29 November 2009

Winter... and so it begins

The howling gales and heavy rain which woke me early this morning had largely dissipated by 9am, so I dragged myself out to Napton Reservoir for a 'quickie'. A good decision as it turned out.

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

All things great, but particularly small

After a pretty quiet morning at Leam Valley, I'll dwell (albeit briefly) on two of the reserve's smaller residents - the treecreeper and the goldcrest.

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

Back for the spoonbill

After 48 hours in bed with the nastiest little bug, I was looking forward to some fresh air and birding this morning - until the strength in my legs (or lack thereof) and the state of the weather convinced me otherwise. No matter - I have just realised that I forgot to post the sequel to last Saturday's foul-weather birding trip. After the worst that Essex weather had to offer, I vowed to return the next day...

Another day, another weather front. Bright, clear, cold, with just the gentlest of breezes – Abberton Reservoir looked like another world this morning.

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

Heaven is an Essex reservoir

Nice - high winds, driving rain and grey skies. At least the rainbow which greeted my arrival at Abberton Reservoir promised some better weather ahead.

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

Swan wars, or A whooper at Brandon

This morning's entertainment was better than any scripted drama; better by far than the painfully contrived events of 'reality' tv and celebrity competition. This morning was real, it was vital, it was visceral - this was Swan Wars.

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.

Add ImageAs 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 bird table and a special guest

Keeping the bird feeders filled is a bit of a challenge during the winter months - no time in the morning, too dark in the garden at night. As a result it is often the first job on a Saturday morning.

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

White-fronted geese and family fun

Slimbridge is a family day out par excellence for a birder. Every year there seems to be more and more for young children to do, while dad (or mum as appropriate) can slope off to enjoy the views over acres of rough grasslands and marshes leading down towards the Severn Estuary. There's also plenty of opportunity to get close to the captive collection - hence the photos here, goldeneye, teal and goldfinch from top to bottom.

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

A House Martin? Now?

Every now and then birding gives you a 'surely not?' moment. This morning was one of those.

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.