25 January 2010

An estuary 'full house'

After the snow, some more familiar january weather - overcast, gloomy, still cool but blessedly free of snow, ice or arctic winds.

I took advantage of another family trip to Essex to visit Fingringhoe, the Essex Wildlife Trust reserve which overlooks the Colne Estuary and salt marshes. Famous for its nightingales during spring / summer, the winter outlook focuses much more on the coastal and water birds - a welcome change for a normally landlocked birder like myself.

Today did not disappoint, with the tide out and just about every species of estuary bird I could have hoped for. My haul of nearly 50 species included plenty I would be lucky to find at home, including: knot, redshank, curlew, oystercatcher, grey plover (half a dozen), dunlin (100+), avocet (50+), little egret (4), red-breasted merganser (5), bar-tailed godwits (30+), brent geese (initially a single bird, then perhaps 500 as the rest flew in en masse), and a single ringed plover.

Bird of the day: Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola), an unusual and unglamorous choice perhaps, but they really stood out among the various wading birds. It is the first time I've really noticed there large size and their lone feeding habits - while the other waders tend to cluster in groups, each grey plover stalks alone across the mud. In some ways their shape and colouring struck me as reminiscent of juvenile herring gulls.

17 January 2010

A local twitch or two

I finally out this morning to go for some of the great birds that have been in the area throughout the bad weather - thank goodness they turned out to be long-staying.

The first challenge was negotiating the black ice which covered the roads in sheets, making for the most dangerous driving conditions I think I've ever encountered. But fearlessly I pressed on, sometimes reaching up to 30mph, until finally I reached the A428 and 16 bewick's swans. Great start.

By 8.30am I was at Grandborough to find the great great shrike - success number two as it turned up after about an hour. What a bird - a long time favourite of mine, sitting atop telegraph wires in the brilliant morning sun. Sadly, despite the fact that there were still plenty of linnets there (perhaps 200, giving the lie to my 23rd December post complaining that they're hard to find in the area!) there had been no show from the oft-reported merlin by the time my toes had finally had enough (it was still pretty cold despite the thaw).

So I headed on to Draycote for some exercise, and to find (succesfully again) the drake smew and great northern diver. A female scaup in among the pochards off Hensborough Bank was an added bonus.

That already represented a great day's birding for me, but perhaps the best was saved till last. I popped back to Draycote after lunch to take my boy out on his bike - bins and small scope to hand in case anything interesting cropped up. And sure enough, as we headed home down Toft Bank, four dark-bellied brent geese dropped into the field and started feeding. Definitely a county tick for me - indeed I can't remember seeing them on any inland site before - and yet another highlight from a great day.

Bird of the day: Great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor), I can't quite explain why, but it's been one of my favourite birds since childhood. It would have to be to beat today's other great birds as my favourite of the day.

16 January 2010

'Snow fun if you're a bird

The fact that bad weather causes more and more wild birds to head into gardens has been well reported in recent weeks. The ice and snow has resulted in two or three 'phone calls from family and friends, asking what the new birds are in their gardens (redwings and fieldfare in the main).

My own garden has been no exception - so while I haven't been able to get out birding for what seems like weeks, the garden has offered some recompense.

My own roll call of less common species in the recent weeks has included: reed bunting, blackcap (a splendid male, still at the front garden feeders this morning), several bullfinches (male and female), long-tailed tits (generally in pretty small groups, which is a concern), redwings, fieldfares (just a couple), song thrushes, and this evening's star attraction - a male sparrowhawk happily ripping something to pieces (by the time I found it the prey was too far gone to identify).

And meanwhile, in the distance, I have been able to hear great spotted woodpecker drumming pretty much every day - my favourite signal that things are inevitably, albeit slowly, taking a turn for the warmer and brighter.

Garden bird of the month: Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), a delicate little grey warbler with, as the name implies, a distinctive black cap atop its head (brown on the female). While our own summer blackcaps tend to head south for the winter (like most other warblers) we are lucky enough to host overwintering blackcaps from the continent - making them one of the few warblers you can find year-round.

2 January 2010

Under ice

Nearly four months after my last birding-by-bike trip, I chose today in all its freezing glory to get back on my bike and head to Napton.

The day was about the cycling as much as the birding - battling the freezing temperatures, icy roads, aching knees and a complete lack of fitness, all with the help of a very welcome stop-off at the Long Itch diner.

At least there were actually some birds when I finally got to Napton. The reservoir was largely, and unsuprisingly, frozen, with just three holes left open on the main water. The first of these featured six mute swans (three adults, three first winter), five little grebes and a mix of common and black-headed gulls. The second was home to perhaps 80 mallards, along with a few tufties and a solitary pair of wigeon (possibly the same pair that have been here for most of the winter so far). The final, and largest, hole was home to the the coots, about 160 in all.

On the ice itself were six lapwing (unusual for the reservoir itself, usually they are a fly over sighting) and three snipe huddled by the reeds at the back.

On the way there and back I was kept company by the usual mix - finches and tits darting along hedgerows, none more conspicuous than the many bullfinches I rolled past; fieldfare, redwing and blackbirds everywhere, gulls and rook sp. in all the fields, and a couple of kestrels.

Bird of the day: Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), a common wader at their regular wintering spots (such as Brandon and Draycote), I don't often see them on the ground on my patch. A longstanding favourite of mine, they look and sound great.