29 October 2006

Barn Owls at Napton

One of the predictions from my 'wish list' post came true today (see here), with the discovery of two Barn Owls on the edge of my patch. Actually 'discovery' is stretching the truth a bit - I had a tip off. But a Barn Owl is a Barn Owl, and I'm thrilled.

It's been a beautiful day, and I had a lovely morning at Napton. The female Goosander is still there, along with many of the usual residents - a large number of Coots (c. 85), a few Tufted Ducks and plenty of Black-headed Gulls. Other birds of note included a couple of Grey Wagtail, a Cettis Warbler (heard only), a plentiful supply of thrushes included Redwing and a Song Thrush, and a field seemingly full of Sky Larks - perhaps only 6 or 8 though.

I drove next to Brandon (past a field containing perhaps 120+ Lapwing) and was pleased to find a few nice birds, albeit again nothing exceptional - plenty of Lapwing, more than 20 Common Snipe, a female Pintail and plenty of Goldcrest, including a rare opportunity to photograph a pair.

In East Marsh Hide I met two old acquaintenance, and it was one of these gents who tipped me off about the Napton Barn Owls. So back I went at 4.30pm this evening and... bingo! There they were. Beautiful pale birds, ghostlike and silent across the fields in the gathering gloom - deadly predators and yet surprisingly easy for Magpies and crows to mob and bully away, something which happened a couple of times.

These were birds I'd wanted on the patch for years, so I stood, watched and photographed until the light had all but gone. Brilliant.

23 October 2006

Uncommon Mistle Thrushes

I saw a Mistle Thrush today, high in a tree by a churchyard as I took a lunchtime stroll in Henley-in-Arden. I did not see it well - I had no binoculars with me, and the bird was very high up - but the dry churring call was unmistakeable.

I knew it was some time since I had seen one, but I was amazed to go back through my records and find that this was my first since October 2005. Even more amazingly, the vast majority of my sightings have been while on holiday. Warwickshire sightings have been confined to fairly regular winter encounters in Henley-in-Arden, a June sighting in Long Itchington, and a solitary October sighting at Leam Valley.

Technically this is a fairly common bird, but clearly not so on my patch. They do have notably large breeding territories, so one never finds them in large densities, but I would have expected a few more local sightings over the last three years. Offchurch Bury Estate in particular should suit the species since it favours open parkland and woodland with mature fields. I shall keep my eyes open with renewed vigour for this large and powerful thrush.

22 October 2006

On the Essex salt marshes

A wonderful Saturday spent on and near the Essex coast.

First to Abberton Reservoir, a huge body of water not far from the coast which attracts huge numbers of wintering birds. This trip saw plenty of Coot, Tufted Duck, Pochard and various gulls out on the water, as well as some Black-tailed Godwits and a couple of female Pintails. On the nearby Peninsula Trail however I found my star birds - a small flock of 17 Red-legged Partridges. Not a rare bird, but one I don't see on my patch, so these great views were a real pleasure.

Then off to the nearby Blackwater Estuary where I walked across the RSPB Old Hall Marsh reserve. This is a beautiful but desolate spot, acres of saltmarsh with traditional farmland nearby. It is also a birding paradise. Hundreds of dark-bellied Brent Geese were sweeping in off the coast, along with thousands of Wigeon. Overhead flew flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing, with the occasional Curlew or Little Egret. I also found got great views of a Sparrowhawk, a Kingfisher and a pair of Stonechat.

55 species in all, which is no mean return for a morning's birdwatching - and I was able to add half a dozen more the following morning at Hatfield Forest. Thank you Essex.

21 October 2006

Leave Essex alone!

Let's face it - Essex gets a rough old time.

I'm not exempt from blame in this respect, since I like an Essex girl joke as much as the next man. Particularly since J is from Harlow and I can't resist a cheap shot. I've no doubt I'm the poorer man for that.

However, since J still has family towards the north of Essex, I am a reasonably regular visitor, and I'm starting to reach the conclusion that we've all been more than a little harsh.

For a start, I'll admit it's got some towns I'm not mad keen on. But then where hasn't - I'm from Watford in the neighbouring county of Hertfordshire, and that's not going to win any beauty parades (just don't diss the football team - I'm not called Hornet for nothing). Even my beloved Warwickshire has its fair share of less desirable locations (no names, no pack drill) - but that's no reason to dislike a whole county.

What Essex has going for it is sheer scale and diversity. It's huge. As well as Harlow, Basildon, Canvey Island, Stansted Airport, the M11 and M25, it also has Hatfield Forest (authentic medieval woodland), wide open agricultural spaces, miles and miles of coastline, and fantastic saltmarshes and tidal estuary.

And, being a birder, it is the latter which really excite me! Thanks to a recommendation from Pete I've just come back from the Blackwater Estuary (Old Hall Marshes et al) where I had the most beautiful afternoon imaginable (report to follow).

On the basis of that visit, plus my Sunday morning stroll around Hatfield Forest, plus all the other adventures that can be had in this most maligned of counties, I urge you to give Essex a second chance - it'll be worth it I promise.

17 October 2006

The gathering gloom

The drive home from work is when I most notice the onset of darker nights.

This year's warm weather has held at bay most thoughts of autumn , but last night it felt decidely autumnal as I headed home, headlights already on.

However, one of the beauties of birding is that it can be done anywhere, and pretty much at any time. Even as I drove through the gathering gloom, birds were everywhere.

As I approached the A46, half a dozen partridges flew low over the road in front of me - surely Red-legged since I've never seen any Grey Partridges anywhere near here (or anywhere else come to that). As I headed on towards the Fosse Way a huge flock of Rooks erupted into flight from Ashorne Wood. And as I got out of my car, a Robin and two Blackbirds seemed to be engaged in a shouting match near my drive.

It's these little moments and encounters that make birding a constant pleasure, not just an occasional hobby. Whether it is a Kingfisher flashing along the local stream on my lunchtime stroll, or a Green Woodpecker calling noisily in fields near my garden, there is never a day when I don't partake in, and enjoy, some sort of birdwatching.

14 October 2006

When a plan comes together

Yesterday I wrote:

"OK, so the wind is E / SE. Perfect. Tomorrow (Saturday) morning is clear, I have permission from J to go birding (!), and I have the car. The weather forecast is good. Surely nothing can stop me now?"
Except, I realised as I opened the curtains at 6.30am this morning, a thick mist and awful visibility - which is a shame, because that's exactly what I got. Still, we patch birders are a hardy breed, so with hope in my heart I headed off on my marathon morning, planning to visit Leam Valley, Ufton Fields and then Napton Reservoir if time allowed.

Unfortunately Leam Valley did little to lift my spirits. The mist lingered throughout my visit, and there were no spectacular finds to be had. There were certainly an unusually high number of Long-tailed Tits though, a theme that was to continue at Ufton and Napton, and also a goodly number of Goldfinch, along with a couple of old favourites, a male Bullfinch and a Grey Wagtail.

I pressed on to Ufton, but found little to lighten the mood on this grey morning. The only new birds for the day were a Jay, a few Goldcrest and a Coal Tit. So far I had been out for three hours, found just 25 species, and precious little sign of autumn.

It was Napton which restored my spirits and refreshed my soul. After an unpromising walk round the north water (the smaller of the two areas of open water), I turned back to view the south water and there before me was a female Goosander. I swear it was at that very moment that the mist lifted and the sun came out. Goosanders are wonderful ducks, sleek and bright and a real winter pleasure. They breed near fast-flowing rivers in the north, and then head south to spend the winter somewhere a little warmer. They are common at nearby Draycote Reservoir, but on my patch I've only previously found them on one occasion at Leam Valley.

The Goosander on its own was sufficient to make a good morning, but it got better still. I quickly located a female Wigeon, again only my second on patch, and the first for two years. A big flock of Starlings was great to watch, but even more so when a late-migrating Hobby flew through the middle of the flock, heading resolutely south.

There were other good birds - eight Skylarks caused a commotion nearby, four Reed Buntings showed well, and three Bullfinch played in the ever-strengthening sun. The photos above are of some of the more obliging birds - a Black-headed Gull, a singing Robin (perhaps freshly arrived from Germany, who knows?), and a juvenile Great Crested Grebe, still quite young in its stripey plumage.

But for me, the highlight of the whole day was the sight and sound of nine Redwing flying overhead. These quintessential autumn migrants are newly arrived, perhaps from Scandinavia or even further north. They are neat and handsome thrushs with red underwings and a distinctive pale stripe over the eye. They can be seen throughout the winter, either feeding on berries or flying overhead, sometimes in huge flocks. Look out for them and enjoy them while you can - they were a thrill for me today, and will continue to be through the long winter months ahead.

13 October 2006

On your marks...

OK, so the wind is E / SE. Perfect. Tomorrow (Saturday) morning is clear, I have permission from J to go birding (!), and I have the car. The weather forecast is good. Surely nothing can stop me now?

In case this doesn't make a lot of sense to you, mid October is a prime time for birdwatching, because it is migration time. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of birds are pouring down into the UK from Europe and the Arctic Circle, some rare, some not, and all either passing through on their way south or settling down here for the winter. An E / SE wind will help push them west towards Warwickshire, and I'm gonna find them.

Wish me luck.

8 October 2006

The real Autumn Watch

Back to where it all began - Minsmere, the bird reserve in Suffolk where I did my first 'proper' birdwatching.

J and I have just returned from a lovely two-day break with plenty of good birding. Perfect weather, a nice pub in which to hunker down on Saturday night, and some good birds - 63 species in all including (and here I select a few favourites at random) Spotted Redshanks (right), Barnacle Geese, Stonechats (below left), Bearded Tits, Marsh Harriers (below right), a couple of Ruff and a nice selection of woodland birds (Marsh and Willow Tits, Goldcrest, Treecreepers, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and two separate Sparrowhawk encounters).

But a real high point was following the advice of Bill Oddie, Kate Humble and particularly Simon King on BBC's Autumn Watch and getting out to see the rutting Red Deer. First thing on Sunday morning we set off into the woods, following the (somewhat scary) bellows of the rutting stags and trying to catch a glimpse. Eventually after much creeping and waiting we were rewarded with a glimpse, albeit brief, of three deer - a stag, a doe and a youngster.

Ironically it was as we returned to our car, chatting away without a care in the world, that a fine stag walked out virtually in front of us, giving us the best views of the morning. Proving yet again that there's nothing more unpredictable than wildlife.

3 October 2006

Local migration

The first thing I noticed on my walk around the Radford Semele fields today was the effect of heavy rain - the soil was slick on the hills where the water had poured off, the roads at the bottom were covered in soil and stones, and the horse paddock had a ferocious stream running through it where previously there had been a path. Our weather certainly seems to be more extreme at the moment - a mini-drought followed by ferocious rains, combined with consistently high temperatures (this September being the warmest since records began).

The second thing I noticed was the effects of autumn migration and the onset of winter - hedgerows full of warblers, fields full of feeding finch flocks (pardon the accidental alliteration), and birds calling all over the place.

Nothing special turned up, but there was plenty to keep me interested. Of note were good views of a Blackcap and Garden Warbler (plus half a dozen calling Chiffchaffs), 40 or more Swallows at the top of Pounce Hill with good numbers of of House Martin (ready for their journeys to Africa in the coming days), a female Reed Bunting and several Skylarks singing high above.

2 October 2006

Back to Warwickshire

I came back from holiday to discover an Osprey had been frequenting Brandon Marsh. These are lovely birds which I've only previously seen at Rutland Reservoir (they have an amazing reintroduction programme - see details here).

Of course I headed to Brandon as soon as I was able, but sadly it was not to be - I was there in the morning, and the Osprey decided to give it a miss until the afternoon. Blast. Still, it was nice to be back on local ground with a distinct autumn / winter feel to the birding.

An obliging Kingisher sat just in front of me for 10 minutes or more, and elsewhere there were 300 or more Lapwing, Teal and Shovellers, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a Green Sandpiper at Carlton hide.

1 October 2006

A big day in Cornwall

What a fantastic break - a week with all my family in a cottage not far from Padstow in Cornwall. So what did that mean in practice?
(i) A gym, a swimming pool, a superb restaurant, luxury accomodation and general pampering;
(ii) My parents on hand for some very welcome babysitting - J and I had our first meal out together for ages and I got a full day birdwatching (of which more in a moment);
(iii) Cornwall in late September - with migration now fully underway, surely even I can something interesting.

So when the opportunity for a day out birding arose, I grabbed it with both hands. Up at 6am, dropped my brother off for his day's fishing at 6.30am, and was on the Camel Estuary by 7am.

The tide was out, but I was able to find a few waders, a Greenshank being the best. Just a short walk away were some river marshes - here I found two Little Egrets preening just a few metres from me, four or five Snipe and a Hobby squatting powerfully on a mudbank for 10 minutes or more.

I headed to the coast, and from clifftops I saw Gannets passing south, and Oystercatchers and Cormorants on the rocky shore. For the first time ever I saw a family of Dolphins arcing in and out of the water right below my feet.

It was a good day's birding, with 45 or so species chalked up, albeit nothing rare. The next day J and I walked up the other side of the Camel Estuary, adding Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit to my trip list. With a few local woodland birds near the cottage, the list headed up towards 50 - not exactly a record, but a reflection of some good varied birding in the limited amount of free time family life currently allows.

Not much birding in Yorkshire

So why did it take me three weeks to fix The Hornet's Nest anyway? Well, to be fair I was on holiday for most of the time, a week in Yorkshire followed by a week in Cornwall.

We visited a lovely part of Yorkshire, a village called Harden not far from Ilkley, Howarth and the moors. We have been here before, and there are some nice birding strolls - moors of course, plus the St Ives Estate with a particularly fine park and woodlands to enjoy.

Sadly, on this occasion there was little (ie no) time for 'real' birding. Instead we enjoyed a few family outings - to Ilkley (quiet, but a really nice place), Bolton Abbey (a beautiful spot), and the national photography, television and film museum in Bradford (go, I urge you - I love the place).

However, a birder is never off-duty, so on on our few family outings I managed to find a few decebt birds - a Dipper on the local stream, Nuthatch at Bolton Abbey, and on the St Ives Estate, more Nuthatch, a Treecreeper, plenty of Goldcrest and a tree-full of Coal Tits.

Nothing to write home about, so onwards and upwards to the main birding event, Cornwall.