1 December 2014

Napton in early winter plumage

Napton was mercifully drier than when I was last there; grey and cold, with the trees at last shedding their leaves, but a pleasant enough day for a good couple of hours of early winter birding.

The stunning male pochard (credit: Sailesh Panchal)
The water was still dominated by the usual coots (c80), tufted ducks (14) and gulls (c100 black-headed and 18 common). 

But alongside the winter-only common gulls there were one or two other less familiar faces among the locals - three shovelers and my first pochard of the season, a male bird doing what pochards like doing best - nothing.

The hedges and trees around the boundary also proved to be slightly more full of life than the pochard, with a total haul of 34 species including yellowhammer, redwing, fieldfare, meadow pipit, bullfinch, treecreeper and great spotted woodpecker.

Flyovers / fly bys included six lapwing, a snipe, three skylarks and three more shovelers.

Bird of the day: Pochard (Aythya ferina), a beautifully plumages diving duck (male only, of course), essentially a winter visitor to these parts - but spectacularly somnambulant while here. Sleeping is very much a pochard's thing.

16 November 2014

A Draycote interlude

My ever-generous (and long suffering) family allowed me more than a few moments for birding during an afternoon stroll along the banks of Draycote Reservoir.

Highlights included 120+ lapwing flying by in two parties; a mixed flock of rooks, jackdaws, stock dove, yellowhammers  and chaffinches in a nearby ploughed field (still no brambling evident); and 10 goldeneye.

Short but sweet.

15 November 2014

Lesser can be more

I'm really enjoying the office patch at the moment, both for its regular finds and the occasional bonus birds it throws up.

I get to cover this small patch pretty well because rain or shine I have to be at the office a couple of times a week - and being pretty remote there's not much else to do at lunchtime but take a walk around the nearby countryside.

First up is normally the cormorant count - four this week but as high as 11 a couple of weeks back.

Second is a scan of the lake: at the moment that normally turns up a combination of either greylag and / or canada geese, mallards, 1-3 little grebe, the occasional great crested grebe, a couple of lurking moorhens, a grey heron and, somewhere about, a kingfisher.

And then it's on to the fields and hedgerows where most of the excitement has been over the last few weeks.

Over the course of two short walks this week (Monday and Wednesday) I was able to find birds including: all three common raptors (kestrel, buzzard and sparrowhawk); a decent-sized flock of yellowhammers; a regular marsh tit; treecreeper; nutchatch; goldcrest; bullfinch; plenty of long-tailed and blue tits; skylarks dotted about the place; both common woodpeckers; goldfinch and chaffinch - plus Wednesday's star bird, the lesser redpoll.

Approximately 18 lesser redpolls in fact, clustered high in a skeletal oak tree and quietly chirruping away (not a distinctive sound - 'a plainsong goldfinch' was the phrase which occurred to me at the time). 

Having not seen a redpoll for quite some time, let alone this many in one place, it took me a moment or two to identify them. But a quick scan of streaky beige back and underparts, red / darkening patches around the throat and the short forked tail soon confirmed these LBJs as lesser redpoll - an office patch first and a welcome find on any autumnal birding walk.

Bird of the week: Lesser redpoll (Carduelis cabaret), a much more common bird in the UK than its paler winter-visiting cousin the common (or mealy) redpoll (I know, bird names seem designed to confuse at times) - but still not all that regular a find in these parts. 

12 November 2014

Come sunshine, rain and pie

I started a busy birding weekend in driving rain and finished it in fine autumnal sun; the funny thing is that both were equally enjoyable.

Napton Reservoir can be bleak enough at the best of times - it seems to attract winds that nowhere else can find. With some cold heavy rain added to the mix it wasn't the most promising start to a weekend, but there was enough about to make for a rewarding hour or so.

No notable wildfowl on the water, just c.80 coots, c.30 tufted ducks, c.40 black-headed gulls, a handful of common gulls and a great-crested grebe - plus a big flock of 50 canada geese and a single greylag.

There were only a few fieldfares and redwings around the perimeter - I've yet to see a large flock of either this year - but there were well over 100 starling moving. Three snipe flew while I was there, and two groups of lapwing flew east - three then five, the latter group touching down momentarily. A male bullfinch and a kestrel were also present.

The sun was out by Sunday morning, and my customary bike ride was considerably enlivened by passing views of a flock of c.20 golden plover in fields near Long Itchington.

Male Goldeneye (Credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)
Later that morning it was off to Brandon Marsh for what is becoming something of a family routine - lunch then birding.

Pie Week went down well with the troops (steak and mushroom, thanks for asking) and then we headed off for a reasonably thorough look around the reserve.

Our reward was a total of 42 species found: highlights including a sparrowhawk and three snipe at East Marsh Pool, great views of great spotted woodpecker and nuthatch at the feeders, and three goldeneye - a male and two female, back at East Marsh.

Bird of the weekend: Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), a gorgeous diving duck (well, the male at least); a winter-only visitor in these parts with the tiny UK breeding population confined to Scotland.

7 November 2014


Napton had been in the finest possible birding form last weekend (see previous post) with plenty on and around the reservoir and a few extra ticks on the hill.

My favourite birds at the reservoir were the small flock of meadow pipits I finally located in hedges at the back of the water, but also of note were: four lapwing flying south; plenty of snipe flights (who knows how many individual birds on site?); 12 common gulls among the black-headed; two big arrivals of starling (c40 in the first group, close to 100 in the second); three fieldfare overhead; a male sparrowhawk dashing low over a nearby field; and nine wigeon.

But, as previously reported, with brunch beckoning I forced myself to drive past the Long Itch diner and on to Brandon Marsh, conscious that the long-staying stonechats were still being reported. One Full English later and I was in the new Ted Jury hide, looking at not one but two neat little 'chats - a female and a male, the latter with fairly muted head colouring rather than the striking black I'm more used to seeing in spring. A first winter male perhaps?

Both were extremely obliging, hopping from bush top to reed stem to post to tree stump, only occasionally dropping from view.

With a sprinkling of wildfowl on the East Marsh hide, plus a kestrel, a buzzard and some regular visitors to the Brandon feeders I was able to conclude a day with a creditable 47 species. 

Bird of the day: Stonechat (Saxicola torquata); much as I loved the little 'mipits' at Napton, the stonechat has to be the bird of the day. A regular but scarce find for most inland birders, it's a distinctive and attractive bird with the commendable habit of sitting at the top of bushes and vegetation (unlike some birds I could mention - yes, cettis warbler, I'm looking at you). 

6 November 2014

Patch Wars! Leam Valley vs Napton (vs Brandon Marsh)

No two sites on my local birdwatching patch are the same. This is by design, of course, since the perfect patch is one which has as many habitats as possible; and different habitats mean, in turn, different species.

But besides habitat, there is another crucial difference between the different sites - productivity. Never mind the quality, feel the quantity. 

Take for example the case of Leam Valley vs Napton (reservoir and hill). 

A typical walk through Leam Valley, such as the lunchtime one I took earlier this week, can often turn up very little for much of its duration. Sure there will be from common birds some song and movement around the trees and hedgerows; an occasional moorhen disturbed from its bankside shelter; and perhaps a buzzard calling high overhead. 

But often there will be next to nothing, and the real hope all the way out will be that the scrape will deliver. And often it does - but with more meagrely measured offerings than some other sites (as we shall see in a moment). 

This week's visit was one such occasion, with those meagre but no less rewarding highlights on and around the scrape including: great and repeated views of a kingfisher fishing in front of the hide; a small flock of brightly-coloured chaffinches and goldfinches; and - star bird of the day - three shovelers, a male and two females (initially overlooked as mallards by a stupid and over-eager eye).

Compare and contrast with Napton on Saturday morning. It was my first full session at Napton for many a long while, and it was fantastic in every respect. Great weather, high spirits and a monumental bird count. 

Where to start? On the reservoir itself there were fairly typical numbers of coot (80+), tufted ducks (25), mallards (18) and gulls - 70-odd black-headed and about 20 common. Snipe seemed to flush from every bank and reedbed, I counted more than a dozen flights in all. New on the water were 9 wigeon; 4 lapwing flew south; three fieldfare flew past; and decent numbers of starlings arrived in two biggish groups - 50 then 100+.

Away from the water I was teased for a while with distinctive 'seep, seep' calls; eventually I was able to track them down and identify a little flock of meadow pipit, a welcome bird which I don't see often enough. Plenty of skylarks passed in good voice overhead, a mistle thrush did likewise, a few pied wagtails moved around the reservoir edge, and a male sparrowhawk made a spectacular, but unsuccessful, low pass over a field of starlings. 

By contrast the hill was quiet, but I still managed to add jay, great spotted and green woodpeckers plus another mistle thrush to the morning's tally. 

So there you have it. Both rather wonderful trips, but in such different ways - one a detailed and close study of a handful of birds, the other an overwhelming spectacle of everything that autumn birding has to offer.

And by way of a final comparison, it was on to Brandon.  So what does a specialist nature reserve managed to perfection for more than 20 years have to offer? Well, a bumper crop of wildfowl for one; plus (and saving the best 'til last here), a pair of stonechat from the new Ted Jury Hide.

Oh, and a tearoom serving a full English breakfast. The perfect end to a morning of 46 bird species - a happy marriage of quantity and quality in equal measure.  

Bird of the week: Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) - I could honestly have picked any number of birds this week, but this little gem has edged it. Normally a bird of western and southern heathland and coast, they disperse more widely in the winter, so a real possibility wherever you are. More on them in the next post.

2 November 2014

All change - the new office patch

My office patch has long formed a small but important part of my birdwatching life, and for more than a decade that patch has been in and around the small market town of Henley-in-Arden.

With plenty of fields, some shrubby woods, a small stream and a canal all just a lunchtime stroll away, my Henley office patch has turned up plenty of memorable moments over the years - my best cuckoo encounter, mandarin duck and little egret, and - rarest of all - my only county wood warbler.

So it was with some trepidation that I joined my colleagues in an office relocation in 2013. The tiny hamlet of Langley is less than 10 miles from Henley, and undoubtedly the shiny new offices are good for business - but what would it do for my lunchtime birding?

Well the good news is that there is plenty of potential.

The office is surrounded on all sides by farmland, mainly for sheep and cattle so certainly no shortage of jackdaws. Half way along the track is a large, almost hidden lake, fed by a small stream and surrounded by trees. This of course brings an entirely new dimension to things. And high on the hills either side of the valley is mature woodland.

Today showed just what a rewarding mix that can all be.

At the lake I found 11 greylag, a little grebe, a moorhen, a grey heron and a calling kingfisher somewhere nearby. Six cormorants jostled for perch points on a single tree in the island, watched by just a single female mallard. She wasn't alone for long though, joined in short order by a total of 29 incomers.

As I moved into the main farmland, the most obvious feature was the number of pheasants on show. Clearly a local pen had been emptied in the last day or two - every field was literally lined with pheasants. Above and around them were the usual wood pigeons and jackdaws, with carrion crows and a few rooks among them.

A buzzard called loudly from nearby woods, a female kestrel gave great views while sitting on a wire, but it was the hedgerows that shone brightest: whether in ones or twos or in small flocks, I found just about everything I could have reasonably expected: blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, chaffinch, goldfinch and, slightly less common, coal tit, marsh tit, goldcrest and yellowhammer - the latter being the sight of two fantastic cock birds sitting high in a hedge and ignoring the increasingly wet and windy weather.

And when you add the other species picked up here and there along the way - the magpies, robins, wrens, blackbirds and pied wagtails to be precise - you have a very satisfying 30 species. Not at all bad for a 40 minute lunchtime stroll from the office.

Bird of the day: Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella): the stridently yellow male yellowhammer is as stunning a bird as you could wish to see, as the photo from www.andymorffew.com shows. A real farmland classic which is unfailingly generous to birdwatchers - as well as being almost luminous yellow it likes to sit high atop hedgerows, and it has one of the most distinctive and diagnostic calls you could wish for. Mind you, the females on the other hand...

28 October 2014

Deserted by the gods

Few gods desert one as completely, rapidly and without warning as the gods of fishing.

I don't know what angers them or otherwise incurs their displeasure, but it is impossible to miss the moment when it happens.

Just over a pound: before it all went wrong...
One minute you will be fishing tolerably well, catching and enjoying a reasonable session; the next it will be all you can do to look at your own shoelaces without creating a birds-nest tangle of epic proportions.

And once the gods have left you, there is no going back. All your casts will find trees, your knots will fail and whatever fish you do hook will find root, reed or hidey hole by which to evade capture (invariably snagging you at the same time).

Thus it was on Sunday afternoon, when an ill-fated attempt to repeat the pleasure of the previous weekend at Bishops Bowl started well (with a small tench, barbel, a couple of decent carp and a second 1lb plus perch in two weeks), and then descended into farce as fish after fish towed me to the reeds, snagged me or otherwise drove me to distraction. 

After that promising start I proceeded to land little more all afternoon; I lost hooklength after hooklength and trashed at least four pole rigs. My pole technique improved with every put in, I thought I held my temper and concentration well given the provocations, but it was to no avail - the gods of fishing had deserted me and nothing would entice them back.

With the first early nightfall of winter upon me I packed up and went home, offering as I left a tiny prayer for better luck next time. Just in case.

27 October 2014

Time for a chat?

I suspect my son's enthusiasm for Brandon Marsh might have as much to do with the tearoom milkshakes as it does for the wildlife, but I wasn't complaining as once again he chose it as the destination for a family trip :-)

East Marsh was lively, the lapwings and black-headed gulls being kept company by good numbers of teal and shovellers; with a handful of common and lesser black-backed gulls, a single cormorant and two snipe on the far bank.

The long-staying green sandpiper was on the Teal Pool, and of course there were plenty of other birds around (Charlie enjoyed particularly good views of a great spotted woodpecker on the feeders).

26 October 2014

Wild is the wind

The week started breezy and squally; by Tuesday we were seeing the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo.

A showery Monday stroll around the Langley office turned up three new visitors - cormorants high in a tree near the lake. A kingfisher flashed by, and not far away I found a field full of skylarks.

The next day's lunchtime stroll from the Radford Semele office was carried out in the teeth of Gonzalo.

This made most sightings fleeting at best, as the birds either hunkered down or belted past with the wind at their tail. The biggest birds were, of course, easiest to see and ID - a grey heron disturbed near the pond, a buzzard on the return track, a sparrowhawk flashing low over the house.

A goldfinch struggled overhead near the highest point of the hill, but a small flock of finches flitting in and out of stubble fields proved harder to identify - my best guess is a mix of juvenile and female yellowhammer, pale and washed out in the poor light.

And talking of difficult ID, I was pleased to read in Birdwatching magazine this month the trials of birders trying to ID a particularly pale and grey buzzard in and around the Staffs / Leics border region - variously called as either an osprey or a rough-legged buzzard. Having had a virtually identical wobbly ID moment with a buzzard only couple of weeks ago (see here), it was nice to see that I'm not the only one to be fooled by the hugely variable plumage of Buteo buteo.

There was, however, no mistaking the one I saw on the Fosse Way on the following day: for a moment I thought I would hit it as it struggled to gain height from the verge. Fortunately it cleared the top of my car in time, and a long scaly tail hanging beneath confirming a freshly-caught rat as the reason for this unusual struggle for altitude.

Bird of the week: Cormorant  (Phalacrocorax carbo), once very much a bird of shore and sea, now a regular sight at lakes and rivers around the UK, particularly as autumn arrives.

19 October 2014

A short session on the long pole

Seized late in the day by an urge to fish, with no bait to hand or preparations made, and conscious that my crocked elbow would only cope with pole fishing, there was only one sensible answer - my favourite local commercial, Bishops Bowl.

I've already spent too many words debating the purity, or otherwise, of the fishing experience: wild vs stocked; free vs commercial; river vs lake (vs canal vs gravel pit etc).

The good news is that I shall try to do so no more; I have arrived at my conclusion. This - life is short, work is long, my fishing will be wherever I think will be fun.

And what fun I had at Bishops.

A big south-westerly wind called for somewhere sheltered, so having picked up a pint of maggots and a pole rig at the shop I settled down at the back of Marshes Two, one of the newer waters and absolutely perfect for what I had in mind. 

It was sheltered, it was beautiful, and it was packed full of nature. There were huge and pristine ink cap mushrooms by the side of the swim, jays squabbled bold and loud behind me, and passerines and water birds moved all around me.  

If pole fishing is to become a bigger thing for me, then I was keen to see if my carp pole could realistically be fished at its full 11m (if only to save me from the immediate cost of a new, lighter and longer pole). So rather than setting up a couple of lines I found a swim with an 11 metre reed bed projecting from the bank and targeted the tip of that.

I've never loved fishing the pole, but if I'm honest I reckon I'd have caught less than half the fish if I'd been on the waggler. With a pole pot I was able to feed with absolute accuracy, and then drop the bait right on top. The first single maggot produced a tiny roach, the second a better rudd. Another roach followed and that was three small fish brought in from 11 metres on a No.10 elastic in less than five minutes with  none lost. Things seemed to be going well.

Better still with the next few fish. First the elastic flew out, the tip of the pole arced round, and a lively 3lb tench came to the net. Then my first stillwater barbel came in; less than a pound but, in common with its river cousin, it didn't leave any fight in the water. It was followed by a further seven barbel, a couple of carp (the biggest close to 3lb), plenty more roach and, with perhaps ironically the least fight of the lot, a majestic 1lb 7oz perch.

Eventually something large and fast broke me; fishing so close to the reeds I was always at risk of something that could move faster than I could react. 

Then it was dark; I'd had fun; I went home.

Species of the day: Barbel (Barbus barbus): the king of the river turns out to be a real gem in still water too. 

Young eyes

OK, so I'm no Ian Wallace*. But I had thought my ID skills would remain better than my young son's for a few years yet...

So it was something of a surprise when, as I guided him around the view from Brandon's East Marsh hide with the words "...and there on the far island you can see three greylag geese...", I received the reply: "well that one's not!"

18 October 2014

Into the valley

A breezy, overcast but still very warm Saturday morning saw the family opt for a leg stretch along Leam Valley, with no complaints from me :-)

It was quiet on the outward stretch, so we passed our time finding moss, bugs and unusual fungi to amuse a young naturalist determined to use his new magnifying bug jars.

Not much seemed to improve when we got to the scrape, with just a grey heron and a couple of moorhens (plus of course countless wood pigeons) to watch from the hide.

But a move to the screen at the other end did improve matters somewhat - a pair of gadwall and two pairs of teal greeted us at the low water edge.

The gadwall in particular is uncommon on this site; indeed a brief search through notes suggests these may be a first for me at Leam Valley.

We picked up plenty of jays on the return journey, a pair of sparrowhawks displayed and danced around each other briefly, and the final treat was a biggish flock of goldfinch and chaffinches, feeding determinedly on thistle and teasel heads at the north edge of the meadow.

Bird of the day: Gadwall , resident in small numbers during the summer, but much more frequent from autumn through winter - though still by no means common. Most often found around the edges of deeper water than Leam Valley offers, so a nice surprise.

16 October 2014

Deer deer

The air was still, dry but not yet properly warm ; everything was recovering from what had felt like a week of rain.

Admittedly it had been much needed rain, but it had still come as something of a shock after such a long and dry start to autumn. If it rained at all in September, I don't remember it.

This suddenly-quiet weather was matched by suddenly-quiet trees, hedges and waterways as I nipped out for another lunchtime walk through the fields near my office.

At first almost nothing showed, just a small blue tit flock passing around me. Then, as I paused to consider which way to turn next, I noticed movement on the far side of a neighbouring field.

My binoculars initially picked up a handful of pheasants working their way along the edge of the field, but then I found something much more interesting.

Two deer were standing stock still. They were small deer, larger than a large dog but not by much, with heads just a bit too small for their body size. Both were dark in colour (reddish? hard to tell in what was still fairly gloomy light), and each had a pale patch around the tail and some white around the mouth.

Roe deer, one of the two native British species, and not a species I encounter as much as I would like. Both proceeded to pick their way along the hedgerow for a couple of minutes, clearly unaware of my presence, before finally slipping through a gap which was too small for me to even see.

I was still staring into the space they had left behind when the distinctive 'cronk' of a raven caught my attention. I turned and found it flying low and directly over my head. Satisfied with my lunchtime stroll I turned for home - only for a female sparrowhawk to join in with a slow and low flap-flap-glide across my path.

In case you're wondering about the image, I'm afraid the chances of me getting close enough to a wild roe deer to take a photograph are pretty slim. Where I haven't got a photo from now on I've decided to include whatever sketch I may have done during (and often completed after) the sighting. That I'm no artist you'll be able to work out yourself, but for me a birding notebook isn't really a birding notebook unless it's got pencil sketches in it - however good, bad or indifferent they may be.

Species of they day:  Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), a mammal natural to the British Isles but, in a wearyingly familiar pattern, needing to be reintroduced several times having initially been hunted to extinction by 1800. Now abundant enough in England and Scotland, but not always easy to find, particularly around parts of the Midlands apparently.

14 October 2014

Fish, no. Birds, yes!

Day two of the fishing weekend started predictably slowly: 6.30am is a hell of a start time when 2.30am was the previous night's finish time...

Coal titStill, not to worry. Lessons had been learned from the misadventures of previous years, so consumption had been, if not entirely quashed, then at least half-heartedly moderated. So, come Saturday morning, spirits were high, sausages were consumed, and fly fishing was on!

Or at least it was for the others. The elbow injury that had kept me off the waggler and on the pole the previous day certainly wasn't going to hold up for six hours of constant fly casting, so reluctantly I had to admit that this was nothing more than a social trip for me. A bit of internet research also proved that there were plenty of local opportunities for a quick bit of birding if I got bored with watching my friends cutting a dash in their fly gear.

And it turned out that this wheeze was a bit of a masterstroke. Because as my friends thrashed the surface of a sluggish lake to absolutely no good effect at all, I discovered Whelford Pools, a smashing local nature reserve in the Cotswold Water Park run by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

Formerly a pair of gravel pits, the site has been carefully nurtured and now features a wonderful blend of wooded edges, tiny pools, deep water, shallow scrapes and islands.

Blue tit
Well stocked feeders at the first hide gave me an opportunity to get the camera out, and the second hide offered a splendid view across the main water.

A little egret perched amid grey herons and three cormorants on the far side; more than 120 lapwing called and wheeled around the site;, a shelduck slept on in their midst; four great crested grebes sailed majestically over the deeper water; and there were good quantities of some favourite winter wildfowl - 28 teal, 6 shoveller and 4 gadwall.

A quick walk round to a yet-deeper pool behind added a pair of wigeon to the haul.

Goldfinch young and oldIn all I found 25 species of bird, not to mention an amazing wasp's nest, in a visit lasting less than 90 minutes. A disappointing fishing trip had turned into a delightful birding one.

Bird of the day: Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) - an almost unheard of sighting when I started birding as a boy, still uncommon when I started again a decade or so ago, and still capable of raising the pulse rate after all these years, despite having become a far, far more normal sight at sites right across the UK.

12 October 2014

Clichés, carp and conversation

Men bond through shared activity; woman through conversation.

Yes, I know - that's a cliché. It's a stereotype. It's lazy writing and potentially prejudicial. Never-the-less it remains true. Or at least broadly true in my personal experience, and personal experience is, as I understand these matters, what a blog should generally be about.

It's why, I would contend, men the world over are invariably found in their spare time gathered in groups near chess boards, domino tables, sports pitches (playing or collectively cheering their sides on), pelotons, cliff faces, boats, classic cars, allotments and, of course, river banks.

It's not that we don't talk to each other. It's just that we prefer the talking to be a secondary activity. We get together to do something, and it is through that shared doing, and the conversations that take place around that shared doing, that we bond.

It's what makes fishing with friends so special.

Now, I should confess that this is a subject on which I am definitely no expert. Nine times out of ten I fish alone, appreciating after a week at work the opportunity for a little solitude and concentration - a moving meditation as my wife likes to call it.

But a few times a year I arrive at the river or lake with friends, focused on fishing but also greatly looking forward to the opportunity to catch up after many months apart.

And so it was that three of us spent a fine cool day at Stockton Reservoir this week, trying everything we knew to coax carp from the water on a surprisingly hard day.

Not many bites, not many fish, but still a blast from start to finish (the day starting at 9am with a lakeside brew and bacon sarnie, and ending at approximately 2.30am with the consumption of the very last drop of a 30 years old Edradour single malt which my friend and I have been sharing together, dram by dram, for many a long year).

Once the brew was boiled and the bacon fried, our sleeper rods went out first, a boilie and pva bag attack with balls of groundbait fired over the top. This combination secured Richie his two carp of the day, both around the 4lb mark.

His second rod was set up for the waggler while I, still suffering with a long-standing elbow injury which makes a problem of repeated casting , opted instead for a margin pole down the edge. This eventually secured me my one carp of the day, again around the 4lb mark - not huge, but perfectly capable of pulling a terrific amount of elastic from the pole and putting up one hell of a fight.

Finally, my brother, arriving late as ever but just in time for a beer-and-pie lunch, settled on the waggler attack, fishing luncheon meat just off a shelf about 10 foot out. Plagued initially by a series on unhittable twitches (there are plenty of crucian in Stockton, and lots of roach - either could have been responsible), he then hit into three successive big fish - each of which, to his enormous chagrin, did him in the fight.

He did finally manage to land one, again around 4lb. And then, fishing into the dying light after a short but fierce shower, he finished with a flourish, landing a second at almost exactly 10lb. Wet gear was thrown into bags, a dark lake was bade goodnight, and off we rode into the murk to find light, laughter, good food and ale.

6 October 2014

An autumn lunchtime

It's as if somebody pressed a switch marked 'Autumn'.

While the fields and waters around my office have been stuck in an all-too-dry post-summer lull for many weeks, today's wind and rain brought the whole area bursting into autumnal life.

First up, geese - and is there any sight more autumnal than 100+ geese grazing their way across a field of stubble? I scanned this flock of greylags for a good while hoping to pick up the odd straggler - a pink-footed or perhaps even a bean. Sadly, when I did find the odd-one-out he turned out to be a lone canada. Top marks for trying, and all that.

My thanks go to the nearby buzzard which had them constantly lifting their heads for my closer examination; a female kestrel was also in close attendance on nearby wires, although her attention was mainly taken by mobbing magpies.

On a neighbouring field, the wood pigeons and jackdaws were joined by a loose, mobile flock of 12+ skylarks. A few chaffinches, dunnock and blackbirds edged along the sides of nearby farm hedges, and a big flock of starlings flew into a nearby oak. Carrion crows criss-crossed, a few rooks called loudly from the tallest trees and, out on the lake, a couple of moorhens swam with one each of great crested and little grebe.

A kingfisher, heard by not seen, was a treat on a short but sweet lunchtime walk; an authentic autumnal experience in which only one or two late-calling chiffchaff struck a discordant note as reminders of a summer finally gone.

Bird of the day: Greylag goose (Anser anser), the classic British wild goose: widespread and common, but in flocks no less redolent of autumn than its scarcer cousins.

5 October 2014

Curlew Sandpiper and not-an-Osprey at Brandon

Today was a family outing to Brandon Marsh - a trip which often rewards and frustrates in equal measure.

Brandon is always a great place to be, and of course I'm delighted that my good lady and lad both enjoy spending time there. It certainly offers better birding opportunities than a morning shopping. 

What I have had to learn on family trips, however, is that I'm unlikely to ever be able to explore every inch, visit every hide or find every bird. Many is the time I have got home after a family trip to Brandon, logged on and browsed the blogs only to find I missed the weekend's star bird.

Not this time though. With everyone in the family team bright eyed, bushy tailed and enthusiastic, we walked into East Marsh Hide to be greeted by the words: "There's a curlew sandpiper over there." 

Marvellous - 30 seconds in and I'm on to a county tick, my first curlew sandpiper since some in 2005 (and those more predictably in Norfolk). A textbook juvenile this: smooth buff upperparts and chest, white supercillum, elegant black legs and slightly decurved bill - altogether longer and more elegant than the similarly-attired dunlin. It was giving great views on the nearside of the main island, at least whenever it wasn't being harrassed by some of the 60+ lapwing.

Also on East Marsh were good numbers of wigeon, teal, shovellers and black-headed gulls; some gadwalls, mallards, tufted ducks, a cormorant, a grey heron and a couple of greylag geese. A sparrowhawk twice put everything up.

On the Teal Pool behind us we had already enjoyed what I assumed would be the day's highlight, with everyone getting a full scope view of the elusive water rail. And back at the tearooms we added a host of feeder species including coal tit, reed bunting and the ever-welcome nuthatch. 

With 33 species in the bag, there was still time for a final dash right the way back to Newlands to investigate uncertain reports of an osprey. Well, I don't know what was there earlier in the day, but when I arrived I quickly clapped eyes on a largeish, greyish, pale and tatty raptor sitting atop a mid-distant bush. 

My head was full of thoughts of osprey, so I called 'osprey'... followed immediately by 'that doesn't look right'. It wasn't - too broad, too dark and with bright yellow legs and feet. Since I was now pretty sure it wasn't an osprey I spent a minute trying to convince myself it was a marsh harrier instead. It wasn't - unless I read reports otherwise I'm reasonably sure it was a young, pale and patchy buzzard (I should add that the horrible photo, taken via iPhone through scope, makes it look much more like a buzzard than it did in the flesh).

I added a male kestrel (with vole in claws), and left, happy with 35 species and just the one county tick for the day.

Bird of the day: Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), a passage migrant more often seen on the east coast than on an inland site like Brandon.

3 October 2014

Lost in the bushes

The penny only dropped a week or so ago that my new offices are just a couple of miles from Snitterfield Bushes, a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve I'd not so far visited. Lunchtime presented an opportunity to put that right.

It was only a quick 40 minutes recce but it was enough to form an extremely positive impression of this little gem. 

The reserve straddles both sides of the Brearley to Snitterfield road, although I only had time to explore the north side. Damp clay soil below, a lush ground and field layer particularly rich in ferns, and a canopy above full of oak, maple and ash.

Birds were predictably hard to come by at lunchtime in such a heavily wooded environment. I heard the tap, tap of a great spotted woodpecker as I arrived, and some 15 minutes later got good views of him, or another like him, deep in the reserve. A large tit flock moved through, plenty of adults among the blue, great and long-tailed tit juveniles. I searched in vain for the oft-accompanying treecreeper, but did hear the explosive call of a nuthatch near by instead.

Fruit rich scrub was full of blackbirds and a couple of song thrushes, but no winter thrushes yet. A buzzard broke cover, plenty of jackdaws called overhead, and robins and wrens called all around. It was a lovely lunchtime walk, so no hardship at all to get slightly lost among the maze of paths. 

After work I swung by Napton Reservoir to see if I could find the apparently elusive whinchat. It proved elusive, but I enjoyed a quiet stroll as the sun went down, with 6 wigeon and a couple of female shovellers having joined the throng since I was here on Sunday. The tufted duck count had also risen considerably to 28. 

A couple of snipe took wing, a few quiet chiffchaff calls were heard, but most notable of all was undoubtedly the large flock of pied wagtails on the bridge as I arrived - well in excess of 20 here and around the reservoir, a highly mobile mix of adults and juveniles with the majority of them flying off to the west at sunset.

28 September 2014

Ufton Pools - normal service resumed

Having really enjoyed yesterday's return to patch birding I was keen to get out again today, if only for a short while. 

In the event I could only find an hour or so mid-afternoon; hardly the best time of day for birding but sufficient for a quick stroll around one of the sites I missed yesterday, Ufton Pools.

Marsh Tit - you can look for the two-toned cheek
panel all you want - but you'll only be sure it's not a
willow tit once it sneezes 'pitchoo-pitchoochoo'!
Photo: Neil Cheesman
I like Ufton, or at least I admire it - if only for its stubborn refusal to easily offer up its secrets. In theory it should be full of great birds, and I'm sure it is. But in practice it's damned hard to find them. The trees and scrub are close-packed, the perimeter path leaves a lot of the interior out of range, and the number of walkers and dog-walkers seem to encourage the birds to stay out of sight.

As ever then, this was a pleasant stroll without too many birds. Plenty of coots and moorhens on the Horseshoe Pool, a welcome grey wagtail, a few chiffchaff working around the edges, and across the rest of the site large numbers of highly mobile small birds in flocks.

Blue tits were very much in evidence, three marsh tits were kind enough to call when an identification was required (the call being the only reliable way to ensure they weren't willow tits), and finally I was delighted to add treecreeper to my weekend haul.

The whole weekend was great, and served to remind me of patch birding's great paradox: while doing it I spend virtually every moment hoping and straining to find an unusual, rare or otherwise 'special' bird; but whenever I reflect afterwards on why I continue to do it, I come to the conclusion that it's because I enjoy the way it grounds me in my normal everyday surroundings, helping me find joy, uniqueness and wonder in even the most ordinary finds - the wood pigeons, the house sparrows and the blue tits.

Bird of the weekend: None of them, and yet all of them. Nah, that's not true - it was definitely those sky-dancing ravens ;-)

27 September 2014

Back on the birds

The birding bug has been gently stirring in me of late; today I gave it free rein with my first full day of patch birding in a long, long while.

My patch, should the occasional reader (unsurprisingly) need reminding, comprises a mosaic of sites strung broadly along the two main watercourses which run east out of Leamington: the Grand Union Canel and the river which gives the town its name, the Leam.

While most birders would probably say that the ideal patch should be based around a single site, I suspect they would also add that this site should have as wide a range of habitats as possible. The fact of the matter is that individually none of my sites quite has everything I would want in a patch - but together they pretty much have it all.

A quick tour

Leam Valley, Newbold Comyn and the neighbouring Offchurch Bury Estate are at the heart of things. Not only are they closest to home but together they offer the widest variety of habitats within the scope of a single walk, albeit a long one.

A few miles east you'll find Ufton Pools, a unique patchwork of dense scrubby wood and shallow pools. North of there is a different kind of wood altogether - a rare surviving example of ancient Warwickshire woodland at Cubbington. Go further east again and you'll arrive at the furthest points of my patch, Napton Reservoir and Napton Hill. The former provides the deep water every good patch should have; the latter a distinctive geographical landmark which often serves as a migration marker for birds on the move.

Those of you who know the area will notice at once that this selection seems almost perverse in missing out the two best birding sites in the area: Brandon Marsh and Draycote. Both are of course brilliant sites; I could happily call either my patch and not want for much else. But there is something about choosing less popular spots which appeals to me: there seems more value in keeping an eye on them when few others are; there's generally more peace and quiet to be found; and if the day-to-day birding experience can be a little 'understated' from time to time, that simply serves to make anything unusual all the more exciting.

Early at Leam Valley

The Leam Valley scrape: not much water, but just enough
water rails!
It seemed to make sense to begin at Leam Valley, walking the circuit from the car park, through parts of Newbold Comyn, along the river to the scrape, and then back via Offchurch Bury.

The first thing that became apparent was the amount of birdsong in the air at 7am; the second thing was how rusty my birdsong identification skills were. I picked the hard tack-tack-tack of the robin and the fast trill of the wrens quickly enough, but everything else was slow going at first. As was the birding, with little showing itself at first. There were aforementioned robins and wrens aplenty, and regular groups of 20+ black-headed gulls headed south / south-west overhead, but it was half an hour before I found the first head-turner - a marsh tit foraging its way along the banks of the river. Moments later my first three redwings of the year flushed and flew away from me and I felt properly 'back in the game'.

There was evidence of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust's excellent management throughout the site, and nowhere more than at the hide, recently restored after some infuriating vandalism. The hide looked great, some scrub had been cut back to allow better views from the screen - and a patient 20 minutes at the scrape was rewarded with not one but two water rails scurrying across gaps in the now substantial reed beds. These may well be a first for me at Leam Valley; certainly I can find no record of any on this blog or in my notebooks.

I headed back via the Offchurch Bury estate, my long detour rewarded with a pair of grey wagtails, a kingfisher and, foraging on paths alongside some very mature hedgerows, a pair of yellowhammers. A nuthatch called from ivy-covered trees near the car park as I finished, making it a tidy if unspectacular 30 species for the morning so far.

The Napton One-Two

If Leam Valley is the closest part of my patch, Napton is arguably the best - certainly it offers the best prospect of rarer birds. So it seemed the obvious next port of call on this 'back on the patch' day.

The reservoir seemed quiet at first, with very much its standard offering; 80 coot, 11 moorhen, 12 tufted ducks, a great crested grebe, two mute swans and some mallards. But as is so often the way, further investigation was rewarded: three snipe flew while I was there, a pair of grey wagtails flashed by, and I spent a very enjoyable 20 minutes in the far corner watching sedge warblers and chiffchaffs flitting through scrub and reed.

It was while I was sat there that a raven flew towards Napton Hill. It turned out to be an early indication of how my day would end. For having trekked across the hill and down the other side with little to show for my efforts apart from three bullfinches, I was stunned when I reached the quarry side. Not one, not two but 20 or more ravens were in the air - I say 'or more' because counting was impossible. The ravens were highly mobile and acrobatic, flying in twos and threes with rolls, somersaults and sudden dives; the air was filled with their distinctive 'cronk-cronk' calls.

In January 2007 I watched a similar number of ravens in fields close to Radford Semele, but had long-since dismissed that as a freak one-off. And although I had seen reports that the numbers of birds locally had been steadily growing, I was total unprepared for this. I was a brilliant encounter that helped remind me just what thrilling birds ravens are to watch.

It was a fitting end to a long day's birding back on the patch.

23 September 2014

Five seasons in one day

The curse of the blogger remains the recap post. You know the one I mean: the 'I've been so busy doing the thing that I've not had time to write about the thing' post. Or else the 'I've been so busy with the family / DIY / job that I've not even had time to do the thing, let alone write about it' post.

When you do finally find yourself sitting down at the keyboard after a time away, what you end up doing is a quick recap of the last few days / weeks / months - sketchy at best, and inevitable full of missing bits as the memory fails.

It's bad enough after a few weeks, so just imagine how bad this 'it's been a busy old year' post is going to be. I probably wouldn't bother reading on if I were you.


Despite a lack of time to sit down and write about it, the last 12 months or so have had some real fishing, birding and general outdoors-y highlights, some of which I want to record here for my own benefit as much as any other - this being the longest continuous record of such activity that I have. So if you'll excuse the inelegant listing format:

1. My first fish on the fly - four of them to be precise, all rainbow trout from a super-productive day at Bushyleaze fishery (the day after a super unproductive day of course fishing at a very stormy Lemington Lakes, but that's another story). Superb sport, great eating, a great day, and all thanks to my highly-skilled friend Richie. Full report and picture here.

2. My first barbel. At 5lb 5oz, it looked (and felt) bigger, taken alongside the bonus of my first 'decent' chub - 2lb 10oz - on a River Wye trip organised by my friend Howard (who out caught me 3-1)

3. A change of River Leam approach. Having been unable to find the time, skill and inclination required to properly tackle the new (to me) upper Leam, I relinquished for now that card and tackled the slow town waters for the first time. My sole trip to date resulted ina gutsy little tench, one of my best Leam fish to date. I'll be spending more time on these convenient waters in the future.

4. Getting a lure into the sea at long last, having had the spinning rod for the job for nearly four years. No bass, or indeed anything else, but a start was made on the Dorset coast and I shall be back. Oh yes, I also returned from a mackerel trip with a BBQ full of fish, which was nice.

5. Settling back into commercials after a long spell focused on the rivers. The realisation that I fish for relatively short periods of relaxation has led me inexorably back to the more comfortable and assured surroundings of the commercial fisheries at the expense of the fun, but often demanding, river banks. Now I just need to stop apologising for it :-)

6. Father and son fishing. As challenging as any fishing I've ever done, but definitely among the most rewarding. A hyperactive eight year old takes some settling down, but a few 45 minute sessions have produced plenty of small roach and perch, some nice small carp and a cracking tench - not too mention the odd smile and some welcome time away from video games.

7. Father and son and mum, birding. If you think fishing might be a hard sell to an eight year old, try birding. But with a bit of encouragement, and some well-timed chocolate bribery, we've managed a few good family trips this year and C is developing a good eye for how to tell one bird from another.

8. Bird song from the saddle. A growing interest in cycling means that I hear as many farmland birds as I see these days. Skylarks, yellowhammer, bullfinch and linnet are all reasonably regular sounds as I flash by at (as close to) 20mph (as I can managed).

9. A definite leaning back towards birding. After three years in which fishing has taken up most spare moments I am gradually finding my leisure time being more evenly once more between my various interests - fishing, birding, cycling and photography. We've had a couple of good family trips to Brandon lately, and I even popped into Leam Valley briefly today to remind myself what my patch looks like. So perhaps it is safe to expect more birding posts over the coming weeks... assuming I don't just disappear without trace for another 14 months of course.