28 February 2010

Not thinking about bitterns

I must not dwell on the bitterns, I must not dwell on the bitterns, I must not... oh, I give up. Hell and damnation, those blasted bitterns evaded me again at Brandon.

Right, now I've got that out of the my system, I can confess to having quite enjoyed my morning vigil at Brandon, even if the bitterns failed to show up, again.

This was my third or fourth lengthy attempt to see one this winter, a task you wouldn't think was so hard, given there are believed to be at least three on the site. I was informed when I arrived at 8am that one had recently crossed the cut channel and walked into the reedbed just below the hide window - surely good news.

Sadly it was not to be, and two-and-a-half hours later it had still not reappeared. While I bow to no one in my admiration of the bittern's amazing powers of camouflage and concealment, a quick trot back across the channel would have been welcome.

Anyway, aside from going cross-eyed watching reedbeds for non-appearing bitterns, it was a good morning. Out on east marsh pool there were the usual good numbers of shovellers and lapwing (c 250 of the latter), a large number of snipe (I found 16 but heard reports of up to 31), and brilliant views of two water rail - a bird I hear far more often that I see (indeed it's probably more than a year since I got views anywhere near this good - sadly the poor light meant poor shutter speed meant... well, you can see for yourself, disappointing photos).

Around the margins were at least two loudly singing cettis warblers, and a male reed bunting which showed well in reeds in front of the hide.

However, the highlight of the morning, aside from everyone helpfully sharing their best bittern photos with me, was catching the arrival of the year's first Ringed Plover. It circled the water twice, landed on the main island, stayed for long enough for everyone to lock on to it and confirm its identity, and then headed off towards the river. Fingers crossed it was an early recce by one of Brandon's regular nesting waders (the oystercatchers apparently having been back for 10 days or so).

Oh, and one last thing. If you're an occasional visitor to Brandon, or even a seasoned regular, you might find the excellent Brandon Googlemap prepared by Keith Yates of interest:. He is the author of the Birding Afloat blog and a regular with the conservation team at Brandon, so is well placed to help you find some of the less well-known corners of this excellent reserve ps. if you read this Keith, I suspect we spoke on Sunday morning for quite some time without either of us knowing the other!

Bird of the day: Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula), a small and distinctively marked wading bird which has increasingly moved inland and taken advantage of flooded gravel pits like Brandon for its summer breeding grounds.

20 February 2010

Other commitments

As I sit and write this quick update at 12.30pm on a glorious saturday afternoon, it looks increasingly likely that I am going to miss out on birding this weekend :-(

Family, friends, jobs to do, places to be, drinks and fine dining, blah blah blah - all very nice of course, but are they any substitute for a freezing cold reservoir on a wintery morning? Erm....

Anyway, not very much birding action to report then, except to note that I've just had a jay in the garden, an extremely uncommon sighting for me (only the second I can recall in the garden, and the first for a couple of years). Frankly it did pretty well just to force its way through the perpetual state of warfare that exists in my garden between the starlings and the house sparrows, a conflict that has been heightened in recent weeks by their mutual appreciation of a new fat ball recipe I've been using. The starlings are particular fans, and have taken up a near permanent position around the two feeders, much to everyone else's chagrin - including mine. I only started making the damn things to reduce the cost of feeding the birds. Now that the homemade variety are are proving twice as popular as the shop-bought variety, I'm pretty much back where I started - half the price but twice as many.

Right then, I'm off to the shops - I need a wheelbarrow full of suet, lard, dried fruit...

Bird of the day: Jay (Garrulus glandarius), one of the world's most beautiful crows, vivid of colour and yet surprisingly hard to see, especially for non birdwatchers.

14 February 2010

Back on patch: winter in Leam Valley

As well as the plentiful bounty of estuary watching and twitching, there is a third type of birding to be enjoyed / endured at this time of year - the dutiful trudge round the local patch to make sure nothing unexpected is overwintering there.

I say endured because a local patch like mine, an inland mosaic of river, wood, shallow pools, scrub and meadows, is not at its birding best in mid-February - far from it in fact. But I cannot imagine anything more soul destroying than missing some scarcity or other so close to home, and so I try to make as many visits as weather and enthusiasm allow.

Given all my reservations, this morning at Leam Valley was fine. Uneventful, true, but the weather was bright and there were at least a few birds on offer. Great and blue tits were most in evidence, along with blackbirds wherever there was a patch of thawed mud to be probed. Dunnock and chaffinch song hailed the very earliest glimmers of spring, as did a couple of singing song thrushes (although I would have expected more based on previous years).

Less commonly, a pair of mistle thrushes were vocal in trees high above me, two cormorants were in a tree down by the Offchurch Bury weir, and eight teal, a record for me at Leam Valley, sailed out of reeds at the far end of the scrape. Three goldcrest were feeding furiously having survived the recent freezes, and a solitary skylark let forth a brief snatch of song.

The reserve itself was in fine fettle, with the three main reedbeds looking much more solid and well-established than in their early years. New fencing around the scrape should also help keep breeding birds safe come the spring, so fingers crossed for more wading birds and wildfowl records. On a less positive note, as well as the relative paucity of song thrush song compared with previous years, I was sad to see no discernable activity at the small rookery on the edge of the playing fields. From 14 nests in 2007 we now appear to have just six derelict nests left, and I can only assume the site has been abandoned.

Bird of the day: Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), a distinctive, almost reptilian coastal bird which has ventured inland more and more over recent years, particularly in winter. A most welcome addition to the River Leam in recent winters (unless you're a fish of course).

12 February 2010

Still not bittern

Business took me to Brandon for a 9.30am meeting today, so I took advantage with an ultra-early start and two hours on the reserve beforehand.

It's a while since I've been anywhere around sun-up, and today reminded me why it's nearly always worth the extra effort. Having avoided my own rush hour, I was at liberty to wander in solitude and watch the birds tackle their own version. Gulls were particularly busy, leaving roosts in big numbers to spread around the towns and countryside looking for food. Joining them in the 'skyway' were huge flocks of wood pigeons and a regular criss-cross of crows.

Out on east marsh pool there was plenty to see. More than 80 lapwings huddled on the muddy, churned up islands. There were four flavours of gull, including an adult and first winter great black-backed gull, a species not seen all that often on my patch. Around the water were the usual good numbers of shoveller (80+), teal, tufted ducks, a few pochard and wigeon, mallards, three mute swan pairs, three cormorant and plenty of both greylag and canada geese.

In the areas around the water I found a treecreeper, green woodpecker, cettis warbler, long-tailed tits and a male sparrowhawk offering up a glorious low, slow flyby.

Sadly, one bird eluded me. It is the same bird that has eluded me all winter; a bird which I imagine every Warwickshire birder but me will have seen at Brandon and/or Ladywalk. Yup, still no bittern. I spent an hour watching the east marsh reed bed and channel, but all in vain. All I got was a cold bottom and a nagging feeling that this isn't going to be my winter for bitterns.

Bird of the day: Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), a powerful, thick-set gull which is much scarcer than its smaller cousins.

5 February 2010

A sorry effort

A sorry half-arsed effort at Brandon last weekend, and a woefully late post to accompany it. I think I'm ready for spring now.

The trip failed to turn up either of my 'target' birds, the green-winged teal or a bittern (although the latter was seen about half an hour before I got there, and an hour or so later). East Marsh Pool was lively enough though - plenty of shoveller, a good flock of wigeon, a few teal dotted around and a female goldeneye right at the back.

But sadly my heart wasn't in it and I soon sloped off for a bacon buttie.

Breakfast of the day: Bacon sandwich (Lardum cardum), always with white bread, butter not margarine, and tomato ketchup.