21 December 2008

Leam Valley in December

Leam Valley was quiet this morning, but it was warm, bright and I found enough to lighten the winter blues a little.

At the riverside alders I heard, then saw, three Siskin darting around among the Blue Tit flocks. The scrape appeared at first to have only two herons on it - then, after ten minutes of careful scanning I found a male Teal tucked into the far reedbeds (these are growing quite nicely now).

A little further along on the same side I found a Grey Wagtail, my attention drawn to this tiny bird by a big, showy Jay.

And moving down to the weir at Offchurch Bury I was pleased to find two winter Cormorants and another Grey Wagtail.

Along with these highlights were scattered Redwing, Fieldfare, plenty of Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks, tit flocks and gulls overhead. And as I left I was sung on my way by a huge flock of Goldfinch in the car park trees. Lovely.

Bird of the day: Common Teal (Anas crecca), a lovely little duck - given that the male bird has such vivid colouring it did a surprisingly good job of lurking and then disappearing completely today.

14 December 2008

Brandon is flooded

I took a quick trip round Brandon in December - not because I was in a hurry but because most of the site was very, very flooded.

Unable to get anywhere near the East Marsh track and hides (generally everyone's favourites, and the most productive), I went first to the new hide (can't remember it's name) and then to the Wright Hide.

The best bird of the short morning was a beautiful male Goldeneye right in front of Wright Hide, much to the joy of a photographer with whom I was sharing the hide. I was also happy to bump into a confiding robin - so confiding in fact that I was able to take repeated flash photographs of him with my little Canon G9.

Bird of the day: Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), a striking addition to our winter wildfowl.

16 November 2008

Napton Reservoir - Sexy?

After last weekend's fox-related excitement at one of Warwickshire's best-known reserves, I found myself back on patch at Napton Reservoir this morning. And I found myself thinking: why are some place 'sexy' and not others (I hasten to add I mean this in a birding sense).

There are some reserves and locations that are heaving with birders day in and day out. Then there are others, such as Napton, where there are virtually none. Obviously a lot of this is down to what people think they might find in a given location. But a lot of that feeling is driven by a site's historical record of turning up 'good' birds. And, as the FTSE and housing markets have been helpfully showing us in recent weeks, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

Today at Napton turned up nothing new or unexpected, the Cape Shelducks having moved on (see photos a couple of posts back, including the comments). But then nor did Ladywalk last week, Brandon Marsh on a great many occasions before that, and so on with a number of our better known reserves. Yes, I know each of those turns up the occasion 'mega' rare bird, but then so do most places if you watch them long enough (I refer you to Napton's greatest recent hit, a Ring-necked Duck).

So, there you go. Well known reserves are a con, past performance is no guarantee of future returns, go and find your own obscure location and watch it until something rare turns up (and then email me and tell me where to find it).

Still, on the bird front, I at least found pretty much everything I would expect to at Napton and then Ufton Fields. In among 90 or so Coot were eight Shovellers, half a dozen Gadwall, a pair of Wigeon, just over 40 Tufted Ducks, Mallards lurking everywhere, a Great Crested Grebe, six young Mute Swans with two adults, 50 or so Common Gulls among the hundreds of Black-headed, a Great Heron, trees and bushes full of Fieldfare, Redwing and Blackbirds, and great many crows (Carrion, Rook and Jackdaw), a few of which were lazily mobbing a Buzzard. At Ufton I found the smaller birds - Willow, Coal, Blue and Great Tits (see 'fighting' photo), Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, a fly-by Sparrowhawk and a Green Woodpecker.

Bird of the day: Shoveller (Anas clypeata), a favourite of mine among the ducks. Most easily and frequently seen in the autumn and winter months, it is clearly identified by its bright terracotta and white patched plumage (male) and of course its distinctive shoveller bill.
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9 November 2008

Foxed - a photo story

This is a story about a fox, a helpful man and me.

I first noticed the fox when it popped its head up a hundred metres or so from the hide in which I was sitting. Excellent I thought, and took its picture (picture 1). Then it started to circle a little closer, and I took its picture again. My best ever picture of a fox, I thought (picture 2).

When someone else climbed into the hide, I pointed out the fox. After watching me take a few more shots he announced that he knew a way of 'calling them in'. And, to my delight and amazement, he put his hand to his lips, made a strange sqeaking noise, and in came the fox.

It ran towards us a great speed (picture 3), paused to watch us for a moment (picture 4), and then paraded right in front of us (picture 5), before turning tail and trotting off.

So whoever you were, thanks fella. It was a pretty grim morning (showers and a chill wind), there were no interesting birds to capture the imagination, but the fox made it magical.

3 November 2008

Ideas anyone?

A quick trip to Napton Reservoir and Ufton Fields on Sunday turned up something exciting and new - sadly I've no idea what!

Although the weather had warmed a little after our recent cold snap, it was still bitterly cold at Napton - to be fair, it pretty much always is. It attracts wind like nowhere else I know.

However, the first thing I saw when I arrived was enough to take my mind off the cold - three extremely unusual ducks. I didn't recognise them, I've checked all of my books since, and I still have no idea what they were. Escapees I'm sure, but escaped what? Any ideas anyone - Ruddy Shelducks with black rather than red heads is my best description (sorry about the quality of the photo, I only had a compact camera with me). Red body, beige rump, black tail, black head, white face with a black eye.

Elsewhere on the water was a good collection of winter birds - 20+ Wigeon, perhaps 30 Tufted Ducks, a couple of Great Crested and Little Grebes, 75+ Coots and the usual crowd of Black-headed Gulls with a few Common Gulls scattered about. I was also pleased to see my first big flocks of Fieldfare this year, and good numbers of Redwing flying over.

Ufton, by way of contrast, was deathly quiet. A couple of Green Woodpeckers, a few tits, and... that's all folks!

Bird of the day: Wigeon (Anus penelope), a striking (mainly) winter duck with striking colours and a distinctive wee-oo call.

26 October 2008

Ufton Fields

I took the bike up to Ufton Fields this afternoon, and discovered just how steep that 1 in 10 hill is!

2pm isn't really prime birding time, but a morning visit wasn't really an option with some pretty grisly weather. By the time I did eventually get out the clouds had cleared and it was a pretty nice afternoon.

The colours at Ufton are turning decidely autumnal now, with lots of gold in particular. Among the birds I did find were some of the more colourful residents - Bullfinches, Goldfinches, a Green Woodpecker and a Jay. All of them made for a pleasant spectacle in the late autumn sun.

It was one of those afternoons where the birding takes second place to a nice walk, but it was none the worse for that.

Bird of the day: Jay (Garrulus glandarius), a real favourite at this time of year. Hard to believe that I wasn't aware of having seen one until my early 30s - I now tend to see several a day at this time of year, as they fly overhead building up their acorn reserves for the winter. They're big, they're noisy, they're pink, blue, white and black - and yet an amazing number of people simply never notice them.

19 October 2008

On my bike

My latest piece of birding technology isn't a new camera or lens, nor binoculars, a telescope, a tripod or any especially waterproof / camouflaged/ rustle-free / warm outdoor clothing (although heaven knows I've spent enough on each of those over the years).

It is in fact a bike - a modern hybrid type thing designed to whisk me swiftly and effortlessly to various parts of my birding patch, especially when I don't have access to the family car.

And it's great. OK, I can't claim to be swift, and it certainly isn't effortless (I'm working on the assumption that it is going to get easier). But with a little effort I can get it as far as Draycote Reservoir and back, a not-inconsiderable distance of 30+ miles. And although my first such trip left me little energy for birding, I at least managed to find a Little Gull (first of the year), a Shag (a first for me in Warwickshire), a couple of Grey Wagtails, a few Lapwings and a Green Woodpecker - sufficient to lift my soul for the return journey at any rate.

Leam Valley, Ufton Fields, Cubbington Woods and Offchurch are all within easy range, Napton Reservoir is achievable, and Draycote is there for those very energetic days. My next calculation is whether I'll make it to Brandon and back.

Bird of the day: Little Gull (Larus minutus), a lovely little bird which flits low over the surface of the water and resembles a tern. Young ones such as this have a distintive 'W' marking on their back.

31 August 2008

Restored and refreshed at Brandon Marsh

Ah the glory of an autumn morning (even if it is only August). This was just what I needed to reconnect to Warwickshire birding.

At 7am, with the air mild and a light mist promising to burn off sometime soon, I finally made time for a decent trip out, and decided to head to Brandon Marsh and see how the early autumn birding season was starting to shape up.

(As I think I've probably explained before, birding has three seasons, not four - there being no such thing as summer (this in an entirely personal calendar and in no way reflects the views of the birding world at large). In this part of the world, spring starts in April, when migrants start to arrive and breeding kicks off. That runs through to the arrival of autumn in early August, when breeding is finish, summer migrants start to leave and winter migrants start to arrive. Once all the winter migrants are here, say late November, then winter is here until April again. If there is a summer, it is the few boring weeks in July when nothing changes, nothing happens.)

Well, this morning was classic early autumn. Warm and humid, rain later, early mist, dew on myriad spiders' webs, beech masts falling on my head, Jays and Squirrels working like billio to stash food for the winter, and some notably autumn migrants / early winter visitors. These birds included a Green Sandpiper on Teal Pool, plenty of Teal and Shoveller, a large post-breeding flock (400+) of Lapwing, and a very early flock of 20+ Siskins working their way through the beech and alder trees near River Pool.

Alongside these were some lingering traces of summer, a few dragonflies in particular, and plenty of young Swallows getting ready for the long journey to southern Africa. And many of the resident birds were out and about too - a Sparrowhawk as I pulled into the car park, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Treecreeper in New Hare Covert, and a few singing (but lurking) Cetti's Warblers.

Bird of the day: Siskin (Carduelis spinus), this lovely little winter visitor is a small, streaky yellow finch with an addiction to alder trees and a tendency to gather in large, easy to spot flocks of a dozen or more birds. Generally I've tended to find them arriving from October onwards, August 31st is my earliest in Warwickshire by some considerable margin.

23 August 2008

Pensthorpe photos

While on a family trip to Norwich last weekend, we took the opportunity to visit Pensthorpe, the nature reserve at which this year's Springwatch was filmed.

Nice place for a family trip, and although the wild birds were quiet (time of year really), the aviaries, collections and conservation programmes were pretty interesting, and of course great to photograph. Recommended to birders with families, and here are a few of the photos.

All quiet on the Leam Valley front

Managed to find time this morning to remind myself how quiet a local nature reserve can be in August , with Leam Valley no exception.

It was a lovely morning, with some of the best (and above all driest) weather we've seen in weeks. Sadly, no birds.

Wellllll, that's not really true of course. Loads of birds around, just hunkered down so low and quiet you deserve an award for each one you see. My big hope was the scrape, perhaps good for a returning sandpiper or maybe a wandering egret. Fat chance. A few young Coots and Moorhens mooched around, with the odd Magpie or Wood Pigeon passing, along with a few hybrid ducks.

Back in the woods I did at least manage to find a Chaffinch, a few Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits (by far the most visible and audible bird at this time of year). A few birds were vocal enough to find - a couple of raucous Jays, a Green Woodpecker and a Buzzard mewing overhead. The foliage all around was so lush and dense (after weeks and weeks of rain) that even when a huge Grey Heron flew into a tree I quickly lost it!

Bird of the Day: Not even worth nominating one. More a walk than a birding trip.

2 July 2008

(More) Accidental Birding

Absolutely no birding to speak of in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean I haven't seen or heard any birds.

It's one of the great joys of birdwatching that they are there wherever you go. Lunchtime walks in Henley-in-Arden regularly turn up Green Woodpeckers, Buzzards and the competing songs of Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers, not to mention a particularly energetic Song Thrush near my office window.

In the garden we get low flying Buzzards, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, 'our' House Sparrows and Starlings, plus Rooks and Jackdaws passing overhead.

And on a city break in Liverpool last weekend, I heard Goldfinches singing all around Albert Docks (not sure why, but the place was awash with them), a single Cormorant swimming in the Dock itself, and this best-ever photo opportunity of a Jay in a cemetary next to the Anglican Cathedral.

No birding then, but plenty of birds.

Bird of the week: Jay (Garrulus glandarius), big, colourful and common, but suprisingly hard to get good views of, let alone photograph.

12 June 2008

An 'Accidental' Yorkshire Birder

A week-long family holiday on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales (not far from Haworth and Skipton) presented me with few opportunities for 'real' birding, but its amazing what you can find with just a few country walks (even with a pushchair and a hyperactive two-year-old)...

The tally for the trip was 54 species in all, reasonably respectable for an inland location in June.

Around the wooded valley where we stayed there were Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Coal Tits at our bird feeder, the occasional moorland Curlew bubbling overhead, and various common garden and woodland birds all around.

The two star finds so close to 'home' were both local specialities - a pair of Dippers and my first ever badger. I found the former as it brought food into a nest underneath a nearby waterfall (keeping a very safe distance to avoid disturbance), and the latter fed outside our window most nights - a big male animal with no apparent fear of the solar night lights.

A nearby estate (St Ive's in Bingley) offered a few more warblers (Chiffchaff, Willow and Blackcap), and good views of Mistle Thrush - but sadly not the Goosander that had been reported as breeding there in recent months.

And on two trips to the moors, we were able to find more Curlews, another Dipper, Sand Martins, Oystercatchers, Grey Wagtails, Skylarks, plenty of Meadow Pipits, and another of my favourite birds - a Wheater, again busy bringing food to and from a nest.

Bird of the Week: Dipper (Cinclus cinclus), an old friend on this stretch of water, a striking bird with enough character and interesting behaviour to keep any birdwatcher happy for hours.

25 May 2008

Another rainy Bank Holiday in Leamington Spa

The May Bank Holidays have lived up to all the cliches - roads full of traffic, queues in the car parks of DIY stores, and endless rain. Fortunately we birders are made of stern stuff...

Actually I generally avoid birding in the rain at all cost. I think it's an age thing - as a younger man I could be found trekking across mountain ranges in the foulest of weather, but these days I'm more inclined to sit it out and wait for a resumption of drier weather.

Sadly, with nothing but rain forecast for the rest of the long weekend, today presented me with little choice. So having dragged out my old wet weather gear (waterproof jacket, trousers and silly waterproof Aussie-style hat), I set off for a walk to, and round, Leam Valley.

It had actually dried up a little by the time I arrived, and a few of the residents were taking the opportunity for a sing-song - Whitethroat, Blackbirds, Robins, three Chiffchaff, a couple of Song Thrush and Dunnock. When I arrived at the scrape, the drizzle had started to fall once more, so I settled into the hide with some relief. And it was nice to see the scrape about as busy as it gets.

A pair of Mute Swans and their neighbours the Canada Geese both had youngsters in tow - three and four respectively. Two Swallows flew low over the water throughout my stay, joined periodically by a few Swifts and House Martins. Two adult Grey Herons watched on impassively as a youngster stalked methodically around the edge. And all the time, a little colony of Reed Warblers chirruped away, flitting from reedbed to trees and back again.

But I forgot to mention my star bird! Although I come to it last, I actually saw it first, before I even got the reserve - and in fact saw it twice. First, as I was walking out of Radford Semele, I looked up just as its silhouette swept across Lewis Road. "Surely that's a Hobby," I thought to myself as it attempted to pluck a House Sparrow from a rooftop. But with only the briefest of views I decided I couldn't be sure. Then, as I walked down Radford Road towards the reserve, I saw it again, attempting exactly the same manoeuvre with a Starling on a television aerial - again with no success.

It was my first Hobby of the year, and found hunting just a couple of hundred yards from home - a real bird of the day.

Bird of the day: Hobby (Falco subutteo), a sleek elegant falcon which hunts small birds, dragonflies and other large insects. When seen swooping in silhouette like today, it resembles a giant Swift with long, swept back wings.

24 May 2008

Ufton, Harbury and Napton - in a gale!

Although this morning started a little gloomy and overcast, it quickly became a fine and breezy day - perfect for a little patch birding.

I started early at Ufton Fields, and enjoyed a very satisfying stroll. It was truly a walk for the ears, with plenty of strong birdsong to compensate for the difficulty of actually seeing birds in the full summer foliage.

Nearly all of the expected residents were in good voice - three or four Chiffchaffs and a couple of Willow Warblers, three Blackcaps and a couple of Garden Warblers, a Song Thrush, plenty of Robins, a couple of Blackbirds, Blue and Great Tits and the first Sedge Warblers I have ever found at Ufton (and a good number too, judging by the amount of song).

I did manage to lay binoculars on bird a few times though - always nice to see Bullfinchs and Jays, and the Coal Tits that I found were my first for quite a while.

So with 32 species under my belt, I moved on to Harbury Spoilbanks to find... nearly nothing. Highlight of this very short walk was the high density of singing Willow Warblers, perhaps five in just a couple of acres of wood and scrub.

Undeterred, I headed off to Napton Reservoir. Breezy at the best of times, the reservoir seemed to be enjoying a full-on gale this morning, so having given the water a cursory glance (Great Crested Grebe, a pair of Tufties, 20 or so Coots and a pair of Mute Swans with six young), I dived into the better protected fields.

This proved a good move, allowing me to warm up again and to find a few extra species - Swift, House Martin and Swallow, plenty of Skylarks, a Reed Bunting, and a lone Lapwing flying overhead. And then I walked back around the reservoir and left the fishermen to their hurricane.

Bird of the Day: Coal Tit (Periparus ater), a widespread and fairly common little bird, but not always easily found on my patch. It favours coniferous woods, and although it is a fairly drab member of the tit family, it is easily distinguished by its white striped nape. I found the photo above on Flickr by the way (yes, with a Creative Commons licence!). It was taken by simondbarnes, and is an absolute stunner. It's well worth visiting his photostream for plenty more great bird photography.

18 May 2008

Sunshine in West Warwickshire

After a couple of less-than-glorious days in Warwickshire, today started bright and dry (abeit with a stiff cool breeze). Perfect for a morning's birding in West Warwickshire with my occasional birding companion Jon.

Although the main migrant passage seems to have quietened down in the last week or so (just about the same time as I resumed my county birding in fact!) there was still plenty on show for me to enjoy in the farmland, gravel pits and river pools that we visited.

There were plenty of waders on show, although none of the rarer migrants we might have hoped for - having not seen much in the county for six months or so, I was perfectly happy with a haul that included Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Lapwing. Overhead were very good numbers of Swifts, some House Martins and the residents of a decent Sand Martin colony.

Several Buzzards and Kestrel flew regularly overhead (although none of the Red-footed Falcons I have been told to look out for), and in the hedgerows and scrubs we gathered a decent haul of smaller birds - including Linnet, Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Wren, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Sedge Warbler, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, Chiffchaff and Reed Warbler.

There were a few wildfowl species around - Mallards of course, plus Tufted Ducks, Gadwall and a lone Shelduck.

Add to that a smattering of other species - Grey Heron, Green Woodpecker, Coot, Canada Geese, Stock Dove, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon, Cormorant, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Pied Wagtail for example - and the chance to catch up on a little bit of local birding news from Jon, and you have my ideal kind of Sunday morning.

The photos show a view across the gravel pits, the patterning on some deep-drying mud, and part of the Sand Martin colony.

Bird of the Day: Linnet (Carduelis cannabina), a gorgeous little passerine which favours thick bushes and gorse - it's fairly common locally, but I rarely get close enough for a good look at its colours.

11 May 2008

Leam Valley

This morning was my first real patch walk for months - up and out the house before 7am, and ready to enjoy some absolutely superb weather.

The temperature was warm, the light was lovely and the air was full of the sounds and scents of early summer. It was a real treat for the ears with Wren, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch, Sedge Warbler and a lone Willow Warbler among my favourite vocalists - but the highlight was a sporadic-singing Cuckoo, my first at Leam Valley.

Other birds on show included a pair of Mistle Thrush, a pair of Tufted Ducks, a few Long-tailed Tit, a male Bullfinch, Green Woodpecker, Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler, a pair of Swallows low over the scrape, and a high solitary Swift.

But the real star was the reserve itself and the surrounding countryside - early morning sunlight streaming through the new leaves, the scrape bursting into life with reedbeds beginning to take hold, and yellow being this year's colour on the Offchurch Bury fields (rape seed after last year's blue linseed / flax). No photographs of birds then, but a few bits of scenery - the aforementioned sunlight through leaves, the view from the hide back towards the recently burned St Nicholas Church in Radford, and those fields of rapeseed.

Bird of the day: Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), a striking warbler with a wonderful mellifluous song.

A (very) little bit of April birding in Warwickshire

I've had very few opportunities for birding during April, but here's an overview (if only to keep my notes up to dates).

Early in the month I took a quick walk around Ufton Fields and enjoyed a good numbers of returning Chiffchaffs, a couple of Willow Warblers, a pair of Mistle Thrush, and views of Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

I followed this with a disappointing walk around Napton Reservoir - disappointing because the banks on one side have been completely cut back, leaving the reservoir looking barren and uninviting - and lacking in cover for the variety of birds that can normally be found there. At least I found my first Swallows of the year.

Back in Radford Semele, the Swallows, then House Martins then Swifts arrived (early, mid and late April respectively). My pond continues to attract a pair of Mallards, we have had plenty of Buzzard sightings low over the house, and my best garden birds were a Jay and a Goldcrest (the former a garden tick, and the latter a pretty rare visitor).

Away from my normal patch, my favourite find was a Lapwing flying low over fields near Claverdon, as I drove home from work one evening. I never grow tired of those.

And just before the end of the month, I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Brandon Marsh, adding a bit of variety to my birding with a few waders (Common Sandpiper, Lapwing and Redshank), waterfowl (including a pair of Shelduck) and sundry others (plenty of Sand Martins).

Bird of the Month: Red Kite (Milvus milvus), a large number of which have been constant companions as I travelled up and down the M40 instead of doing any 'proper' birding!

3 April 2008

Birding in sorrow

I have lost a part of me, someone truly inspirational and irreplaceable. Birding has never been further from my mind.

Nevertheless, in brief and irregular moments during the last few weeks I have been out and about a little. And for no other reason than a sense of tidiness, I want to keep this diary as up to date as I can.

In mid March (the weekend before Easter) we popped into first Ufton and then Napton. Ufton was oh-so-quiet at first, but then gradually a few nice birds appeared - my first Chiffchaff of the year, a couple of Treecreepers and then my first ever Goosanders on this site, a pair on Grebe Pool.

At Napton the temperature dropped significantly in the chill wind, so we didn't dawdle. The only birds of interest were half a dozen newly arrived Sand Martins.

On Easter Sunday I went for a wander in Cassiobury Park in Watford, where along with the Mistle Thrush and Nuthatches I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of Ring-necked Parakeets.

And the following weekend, back in Warwickshire once more, I made a fairly quick circuit of Leam Valley to find a few returned Chiffchaffs, a pair of Tufted Ducks on the scrape, nesting Swans, a late-lingering Fieldfare, and... not much else to be honest.

Oh, and in the garden at home we've had a couple of appearances from a male Blackcap, plenty of Greenfinch and Goldfinch (starting to come back after a long time away), courting Buzzards low overhead and sundry garden favourites (including plenty of Wrens).

Bird of the month: a dead heat between Goosander and Ring-necked Parakeet - both visually stunning and both completely unexpected when I found them.

16 March 2008

Wheatear and Whooper at Tyttenhanger

I remain by circumstance virtually exiled from my Warwickshire patch, but Tyttenhanger near St Albans continues to impress as a substitute.

After a grey and gloomy start this morning, the weather started to brighten. And, as it did so, the birding began to improve too. On the main pit I found a couple of the Redshanks which have hopefully returned to breed, and then I heard word of something a bit unusual down at Willow Farm - Whooper Swan. It was probably feral, having flown from Wardown Park near Luton, but well worth a walk anyway. And I'm glad I did, since in the field next to it was also the year's first Wheatear and a Stonechat.

As I walked back towards the main pit, I found a Nuthatch nest, and enjoyed myself thoroughly for a quarter hour of so watching these two beautiful birds coming and going. All around me were Long-tailed Tits with nesting material, and a very busy Great Spotted Woodpecker hammered nearby.

Up at the 'top' fields I again found the Tree Sparrows, plus plenty of Red-legged Partridges and probably Grey Partridge too. The latter was infuriating since I have never seen Grey Partridge - and on this occasion I only saw them flying away from me, so couldn't be sure. A species for another day I'm sure.

As I walked through the final couple of fields I got closer views of a second Wheatear, and was again serenaded home by the singing of Skylarks. Bootiful.

1 March 2008

Essex Man

Family commitments again keep me from my Warwickshire patch, but the Essex coast was a more than satisfactory consolation this weekend.

I saw absolutely nothing spectacular by local standards, but when you live about 80 miles from the coast, a cornucopia of waders and sea birds is never a disappointment. I first visited Fingringhoe and then Abberton Reservoir, and saw in all more than 60 species.

Personal highlights included a pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers, the big numbers of waders (Curlew, Dunlin, Redshank and Turnstones) and the Brent Geese. As I say, nothing spectacular at all, but try finding that lot in Warwickshire!

24 February 2008

The waders are coming (and so is spring)

Family commitments meant my weekend's birding comprised another quick morning trip to Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits in Hertfordshire today (with apologies to any regular Warwickshire readers), with plenty to add to last week's enjoyment of this splendid little site.

As I arrived on a picture perfect morning, I found a little cluster of birders who were already enjoying the day's star attraction, a newly arrived Curlew. Although these are more often seen here as fly-overs, this one had obligingly settled, and indeed was still there when I left two hours later.

Sitting close by were a pair of Ringed Plovers, and on a nearby bank was a Green Sandpiper. Together these wading birds were sure fire evidence that spring is on its way, with these species being among the first to pass through as they head north to breed.

But these were not the only new species which I could add to last week's list. A few Linnet flew close by, a pair of Wigeon whooped out on the main pond, and a Kestrel hovered over one of the sheep field (which, incidentally, were even more alive with Sky Larks than last week - I counted more than a dozen in view at one point). It would have been even more but I again missed out on the resident Water Rail (a real bogey bird for me), and on a Stonechat reported near the edge of those same sheep fields.

Never mind, they'll both be something to look out for on my next trip, which I'm sure won't be far away. So far, a couple of trips have turned up well over 40 species, and with spring on its way, there is bound to be plenty more just around the corner.

Bird of the day: Curlew (Numenius arquata), the largest European wading bird, with a distinctive downward curving bill and a once-heard-never-forgotten 'bubbling' call.

17 February 2008

Back to boyhood - birding in Hertfordshire

Although I am now well and truly a Warwickshire man, I was born and grew up in Hertfordshire - between Watford and St Albans to be precise.

Although I was interested in birds at a very young age, I don't have too many recollections of birding in that area - I think it was mainly garden and park birding to be honest. So this weekend I took the opportunity while visiting my family to sneak out at the crack of dawn for a spot of exploring - visiting the well-regarded Tyttenhanger site (see here for a great site guide from the Herts Bird Club).

Excavation of the Tyttenanger Gravel Pits began in 1982, and they are still being worked today. As is often the way with this kind of quarrying, the result was a series of pools, many now heavily fished but one reserved for birdlife and nature.

The range of habitat is superb, including deep water, shallows and mudflats, open fields managed in a variety of ways, coniferous and deciduous woodland, running water (the River Colne runs through the site) and manmade features (feeding of partridge for shooting, bird nests, bird tables and so on).

As a result, a good number of rare and uncommon birds have been reported here over the years, and on this fantastic first trip there I could see what great potential it has. It was the most beautiful of mornings (although pretty cold, at minus 6 degrees!) and I enjoyed every second of it - once I got used to the forthright signing (see above left - fair enough, it is still a working quarry).

It's a lovely site - quiet at that time of the morning, just the right length of walk (about two hours at gentle birding pace), with good views across the water, an open hide, and great variety of landscape.

In all I saw 36 species, a pretty good haul for any inland site in winter, and even better since I was really exploring rather than birding 'hard' (with a diversion into some woods for Nuthatch, Great Spot, Marsh Tit, Redwing and Fieldfare beyond, for example, I'm sure I could have pushed on well past 40).

However, the birds I did see were a fabulous mix - including Shoveller, Teal and three Shelduck on the open pool, Lapwing and a single Snipe in the margins, Skylark and Red-legged Partridge in the fields and a flock of a dozen on more Tree Sparrows (photo left) near the farm.

Many of these were birds I don't often see on my home territory, and together they made for a first-class morning.

Bird of the Day: Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), the bird that a few years back got me back into birding after two decades away (it's a long boring story) - not uncommon, especially at the coast, but it's always a striking sight on an inland gravel pit or reservoir.

15 February 2008

Back to basics - garden birding

I guess most people first get interested in birds when they see the ones in their garden. For the last couple of weeks, with no real opportunity to get out and about, I have been once more confined to watching this most local of patches.

Fortunately the temperature has dropped, and that always drives birds into the garden in search of food. Our hour spend doing the RSPB's great garden birdwatch at the end of January turned up everything we would expect to see (Wren, Robin, Dunnock, Collared Dove, House Sparrow, Starling, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Magpie), but since then a few of the less common locals have started to appear.

First there was a noticable increase in the number and frequency of Long-tailed Tits, wonderful little delicate birds that are equally at home on the fatballs and the peanut cage (archive photo by the way). A couple of these have almost been guaranteed most mornings for the last week or so.

Then the Song Thrush began singing every morning, a joyous addition to the start of every day. In the distant farm fields you can hear the Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming out for territories and mates (and perhaps the odd Green Woodpecker 'yaffling' by).

And then earlier in the week we got a surprise return from one of our rarest visitors, Siskins. A pair of them alighted momentarily on our seed feeder, giving great views of their vivid streaky yellow flanks and black-blob heads. Sadly they were quickly off, and haven't been seen since, but they were the first we have recorded in the garden since 2004.

Bird of the week: Siskin (Carduelis spinus), a small, lively finch which is a resident breeder in Scotland and Wales but only a winter vistor to these parts. There are plenty around at this time of year, but they are still scarce enough to be a nice surprise.

3 February 2008

More about birds at Ufton Fields

I had a couple of new sources of information today about Ufton Field - first a chance encounter with a working party, then an email from a former warden.

From Dave (the current warden?) on the working party I learned that the site currently holds Woodcock, a bird I'd love to see in Warwickshire, as well as Snipe and one or two others I'd like to find. And then, having shared a bit of chit-chat about the place, I arrived home to find an email explaining the birding history of the place.

I was pointed to this site here, which lists all the birds seen on the reserve since the 1970s - although as it points out, it was much more open in the early days, hence records of Black Tern and Bewick and Whooper Swans for example. Even so, the list is amazing - Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, possible Wood Warbler, Long-eared and Short-eared Owl, Tree Pipit and Great Grey Shrike, for example, are all staggeringly rare in Warwickshire.

I don't know whether to be enthused and motivated, or dis-heartened and gutted! Might they all be a possibility for the future, or has the reserve's hey-day long gone? I guess the only way to find out is to keep going - after all, I was excited to learn that my 2004 Mandarin Duck was almost certainly a reserve first.

Picture: a Pied Flycatcher from Dinas, Mid Wales, 2005 - will I ever find such an elusive creature at Ufton Fields though?!

Back in love with Ufton Fields

After a fairly lengthy period of neglect, Ufton Fields is very much back on my list of favourite reserves, and I enjoyed another very pleasant walk there this morning.

Plenty of thrushes around - more than a dozen Blackbirds before I had even left the carpark, Fieldfare and Redwing in trees and all over two fields, a couple of Song Thrushes, and at least three, maybe five (might have seen one pair twice), Mistle Thrushes giving great views (as I noted last week, this is quite rare for me, so I was well chuffed with this). The only finches I found were a of Bullfinches (this is a great location for those) and Greenfinches (plenty of those), and there were lots of the other usual sightings - Robins, Dunnocks, Blue Tits, Great Tits etc.

On the Horseshoe Pool things initially looked quiet, but 15 minutes of watching was rewarded with first two, then six Teal (three pairs), a few Mallards, three Moorhen, a couple of Coot, and super views of a Kingfisher which sat by the side of the pool for maybe 10 minutes.

As I left I got to watch two Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk have a brief tete-a-tete. I also learned plenty of new things about the reserve today, but I'm going to save that for another post.

Bird of the day: Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), vivid, exotic, flies like a neon-blue lightbulb across the dullest of days - and yet can be infuriatingly elusive. Never a disappointment when you finally get good views of one.

26 January 2008

Start of Spring at Leam Valley

This was more like it - a stunning morning, complete with a blood-red sunrise, and plenty of the sounds and sights of early spring.

I guess I should explain, since it is still only January. I know technically it isn't spring, but the bird world starts preparing early. Around this time you can expect to hear Great Tits and Song Thrushes (pictured left) calling out, attracting mates and claiming territories. Plumages start to look their best, and the first signs of life can be found on the trees.

And indeed that is what I found at Leam Valley this morning, combined with plenty of remnants of winter - Siskins and Redpolls in the alder trees, Redwings in the hawthorn scrub and Fieldfares flying over. Among the other nice finds for the morning were three Bullfinch, good views of two Great Spotted Woodpeckers, plenty of Goldcrest, two Jays, three Tufted Ducks on the scrape, and a Mistle Thrush, churring loudly as it flew to a nearby tree.

I enjoyed myself thoroughly, with a grand total for a two hour session of 33 species.

Bird of the Day: Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus), a strong, powerful thrush which I don't see too often 'round here.

20 January 2008

A wander 'round Radford Semele

The rain finally relented this morning, holding off (mostly)for long enough for me to take a wander round the fields to the south of Radford Semele.

Things were pretty lively close to the village, and of the 29 species I eventually ended up with, I'd seen 22 before I even got properly into the fields.

Plenty of finches around (Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch and a splendid pair of Bullfinches on the village edge), fields full of Fieldfare, Redwing and Starling, two Buzzards flying across the top of Crown Hill and down into the lower fields beyond, and scores of Yellowhammer erupting from trees, fields and hedges as walked back down towards the farm buildings.

Bird of the day: Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), a vivid splash of colour on a grey winter's day.

12 January 2008

Back on patch - Ufton Fields and Napton Reservoir

A great morning's patch birding, starting at Ufton Fields and moving on to Napton Reservoir.

I was inspired to visit Ufton for the first time in quite some time by the new Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserves guide - a very good book indeed which rates Ufton as one of the best reserves in the trust's repertoire. And indeed it is a very interesting place, not only for the flora and associated invertebrates for which it is renowned, but also for birds - if you look hard and get a little luck.

The key challenge is that the path runs round the perimeter of what is a largish reserve, meaning that anything in the dense and wooded interior is out of sight. Today was a case in point - I found 25 or more Siskin in an alder tree near the edge, but they soon flew towards the middle and I never did see them again. A few minutes later and I would never have known that they were there.

However, today was a more than decent day, with 28 different species including the aforementioned Siskins, a pair of Bullfinch, a couple of Treecreepers, a Buzzard and two Kestrels, fields full of Fieldfare and Redwing, a couple of Song Thrushes (still curiously quiet for mid-January), my first ever Ufton Teal (a male), great views of a Kingfisher, a probable Snipe flying over, and plenty of Goldcrests around the whole site.

The weather was fine, so I pressed on to Napton, a completely different habitat (deep open water) guaranteeing a completely different set of species. And again, no disappointment today - along with a massive 80 Coots was a Cormorant (flying off towards Draycote), 20 or more Common Gulls with a few Black-headed Gulls, a couple of male Pochard, five Great Crested Grebes and a Little Grebe, and a lone Goosander, a splendid male.

With the Wren and House Sparrows that greeted me when I arrived home, this made 43 species in a few hours local birding. Fantastic.

Bird of the day: Goosander (Mergus merganser), a splendidly sleek creature, and a scarce patch bird.

6 January 2008

Me and my Pentax hit Whitacre Heath

After weeks and weeks with no birding and no photography, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and head to Whitacre Heath - a nature reserve in north Warwickshire with excellent opportunties for the many photographers who visit every weekend.

Arriving early to miss the rush (there were at least half-a-dozen big gun lenses on site by the time I left at 11am), I was greeted by the most stunning sunrise - clear red skies melting into vivid blue, frost on the ground and absolute still. It was a belter.

I set up at the car park feeders, and used my car as a mobile hide for half an hour or so, grabbing some nice shots but quickly realising that the light was really still too poor. This was my first real birding trip out with the Pentax K100d with Tamron 70-300di and Tamron 1.4 teleconverter. It's a real budget set-up, costing a fraction of the price of the big 400 and 500mm lenses, but as today was to prove, it's good enough for my requirements. The only real problem being - not great in low light. So I set off for a wander round the reserve until the light improved.

The first thing I managed to do was find the hide that had eluded me on previous visits. This is the one overlooking rough fields, apparently good for all sorts of treats (I have read reports of Stonechat and Curlews at various times of the year, both relatively hard-to-find in Warwickshire, certainly on my south Warwickshire patch). Sadly today found it oh so quiet, so I moved on.

In fact, I won't bother recording much else by way of birding notes. Suffice it to say that I was really out to enjoy the walk more than anything. A Willow Tit at the feeder hide, a couple of Tufties on one of the main ponds, a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers along the way - all pleasant enough, nothing spectacular.

So it was back to the car for a final session behind the lens, picking up a few nice shots of Reed Buntings, Robins and Dunnocks as the light started to improve. Nice to be back out again, getting a bit of exercise for the shutter finger and giving the binoculars a bit of an airing.

Bird of the Day - Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus), for being there when I needed a photographic model.