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.

24 March 2007

A crackerjack morning

A lifer, a patch first and some welcome early migrants - today was crackerjack birding in anyone's book.

It started with a trip over the county border to the lovely Oxfordshire village of Cropredy. Perhaps better known for its annual hosting of the Fairport Convention festival (at which I was a regular attendee in years gone by), Cropredy has hit the birding headlines in the last couple of weeks for its hosting of something considerably more elegant (and much quieter) - a Common Crane.

The Common Crane may be common on the continent, but it is an extreme rarity round these parts - hence the trip. It was the perfect kind of twitch for me - arrived at 8am to find one birder departing, reporting no sign of it during the last hour. I waited with two other newly arrived birders, found a Little Owl to pass the time and then, 10 minutes later, in she flew. Nearly 6ft of resplendent white, black and grey plumage, with a shape perhaps best described as a cross between a heron and an ostrich!

A stunning bird and a pleasure to watch feeding in the watery fields for the half-hour or so I was there. Fortunately, photographer-about-town Steve Seal also turned up later that morning and it is by his kind permission that I reproduce the stunning photograph above (more photographs of the Crane, plus plenty more first-class bird photography, can be found at http://steveseal.fotopic.net).

With that mission accomplished, I returned home via Napton Reservoir. I was hoping for some more early migrants to follow the ridiculously early Chiffchaff I heard there nearly three weeks ago, and I wasn't disappointed. First I found two more Chiffchaffs, singing loudly and foraging low down in the hedges around the reservoir (I don't blame them for keeping low, there was a biting east wind by this point).

Then I saw two small shapes fluttering between the Tufted Ducks, Coots, Common Gulls and Great Crested Grebes on the main water - Sand Martins. These classically early migrants were freshly arrived from East Africa, no doubt wondering in these temperatures why they had bothered!

And finally, to turn a brilliant morning into a near perfect one for me, I noticed a small wader rising from the other side of the reservoir, passing high overhead and descending into a nearby field. With its compact stubby shape, pointed wings and bizarrely long bill, this could only be a Snipe, quite a common bird wherever there is suitable habitat (ie marshy / muddy / watery land) but my first on patch. Fantastic.

My little photos above, by the way, are not (you may have noticed) of a Crane, Sand Martin or Snipe - these were too far, too fast and too high respectively (and I don't have Steve's determination and photographic skill). However, at a little feeding station by Napton Canal, I was able to take this Chaffinch and Dunnock. I like them because of the contrast with the blue boat, green post, yellow string etc - I think this makes for some unusual bird pictures.

3 March 2007

A walk in Cubbington Wood

Today started with the brightest of March mornings, so I went for a quick walk around Cubbington Wood to look for more early signs of spring.

It was beautiful - sunny, warm, fresh after overnight rain, and totally peaceful at 8am on a Saturday morning. Birds were singing everywhere, notably the Great Tits, a Song Thrush, Yellowhammers, Dunnocks, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Skylarks and a few Robins.

I found most of the classic woodland birds I was hoping for - a Treecreeper, two Nuthatches, some Goldcrest, three Jays, a couple of Marsh Tits and a few Redwing - but surprisingly no Great Spotted Woodpecker, either seen or heard drumming.

As I left the wood, I saw a Buzzard soaring overhead. And then the sight of the morning, as three Green Woodpeckers chased each other for a few moments, landed on a tree a few metres up and watched while one of their number engaged in a spectacular display, raising and curving his wings like a bird of paradise into a dome effect around him. It only lasted for a moment, and I don't know if it was threat or courtship, but it looked amazing.

2 March 2007

A very early bird at Napton

A singing Chiffchaff is, for me, the archetypal sound of early spring.

The distinctive 'chiff chaff chiff chaff, chiff chiff chaff' call normally starts to be heard in these parts towards the end of March and continues right through to October. Today however, I heard by first Chiffchaff call coming from the bushes alongside Napton Reservoir, a full three weeks before my previous earliest record.

It was a very pleasant surprise on a sunny but cold afternoon. The reedbed at the back of the reservoir has received a rather severe short-back-and-sides since I last visited, so there was no chance of any lingering Bitterns (one was reported there a month or so ago).

Instead there were mostly the usual suspects on the water - 30+ Tufted Ducks, 60 or more Coots, Black-headed and Common Gulls, a Mute Swan, two Little Grebes, a Pochard and a Great Crested Grebe, now just about returned to splendid breeding plumage.

A Buzzard soared overhead, along with chattering Skylarks, a large flocks of both Redwing and Fieldfare, both winter visitors who will linger for a few weeks yet.

1 March 2007

I spotted a Lesser Spot

Hurrah and huzzah, success at last. Today I enjoyed my first ever decent, prolonged view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

It was, of course, at Whitacre WWT reserve, but not on the car park feeders where so many photographers (including me) line up their cars and lay in wait, trying to take its picture. After an uneventful hour watching those feeders this morning, I decided that a) I don't have the patience to be a decent bird photographer, and b) I needed to stretch my legs and pee.

So I set off around the reserve to meet both these needs. Just 300 yards into the woods I heard a call which I recognised immediately. I have heard it several times before and either not seen the bird, or seen a disappearing shape. But this time, high above my head in the leafless branches, he was there - a tiny woodpecker with a distinctive white 'ladder' up his back. This was the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - the least common of Britain's three woodpeckers and, owing to its size and chosen habitat, definitely the hardest to see.

I watched for a few minutes as he made his way along a few branches, I took a photograph so poor and blurry that I won't even bother to post it here, and then grinned like a loon for 10 minutes. Success always feels better when you've put the hours in first.

I then walked around the entire reserve, finding plenty to enjoy - a Buzzard soaring low over the pools, two pairs of Little Grebes squabbling among themselves, a lurking pair of Teal in the undergrowth - 30+ species in all. And, as usual, I lingering in the feeder hide for some photo opportunities - these are the best of today's crop.