25 January 2009

Back at Napton

After a couple of hundred miles, the legs and the lungs are starting to cope better with cycling. This is great news - it gives me more range, a more enjoyable experience, and of course more opportunities to combine cycling and birding.

Today was brilliant. My trip from Radford Semele to Napton and back was 24 miles in all, cycled at an average speed of 10.8mph, up almost a full mph since I started cycling. I saw loads of birds as I travelled (including a patch first), enjoyed a nice walk around Napton Reservoir in the middle, and then arrived home in time for tea and buns - hurrah!

So, to the birds. As I left Offchurch and headed for Hunningham, I saw a flock of 200+ Lapwing in the fields away to my right. When I stopped to watch these, I was extremely excited to find an even larger flock of Golden Plover swaying and swarming above the Lapwing. In fact I stopped to watch their interplay for more than 10 minutes - these were the first Golden Plover I had ever found on the patch.

Moving on I found a couple of Buzzards, plenty of Fieldfare and Redwing, hedges full of tits and finches, Skylarks singing, great views of a Meadow Pipit on a roadside spoil heap, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming.

Once at Napton Reservoir, things looked quiet at first - the usual Tufted Ducks, Coots and Mallards, with nine dozy Pochard lazing in reeds at the back and a single pair of Gadwall. But then a Cormorant flew over, causing me to look up and see at the same time a pair of Snipe circling fairly low over the reservoir. They continued for 30 seconds or so, giving great views of their distinctive profile before diving into the reedbed.

As I left I found Bullfinches in the hedgerow, and then two pairs of Mistle Thrush (one at Stockton, one at Long Itchington) on the way home. Top cycling, top birding.

Bird of the day: Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria), a real winter treat for inland birders. These waders are often found with Lapwing in large numbers, feeding on winter fields and flying overhead in tightly co-ordinated flocks if startled.

18 January 2009

Abberton's unexpected Bittern

A trip to my mother-in-law's in Essex meant a free Saturday morning to enjoy the best that Essex birding could offer. And in her neck of the woods, that really comes down to a choice of three - Fingringhoe, Blackwater Estuary or Abberton.

I had no plans to leave early, but when I finally did get up just before 8am, the weather made up my mind for me - it was wet and it was windy, and the two coastal destinations were just to exposed to appeal. So Abberton Reservoir it was - a bit of shelter, a few hides, and plenty of wintering birds. In the event, I needn't have worried about the weather - it brightened up beautifully. But I'm still glad I chose Abberton.

From the first causeway across this mighty reservoir I spied plenty of Goldeneye, Pochard, Tufties, a huge 'raft' of Coots and plenty more... including a cluster of birders standing together on the second causeway, a half mile or so away. This could only mean one thing - something was afoot.

So I drove round, hopped out, and heard one of the birders telling someone: "and just track along the line of reeds to the left of the weir." So, still not knowing what I was looking for, I dutifully obliged and locked straight on to a Bittern! Magic, one of Britain's rarest birds, a real favourite with most birders - and unlike most of the elusive little so-and-so's, this one was right on the edge of the small reedbed. I just about managed a record snap through the scope, and headed off a happy man.

The day was off to a flier, and it continued to be a belter. OK, so I couldn't find any of the reported 6 Smews (it's a big water, so it's not as easy as it sounds), but I did find Siskin at the visitor centre, more than 120 Curlew in fields nearby, a fabulous glittering flock of Lapwing, a close-to Redshank, scores of Wigeon, Teal, Goldeneye etc, Bullfinches, Goldcrest, Green Woodpecker, winter thrushes, 20 or so Sky Larks tumbling low over a ploughed field, and, my personal favourite after the Bittern, a pair of Stonechats on a reservoir-side fence. Brilliant birding.

Bird of the day: Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), with a special mention to the Stonechat. The Bittern is a smallish brown heron which was nearly hunted into extinction in Britain, but hangs on as a breeding bird in a small number of (mainly East coast) reed beds. These are supplemented in winter by incoming continental birds escaping the worst of the mainland freeze. They are rare, incredibly hard to see in the reeds (just check out the camouflage some time, and a favourite for most birders.

11 January 2009

Red-necked Grebe (at last)

Certain birds have always eluded me (a lot, now I come to think about it) - partly it's about being a rubbish birder, partly it's a lack of dedication to the cause, and partly it's a pig-headed refusal to twitch anything further than a mile from my home.

However, on a freezing cold and very windy morning at Draycote Reservoir I finally got another one off that 'elusive' list - Red-necked Grebe. Tucked into a line of Great Crested Grebes it was distinctive enough with its buff neck and head and yellow bill contrasting nicely with the white / pink of the Great Cresteds.

Apart from that I got a few Goosanders, a couple of Ruddy Ducks (not seen any for ages), freezing cold feet and tired legs from cycling into the bitter headwind. Still, the life list is up to a desultory 206 now - it'll be 250 by the time I reach 60 (which is a few year's off yet).

Bird of the Day: Ooh, let me think. I reckon that'd be Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisigena), an occasional winter visitor to inland waters and a welcome sight for sore, cold, watery winter eyes.

4 January 2009

Of biking, biting cold and bank voles

The absolutely freezing weather continued into this weekend ('just like winters used to be'), but a New Year's Resolution is a New Year's Resolution - so on to the bike for a bit of exercise and birding.

Friday saw the big ride, a 25 mile round trip to Napton Reservoir via Hunningham and the back roads east of Leamington. It was an exhausting but exhilarating experience - the exhausting being the cycling, and the exhilirating being the birding. I am a total convert - cycling is the only way to bird. You get to see so much more than you do by any other mode of travel - before I'd got anywhere near Napton I'd enjoyed hundreds of Fieldfare, Redwing, Bullfinch, Goldfich and various LBJs flitting from tree and bushes around me, close encounters with Buzzards, Kestrels and Green Woodpeckers, Lapwings flying over Offchurch, and... well, you get the picture.

At the reservoir itself, the cold had left most of the water frozen over. Concentrated in the remaining open water was an unusually high number of Wigeon (around 40) and Mute Swans (14), as well as a few Pochard, Gadwall, Tufties, Coots and so on. The most unusual sighting was the Harris Hawk which was out for a spot of fresh air with its owner - I often see unusual birds at Napton, but sadly they never seem to be official (i.e. legitimately wild). Never mind, it was still a superb bird to look at.

After a day off to recuperate some tired limbs, I set out today on a more modest 12 mile loop to Ufton Fields. The hedgerows were again alive, with Bullfinches, Jays and Fieldfares all easy to spot with their brightly coloured rumps. At Ufton itself the water was nearly all frozen, but huddled in front of the IBM hide was a record number of Teal (24), along with 30 Mallards, a couple of Coot and a Moorhen.

Other moments of note were my first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker of the year and a Bank Vole which ran out and sat just in front of me for two or three minutes, allowing me best-ever views. Magic.

Glad to be off that saddle though.

Bird of the day: Bank Vole (Clethrionomys glareolus) - yeah, I know, but it was great. Told from the Field (aka Short-tailed) Vole by its tail length. My one was over half the length of the animal's body, so definitely Bank. If it had been 1/3 or shorter it would have been a Field Vole. Other contenders too numerous to mention - Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming, record numbers of Teal and Wigeon on the two waters, great close views of roadside Buzzards etc.