28 October 2009

A Yorkshire break (and a 'bogey bird' breakthrough)

Our latest family weekend in Yorkshire afforded an unusually high number of birding opportunities i.e. more than none.

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

Stonechat at Leam Valley

Tit flocks are an under-rated feature of autumn wildlife watching. Perhaps it's the name - it's hard to explain this point without someone cracking a smile, if not a nudge-nudge-wink-wink comment. Know what I mean?

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

Napton shines

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

Aha, migration (but where are the rare ones?)

Determined to find the latest arrivals to the area, I headed up to Napton-on-the-hill for a thorough look around - if anywhere in my patch has a record for early / interesting migrants, it's there.

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

Migration fever (must be happening elsewhere)

I thought the brisk NW winds might have brought something fresh to my local patch. I was wrong.

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.