20 December 2009

Ice Station Draycote

It's 8am and minus 5 degrees centigrade. I'm wearing all my winter clothing at once, I'm standing on sheet ice, and I'm scanning the surface of Draycote Reservoir through my spotting scope. The reservoir is filled with thousands of gulls (which are basically white birds), and I'm looking for a solitary small white duck.

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

Gotta be Linnet to Win It ;-)

Cool, clear and still today at Napton, with a classic haul of winter birds.

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

Barn Owl peril

I wrote a couple of days ago about the set-aside field near Napton which used to host barn owls, but not now - it has been ploughed and reverted to agricultural use.

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 secretive Cetti's Warbler

The nature lover has to work harder for his pleasures in winter.

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.

And then the sun came out...

It poured down last night, and was still pouring at 6 o'clock. And at 7 o'clock. By 8 o'clock I was reluctantly loading my waterproofs in the car, and by half-past eight I was struggling into them near Napton reservoir. I was about five minutes from the car when the sun came out and I found myself wearing wellies, waterproof coat, waterproof trousers, hat, gloves, uncle-tom-cobbly-and-all on what had become a lovely sunny morning. I didn't half feel a nana.

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.