1 December 2007

A winter walk in Radford Semele

Really nothing more than a quick stroll before the last of the light was gone.

Nice just to stretch my legs and see what's around at the moment. Hundreds of Fieldfares and Redwings (two of the latter made it as far as my garden this morning), a Kestrel, a Buzzard, lot of Chaffinches, Blackbirds, and some massive Lesser Black-Backed Gulls in among the crows (Carrion, Jackdaw and Rook).

Then, as I made the return journey through gathering numbers of roosting Starlings, a large flock of perhaps 80 Yellowhammer moved past me. Lovely.

Bird of the day - Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), a singularly striking farmland bird at any time of year.

29 November 2007

Winter treat

Stuck in traffic, late for work, a glorious day in the offing and me bound for my desk... not the best start to a Thursday.

But suddenly above the Longbridge roundabout appeared a flock of perhaps 60 Lapwing, flickering black and white wings in the bright blue morning sky. A fantastic sight, guaranteed to put everything else to one side, even if just for a few moments.

Bird of the Day - the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), aka the Peewit or Green Plover, a king amongst winter waders.

25 November 2007

Teal-ly good

For some reason, and on a complete whim, I have decided to nominate for each Hornet's Nest report, a 'Bird of the Day'.

And I thought I had found my first winner as I opened the window of the hide overlooking the scrape at Leam Valley nature reserve this morning, and latched straight on to a Grey Wagtail picking its way around the margins.

Hardly an outstanding find by the standards of any self-respecting birder, but it pleased me mightily. For one thing, it is a pretty thing. Second, I have often sat in the same spot and seen bugger all for hours on end. And third, it might not be rare, but it's uncommon enough around here to brighten up any November morning.

So hardly surprising that I found myself thinking: "That'll be my bird of the day." And perhaps hardly surprising that I was (once again) wrong.

For as I wondered up to the other end of the water, setting off on my journey home, what fled from the edge-side rushes but the unmistakeable shape and colours of a male Teal, accompanied by a female. Now, once again this is a common enough bird. And again, it is very pleasing on the eye. But what confirms the Teal as my bird of the day is that I have never seen one before on my entire patch! It seems incredible, unlikely and weird, but I have checked and double-checked my records - this was a patch first.

So hats off to the Teal, my very first Bird of the Day (with honorable mentions to the Grey Wagtail, a Kingfisher, and the flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare that erupted around me as I walked.)

5 November 2007

"An African Hornet" or Birding in the Gambia

Generally I confine these pages to accounts of my birding in Warwickshire - indeed generally within a few miles of my home. If the opportunity arises I may occasionally report on wanderings elsewhere in the UK - perhaps a spot of migration birding in Norfolk, or a special trip to the Farne Islands.

But when the opportunity arose to visit Gambia, with a couple of day's birding included in the trip... well, as you can imagine, I jumped at it. And this is my report.

Gambia is one of the most popular destinations for UK birders looking for a bit of overseas birding. Why? Well, to touch on a few of the principal reasons: it is only five-and-a-half hours away and in the same timezone as Britain, so no jet lag; temperatures are always warm (32C+ during my stay); nearly everyone speaks English and there is a well organised tourist infrastructure; and with more than 550 bird species recorded in this tiny country, it is perfectly possible (apparently) to see 250 of them during a two-week trip.

Sadly of course, I didn't have two weeks - indeed for birding I had only two days (plus a few snatched hours here and there). But even so, I managed to record more than 120 species, and was able to confirm in my own mind what a wonderful country this is.

Our initial plans were in disarray almost as soon as we landed - our local birding expert, an Englishman, turned out to be a bit less useful than hoped - in fact he was in England! However, after a bit of scouting around with other contacts on the ground, I was soon taking a call from Max, a bird guide who said he knew the place we wished to visit first, and would pick us up at 7am the next day. Tujering here we come.

True to his word, Max turned up near first light in his green Mercedes, and tranported us to the woods and savanna of Tujering. Although this area has been sadly deforested since my companion was last here, there was still good birding to be had - particularly as Max turned out to be every bit as good as we hoped. As the morning unfolded he rattled off sighting after sighting - the obvious ones a delight for me, a few rarer numbers for my companion. Even now, some weeks later, I can still feel the excitement as I read through my notes - Blue-bellied Roller (in fact four species of roller), Northern Puffback Shrike, Bearded Barbet, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Levaillaint's Cuckoo, the male Northern Red Bishop and my personal favourite, the White-Crested Helmet Shrike. Some very common, some rarer, but all utterly thrilling.

Two days later I found myself with Max again for the day, and before taking me into the Abuko national park we walked through rice fields opposite - an inspired decision by Max which revealed all sorts of wonders - a Black Egret (umbrella bird), a pair of Pied Kingfishers, and a Little Bee-Eater being my most memorable moments from that short session.

And then into the reserve, which in common with all bird reserves felt a lot of more 'touristy'. That's not to say there wasn't great birding to be had though - a Giant Kingfisher, White-backed Night Heron, White-crowned Robin-Chat, both Green and Violet Turacos, and a Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater soon proved that - and as we left we finished with a Klaas's Cuckoo for good measure.

So.... 120+ species, the most beautiful landscapes(some of the coastal areas are pure paradise), the nicest people I have ever met, the most engaging, involving and absorbing visit I've ever made anywhere - what's not to love? I can't recommend birding in the Gambia enough - go, get away from the obvious tourist traps (and try to put some money into the real local economy if you can), find a good guide and enjoy enjoy enjoy. And since the guide is so important, I'm more than happy to recommend our own guide on these trips, Malang Jammeh or 'Max' as he is generally known. He is an official tourist guide in the Gambia, and has excellent local knowledge. He is also an excellent birder by any standard - how he located a Pearl Spotted Owlet through about half a mile of scrub I'll never know. Contact Max on max6675@hotmail.com or find out more from the Hooked On Gambia website here.

29 October 2007

Post-pub birding

And my award for most exciting and unexpected bird encounter of 2007 goes to... the Barn Owl that was flying along a well-lit main street in Radford Semele last Thursday night at about 11pm.

I've long known them to be in the area, but have never seen one closer than Napton. And I certainly wasn't expecting to look up and see one as I staggered back from the pub. That's what I love about birding - wherever and whenever, there's always the chance of a moment of wonder and delight.

14 October 2007

Leam Valley at its finest

A quite stunning sight when I arrived at Leam Valley today, with the sun still red and low in the sky, and five or six feet of gentle mist hugging the ground.

The beauty of the morning set me on my way in good spirits, and my optimism was soon rewarded with a tree full of Siskins, a lovely yellow-and-green streaky finch which is a regular, but scarce, winter visitor to these parts.

I found things fairly quiet at the scrape, apart from when a dozen or more Black-headed Gulls swooped in for a fight. A female Tufted Duck was the only out-of-the-ordinary bird, so I pressed on to the fields of the Offchurch Bury Estate. Here I found a Skylark in full song, plenty of Jays criss-crossing the whole area, a some particularly bold Yellowhammers, allowing me to get my first ever pictures of this magnificent species, albeit poor.

And to wrap up my morning I encountered three favourite species of thrush. First of all a handful of Fieldfares passed overhead, flying S/SW as you might expect at this time of year. Shortly afterwards they were followed by a magnificent flock of 70+ Redwings. And as I turned for home, two Mistle Thrush flew to the top of a nearby poplar tree and started churring vociferously at the world in general.

5 October 2007

Minsmere delivers again

After a long time with no real birding, three days at Minsmere was a real opportunity to 'fill my boots'.

It was an opportunity I didn't waste. The highlight of day one was a Great Grey Shrike, a lifelong target for me. It showed well, albeit a long way off, and was a real thrill.

Day two was equally good, with a Brambling on the north path followed by a Snow Bunting on the coastal track (another lifer). On the scrape there were at least six Little Stints (best ever views) plus the usual wide selection of waders.
In the woods I was lucky enough to photograph some Red Deer through the foliage, and found a good collection of woodland birds.

In all, I found 75 species, including two lifers, a few 'best ever views' (the stints, two Lesser Whitethroats and the Brambling) plus lots of lovely fresh air and peace. Unbeatable.

25 September 2007

Out and about with the Pentax

A gentle morning's birding with the new Pentax K100d this morning, just testing its birding capabilities.

As I've said before, the main factor that decides quality on a digital SLR is the lens, and I haven't yet chosen to invest £400+ in a decent long lens. Still, with a Tamron 70-300 which cost me £80 I can get some half-way decent results.

The main advantage is the speed of focus and the viewfinder (compared with the FZ20's electronic viewfinder) - meaning I can get shots I might well have missed before (the Long-tailed Tit, left, is a classic example - a fast, constantly moving bird I've never managed to shoot except on a feeder before now).

The disadvantage is the shorter reach (450mm to 720mm), the extra weight and some notable purple fringing on high-contrast areas. I'll get a teleconverter which will address the former issue (taking me to 675mm), but the latter two issues remain.

As for image quality... well, the jury is still out. I'll probably do some resolution test shots in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, see what you think of these shots from Napton and Draycote.

29 August 2007

Snipe at Leam Valley

For every few patch walks where there is nothing much to report, there is a night like tonight - with two (yup, count 'em) firsts for Leam Valley.

Walking down towards the scrape I had three birds in my mind. Perhaps a Common Sandpiper - after all, I have seen them here as autumn migrants before. Perhaps even a Green Sandpiper - that would be a first. Or even a Common Snipe - I know that they have been seen here before, but never by me.

As I opened the hide window, I was greeted by a familar site - two parts of nothing. A few Moorhen, six Coots, and a few Wood Pigeons flying about. But I settled down to scan the whole area, and five minutes later, content that there really was nothing about, I put my binoculars aside for a moment. And that was when I noticed the Snipe feeding directly in front of the hide!

The amazing thing was that there could have been hundreds around that edge, and you would never know. There are huge amounts of water edge which are invisible to prying eyes - this one bird just happened to choose that moment to walk across right in front of me. Hallelujah! So, after a few minutes of taking photos, and five minutes or more watching it feed in the muddy margins, I was a happy man.

Even more so when 85 Canada Geese chose first to fly over in two massive V formations, and then to descend on the water in the late evening sun, as truly spectacular sight.

And more so still when three Teal appeared momentarily from their hiding place on a reedy bank along from the hide - just a fleeting glimpse of these tiny, distinctive ducks, but enough to add a second 'first' to my evening.

26 August 2007

Now that's entertainment

I went out for a quick walk round Radford Semele fields yesterday morning - deathly quiet in the main.

However, early on in the walk I did see one sight that brought a smile to my face. First of all I spotted a fantastic male Sparrowhawk sitting in the branches of a leafless tree about 50 metres away. I could also hear a Green Woodpecker, but it took a moment before I realised that it was in fact a juvenile woodie sitting not 4 metres away in the same small tree. Brave or stupid, I wondered?

The Sparrowhawk looked like he couldn't quite believe it. He just stared at this streaky squawking thing for a minute or so and then clearly though "Stuff it, I'll have that"! He half hopped half flew across the tree, but by now even the woodie had worked out he might be in trouble - and was off. A brief chase saw the little woodpecker escape to squawk another day - but hopefully with a little more caution. The photo is awful, but hopefully it conveys a little of the situation.

22 August 2007

Favourite things - Sandpiper, Woodpecker and Kingfisher

Napton Reservoir seemed quiet after work tonight - the main water semed to hold just 30 or so Coots, a few Black-headed Gulls, a couple of Great Crested Grebes with a juvenile, a couple of Moorhens, nine Tufted Ducks and an impressive 75 Mallards.
But as I continued round to the smaller water, things enlivened considerably. A dozen or so Swallows at first, then 100+ House Martins swarmed overhead. A young Sedge Warbler flashed by, and then an equally young Green Woodpecker landed just a few yards in front of me.
A lone Reed Warbler worked his way through nearby reeds - and then to the finale.
First a Common Sandpiper took a flying tour of the reservoir, noisily piping his presence before settling on a rocky edge. And then a Kingfisher took an easily noisy dart across the water, settling in a crab apple tree not far away.

19 August 2007

Bold bright bird colours at Brandon

The brasher and more brightly coloured birds were in evidence at Brandon Marsh near Coventry this morning.

Jays squabbled in a tree near Carlton hide - pinks, blues and blacks evident despite the distance. From a few branches away, a Hobby watched on. Normally this is the most boldly marked of the raptors, with bright red 'trousers' contrasting strongly with yellow feet. But this appeared to be a juvenile bird, muted and streaky.

A Kingfisher flashed by, an electric-blue lightbulb streaking along the water. Sadly for the watching photographers it did not stop to perch - neither on the specially prepared branch nor the "No Fishing" sign that has been recently erected - surely with an amusing Kingfisher photo in mind.

Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers appeared, an adult and a juvenile. Normally these would be considered boldly-marked birds in their own right, but as is so often the case, they were put firmly in their place by the spectacular greens and yellows of a noisy Green Woodpecker.

On the East Marsh Pool, scores of Lapwing tumbled and fought, their strange calls echoing around the reserve. And a lone Green Sandpiper bobbed around the Teal Pool - although not brightly coloured, this is a wader which reveals a brilliant flash of white on its rump as it flies.

But despite all this colour and mayhem, my favourite bird of the morning was almost certainly the most discreet, with its pale brown, cream and black plumage designed to help it disappear into the mud and reeds whenever it so wishes. In fact there were five of these hidden beauties, Common Snipes feeding with their long bills on the edge of Teal and East Marsh Pools.

All quiet on the Leamington front

An after-work walk at Leam Valled tonight showed how quiet nature can be at this time of year. Zip, zilch, nil, nada - not a sausage.
I walked down towards the hide and can't remember actually seeing a single bird - just hearing a few Chiffchaffs calling in the branches nearby. The scrape itself was quiet, with a few Moorhens and Coots scuttling around the edges and the odd Mallard flying in and out.
As I left the hide, I had my one moment of excitement - a sky full of House Martins, perhaps 30 in all, and a single Swallow skimmed the water nearby.
And then a pleasant walk back to the car, past gathering groups of teenagers who looked if anything even more bored than me.

11 August 2007

Draycote and Napton Reservoirs

A good day's birding today, my first longish session for a while.
I got to Napton Reservoir by 7.15am, and although there was still a slight chill in the air, it looked set to be a fabulous day.
By 8.15am the chill had gone and it was already getting hot. Nothing wrong with the birding either - along with the usual collection of Mallards, Coots and Moorhens I was able to find large numbers of young Sedge Warblers (see photos below of two birds in typically hard-to-photo places), Cettis Warblers, a Chiffchaff and several Willow Warblers, a large flock on Linnets, two pairs of Great Crested Grebes, a pair of Reed Buntings, and as I left some Swallows swooping low over the smaller of the two waters.
Moving on to Draycote, I resolved to walk the full circuit, around 5 miles in all. Two hours later and I had added to my morning list as follows: several Lapwing, lots of Coromorants, a few gulls, a juvenile Common Sandpiper, the long-staying Black-throated Diver, and my personal highlight, a Yellow Wagtail (see main photo) - a gloriously bright bird which sat in the sunshine on Draycote Bank and kept a watchful eye over it youngster.
In just over four hours I had found around 40 species, enjoyed some of the best weather of the year, got some much-needed exercise, and secured some nice photographs to remind me of the trip (old camera, in case you were wondering - I still think the FZ20 is a great camera for birding, and I plan to carry on stowing it in the birding bag for all trips where birding, not photography, is the primary plan).

10 August 2007

Kingisher spectacular at Leam Valley

The fine weather has arrived (although who knows for how long) so it was time for a long overdue walk round Leam Valley.
As I might expect at 7pm on a weekday afternoon in August, it was pretty quiet. As I strolled through the reserve there were some tits and finches calling from the foliage, along with the lone Chiffchaff which I managed to find. A Grey Heron watched impassively from a dead tree near the entrance.
Surprisingly, the scrape was quite busy. Half a dozen Mallards snoozed, with one mum looking after two late chicks. Another Grey Heron stalked the water, a few Moorhens and Coots patrolled the margins, and somewhere nearby a Green Woodpecker and a pheasant called noisily.
And after five minutes or so, the star of the show arrived, a Kingfisher with a new meal in his mouth. After first beating the small fish into submission, he dined handsomely and then retreated to a nearby tree to sit and digest it in the late summer sun.

28 July 2007

Shooting birds

All other photographic plans being dashed, I headed back to Draycote Reservoir this morning to put the new camera through its paces again.
Despite my assertions that my long lens (a relatively cheap Tamron 70-300) is by no means a birding lens, I don't think I can be too upset with the results.
The Chaffinch is a standard test shot at the hide - bird just a couple of metres away, light not too bad. The result is pretty good, although I'm not sure it's better than my Panasonic with teleconverter.
The Kestrel shots however could never be taken with the FZ20. I wasn't planning for them, or waiting for the opportunity, but was able to quickly raise the camera, track the bird as it dropped, and then follow it as it moved away, autofocusing and shooting as it went. The resulting images were relatively small crops from the full image, so I have resized them, sharpened them a little and fractionally adjusted levels (i.e. played around with them a little bit on the computer). The results are not great works of art, but I'm well chuffed, and they certainly show me the potential of the camera system.

27 July 2007

Wheatear for the new camera

OK, OK - I caved. I bought a new camera.
Frankly I'm surprised I lasted this long, with just about every birder I know moving to a DSLR set up and producing the most amazing photography.
The final straw came when the prices of some entry-level DSLRs began to fall below the level I originally paid for my first pocket camera or my current Panasonic superzoom!
So I cracked, and took the plunge with a Pentax K100d, a kit lens and a Tamron 70-300mm lens virtually thrown in. And it is amazing - fast, flexible, sharp and really easy to use after my long apprenticeship with the Panasonic.
I haven't really bought it for birding - I may well carry on using the Panasonic for that, with it's longer lens reach, light weight, compact size and lower value! If I do start birding with the Pentax then sadly I'll need a lens which costs nearly twice as much as the camera itself did, but really I bought it to meet my growing interest in photography in all its varied forms, whether it be portraits, landscapes, macros, street shots or anything else I can turn my hand to.
So having said all of that, where did I take it first? Draycote Reservoir of course! So here are a couple of photos, presented with the following riders. First, the lens is in no way a good lens for bird photography - too short, a bit too soft, and just too cheap (why does life seem to always work like that?!). Second, I've had the camera all of 48 hours and will only get better with it. And third, it was early evening and the light was OK, but not great.
So that's enough of the excuses. The first two shots (a Common Tern and a Black-headed Gull)show what a DSLR can do that a superzoom can't - flight shots. I think I achieved one usable flight shot in two years with the FZ20 - these were taken with no preparation or planning, just raise the camera and shoot. The third is my best bird of the evening, one of two juvenile Wheatears.

18 July 2007

At Brandon Marsh

A fine, fine evening, and an uncommon treat for us all in this damp summer. So I took the opportunity for quick trip to Brandon Marsh.

As I walked up to Carlton Hide, I found myself wondering whether I might see a Hobby, having not seen one all summer. With this objective in mind, I walked into the hide, sat down, opened the window and found myself looking at... a Hobby! (I wish it always worked like that). Sat on a customary perch in a dead tree, it was brilliantly lit by late evening sun, and three times it left this perch to hawk lazily for dragonflies.

After watching the Hobby for a while, and enjoying the spectacle of a Kingfisher flashing by, I left and walked back to the East Marsh Hide. A Redshank was making itself as obvious as it could by calling loudly from a treetop above the hide door (see photo). This was an arresting sight in itself, since it is far more common to see this wading bird up to its knees in mud - indeed I am not sure I have ever seen one in a tree before.

Out on the main water there was plenty to enjoy - Common Terns swooped, there were plenty of Lapwing, three Cormorants sunned themselves and lots of young Herons were squabbling.

And the walk back to the car was itself a treat in itself, with great views of Chiffchaffs, a Willow Warbler, a Garden Warbler, a female Whitethroat, a male Blackcap, two Green Woodpeckers, one Great Spotted Woodpecker and three Jays - not a bad haul in just a few hundred yards.

30 June 2007

Black-throated Diver at Draycote

June and July can be quiet months for birdwatching, the spring frenzy of inward migration, territory claiming and breeding now over, and the return journeys yet to start.

Many birders handle this enforced rest period by turning to other nature-related hobbies - seeking out flowers, dragonflies, butterflies and moths. Others use the opportunity to build up a much needed store of brownie points at home (a bit of DIY usually goes a long way). But whatever else they may be doing, all birdwatchers keep their eyes and ears peeled in case of unexpected action.

Yesterday was a case in point, as an email alert went out to a Black-throated Diver at Draycote Reservoir. This is an extremely unusual sighting - you don't get many BT Divers at Draycote full stop (I've never seen one anywhere, let alone on my doorstep like this) - and certainly not in the summer months. The whys and wherefores will be better explained by better birders than me -my only mission was to get down there at the crack of dawn and find it!

Pouring down of course, but what the hell - I needed the fresh air and a five mile walk anyway. I set off clockwise, aiming for the point where it had been seen last night. Suffice it to say that I had nearly completed the full circuit by the time I found it, swimming away from Toft Bay towards the Valve Tower. I was able to get good views of it for a few minutes before it drifted into the murky grey - I was expecting an adult bird in splendid plumage, but as so often I was wrong - this was effectively a winter plumaged bird. As always, Warwickshire bird photographer Steve Seal had got straight there on hearing yesterday's news, and got the great photos that are attached here - thanks again Steve.

Despite the persistent rain, it was nice to be out birding again. Other highlights of the morning included: great views of not one by seven Green Woodpeckers, all feeding on the ground around the reservoir; three Linnets, a bird I don't see often these days; Swifts swooping around me at head height, confirming just how big and chunky they actually are; and Common Terns swooping low over the water, a perennial favourite.

10 June 2007

Sunday morning at Leam Valley

Hurrah - my endless cycle of professional examinations came to an end on Friday (unless I have to retake something, in which case scrap the 'hurrah' bit).

So now, with only my job and a small child at home to keep me busy, I might get a few more birding trips in.

This morning was my first trip to Leam Valley in a while, nice enough but always likely to be fairly quiet in June (the best birding times around here are typically March to May and September to November - when migrants are arriving, leaving or passing through, and all birds are generally calling, nesting, getting ready for winter or generally doing interesting things).

A few favourites were on show, like a Buzzard, a Kingfisher, a pair of Bullfinch and a Green Woodpecker. A Reed Warbler on the scrape was the first for me on the reserve itself (normally I find them further along the river), and I discovered from a helpful dog walker that two cygnets fledged from the Mute Swan's nest two-and-a-half weeks ago. Good luck to them.

9 June 2007

Swifts over Radford Semele

I've been a bit worried of late about the relatively low numbers of Swifts and House Martins in the skies over Radford Semele.

Possibly I was a little early in expecting them. Certainly in the last couple of weeks, things seem to be picking up - on Friday night there were perhaps a dozen Swifts screaming overhead at 9pm. Still not as many House Martins as I would expect, but perhaps the numbers will improve as the young fledge.

(Mind you, based on the two pairs I saw still building nests at nearby Charlecote House this weekend, there's some way to go before any young appear. Certainly no problems about numbers mind - there were scores of Swallows and House Martins across the whole estate.)

26 May 2007

Almost a Cuckoo photo

A quick trip to Brandon Marsh near Coventry this morning, partly to get a photograph of a Cuckoo.
Hmmm. I suppose technically I achieved that, but at a distance of about 150 to 200 yards. I'm not sure the resulting photograph is what I had in mind. Still, a nice morning to be out, some nice birds around, plenty of chatty people to brighten up the morning, and a top-notch cooked breakfast.

19 May 2007

Garden birding

While my morning's birding (see The Cubbington Triangle below) was a little lacklustre, my garden birding has surpassed all expectations since moving to this house nearly five years ago.

I mention this now because while gardening this afternoon I not only heard a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker - my first for ages - but also enjoyed the spectacular sight and sound of two Ravens flying low over the garden, calling as they went. These were the first Ravens I have seen in the area since the spectacular occasion some months back when more than a dozen of them gathered on a nearby hill.

This takes my garden list to 46 - 35 in the garden, eight flyovers, and three heard only (Green Woodpecker, Cuckoo and Skylark). Highlights (apart from those three birds) include several Sparrowhawks, a female Pheasant, a fairly regular Hobby high overhead, a Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeders, regular Mallards and a Grey Heron (my pond, while created to attract nature, is both small and relatively new), and a collection of warblers including Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap (a regular winter visitor).

While not small, the garden is certainly no more than a regular suburban size, with about half given over 'to nature' - a pond, longer grass, feeders etc. All in all I'm pretty chuffed with the results - you can add hedgehogs, smooth newts, frogs and toads to the list, plus stuff I'm sure I never see. I'll be intrigued to see what birds take me to 50!

The Cubbington Triangle

I headed to the northern end of my patch today - the walk from Weston-under-Wetherley to Cubbington and back, via Cubbington Woods and the surrounding farmland.

This is a lovely walk, mostly on permissive paths and land which is sympathetically managed for nature by the local farm owner. It was a lovely way to spend a bright and breezy May morning, even if the birding was curiously lacklustre.

Most of the usual birds were on show, but not in huge numbers. Swallows swooped and Skylarks trilled, with a few Yellowhammer, Linnet and Whitethroat to keep me company as I followed the hedgerows. The woods were quiet, with only Wrens and Chaffinches really calling. I scanned in vain for the Spotted Flycatchers which were the highlight of the area in previous years, but had to settle for a few Blackcaps and a nice view of a singing Garden Warbler. Ho hum, c'est la birding vie.

12 May 2007


After a few weeks of mega rarities across the Midlands (while I wasn't able to get out) the natural order is restored and the birding has become that little bit more predictable (yup, you guessed it - now I'm back).

Feeling a little lazy, I chose to go to Brandon Marsh this morning (it is quite close to home, not too far a walk round, and has a tearoom serving great cooked breakfasts).

As far as I could tell there was nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary to find, but it was still a lovely morning and I thoroughly enjoyed myself - it was my first lengthy trip to Brandon for what seems like ages.

There were warblers calling everywhere - Blackcaps; Chiffchaffs Whitethroat; Willow, Reed, Garden and Sedge Warblers were all in glorious effect. I was hoping for a cuckoo photo, but although one showed briefly and distantly, there was no hope of a picture. Instead I was pleased to get this Sedge Warbler shot, my first of this distinctive and noisy warbler.

Other highlights included: a massive influx of Swifts, now well and truly returned; a pair of Oystercatchers looking after a brood of four chicks; the Common Terns and Lapwings on East Marsh Pool; and great views of a Garden Warbler on East Marsh track (I tend to hear a great many more of these than I ever see).

6 May 2007

Hare today...

I spent a couple of early hours at the southern end of my walkable patch this morning - the fields and farmland around Radford Semele.

There was plenty of wildlife to complement the woodland and riverside birding I did yesterday at Leam Valley. Yellowhammer were much in evidence, cock birds sitting high on hedgerows and singing lustily. A Willow Warbler joined in from a patch of woodland near the village, and the well-hidden village pond harboured a Grey Heron, Moorhen and two Mallards.

Further out from the village I was delighted to find four Lapwings flying about. Although they are relatively common in local farm fields during the winter months, they are getting scarce across the county as a breeding bird. A lot of work has gone into encouraging farmers to operate in a manner that is helpful to birds like Lapwings, so who knows - perhaps this is a sign of better things to come.

A Buzzard patrolled overhead, a Kestrel scoured the hedgerow edges for prey, and high over them both were a good number of trilling Skylarks.

There were plenty of other birds on show, including some favourites like Whitethroat, a Green Woodpecker, and the recently arrived Swallows. But the final words goes to the mammals, perhaps fittingly after yesterday's fox and muncjac deer sightings.

As I returned home along the main farm track, three 'lumps' in a ploughed field turned out to be Brown Hares, and I was able to spend a good 15 minutes watching two males sparring over a female. She was clearly, and submissively, in the 'possession' of one of the males, a situation not entirely accepted by the other. Sadly for him his repeated attacks had got him nowhere near her - I left him regaining his breath and considering fresh strategies.

The photo is not, you may have noticed, of a hare in a ploughed field. Correct. This, as they say, is one I took earlier. In fact, it's perhaps worth saying that I had no camera with me for the whole weekend - something I wasn't much looking forward to. However, I think it did free me up to be a more acute observer - so if you're a birdwatcher reading this and in the habit of taking your camera everywhere (as I am), why not leave it at home every now and again - you might be surprised how it changes your birding experience (PS. I'm taking no responsibility if an incredibly rare bird perches photogenically in front of you on that day).

5 May 2007

Leam Valley on form

Leam Valley was on fine form this morning, offering good views of some of the bird species which can be locally scarce (or at least hard to see).

Spring is in full effect now, and for the birding world this means an explosion of warblers. These fine songsters are generally spring and summer visitors which arrive from late March onwards - they prefer to spend their winters in southern Europe and Africa.

Those on view today were plenty of Blackcaps (I saw three males and one female, and heard another three singing), three or four singing Chiffchaffs, a couple of Willow Warblers, half a dozen Whitethroats and two Reed Warblers.

Given their spectacular red-and-black plumage, Bullfinches can often be elusive. So today I was pleased to find not one but three splendid males, all giving good views. Similarly bright were the two Grey Wagtails I found on the bank of the river, the Kingfisher which flashed away from me at Offchurch Bury weir, the two Green Woodpeckers I watched near the scrape, and the cock Yellowhammer which sat high on a hedge singing its famous little song.

In among the Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits was a single Coal Tit, a bird which shows only rarely at Leam Valley - something it has in common with the Reed Bunting female that joined it.

And the morning's entertainment was not confined to the birdlife - I also got great views of a fox as it trotted around the edge of the wetlands (putting various birds to flight, but being frightened off by a belligerent Mute Swan), found a Muncjac Deer on a footpath in the woods, and spotted a shoal of sizeable Chub swimming together in the shallows.

And as I left, rounding off a very good morning indeed, two Swifts arrived overhead - my first this year.

41 species of bird, two mammals and a fish - plus, as my new pedometer told me, 7 miles, 15,000 steps and nearly 1,000 calories expended. Certainly beats going to a windowless gym for my exercise.

29 April 2007

First Cuckoos of Spring

The call of the Cuckoo is perhaps the quintessential sound of spring. Sadly, like so many sounds from the natural world, it has been getting much scarcer in recent years.

Fortunately I still hear them across my patch. Last year the only one I heard was calling somewhere near my garden (an early evening treat it repeated often over the course of a month or so). This morning I was able to find at least three - one at Napton Reservoir, and two at Ufton Fields.

Unfortunately, and despite some careful searching, I wasn't able to track any down sufficiently well to actually see them, but simply hearing that most distinctive of calls was among the highlights of my morning.

There were plenty of other highlights: a pair of Common Sandpipers at Napton, an influx of Swallows over the water and a beautiful low-flying Lapwing; at Ufton there were great views of a male Blackcap and then a Garden Warbler, the flashing white rump of a passing Bullfinch, and the gentle floating song of perhaps a dozen Willow Warblers.


Without (I hope) offending anyone's faith, I feel the urge to paraphrase - "Forgive me all, for I have (blog) sinned - it has been nearly a month since my last post."

What can I say? Plenty of reasons (life), no excuses - I just haven't had the time to sit down and put hands to keyboard.

However, here by way of a catch-up is a whirlwind review of the birding I managed in April.

I've taken a couple of trips to Leam Valley, where spring has been bursting out but the birding has been relatively quiet. Highlights there included some nice photographs of Chiffchaffs and Song Thrushes (one of which is top left), watching an ambitious fox put to flight by a pair of Swans, and finding my first Tufted Ducks on the scrape. Told you it had been quiet.

A trip to Essex enlivened things a bit - at Fingringhoe Wick I enjoyed the coastal aspect, including plenty of Little Egret, Golden Plover, Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Curlew and other common waders. At nearby Abberton I was able to photograph a bold pair of Linnets (a photographic first) , and the next day on the Blackwater Estuary I found a handful of Ruff and some late-staying Brent Geese among others.

Back on my patch, Ufton Fields made for an enjoyable early morning walk last weekend - again, nothing outstanding to report, but lots of the more common birds to enjoy - including my first Tufted Ducks at Ufton, a pair of Little Grebes and plenty of freshly-returned warblers.

And finally I managed to squeeze in a really quick visit to Brandon, where birding of late has been pretty good. Others have managed to find such rare Warwickshire birds as Ring Ouzel and Wood Warbler - I was happy however with a more modest haul including Little Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, four Common Tern, some late Sand Martins and a Hobby flying high over East Marsh Pool.

2 April 2007

Wonderful Warwickshire birding

A simply superb day of birding in mid-Warwickshire today. A day off work, fine sunny weather, three sites and a pile of birds, some rare and some not - what's not to like?

I started at 7.30am, checking out a set-aside field near the Napton Reservoir for Barn Owls. No owls in sight, but a best-ever Chiffchaff photo opportunity. Nice start.

At the reservoir itself there was still an early chill, not helped by a bitter north wind. Chiffchaffs sang around the site, perhaps five in all, and there was an abundance of Reed Buntings flitting from hedge to hedge. As the temperature rose the Chiffchaffs were joined in song by some Skylarks, Chaffinches and Great Tits. Then came an extraordinary but familiar sound - the explosive call of the Cetti's Warblers. It's not uncommon to hear of these secretive birds one at Napton these days, but this time I got good close up views as well - a real bonus.

I moved on to Draycote Reservoir, the region's biggest water, hoping for some more early migrants. Not many on show today - a few Chiffchaff and a lone Swallow, with no Wheatear in sight. But there were still plenty of birds to enjoy, and plenty of great photo opportunities to grab. Highlights included two Great Northern Divers, a Sparrowhawk high overhead, a couple of Treecreepers, a lone Wigeon and Goldeneye, plus a Goldcrest.
By this point I was well satisfied with my morning, but there were plenty of highlights still to come. I went to Brandon Marsh, and highlight one was breakfast - full English of course. Highlight two was the Grey Wagtails at Streetly Hide. Highlight three was the array of waders on East Marsh Pool - an Oystercatcher, three Redshank, a few Lapwing. Then a group of 20 or more Sand Martins flew overhead - I was so busy watching these that I almost stood on an exceedingly unimpressed Grass Snake.

And then for the finale, as a male Garganey flew into view. This is a decidedly uncommon bird, our only summer migrant duck with perhaps only 100 or so seen annually in this region. They are famously secretive so always a thrill to find. In fact, this was only the second I have ever seen, and the first in Warwickshire. The perfect day was sealed.

In fact, there were so many photo opportunities, that I have only managed to squeeze in a few here - from the top, these are: A perfectly posing Dunnock at Brandon; the Chiffchaff near Napton; A Pied Wagtail and then a Meadow Pipit, both at Draycote; and finally the drake Gargany at Brandon.

31 March 2007

'My' Goosanders?

One of the more unusual species of bird I have found during my time birding at Leam Valley nature reserve is the Goosander - a pair of which set up temporary residence on the river and pool there between February and March 2005.

Well, today they were back. I say 'they' like they were the same pair, but who knows - perhaps they were? These fine creatures were the highlight of my morning at Leam Valley - too far away and into the sun to photograph properly, but lovely to watch on this sometimes sonambulent patch of water.

In fact there was a positive party going on down there this morning, with two Mute Swans, a few Mallards and Canada Geese, four Coots, four Moorhen, a Grey Heron and various species flitting around the edges - notably Long-tailed Tits, Chiffchaffs and a Coal Tit.

Around the whole reserve, the Chiffchaffs were the only spring migrants I could find, but most of the resident species were in full song, most notably three Song Thrushes and a goodly number of Wrens. Add to this a smattering of other species including a Green Woodpecker, a pair of Jays, a few Yellowhammers and three species of finch (gold, green and 'chaf'), and you have a pleasant morning's birding with 31 species to enjoy in all. Although I couldn't get the best photos of the Goosander (a masterful understatement) I did stop for a few snaps on way round. Above are photographs of the new wetlands sign (very nice indeed), a view across the pools to Radford Semele, the Goosanders, a singing Robin, and, left, the playing fields Rookery - this year numbering 14 nests.