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...