Goldcrest. I was also delighted to find my first ever family party of Bullfinches - two adults and two juveniles, issuing strange wheezing calls which made me think more of grebes than finches.

A Marsh Tit, three Jays and a Kingfisher were among the other high points.

I then moved on to Napton, which apart from demonstrating once more how windy it can be, offered little of note. Time, I figured, for a man of action such as myself to head off in search of... a huge breakfast.

So to Brandon. Sad news that one of the regular faces had passed away, a lovely lady who was always had time for a cheery word as she zoomed around on her electric wheelchair. More glum faces as we learned that Jo, who runs the Badger Tearoom, has been given notice to quit. Surely this is a lousy decision by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. Jo and her breakfasts are one of the high points of the week for many Warwickshire birders (indeed this morning, like many other mornings, they were the only reason I visited). She has built the business up from very little, is the most familar and cheery face for all of us who visit the trust's headquarters, and has probably earned more goodwill for the trust than any other person.

Anyway, back to the nature. Brandon, like Ufton Fields earlier this morning, has gone purple - with purple loosestrife in fact. This spiky purple flower is covering anywhere with a bit of moisture at the moment, and splendid it looks to - as this Mallard photos show.

As for the birds, this was a quick visit after my (excellent) breakfast - two Green Sandpipers on Carlton Pool, along with two Little Grebes, 30 Lapwing on East Marsh Pool, the regular Barnacle Goose (below), a Kingfisher flashing across Goose Pool, and great views of a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

My final sighting of the day was a toad, sitting on the East Marsh track next to a huge dead slug. After last month's frog photos, this was at least a great opportunity to increase my amphibian photographic portfolio.

Posted by Picasa

18 August 2006

Leam Valley - a new perspective

If you are a regular patch birder, may I be so bold as to suggest an idea?

If you've got into a bit of a rut or routine on your patch, as indeed I have, try to do something a little different. Walk a different way round, or follow a different route altogether. Or, as I did tonight, visit a favourite spot at a different time of day. It really does bring a new perpective to somewhere very familiar.

I've got into the habit of seeing Leam Valley as an early morning site. I nearly always try to be there before seven if I can, and hate being late. Perhaps I'm getting old and grumpy, but I love the peace and quiet before the dog walkers arrive. I've also seen some cracking birds there at the crack of dawn.

For evening walks I tend to favour Ufton Fields, which is close to home, has good paths and is easier to walk around. Perhaps this is why I have such a hard time finding good birds at Ufton - I must try a really early start there.

However - back to tonight. Tonight I went for an after work walk around Leam Valley and saw a very different place to the one I thought I knew. The hedges and woods were quieter, with just a few Blue and Great Tits, a few juvenile Chiffchaffs moving noisily through and the occasional song from a Robin or a Wren.

The scrape was alive, more than 70 Mallards or Mallard-hybrids being joined by 30 Canada Geese, a pair of juvenile Moorhens and a Grey Heron. As I made my way back to the car, four Jays flew past one by one, a Green Woodpecker called loudly, and Wood Pigeons, Carrions Crows and Rooks returned to local roosts.

As a final reminder that I was seeing a different side to this favoured part of my patch, a soft mist began to rise off the fields at about 7.30pm, creating an eerie atmosphere in the fading light. A Barn Owl would have suited the occasion marvellously - sadly, it never appeared.

13 August 2006

Napton Reservoir

The weekend has been decidely autumnal, with high winds and constant rain.

I made a quick trip to Napton Reservoir during a break in the rain this afternoon, and was delighted to find the place abuzz with House Martins, Sand Martins and Swallows.

They were all low, some flying past me at waist or even knee height. The Swallows, many of them young, patrolled the grass edges or sat on nearby fences.

The House Martins tended to be over the water, but also flew along the banks at high speed. The Sand Martins, perhaps a dozen on more among the 100+ birds in total, were patrolling the water - but even they came extremely close to me, giving best-ever views of these delicate little birds.

Out on the water, a pair of Great Crested Grebes were notable for the lateness of their nest building - I hope that the weather improves in the coming weeks if they are aiming to raise a late brood.

12 August 2006

House and Sand Martins at Brandon

Made an early morning visit to Brandon Marsh today, and found the place swarming with House Martins, particularly over East Marsh Pool, but also down to River Pool.

Closer inspection revealed a few Sand Martins among them, always a nice find because of their general scarcity round here. The conservation team at Brandon built some years ago an artificial sandbank, hoping to attract them to nest, but sadly no joy yet.

Among other highlights were a Little Egret flying overhead, a couple of Green Sandpipers, hedgerows full of juvenile Chiffchaffs and a Reed Warbler which perched right in front of the hide for a minute or so.

More Yellow Wagtails

I found more Yellow Wagtails tonight, this time at Ufton Fields. So after four years without any Yellow Wags on the patch, two lots have now turned up within five days of each other.

These birds were by the IBM Hide - I heard one and saw a second on top of a hawthorn bush by the path. This enlivened a generally quiet after-work stroll, as did the Green Woodpecker which exploded noisily out of the grass near my feet and scared the bejesus out of me at one point.

5 August 2006

'Treeps' and 'Yellow Wags' on the doorstep

Two classic, but sadly scare, farmland birds this morning - and both within 1.5km of my house.

In a field of sheep and horses, not far outside Radford Semele, I found my first ever patch Yellow Wagtails, three juveniles with two adults close by. They were running around in the short grass with some Pied Wagtails, sharing the rich pickings of insects drawn by animal droppings.

Closer still to my home were a party of Tree Sparrows, including a juvenile. These are charming little birds which I see only occasionally in this area.

Sadly both species have been in serious decline, probably due to changing agricultural practices. The Tree Sparrow is on the RSPB's red list for conservation concern, having declined by more than 90% since the 1980s, and the Yellow Wagtail is on the amber list with numbers having fallen by 80% over the same period.

Although these bald statistics don't tell the whole story (see here for evidence of long-term historical fluctuations in Tree Sparrow numbers, for example) I am sure it is right for us to be concerned and to see what we can do to help. This part of Warwickshire is something of a stronghold for these beleaguered species, and all of the landowners who provide suitable habitat in which the birds can live and thrive, whether intentionally or inadvertently, have my thanks.

1 August 2006

Black-tailed Godwits at Brandon

My good run of late summer birding continued tonight, with 10 Black-tailed Godwits circling above me at Brandon Marsh.

These large waders are easily identified in the air by their long, straight bills and wide white wing bars. They had evidently been feeding on East Marsh Pool for much of the day, and were leaving as I arrived.

Along with the 'Blackwits' I found eight Green Sandpipers (one pictured top left), a Kingfisher, a Barnacle Goose (pictured above bottom, an irregular visitor to Brandon, almost certainly an escapee rather than a true wild bird), Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, and plenty of Lapwing and Grey Herons (above right) among the other regulars.

I also gave my new scope, an Opticron Mighty Midget ED, a good run out. Small enough to fit in my pocket, but with a clear wide 18x magnification, it is the perfect lightweight bit of birding kit. It also allows me to take snapshots without lugging loads of camera gear around - just a little Contax pocket camera held up to the eyepiece. Given the poor light, I'm very pleased with the efforts above. Posted by Picasa