20 December 2009
And I'm thinking to myself: "Can't see why anyone would think this is a weird hobby."
Actually I can and I can't. On the weird side, it was cold, early and the duck (a reported male smew) is very small. On the sane side, it was beautifully clear, bright and peaceful, the light was bringing out the colours of all the birds superbly and there was arguably nowhere else on earth I'd have rather been. So, was it worth it? Certainly was.
The walk towards Tofts revealed huge numbers of ducks and gulls on the water, along with a field full of lapwing and golden plover (about 30 of the latter, hundreds of the former). As well as the ever-present pied wagtails there were half a dozen meadow pipits, and up in the shallows themselves were a grey wagtail (one of two) and a green sandpiper.
Walking across the top end of the reservoir revealed the woodland birds - blue, great and long-tailed tits, loads of blackbirds and redwings, many bullfinch and a small flock of goldfinch and siskins.
And then, heading back down Draycote Bank, I finally found a couple of rarer birds as icing on the cake. First it was an unexpected female common scoter, with its unmistakeable dusky cheek catching my attention as I scanned for grebes. And then, just as I'd given up hope of a diver, a great northern diver bobbed into view close by. Both firsts for the year, and both sending me happily on my way to the local diner.
Bird of the day: Common scoter (Melanitta nigra), a common enough sea duck (although on the conservation Red List), but much less common at inland waters.
13 December 2009
On the water there were the usual good numbers of coots, tufties, mallards, moorhen, mute swans and black-headed gulls, along with a a few common gulls, a couple of shovellers, five teal, a pair of gadwall and half a dozen wigeon.
Snipe flew in and out of the reed bed, still very evident with the low water levels, and 25 lapwing flew overhead towards the north.
But perhaps the main interest was around the edges, in the fields and hedges that surround this small reservoir. Still plenty of starlings, redwing and fieldfare of course, along with small flocks of finches (chaffinch, greenfinch and bullfinch on show today). Today's nice surprise was a pair of linnet. Although they are reputed to be common enough, I don't often get a decent view of them so every sighting is a welcome one.
Bird of the day: Linnet (Carduelis cannabina), a small, nervous finch which is hard to get close views of. It is still relatively common, but as with many farmland birds it is in steep decline and is therefore a conservation Red List species.
10 December 2009
Sadly it seems not to be an isolated case: http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/145109/Barn-owl-numbers-fall-as-grasslands-are-lost
Another clash between the needs of man and nature - more homegrown food, or space for animals, birds and plants? Unfortunately I think I know how that will end.
9 December 2009
The boldly coloured plumages have generally gone (ducks, you are an honorable exception), the floral displays have died back, and even the fiery reds of autumn are fading from memory. In their place come more subtle delights - the sheer scale of winter flocks (coastal waders, roosting starlings, wetland lapwings), the spiders' webs clinging tenaciously to dying foliage, the stark silhouettes of newly-naked trees. Perhaps even the occasional unexpected gull species among huge inland flocks of black-headed gulls (one for the connoisseur, this!).
But one joy remains - there is still birdsong. Today at Brandon I was largely led by my ears, following the melancholic song of the robins, the strident declarations of wrens, the soft piping of bullfinches, the cacophony of lapwing and the toy-squeaking of a large mixed flock of siskin, lesser redpoll and goldfinch.
Even among all of this though, one voice stood out - that of the Cetti's Warbler. If you haven't heard it, then follow the link below to the RSPB site and listen to their recording. It's an extraordinary sound, explosive, melodic, electronic, perhaps even frightening. But perhaps most extraordinary of all is the fact that I have heard it on every single visit to Brandon over the last seven or so years (we're lucky to have them breeding there), but I have never until today actually seen one there.
They are legendarily secretive, even furtive, so as you can imagine, the sighting was the highlight of my short morning visit. A decent glimpse, broad cocked tail and all, to go with the pair of goldeneye, the seven snipe and the lovely mixed finch flock I've already alluded to.
Bird of the day: Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti), ordinary looking but extraordinary sounding. Nice to finally bag a sighting at Brandon.
Still, the birding was nice if uneventful. The fields where barn owls could be found last year have been ploughed and planted, so that's stuffed then. There was nothing much new on the water at the reservoir - a couple of extra wigeon, similar numbers of everything else, and Ufton was very queit indeed.
Bird of the day: Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), easily found at close range on the fields near Ufton, a striking and powerful looking winter thrush with bold colours.
29 November 2009
It was bright, cold but largely still when I arrived - always a bonus at 'ice station napton', where the wind tends to blow strong and very, very cold. As I scanned the water I found a wonderful winter assortment (sounds like a christmas biscuit box) including some of the less common birds on my patch - a male and female wigeon, two male pochard, a cormorant, three snipe together on the edge of the reedbed, and a large gathering of 60+ common gulls. And in among those was even a patch first, a male goldeneye.
But despite the richness of the waterbirds on offer, I spent most of my time scanning the hedges and trees around the edge of the reservoir, watching huge flocks of starlings intermingled with redwing, fieldfare, blackbirds and a few song thrush. The starlings were everywhere - feeding on the floor, stripping berries from trees and flying from tree to tree in large flocks. Despite everything else which was around today (it was particularly nice to hear Cetti's Warbler song again), it was the starlings which were the star of a very pleasant morning.
Bird of the day: Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), an under-appreciated species which generally attracts little more than indifference. Look closer however and you'll find a bird which is beautiful in its own right and stunning in large groups.
22 November 2009
Both are resident breeders in the little woodland patches along this stretch of the River Leam, and both are more often heard than seen. The treecreeper, which I saw twice today, is an extraordinary little bird. With its mottled brown back and white belly, and its habit of creeping and darting up tree trunks, it looks for all the world like a little mouse - apart from the distinctive decurved bill that is.
The goldcrest is officially Britain's smallest bird, and it's habit of feeding high in the dense branches of conifer trees doesn't make it easy to see. Its little high pitch seep-seep calls are the giveaway though, and when you do catch sight of one you'll see the most beautiful delicate little creature.
So, apart from good views of both these elusive birds today there wasn't much else to report. The scrape is still running ridiculously dry (with nothing on it but a pair of grey herons), the woods are full of blue, great and long-tailed tits, a flock of goldfinch and siskins flashed by at one point, I got good views of a small bullfinch group, and there are plenty of thrushes around, including blackbirds, song, redwing and fieldfares.
Oh, and one final point worth mentioning - not one but two song thrushes were in full song today. This is either by some margin the latest or earliest singing I have ever heard from this species - unseasonal warm weather, another crazy climate change symptom? Who knows?
Bird of the day: Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris), a common bird that is elusive enough to make each and every sighting a special one.
21 November 2009
Given the vast improvement in the weather, I had popped back to see if I could find some of the birds I missed yesterday. It didn't take long. With a steady scope (as opposed to yesterday when it was rattling around in a hurricane) it was easy to locate, in turn, two ringed plovers, two spoonbill, two little grebes, half a dozen snipe and a spotted redshank. The spoonbills were the highlight, my first for several years and a fitting finale for a weekend at Abberton. These splendid birds are amazing and peculiar in equal measure, particularly while sweeping their distinctive bills through water for food, in a style faintly reminiscent of avocets.
Before leaving Essex and heading back to my land-locked Warwickshire patch, I drove on to the estuary reserve of Fingringhoe to pick up a final few coastal species. As I looked out across the salt marshes and the river I quickly added to my weekend list shelduck, knot, curlew and oystercatcher. Across the two sites and two very different days I found nearly 70 species of bird, many in spectacular numbers, as well as some good company in the various hides and some interesting fungi to photograph on the way back to the car (see fly agaric and shaggy ink cap, pictured). I am a happy bunny.
Bird of the day: Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), a tall stork-like bird with a spade-tipped bill. Europe-wide it is a conservation concern, with the vast majority of British sightings being of passage migrants moving south for the winter (although a few might overwinter here). As a result it is quite uncommon and always a pleasure to see - there is nothing else quite like it.
14 November 2009
And indeed, in the end there were some patches of sunshine to enjoy between the squalls and the ferocious gales. But it wasn't the weather which defined this trip – it was the sight of vast acres of exposed mud in an eerily dry reservoir.
I had turned up expecting to find a full reservoir covered with ducks, geese and, above all, coots (often several thousand at this time of year). Instead I was watching at an area which looked more like an estuary exposed at low tide – an area absolutely teeming with hundreds of waders.
Several hundred black-tailed godwits dominated the site, with big flocks visible from both causeways plus the main reserve hides. Approximately 80 avocets swept for food, 300 golden plover squatted on a freshly exposed island, dunlins ran around between them all and the redshanks, lapwings and a few ruff finished the picture.
Out on the water there were perhaps 50 pintails (probably the most I've ever seen in one place), a few ruddy ducks, a male goosander, plenty of the more common ducks (mallard, tufted, shoveller, pochard, wigeon and teal), a few goldeneye, gulls (black-header, common, herring and lesser black-backed), a little egret and a single green sandpiper.
The sheer numbers and variety were breathtaking for an inland waterway site – 48 species without really 'working' the woods and nearby fields. Having intended to visit for a couple of hours, I ended up staying nearly six hours, testimony to a great day's birding.
Bird of the day: Pintail (anas acuta), surely one of the world's most beautiful and elegant ducks. How it's legal to shoot them in the winter is an absolute mystery to me, and a travesty.
8 November 2009
The early morning rain quickly convinced me that the six hides of Brandon Marsh were a better bet than trecking round an exposed Napton Reservoir or Ufton Fields. So, ever the adventurer, I struggled into the waterproofs and dashed to the hide nearest the Brandon car park - the Baldwin hide overlooking East Marsh Pool.
And yes, it was bleak at first. As I sat with a few hardy souls I found myself looking out into cold driving rain. I slowly scanned the pool, counting more than 125 shovellers, 150 lapwing and an impressive 15 snipe, along with plenty of pochards, tufted ducks, mallards, a dozen cormorant, and assorted coot, moorhen, grey heron, great crested grebes and mute swans.
Then, as the cold started to set in, I saw a swan flying in towards us and noticed a flash of yellow - fantastic, my first whooper swan in Warwickshire. Sadly, it wasn't to be with us for long.
As soon as the whooper landed, the two resident mute swans went into action. Territorial in the extreme, they lifted their wings behind them, pushed their heads low and homed in on their target. They were an impressive sight, beautiful and menacing in equal measure, circling their arctic cousin like two pocket battleships (the photo, by gradders52, gives a good idea of the overall effect). There was no need for contact or combat though - a few passes, a few circling manouvres, and the whooper got the message - he was off.
It was a wonderful few minutes - nature as it really is: beautiful, exciting, unfair, rarely predictable and never, ever scripted. The return to the car parked yielded treecreeper, nuthatch, siskin, goldfinch, green and great-spotted woodpecker, and a dozen or more redpoll hanging from the alder trees. Well worth getting out in the rain then.
Bird of the day: Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret), a small streaky finch which is really only a winter visitor to these parts. Despite the excitement with the swans, I haven't seen redpoll for ages so, slightly unexpectedly, the redpolls were my bird of the day.
7 November 2009
The first five minutes after this chore has been completed are fascinating, with pretty much the same action unfolding every time. First the house sparrows arrive, descending on the fat ball feeder in the back garden and then the two front garden feeders (with a ferocity which will see them emptied by tomorrow morning).
Next will be a pair of collared doves who will set up camp on the biggest feeder, followed by a pair of goldfinches who will do likewise on the niger seed feeder. Blue tits and great tits will arrive next, focusing on the fat balls and peanuts, and underneath it all will be an assortment of robins, dunnocks and starlings fighting over the scraps.
All of this happened this morning, but with one exciting twist - no sooner had they all arrived than a male sparrowhawk flashed through the garden (scattering all and sundry), turned steeply and settled in a neighbour's tree. It's been a long long time since I've seen a 'sprawk' in the garden, and this might even be the first male. It looked magnificent in the morning sun, but sadly just too far away for a photo to really do it justice.
Bird of the day: Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), one of our most common raptors but not often seen well, despite having an obvious attraction to garden bird feeders.
5 November 2009
Late autumn and winter is the real time to go, when the reserve attracts thousands of white-fronted geese, bewick's swans and other over-wintering wonders. This year the mild weather and prevailing winds seem to have set the Bewick's arrival back a bit, but there were plenty of geese around including barnacle and white-fronted. 'Herds' of shelduck wandered out over the mudflats, little clusters of wigeon whistled everywhere you turned, and big skylark flocks (100+) erupted out of the tussocky grass every few minutes.
As you would expect with all of this birdlife around, there were plenty of raptors in view as well - two buzzards around Holden Tower, followed by a sparrowhawk fly-by. Looking out across the rough ground I then found a peregrine falcon, its briliant white chest and 'moustache' vivid even at long distance. I watched for half an hour, but sadly it wasn't going to move - a pity, because there is nothing more thrilling in nature than a peregrine hunt.
Other sightings including lots of teal and pochard, a good number of pintail, a water rail, great spotted woodpecker, cettis warbler, a close up snipe, and a lot of late, late dragonflies - testimony perhaps to just how mild October has been (it was in fact 17C as I drove home just before 4pm).
Bird of the day: White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), a grey goose with significant areas of white around the base of the bill and black bars on the belly. The birds at Slimbridge have migrated in from Siberia, and have pink bills. Others, Greenland birds with orange bills, come in to other parts of the country at this time of year, notably to Ireland and West Scotland.
2 November 2009
As is my general practice on getting up in the morning, I spent a few minutes watching the garden feeders from my landing window with the old pair of binoculars I keep to hand. After watching the starlings, house sparrows and collared doves fighting amongst themselves, I tracked a coal tit from the feeder back to the trees at the far end of the garden. There I spotted a small non-descript warbler picking its way through some old fruit trees - annoyingly I couldn't 100% ID it at that distance, but I'd guess at a late / overwintering chiffchaff. Unusual enough.
Then I put the bins down, looked out again, and a House Martin dashed low over the roof, along the length of my garden and off over the fields to the south. Perfect (if brief) views, white rump and all, but it's November 2nd! Surely some mistake. Some hours later I'm now doubting my sanity and my eyesight, but I'd be amazed if even I could have got that wrong. I've heard there have been some late broods this year, but that fella must be setting some kind of record for setting off late - must be at least at least a month late. Hope he makes it.
Bird of the day: House Martin (Delichon urbica), a common sight over many towns and villages in late spring and summer, but usually back in Africa by now.
28 October 2009
The first of these unexpected opportunities was at Hellifield Flashes, a typical moorland wetland not half an hour from where we were staying. Having persuaded a reluctant child that a short walk might be in order, I was able to enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of birds gathered round this modest pool - plenty of wigeon, teal, pochards, lapwing, common and black-headed gulls and greylag geese, and then, with closer inspection, a group of nearly 50 snipe, easily the largest flock I've ever found.
That was pretty good, but the next evening I was even more excited as I first heard, and then saw, a tawny owl dashing through the woods as I stood contemplating the night sky. Embarrassing though this is after so many years of birdwatching, I had never until that moment clapped eyes on a wild tawny owl (heard plenty of course). So although it was a pretty sketchy view in the dark, that has to go down as a lifer, and one more of my embarrassing bogey birds dealt with.
Finally we dropped into Brandon Marsh on our way home - nothing spectacular, but a really good volume of waterfowl, including notable numbers of shovellers. A couple of kingfishers flashed past and my weekend was complete (unless you count waking up on Monday morning to find a great spotted woodpecker on my neighbour's feeders, that was a nice start to the week).
Bird of the day: Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), a fairly common resident bird which is made somewhat harder to see by its pretty much totally nocturnal habits. Your only chance of finding one in daylight is to find it roosting, and in many years of birding I've not managed that yet. A shadowy glimpse with two calls to verify will have to do for now. Photo courtesy of ClifB on Flickr -
18 October 2009
Still, the fact remains that while the headlines are grabbed by the rare passage migrants (yesterday's glossy ibis in north Warwickshire for example) and the new arrivals that will stay through our winter (the redwings, fieldfare, siskins and so on), the coming together of the various tit species into sizeable foraging flocks can be a spectacular sight.
This morning's birding at Leam Valley was initially saved by one such flock. It had been a woeful start. There were isolated common species here and there around the reserve itself, but really nothing of note - not helped by the extremely low levels of water on the scrape. But as I left the reserve and headed just a hundred yards or so into the Offchurch Bury estate, I walked underneath an oak tree and was suddenly surrounded by scores of birds.
It was a fantastic flurry of colourful activity, blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits all together, and I stood there for perhaps 15 minutes, enjoying the spectacle and trying to grab the perfect picture (as you can see, I failed). Such was my enjoyment that long-tailed tit looked a nailed on certainty for my coveted 'bird of the day' title - until, that is, a Marsh Tit turned up, a fairly rare sight round these parts. I had a new 'bird of the day'.
So there I was, my day salvaged and about to turn for home. When...
A stonechat! An actual female / juvenile stonechat sat high on a hedge not 20 yards away. Not rare in birding circles of course, but bloody rare on my patch - in fact it has been top of my patch wish list for five years or so! A quick and distant photograph for the record, and my morning was complete. A decent haul in the end included sparrowhawk, green and great-spotted woodpecker, 40 fieldfares (my first big flock of the year) - and when I got home, I found two coal tits on the feeders as well. 30+ species for the morning is a pretty good local haul.
Bird of the day: Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), an upright little bird, slightly smaller than a robin, which loves to show itself from handy vantage points. The male is striking in red, black and white - my female was a little more subdued, but still a lovely little bird.
12 October 2009
Today at Napton was more like it - half the temperature of a few days ago, but infinitely better visibility, and many times more birding enjoyment.Up on the hill I immediately heard, then saw, a raven - mobbed by a carrion crow until the raven finally grew bored and headed away to the east. Soon afterwards, four fieldfare flew by, my first of the year. Elsewhere I found more redwings, blackbirds, a pair of meadow pipits and a female blackcap.
Down at the reservoir, a pair of Gadwall were all that was new on the water. But the fields around the edges were stuffed full of birds - male yellowhammers bright in the sun, meadow pipits all around, a small group of dunnocks moving through the hawthorn, and big numbers of skylarks either singing in the autumn skies or chasing each other low over set-aside fields. The mute swan in the main photo wasn't the bird of the day, but he was the photo of the day as he passed low overhead not once, but twice (just as well, the lens cap was on first time around - smooth!).
Bird of the day: Raven (Corvus corax), the largest of our crows, a truly massive black bird, notably larger than a buzzard. Once confined to Wales and the north, its range is starting to spread east, meaning it is by no means uncommon in Warwickshire these days.
10 October 2009
So I arrived at dawn, then scoured the area around the church, the track to the windmill, the embankment, the fishing pools, the quarry and the scrubby woodland. The hour was right, the season was right, what could go wrong?
Well, thick fog for a start. I could see little, and hear even less. Nothing, apart from a very occasional robin and one Mistle Thrush, moved or sounded from 7.30am until 9am. That was 90 minutes of not very much (the deer aside, which nicely broke up the monochrome monotony - anyone know what type it is?)
Still, things livened up a bit from 9am, and I settled in near some berry-laden bushes and watched as first the blackbirds streamed past (20+) and then a similar number of Redwings broke cover and headed across the hill. So, nothing rare, but there they were - the first real evidence of mass migration on my patch this year. And as I left (the sun finally bursting through, typical) I saw one last hurrah from the old guard - a swallow doing two laps near my car before heading off south. Good luck my young friend, see you next year I hope.
Bird of the day: Redwing (Turdus iliacus), a small thrush and one of our earliest mass migrants, visiting us from Scandanavia every winter. Beautifully marked, particularly around the face and eyes.
3 October 2009
Napton Reservoir was quiet all around. The butcher's who manage it have managed to hack back every single bit of vegetation around the small pool at the entrance (see photo, left), so that was understandably empty. On the two main pools there were about 70 Coot, a dozen Mallards, 5 Tufted Ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes with three juveniles (one adult with a particularly vigorous appetite, see photo), a couple of Moorhens and a few Black-headed Gulls. The only thing of interest was when four Wigeon briefly dropped in.
Around the edges there were Goldfinches and tit flocks aplenty, a pattern continued when I trecked up to Napton Hill for a look-see. Certainly nothing rare or migrant-y - the highlight here being a Buzzard which made a low pass as I headed back to the car.
And the less said about Ufton today the better.
Bird of the day: Wigeon (Anas penelope), a beautiful winter duck, the male in particular having striking plumage.
29 September 2009
So, with Draycote and Leam Valley covered on Saturday and Sunday, and everyone else in the county now squabbling over a big twitch (Aquatic Warbler in the south of the county), I decided to leave them to it and head out of the county. Having weighed up the relative merits of Slimbridge and Rutland Water (both about 90 mins away, one south west and one east) I settled on the latter in the hope of some good passage waders.
And it was pretty good from the word 'go'. I arrived to be told that four Whooper Swans had dropped in overnight, and there they were, right in front of the visitor centre. Not exactly lifers, but the one I had previously seen always seemed a bit doubtful to me, so it was good to bag four absolutely stone-dead legit birds (non-birders might be wondering how a swan can be anything less than legit - sorry, it's a long story).
Also on that first lagoon was a Black-tailed Godwit (with another five spotted in flight shortly after), a Ruff (distant views from here, much closer a little later on), plenty of Egyptian Geese, Little Egrets and Cormorants, and some Lapwing, Green Sandpipers and Redshanks here, there and everywhere.
Moving on to the next lagoon, I was ecstatic to lock straight on to an oncoming raptor - not only was it a Peregrine doing a low pass in front of the hide, but it was playing with / sparring with a Hobby as well. A real result - although I watched a Peregrine in Derby city centre just a few weeks ago, I never see enough and they must be a contender for one of my favourite birds. And as for a Hobby - I'm not actually sure I've seen one at all this year (a sad state of affairs indeed).
Elsewhere I found a small flock of Golden Plover, a male Pintail and a few Shelduck - none of them rare, but none likely to turn up on my patch too often. And to cap it all, I could add Kestrel, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk to the day's sightings, meaning I had seen five raptors in all - there aren't too many days that can be said.
Bird of the day: Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus), a large white swan with a distinctive yellow wedge of colour on its black bill. A spectacular winter vistor.
27 September 2009
Over the years I've grown really fond of this local patch of river, wood and scrape, and it's never more beautiful than early on an autumn morning as the mist lays on the flood plains across the river.
It was quiet at 8am, with even the birds only just starting their day. At first there was just a little Robin song here and there, but gradually the Blue Tits, Wrens and everyone else joined in. As I strolled along the river I startled Moorhen after Moorhen - five in all - and Carrion Crows, Rooks and Jackdaws started to cross hither-and-thither overhead. Half way to the hide I had my first real magic moment - a Red Fox just across the water from me. I froze, watched it pounce unsuccessfully, and then moved into position for a photo. It heard the first shot, turned and looked at me, gave me a great second shot, and then it was off into the undergrowth.
As soon as I sat down in the hide and looked out over the low low water and shallow pools, I knew I needed to leave quickly. Not because of any problem, but because far away to my left I could just make out a wader - I needed to get down to the viewing screen to find out what it was! I half-walked half-ran there, waders being a rare treat indeed at Leam Valley. And there, nice and close was a Green Sandpiper - a migrant I had long hoped to find here, but never had. A Leam Valley tick and a patch tick to-boot. Hurrah.
From then on the birding was great. A pair of Teal nosed around the end of the scrape, a flock of Long-tailed Tits flew past and around me, and Jays busied themselves with their acorn storing. Down at Offchurch Bury weir there was at least one, possibly two, Grey Wagtails, a cock Yellowhammer in all its glory, and a Kestrel being persistently mobbed by a Jackdaw. Finally, as I left, a Chiffchaff sang loudly (and a little unseasonably) from trees near the golf course.
Only 28 bird species (plus a fox), and nothing of spectacular rarity. But still my perfect morning's birding.
Bird of the day: Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus), a distinctive, contrasty bird (dark on top, white below) and a classic migrant / winter wader.
26 September 2009
Bird-wise it was one Common Sandpiper at Rainbow Corner, four Lapwings around Tofts, four or five Yellow Wagtails along Farborough Bank, a pair of low-flying Great Spotted Woodpeckers belting past me on the road by Biggin Bay and pretty much sod all else (to be fair, I am excluding large numbers of Pied Wags, Coots, Tufted Ducks, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Mallards and Teals).
And the only other thing worth mentioning was one sighting I really didn't need - a fisherman who decided to walk from one side of Tofts Bay to the other via the shoreline of the conservation area. Funnily enough that made a quiet sit in the hide a great deal quieter as all the birds quickly buggered off. Smart work Einstein.
Bird of the day: Erm, Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) at a push. A striking bird and always a pleasure to see, but it really shouldn't be a highlight in the middle of autumn migration :-(
19 September 2009
First of all, Draycote's latest star attraction - a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper - did the decent thing and hung around long enough for me to see it. Despite having been there since Monday, it showed no signs of being in any hurry to move on, and was there to greet me at 7.15am (my earliest start in quite a while). I watched this smart little American bird on my own for quite a while before moving on as the number of birders, and the inevitable photographers, started to grow.
Up at Tofts Shallows there was little to add apart from a solitary Common Sandpiper, so I headed off to Hensborough Bank, my other 'best guess' for a good place for autumn waders. On my way round I found plenty of Yellow Wagtails, a juvenile Shelduck that crossed low over the water, good views of a pair of Meadow Pipits, a Green Woodpecker, hundreds of low-skimming House Martins, a Yellow-legged Gull, and plenty of other diversions. But the wader count looked set to disappoint as Hensborough turned up nothing but a pair of Lapwing.
However, I set the scope up near Rainbow Corner for a final scan, and instantly locked on to a distant godwit - bar-tailed as I worked out through closer examination. So I set myself down on the wall, and waited as it worked its way towards me along the waters edge. Great views of a super wader, and one (I later learned from my records) that I have never seen before in Warwickshire.
With a lifer and a county tick already under my belt, I headed off to Brandon to see whether yesterday's Osprey had hung around. It hadn't, which served me right for trying to push my luck.
Bird of the day: Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos), a scarce passage migrant from America or Siberia. To be honest, I enjoyed finding and watching the 'barwit' more, but the Pec's rarity wins the day and secures it my coveted 'bird of the day' award! I've linked my poor picture (it was early and quite dark) to a better set of photos taken by proper bird photographer Steve Valentine so you can see what it looked like. The larger barwit photo is all my own work though, as are all the others (I particularly liked the three Snipes posing on an otherwise quiet morning at Brandon).
16 September 2009
We arrived at Crosby Beach (home to Anthony Gormley's art installation Another Place) at high tide, and watched for half an hour as the tide turned and flocks of Redshank, Dunlin and Knot started to gather on the exposed flats.
A quick dash up the coast then took us to Formby, a beautiful stretch of dunes and pine forest with a real star turn - Red Squirrels. I have been to favoured locations for this rare, and endangered, species before and always drawn a blank. With just half an hour to spend at Formby I wasn't at all hopeful. But as I stood in the car park with a cup of tea in hand, I heard high pitched squeals I didn't recognise (always a good sign), looked up, and there were two Red Squirrels bouncing through the tree tops. Hurrah - instant success and good views. If only it was always like that.
Mammal of the day: Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), the 'classic' British squirrel now sadly decimated by disease, habitat loss and competition from the introduced Grey Squirrel.
1 September 2009
A fabulous thing to find outside your back door - not rare but dazzling nevertheless. To quote the Warwickshire Dragonfly group's website: This is a widespread and common species. It is enterprising and often visits gardens to mature and breed in quite small garden ponds.
Insect of the day: Southern Hawker (Aeshna Cyanea).
The view from Carlton Hide was desolate. Just mud, water, a few Teal, some Stock Doves in the trees and a line of bored photographers all praying for a Kingfisher. Teal Hide revealed some juvenile Moorhens, and River Hide was no better. Where were all the sandpipers (common and green) and the Greenshank which had been reported all last week?
Sadly now gone, so even the main East Marsh Hide was quiet - the resident waterfowl, plenty of Lapwing, a Kestrel hovering overhead, a line of Black-headed Gulls and... bingo, the flash of yellow leg that revealed the final gull as a Yellow-legged Gull. Not a rarity perhaps, but a scarcity, and enough to salvage a desperate days birding at Brandon.
Bird of the day: Yellow Legged Gull (Larus michahellis), only recently recognised as a species in its own right, rather than a sub species of the Herring Gull. They are the same size as Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and adults have darker grey backs and wings than Herring Gulls, but are paler than the lesser black-backs. The real giveaway (if you are able to catch a glimpse of them) is the bright yellow legs (a Herring Gull has pink).
I went to Napton and then Draycote Reservoirs on Sunday morning to see that for myself. Napton was v. v quiet - just Tufties, Coots, Moorhens, a few Great Crested Grebes (along with three juveniles) and the odd Mallard here and there. But Draycote had some of the birds I was expecting to mark the real start of autumn passage.
First were the Yellow Wagtails, perhaps six or seven dotted around. Then I found one of four Wheatears which had been spotted - these little bouncing birds are a real favourite of mine. In the muddy banks of Tofts Bay were a pair of Common Sandpiper, and all over the water were big flocks of Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins, gathering to begin preparations for their long migrations south. A Lesser Whitethroat completed my birding morning, although I reportedly missed a Whinchat by not many minutes.
Back in the village, I was later treated to great views of a Sparrowhawk as it flashed around the gardens and houses, startling everything including our last remaining House Martins.
Bird of the day - Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), a colourful little bird with a bright white rump, similar in lots of ways to the Whinchat I enjoyed so much last week.
31 August 2009
Oulton Broads is on the southern edge of the Broads, virtually on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk. With several members of the family having hired the Albion for the week (a traditional Broads wherry), we got ourselves a chalet nearby and headed down.
The area is beautiful, the weather was fine, and around and about us I saw several Hobbies flying over and heard Bearded Tits 'pinging' in the reeds near the Albion's mooring (sadly it was too windy for a chance to see them).
A trip to Minsmere was more than a little disappointing - conservation work in progress meant virtually nothing on the main scrapes (why don't they close for a day a week like they used to?). I did manage to find a few things including a dozen Black-tailed Godwits flying over, but overall the trip was the poorest I've yet made to this normally great reserve.
Which made the next day at Snape Maltings so much the better. Initially a family / shopping trip, it transpired that the RSPB has bought land there and is planning on managing it for nature. I joined the guided tour and was thrilled to find a pair of Whinchat, my first for a long long time, and easily my best views. Unexpected birding is always the best.
Bird of the week: Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), a lovely little upright perching bird with a broad creamy stripe above the eye - definitely don't see enough of them round my way!
5 August 2009
Once at Brandon I braved the onslaught of shutter noise in Carlton, in an ultimately fruitless wait for a Hobby to turn up (still none this year). Better luck as I left the hide though, as a female Sparrowhawk made a low, showy pass. It was probably her partner who put the Lapwings to flight shortly afterwards on East Marsh Pool, in turn allowing me to notice the Black-tailed Godwit which had been feeding among them. How does a wader that large hide for so long.
And along with that very satisfactory birding (also including Sand Martins, Common Terns, Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Green Sandpipers etc), the place was alive with butterlies - these photos of a Painted Lady, a Comma and a Peacock being just three of the lovelier specimens on show.
Bird of the day: Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa), a tall, long-billed wader with a distinctive red body and striking white wing bars and rump when in flight. Shouldn't have taken me half an hour to find really.
26 July 2009
How so, and how especially so in high summer?
Well, at any time of year it is a pleasure to enjoy the feeling of liberation that cycling confers - a feeling of motion without undue haste, hassle or cost (either to your bank balance or the planet). There are sights and sounds to enjoy which are a mystery to passing motorists - little byways and alleyways, things just over hedges, birdsong, and people to greet with a cheery "mornin'".
So there is always the danger that after a fabulous 10 miles or so, the birding itself might fall a little flat. And this risk is at least doubled at the peak of summer, when the birding can often be best described as ordinary. No migrants, nothing much moving, birds gone to ground after breeding - you just cross your fingers and hope some times.
Well, by happy chance today was one of the lucky days - great cycling and great birding (mind you, I'd not been out much with either recently, so perhaps I was easily pleased). The 11 mile ride to Brandon Marsh was superb - pleasant but mild weather, the wind at my back, Yellowhammer and Greenfinch calling from every hedgerow, and plenty to see on my way - including an interesting array of fungus which I must go back and inspect more closely.
Things initially seemed quiet at Brandon, but then the birds emerged one by one. A Kestrel then a Common Buzzard. Mallards, Coot and Moorhen of course, and a Grey Heron hunched low in waterside scrub. At East Marsh hide I found 60 or more Black-headed Gulls, black heads rapidly fading, and 200 or more Lapwing. A Green Woodpecker exploded noisily from the grass banks, and around me Reed Warblers could be seen and heard.
Among all of this was a less common, but by no means rare, Ringed Plover, then a Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe and, with a flurry of black, white and orange, and Oystercatcher. Hidden among rocks I found a Common Sandpiper, and while I studied it closely I heard calls to confirm that three Common Terns had just arrived over the water.
I was already pretty pleased with my haul, but a quick trip to Carlton hide added three Redshanks, a Green Sandpiper, two more Cormorants and a personal favourite, Sand Martins. I presume the martins bred here this year, a very welcome development. And of course, alongside all of the birds, there were the flowers and the insects - the stripy caterpillars pictured above caught my eye, but I'm afraid I'm far too lazy to look up what they are.
All superb, and you'll excuse me if I gloss over the cycle ride home - into the wind, some serious uphill work, persistent light rain, and aching knees. I'm just rethinking my opening line - I'll get back to you on that.
Bird of the day: Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), a super little wader with a distinctive comedy bob as it walks, and a diagnostic clean white 'swoosh' up its side.
23 June 2009
I was delighted to find my first orchids at Ufton a couple of weeks ago, the Common Spotted Orchid to be precise. Not that this took any great skill on my part, just the brains to turn up at the right time of year and actually look for them. Forgot my camera though, which makes it all the more fortunate that there were also some in Fingringhoe, Essex, this weekend - hence the picture.
Bird-wise, I'm disappointed to report that I have still only heard one cuckoo this year, and that at Brandon Marsh. Regular spots from previous years, including Ufton, Napton Reservoir and Radford Semele, have all been silent this year. Hmm. I notice that Swifts have been put on the amber list this year as well - sometimes it's hard to stay optimistic about these things.
Anyway, Fingringhoe put on a pretty good show - Nightingales still calling, plenty of warblers around, the usual Curlews and Little Egrets out on the marshes, and lots of newly fledged birds around the place - as with the Magpies in the photo, and the Long-tailed Tit, one of dozens which swarmed past me at one point.
Flower of the month: Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), just how did I get to my age without noticing things like this before - absolutely beautiful.
31 May 2009
Our 'barbecue summer' is back with a vengeance, with the hot hot days making morning by far the best time to be out and about. 7am at Leam Valley was beautiful and a joy, just as long as you weren't looking for anything rare or remarkable (I wasn't).
The birds were in good voice, if a little elusive. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers both showed well, along with a couple of Chiffchaffs - but no Willow Warblers. A male Sparrowhawk drifted low and slowly overhead, while Swifts screamed on high and Swallows dropped down onto the scrape pool to drink. Reed Warblers and Whitethroat hopped around the waters' edge, taking advantage of reedbeds which have really started to come into their own this year.
And although my attention was firmly fixed on the birdlife, it was impossible to ignore the plants and flowers all around. Again, the water's edge was the place to be, with buttercups, oxeye daisies, red campion and bird's foot trefoil all intermingling to form spectacular splashes of colour.
Bird of the day: Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), a relatively common raptor which doesn't often give good views (more often than not it'll be a low direct dash past you before you get binoculars anywhere near your eyes). This was was low, slow and gave superb views before it slunk menacingly back into the woodland to hunt.
27 May 2009
Why do I work so hard at identifying birds by sight and sound? Why am I starting to photograph and identify the plants I see when I'm out and about? And why am I so ashamed at my lack of knowledge on butterflies, moths and dragonflies?!
Well, today's first sighting didn't take much identifying - the brilliant flash of blue that darted away from me down the stream was clearly my first Kingfisher on this stretch of water for a couple of years.
But as I wandered further, I started to realise that my obsession with naming things was helping me see my surroundings much more clearly than might otherwise be the case. If I didn't know it was White Campion, would I have paid so much attention to the flashes of white along the riverbank? If I hadn't planted a few Flag Irises in my own pond, would I have stopped to admire the stand of yellow flowers by the small pond? And if I hadn't failed to find Ragged Robin on a so many recent outings, would I have even noticed the few whispy pinky flowers just a few feet away (pictured)?
I think not.
The act of naming, of knowing what we are looking at, fulfils many purposes and has many joys, but principal among them is the way it encourages awareness. The very act of putting a name on something compels us to stop and notice it, and in doing so to begin to value it. And that, in turn, makes our world a more joyous place.
Either that or I'm just justifying my own nerdy obsessions. Possible, distinctly possible.
Bird of the day: Yes, there is one among all this, the Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the unmistakeable flash of blue that enlivens any riverside walk.
23 May 2009
This legendary songster is now extremely rare in Warwickshire, so my chances of stumbling across one on home turf are pretty low. Fingringhoe in Essex, on the other hand, must surely be one of the UK's hottest hotspots, with 30-40 males singing there every April and May.
Knowing that the bird is an intensely shy skulker, the first precaution I took was to spend some time listening to an mp3 of its song, in order that I could pick it out when I heard it. The second precaution was to get up nice and early and arrive at Fingringhoe as soon as it opened - Nightingales, like most songbirds, are more vocal and visible at the start of the day.
So... did I find any? Well, I arrived to be told at the visitor centre that I was probably a week too late - not the best of starts. Then I wandered round for 20 minutes hearing nothing but Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap song, interspersed with more common resident species like Wren, Blackbird, Robin and Chaffinch.
And then I heard it. Wow. No danger of not recognising that then. It turns out that the Nightingale is a bit like opera - nice to hear a recording, but absolutely nothing like the experience of hearing it live. It is a spectacular liquid bubbling call, a call that stops you dead in your tracks the moment you hear it. As long as you're familiar with the other loud songsters (notably Song Thrush and Cetti's Warbler), there is no chance of mistaking it for anything else.
So I heard one. I heard four or five in fact. But seeing them was another matter all together. I scoured, searched, loitered, stared, scanned and squinted at bush after bush, but all in vain. Until finally, after 20 minutes spent stalking one particularly vocal specimen, I found him. On the plus side I got a great view, full length from beak to tail. On the downside, it lasted for perhaps a second before the bird dived back into cover.
So, success of sorts, enjoyable but limited. I'll definitely be coming back for more.
Bird of the day: Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), a wonderful voice but not much of a looker (which reminds me, Britain's Got Talent is on in an hour).
ps. I clearly didn't have long enough to get a photo. This one is courtesy of Sergy Yeliseev on Flickr.
18 May 2009
May has generally been a lot less pleasant than April, with showers and blustery winds the order of the day. However, that hasn't stopped nature going about its business, and there's still been plenty to see while out and about on my day-to-day travels.
The first Swifts arrived back in Henley-in-Arden on or around 7th May, very much in line with previous years. While driving around the neighbouring countryside, there seem to be more Lapwings over the fields than in previous years, and I'm hoping this marks a return to wider spread breeding due to changing farming practices. Fingers crossed anyway.
On the subject of breeding birds, I put my first ever nest box up in autumn last year, and I'm now the proud steward of a family of Blue Tits. They're going through fat balls like crazy, but it's worth every penny - it's amazing to watch just how busy the parents are at the moment.
The photo is of a bracket fungus on a dead tree where my wife works. It's absolutely amazing and I have meant to photograph it every year it appears. I read somewhere that fungi are more closely related to animals than plants - is that true?
And finally, I missed one trip to Ufton Fields out of my regular trip reports, and it was an important trip for one key reason. I have often been told that Ufton represents my best chance of finding Turtle Doves locally, and while I couldn't actually see any last weekend (10th May), I did hear several birds, softly purring along The Ridge in between the Wood Pigeons. Ultra distinctive and ultra exciting, although I was gutted that 45 minutes of searching didn't throw up so much as a glimpse. Still, never mind - nice to know they're there.
Bird of the week: Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur), a beautiful elegant bird with a soft, distinctive purr. Sadly rare these days, and still in decline.
14 May 2009
If I trek off to a 'hot-spot' reserve looking for something rare or unusual, I'm not often surprised - if only because someone else will invariably have found anything rare or unusual before I get there, and emailed / blogged / forum-posted / told me directly about it.
Tonight however, a quick glance out of my kitchen window genuinely surprised me when I was least expecting it.
My usual glance up from the sink might reveal House Sparrows on and under the seed feeders, Blue Tits on the fat balls, a few Starlings squabbling on the bird table, a couple of Wood Pigeons loitering suspiciously near the veg plot, and then the occasional Blackbird, Dunnock, Wren or Greenfinch to liven things up.
What I wasn't expecting to see tonight was a pair of Siskins on the niger seed feeder. These are relatively common passage or winter birds, but extremely rare (as far as I know) in Warwickshire as breeding birds during our summer months. The latest I've ever seen in the county before were on February 27th, so this pair is either extremely late leaving, breeding locally or... what? Any thoughts?
Bird of the day - errr, that'll be the Siskin (Carduelis spinus), a lovely little finch which should be a long way west or north of here at the moment!
13 May 2009
I know that last year's cutting back of the water edge vegetation had a damaging effect on habitat for nesting Sedge Warblers and the like, but this article reports on the subsequent damage to insect life and wider biodiversity.
Napton could be a great little habitat if properly managed - let's hope British Waterways gets moving on trying to "encourage biodiversity while still ensuring compliance with the reservoirs act".
3 May 2009
I think the logic goes like this: while it is usually possible to find non water-loving birds near water (in the hedgerows, fields and woods nearby for example), it but all but impossible to find waders, waterfowl, kingfishers or other water-dependent birds unless there is actually some water to hand. Thus, with the odds of a good morning's birding swung firmly in our favour, we flock like thirsty warthogs to the nearest water holes.
I like to think that a lack of watery habitats is my main reason for not not visiting Cubbington Wood more often. Sadly I think it may also be down to the fact that my (ir)regular route is quite a long walk - all too often my head and heart say "good idea" while my legs and stomach say "why not take a quick stroll rounds Leam Valley / Ufton / Napton Reservoir / Brandon, and then slope off for a quick fry up?"
Well, today my head and heart won. Spring is a great time to visit woodlands, so with the promise of warblers, wildflowers and wilderness, I set off on my stroll.
The walk starts at St Michael's Church is Weston-under-Wetherley and sets off towards the wood across farmland which is voluntarily managed for nature - broad and shaggy hedgerows, wide grass margins full of wild flowers, and permissive paths to allow everyone to enjoy the fruits of this enlightened regime. The farm in question has a sign at its entrance promoting Leaf - Linking Environment and Farming, a wonderful initiative that makes so much different to a simple stroll through the countryside. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - thanks guys.
So, from the church past the farm to the wood, through to South Cubbington Wood, up to Cubbington itself through fields of rape seed, turn right across more fields and a road to reach the edge of North Cubbington Wood, then back to the church via the road. A nice walk, and no more than 90 minutes of anyone's time.
And what did I see?
Well, the highlights of a rewarding walk were a bird, a flower and mammal. The bird was spotted early on the walk - a bright Yellow Wagtail in a horse / sheep field near the farm. This a wonderful little bird which I always expect / hope to find and then rarely do - in fact I've been successful only two or three times in my five or so years on this patch. I was thrilled.
Then into the wood, where I found myself surrounded by the most wondrous carpet of blue. These, of course, were bluebells, the original English variety and splendid to behold, whichever way one turned.
And finally the mammal. As I paused to read a sign near the north tip of North Cubbington Wood and rabbit darted to the edge of the wood, saw me, skidded, turned and darted back, pursued by a beautiful Red Fox. With respect to the rabbit, it was the Fox that wins my 'mammal of the day' nomination - what an animal.
So there you have it - a lovely walk, great flora and fauna, beautiful surroundings, and an environmental success story to boot. I really must get to Cubbington Wood more often.
Bird / Flower / Mammal of the Day: Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) / Common (English) Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) / Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), all brought great joy to my morning.