21 March 2010

Early spring at Leam Valley and Napton Reservoir

The slight mist that greeted me as I opened the curtains in Radford Semele
had reached ridiculously dense levels by the time I reached Napton. Realising that I'd need radar to find anything in the gloom, I turned around and headed to Leam Valley instead.

Good move. There was a little mist when I arrived, but that soon burned off and left me with a perfect spring morning. At first I could only see the larger birds in the mist - the carrion crows, wood pigeons and magpies. Then the 'tinies' appeared - singing wrens, a treecreeper and a goldcrest. Soon everything was singing in the sunshine.

Four lesser redpolls were among the goldfinches in the alder trees, dunnocks sang everwhere and two song thrushes were in good voice. The scrape looked fantastic, and although there were initially few birds on view, a little time  revealed plenty. A snipe lurked deep in the reeds, a male sparrowhawk flashed by, a pair of reed bunting were 'courting' in the reeds and scrub, a male tufted duck floated out, my first ever Leam Valley little grebe appeared, and then, at 8.37am my first chiffchaff of the year started singing at the back of the scrape.

A fantastic haul for this little reserve, and one which bodes very well for the future here - the scrape in particular is definitely starting to mature.

With the mist now gone, I decided to make a dash for Napton Reservoir. The trip added plenty to my morning - common gull, pochard, lapwing, cettis warbler, skylark, another chiffchaff, and then, in a definite case of saving the best 'til last, a barn owl. Despite the bright mid-morning sun it burst out of a hedgerow then sat watching me for half an hour, giving me my best views for ages of this fabulous bird.

In fact, it would have been a perfect day if I hadn't had to miss Napton Hill for reasons of urgent DIY commitments. Annoying enough in itself, but super-annoying when I read several hours later that a firecrest had been up there all day. Hmm, still never seen one of those then...

Bird of the day: Barn owl (Tyto alba), a familar but quite superb bird; elegant, ghostlike, haunting.

19 March 2010

'My' Spring is here

Today is the first day of 'my' Spring. It actually looked pretty 'springy' yesterday, but frankly I was too tired to care (late night working and early starts). Today was different.

I woke up full of the joys. The sun was out, the first daffodils were out in my garden, and a woodpecker tapped away in nearby trees.

At lunchtime I trotted down to the Preston Bagot section of the canal, and found the very earliest signs of Spring - not the chiffchaffs I was hoping for, but bumblebees, wild garlic bursting through the river banks, song thrushes in full throat. Then I got back to the computer and watched the reports coming in - chiffchaffs, sand martin and the rest.

Bring it on.

15 March 2010

Waiting for 'the change'

At the risk of sounding like a bunch of menopausal women, all birders are currently waiting for The Change.

Nothing to do with our own biology or time of life of course (well not for most of us anyway). Instead it is the changing of the birding season, as winter gives way to spring and the birds start their mass migrations.

It is an event which sees our over-wintering birds - the fieldfares and redwings, the geese and wildfowl, and the millions of 'foreign' blackbirds, robins and starlings which spend winter in our gardens - return north and east to their own breeding territories. And to fill the void we receive in turn our summer birds, newly returned from Africa and the south - our chiffchaffs, willow warblers, common terns, swifts, martins and, of course, our swallows.

Unfortunately it's taking its time this year.

The mild winters of recent years have set a pattern of early springs, with everything kicking off in earnest from mid February onwards. Now, following a decidedly wintery winter, it's back to normal, and so birders are left staring at pretty much the same birds that they've been staring at for weeks. In short, most of us are a bit bored.

So, despite feeling a little under the weather on Sunday morning, I was pleased to be back at Fingringhoe in Essex to see at close quarters one 'change' that can be relied on every single day - the turning of the tide. The last half-an-hour of the tide coming in nearly always offers the best birding at estuary locations, with huge flocks of waders, wildfowl and geese being forced closer and closer to the shore (and to the birder in his hide), jostling for position on the diminishing mudflats and finally settling down to wait until the mud flats are opened again.

I was particularly lucky with my timing on Sunday, settling down in the shoreline hide just as this spectacle started.

I was therefore in the best place to enjoy great views of hundreds of dunlins, knots, redshank, curlews,  grey plover, brent geese, shelduck, wigeon, lapwing, oystercatchers and more. Among them were a few scarcer birds - a couple of turnstones were my first of 2010, likewise the marsh harrier that soared overhead.

And once the excitement was over, I settled down with scope and Canon G9 to see if digiscoping was viable with this less-than-perfect combination. It was, up to a point, so I spent a happy half hour photographing birds including a grey plover, one species I had never photographed before.

Bird of the day: Marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus), a magnificent broad-winged raptor which is getting more and more common along the east of the country (still a long way to go before it becomes more than an occasional sighting in Warwickshire though).