15 November 2015

Getting away from dip, dip, dip, dip

After a week-and-a-bit of repeatedly dipping Napton's bearded tits (still not seen them after four, possibly five, visits) it was nice just to amble around Brandon Marsh with no particular agenda.

It was a decent session in the end, but blimey was it hard work to start with. The high wind didn't help, although thankfully we missed out on the forecast heavy rain. But the main challenge was finding any birds to get the pulse racing.

Out on East Marsh the winter wildfowl dominated - a handful of mallards and five tufties were overwhelmed by autumn incomers, with 40+ shoveler, 70+ teal and perhaps as many as 120 wigeon. Most welcome they were too, since when there's not much else on I can easily while away the hours watching, and listening to, a big flock of wigeon.

There were just three lapwing on the marsh, although later in the day 100+ did wheel in low overhead.

A long stint in the Ted Jury Hide produced absolutely nothing beyond a close-in moorhen which became my object of interest for 20 minutes or so as it picked its way through the water-weeds looking for morsels to eat. 

Fortunately things livened up on the walk back.

First a marsh tit 'sneezed' and then showed well as I left the hide. Then a little diversion down to the Riverpool Hide turned up a lesser redpoll, a good size tit flock and a kestrel. From the hide I caught a tantalising glimpse of a drake duck which was just a little too plain  in the face and a little too grey to be a mallard - almost certainly a female pintail.

Just before I reached the visitor centre a little gang of five siskin stopped beside me, and at the feeders there were reed bunting, coal tits and a nuthatch (sadly the brambling, with I definitely wasn't looking for *crosses fingers* didn't turn up).

Bird of the day: Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) - we are all of us I'm sure guilty of being blinded to the majesty of this waterbird by its sheer ubiquity. But from it's blue-black head and bellow to its buff-brown back, from its pristine white tail to its glorious red-and-yellow bill, it's a stunner that birders can rely on from park pond to windswept nature reserve.

24 October 2015

A long weekend

Birding on Saturday AND Monday - oh the indulgence of it.

Saturday morning was bleak and grey at Leam Valley, but warm enough. I was hoping for some early autumn movement, and wasn't disappointed. 

A good haul of birds included my first siskins of the year, a small flock of maybe six to 10 birds. Among them was also my first lesser redpoll of the season.

Down on the scrape the teal numbers had grown, with still more birds emerging bright and cheerful from drab eclipse. Three fieldfare flew overhead, a large flock of goldcrest gathered towards the rear of the site, and jays crissed-crossed the whole time.

Incredibly autumnal then, if it wasn't for the final find of the day - the distinct, if faltering, sound of chiffchaff song. Presumably a first winter male, trying out its new vocal abilities having either moved south already or lingered late. A bizarrely summery note on which to finish the session.

Monday was a rare 'spare' annual leave day, so J and myself headed to RSPB Middleton for a proper day out. 

Our aim was 50 species, and we were pleased to reach that by the time we got back to the car. 

While I had been hoping to break my long-standing habit of missing / dipping bramblings (I didn't), and I later became aware we had missed the only passage wader on site (a ruff), it was still a decent haul. 

Highlights included more siskin, a redpoll, a couple of snipe, four or more little egrets, a sparrowhawk and at least three stonechat, possibly more - for a while we just kept bumping into them, which is always nice.

Bird of the weekend: Siskin (Carduelis spinus), a lively and pretty little finch, an autumn / winter visitor only in these parts. One of the easier autumn specials to find (just locate your nearest riverside alders) but still a thrill every time. 

18 October 2015

Midweek moments

Lunchtimes, mornings and evenings after work - this time of year is all about making the most of the light before the clocks go back at Halloween.

A quick lunchtime walk around Langley threw up a healthy handful of hedgerow, farm and field birds, with highlights including goldcrest, nuthatch, a pair of yellowhammer, marsh tit (in its usual run of shrub) and three coal tits. 

Over at the lake, the cormorants have returned - a peak of nine last week, just a couple around this time. 

A lunchtime dash around Leam Valley the next day was strangely quiet - strange that is until I realised there was a working party and two tractor-pulled mowers on site. The birds, quite wisely, seemed to have vacated until the work was done.

However, there were still half-a-dozen teal on the scrape, great views to be had of a female kestrel and, as I headed back for the car park, a grey wagtail sitting motionless on an apple bobbing in a shallow stream / ditch.

An early evening walk round Napton at the end of the week was little more productive - a great crested grebe was the only new bird on the water since my last trip. 

However, the evening was notable for my first autumnal flock of fieldfares, perhaps 25 of them dashing away in the middle distance. I saw the same number again past my back garden on Saturday morning, meaning the autumn is now most definitely here.

Bird of the week: Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), a large, bright and bold winter thrush; very much a herald of autumn and a welcome part of Britain's winter landscape.

11 October 2015

Pushing ourselves

Today was a birding day, but I'm going to start with a reflection on fishing: my brother always catches more than me.

So why is that? Well, it would be churlish of me not to factor in his superior skill and experience (and I do so hope he never reads this). But another factor is definitely his sheer will to catch. While I'm looking at darkening skies and packing away, he'll be looking at those same skies and thinking: "there's another hour in this; still time for the big one." And so it often proves.

All of which I mention because I think this self-same will to win / optimism / cussedness is an admirable philosophy which can be equally well applied to many other ventures in life - not least birding. So today, whenever I felt like calling it a day, I told myself to stick it out and wait until I caught - I mean found - the big one. And the result was... well, this.

It was a stunning morning as I left the house at 07:30, the mist draped over hedgerow and field and a huge red sun rising over the treetops. When the last of that mist dissipated shortly after I arrived at Napton Reservoir it revealed nothing much, a lone pochard the only non-regular on or near the water.

Instead I spent a fruitful couple of hours hedge and field bashing, hoping (with little expectation) for a yellow-browed warbler but settling instead for some 1st winter yellowhammers, bullfinch, linnet, meadow pipit, a mistle thrush, my second lone redwing of the week and a magnificent sky full of sky larks. Flyovers included raven, a grey wagtail and two pairs of swallow stragglers.

You can't fault the view from
Brandon's Badger Tearoom :-)
Thirty-four species isn't a bad haul for a couple of hours on a small patch, but I still had an appetite for more birds. And for a full English breakfast, which - not at all coincidentally - is how I started my visit to Brandon Marsh.

The breakfast was great, but the sightings board and book didn't look quite so promising. With little having been reported over recent days I was beginning to think I should have made the trip up to Middleton Lakes RSPB on the off-chance that the GWE came back (it didn't).

Still, I told myself, Brandon is a big reserve - there could be anything out there, just waiting to be discovered. Hmmm. After another couple of hours my 'big' find (apart from the welcome site of the recently arrived wigeon) had been a couple of well-hidden snipe on east marsh - my first waders for the day, but not much to show for 4+ hours out and about.

So I decided to make a final stand at Jury Hide - here I vowed to sit until something really interesting dropped in (a peregrine or marsh harrier perhaps, or maybe even the now-mobile GWE!)

To be fair it only took 10 minutes of steely determination (ahem) before I spotted the tiniest movement in the hedges right at the back of the reedbed. A quick scope scan revealed a vivid male stonechat, clear as day even at 200 yards. He was quickly joined by a female and, after a few minutes watching them bounce along that hedgerow, I could finally head home happy that I had indeed seen the day through to a decent conclusion.

Bird of the day: Common Sni... nah, just kidding. It was Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), a long-time favourite of mine. October / November is the best time to find them in this part of the world, and Brandon Marsh as good a spot as any.

3 October 2015

It's not great, but it's mine

I suspect Leam Valley would be few birders' idea of a great patch. Certainly few 'serious' birders.

Despite a reasonable smattering of different habitats, this local nature reserve has proved a tough challenge over many years. Rewards have been modest, with the stand-out discoveries (modest as they have been) significantly outnumbered by visit after visit of same-old same-old mundanity.

It was only as I crossed the entrance footbridge just before 8 o'clock this morning that I realised just how much I'd missed it all :-)

Eerily still, grey but mild, it was a lovely morning to be out and about - even more so given the many-months break since I last ventured forth with binoculars.

The regulars all welcomed me back in turn. In the first dead tree a buzzard loomed large over a squabbling magpie and a great spotted woodpecker. Not much further along the river was a second buzzard and several green woodpeckers.

As ever I was hoping for waders at the scrape. As (nearly) ever there were none. But I was pleased to see a dozen or more female teal busily feeding, and even more pleased when I noticed the lone wigeon on the near shore - a female, and from memory only my second or third here.

Winter wildfowl briefly gave way to summer again as 6 swallows flew west; and then I stumbled across my bird of the day, a late - albeit not bizarrely so - yellow wagtail busily feeding alongside house sparrows and yellowhammers in a nearby ploughed field. Sadly it's not a bird I see much locally, apart from Draycote Reservoir's annual influxes - from memory I can recall a flock near Radford Semele, one of two birds at Ufton Fields and now this one.

Other finds of note were my first redwing of the year (high overhead), several nuthatch, and an intriguing snatch of explosive call which may well have been a cettis warbler. If so, it would another first for this site - I shall certainly be back soon to investigate further.

Bird of the day: Yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava), a lovely little bird which is all too rare as a breeding bird in Warwickshire these days, having suffered terribly from changing agricultural practice, draining and replanting of meadows and so on. A familiar tale for all-too-many species.

11 February 2015

Napton gulls

and I took a brisk lunchtime stroll around Napton Reservoir, determined to make the most the kind of late winter weather that puts one in mind very much of early spring.

The standout birding moment happened before we'd even set forth from the car park; almost 100 lapwing flying low over our heads, blinking black-white-black in the midday sun.

The flock split into two as we watched, and the smaller group of perhaps 30 birds came back to us twice while we were on site.

The reservoir itself had taken on a deep, rich blue colour which contrasted beautifully with the straw yellow of the winter reed bed. The far corner was iced over, providing a popular platform for a large gull flock.

My count of c120 common gulls is among my largest for the site, and the wide variation in their coloration got me thinking - not for the first time - that I should spend more time brushing up on my gull identification skills.

Elsewhere on the water there were pairs each of gadwall and wigeon; plenty of tufted duck and coot (no count, but my perception was that the latter were down on their peak winter numbers); and three great crested grebes.

In the surrounding fields and hedges we had good views of a pair of bullfinches, plenty of blue and great tits, a kestrel and a buzzard.

Bird of the day: Common gull (Larus canus), not common at all except as a visitor in winter (from our own coasts, but many more from Scandinavia & Baltic areas), when numbers can start to build up as today. There's something very attractive about this gentle-faced gull, and it's always a welcome break from the monotony of the more numerous and year-round black-headed gulls. 

8 February 2015

Two wheels good

Today was a beautiful late winter day, the kind that makes birding an absolute joy. But a promise is a promise, and I have pledged to join a 100 mile bike ride in May - meaning that a long, if reluctant, training session was required.

The good news is that if you live as I do near the mid-Warwickshire countryside, cycling and birding are by no means mutually exclusive.

In fact it's quite often the bird sightings which keep me going on a long ride - and with today's 40 miles taking the best part of 3 hours I had plenty of time to look.

It started well as I sped, still fresh legged, out of Offchurch and found my first singing skylarks of the year, as well as a small group of yellowhammers, the males vivid in the bright winter sun.

Shortly afterwards I found the first of what must have been a near double-figured haul of buzzards, and a kestrel wasn't far away. On my way into Birdingbury I rode alongside a flock of 20+ lapwing, resplendent in the bright, clean sunlight.

And, saving the best 'til last, a red-legged partridge ran alongside me in fields behind Long Itchington - a welcome year tick on what must have been the most physically demanding birding trip I have ever undertaken!

Bird of the day: Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa), an exotic looking game bird that brightens any walk across local farmland.

7 February 2015


Whatever your enthusiasm, life as a 'weekend warrior' can be tough - and never more so than in the depth of winter.

With work hours long but the days still short, many of us endure five days every week without the time or the light to properly 'do our thing'.

Cyclists reach for the turbo trainers, birders snatch a few moments fresh air at lunchtime, cricketers train indoors, anglers tie rigs, and photographers set up elaborate indoor macro shoots. 

But all of us yearn for a return of the long, light summer evenings.

For a birder, the nightmare scenario is the week-day rarity - in the worst case, a bird which arrives somewhere on Monday, is reported all week and then vanishes some time on Friday night.

You can always tell when there's been one around, because Saturday morning will see the site full of anguished weekend warriors all asking each other the same question: 'anyone seen the [insert species here]'.

Today at Draycote it was [insert black-necked grebe here] as we all searched in vain for this uncommon winter visitor. To be fair it had actually turned up last Sunday, not Monday, but since my last free day had been the Saturday before the effect was much the same.

Sadly, perhaps inevitably, while the grebe may still have lurked somewhere on this vast reservoir, there had been no sighting of it by the time I left just after midday today.

While disappointing, this didn't spoil the day as much as perhaps you might think.

In fact the grebe was just one of a number of target birds for the morning, each of which would be a year tick for me.

I knew exactly where one species would be, so I set off clockwise to find it. Pausing only to find the female pintails by the overflow, I was soon happily watching a flock of c.20 tree sparrows in hedges near the feeder at Draycote Bank. Hard to find anywhere else locally, but not here, so tick #1 for the day.

Second was the long-staying drake smew. This little beauty proved much more elusive, meaning I'd walked four of the five miles around the reservoir before I finally tracked it down just off Biggin Bay.
I don't see these rare winter ducks too often, and every time I do I am struck by just how exquisite they are - surely our most beautiful bird?

Tick #3 was a more prosaic one, simply a matter of locating one of Draycote's great black-backed gulls, which I did sitting on a bouy not far off the valve tower.

There was plenty more on show besides, of course: a dozen goosander near valve tower, plenty of goldeneye, teal, pochard and wigeon, and, as I finished my five mile circuit, the 2 white-fronted and 1 pink-footed goose swimming just off shore with a small group of greylags.

A grand finale to a typical weekend warrior trip.

Bird of the day: Smew (Mergus albellus), this small sawbill duck only occurs in tiny numbers over a British winter; the drake is an absolute smasher, so always worth the trip.

31 January 2015

Winter bounty

Inspired by Thursday's siskins I looked around (thank you yet again, internet) for a likely spot for some rarer winter finds. Inevitably I alighted on Draycote Reservoir.

Sooooo, it's 7.30am at a still-dark reservoir. The conditions are barbaric - close to zero, a scything north-westerly wind, driving icy rain, and a thin covering of snow underfoot. I'll be honest - at this point I am not a happy bunny.

But then, bang on cue, the honking of geese. There, exactly where expected in the fields between Farborough Bank and the sewage treatment plant, is a mixed flock of perhaps 300 geese. Mainly canada and greylag of course, but if I scan them closely enough...

The rather splendid Anser albifrons (photo: webted)
Ten minute later I had lost all feeling in my feet. Eleven minutes later this had ceased to matter as I found my first target, a lone pink-footed goose. Another minute on and I'd lost it again, with that treacherous voice in my head now thinking 'maybe it was just a small greylag in poor light'. 

And a few minutes later, while trying to relocate the pink-footed at the other end of the flock, I finally tracked down my second targets - a pair of white-fronted geese.

As ever, the weather and the early start and the sheer insanity of it all suddenly ceased to matter.

The pink-footed goose is of course splendid and rather uncommon in these parts (fields full of them in Norfolk of course, but that's not much good all the way over here). But the white-fronted is an even more marvellous proposition: beautifully black-striped across the belly at this time of year; pretty rare away from its normal wintering grounds (Slimbridge being perhaps the most important); and, most importantly on a morning like this, a county tick for yours truly.

I was on a roll, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised at the way my third target came to hand. 

For some reason the reports of pintail (numbers unknown) near the inlet had me looking for a striking (and unmissable) male bird out on the water. So I had reason to be grateful that I took the time to scan a small flock of female mallards at the water's edge, for it was here that I found the subtle and oh-so-easily-overlooked female pintail dabbling with her browner and more coarsely marked mallard sisters.

Any disappointment I may have felt in finding a greyish (if handsome) female in place of the stunning drake was soon dispelled by the nearby goosanders - good numbers of male and female birds, both striking of plumage, and another year tick.

Bird of the day: White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), presumably (assuming not escapees from a collection) two of the Russian birds which would normally overwinter at Slimbridge. 

Hard earned luck

Let's face it - birding is basically down to luck. It's just that the harder you work at it, the luckier you get :-)

Eurasian siskin (photo: Allan Hopkins)
At this time of year in particular it's helpful to remember that you're unlikely to pick up many new bird sightings unless you actually remember to leave the house.

Thursday was a case in point. With hail and snow lashing the office I was loathe to venture out on my usual lunchtime stroll, but mindful that I hadn't been down to the lake for a fortnight or so I togged up and trudged out.

At first there was precious little reward for a faceful of ice. A lone little grebe and two mallard suffered out on the water, watched by 9 cormorants in their usual tree.

But as I turned for the return trip, the wind now mercifully on my back, the sudden woosh of a small flock of small birds caught my attention. Creeping closer to the river bank I was delighted to lock on to a flock of perhaps 30 siskin, all feeding busily in the alder trees. 

This tiny, mobile and (in the male at least) colourful little finch with the distinct forked tail has been one of my missing winter regulars, so it really felt like this little flock had kickstarted my birding year again after such a slow start.

Reward for a faceful of ice after all.

Bird of the day: Siskin (Carduelis spinus), a winter visitor to these parts, best searched for in waterside alder trees and garden nut feeders (I seem to recall that red is considered the best colour, for some reason). 

25 January 2015

Big and biggerer - birding back on track

The RSPB’s Big Birdwatch is undoubtedly A Good Thing. Not only has it been gathering important data on urban / suburban bird populations for 37 years, but with more than half a million people taking part it must also create more than its fair share of interest in birdwatching, and perhaps even sparked some scientific curiosity here and there.

It’s certainly a bit of an institution in the Hornet household. Come 10am Saturday morning we had our feeders full, our scopes and binoculars lined up at the French doors, and the RSPB's fancy new iPad app ready to go.

Goldcrest (credit: Cliff Watkinson)
Boy Hornet and myself were quick immersed in counting the fast-changing numbers of starling, robin, house sparrows, blue tits and more. During the allotted hour I think all our regulars made an appearance, plus a bonus goldcrest in the willow at the end of the garden.

Thirteen species in an hour with a goldcrest as the highlight bird is hardly the cutting edge of British birding, but I wouldn't want to spend that particular morning every year doing any but the Big Birdwatch. If you didn't this year, do make a date for next.

Sunday morning was a more traditional patch session, in fact my first proper one of the year. With only 90 minutes to spare I decided to work Napton Reservoir for the duration.

A quiet start left me with little more than 3 gadwall and a male pochard as standouts among the coots (c80), tufted ducks and mallards (c30 each). It was also good to see a pair of great crested grebe in a few moments of courtship dance.

But things really brightened up when I left the bankside and walked the nearby fields. Here I was able to answer the question: ‘where are all the redwings, fieldfare and finches?’

In fact the answer lay pretty much in one field, which held easily 100+ redwings, with 50+ startling and 20+ fieldfare dotted throughout, all feeding furiously on the recently unfrozen soil. A biggish goldfinch flock was the standout among the remaining mix of finches, sparrows, tits and other regulars. It was a vibrant and exciting place to stand for 20 minutes as birds moved hither and thither around me – the only disappointment being again my inability to turn any of the finches into a brambling (despite a bullfinch’s white rump, which did its normal trick of momentarily raising the heart rate while scanning a small chaffinch flock).

After weeks away from the patch, this was an engrossing interlude. Nothing stellar turned up, but a morning total of 35 species is far from shabby for a single site visit on my patch.

So, after last week’s slow-start moan, this week sees things a touch back on track – a total of 48 species hardly makes it a stellar January (let’s be honest, it doesn’t even make a stellar morning), but I’m back and at it and that’s what counts.

Bird of the weekend: Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), the UK’s smallest bird. A common enough species, but can be hard to track down, due to its tiny size and its fast-moving habits. A welcome bonus on a garden birdwatch.

23 January 2015

You say you want a resolution?

New Year's resolutions are - and let's be frank here - an utter waste of time. Useless. Pointless. Not worth the paper, or pixels, on which they are written.

Of course I'm sure you're the exception that proves the rule - that wilful chap or chap-ess who turned their whole life around with a heartfelt promise made on the stroke of midnight. 

But for the rest of us, we have a different tale to tell; the shared experience of repeated failure, self-loathing and recrimination.

So you'd think I'd have managed to kick the resolution habit by now, and to be fair I have. By and large. 

Unfortunately one crept under the radar this year: a commitment to get some proper birding in and strive for a decent county year list. 

And, in common with all New Year's resolutions, this one is already disastrously stricken; holed beneath the water line and listing (ahem) precariously to port. In short, yet another resolution is set to be wrecked before the last week of January has even begun.

A Winter Dunlin (photo: Andrew C)
Just how wrong has it gone? Well, the sum total of this year's birding to date has been two short family trips to Brandon Marsh, a bit of garden birding and a walk around the office.

So not much then.

This means the county list so far includes little more than my garden regulars, the routine Brandon wildfowl and gulls, the obvious farmland birds I've seen while out cycling, and only a couple of even-slightly-less-than-common sightings: a lone dunlin at Brandon on New Year's Day; a flock of lesser redpoll; and a shelduck today on East Marsh.

I'll still count it all when I get a moment, and endeavour to do better in the coming weeks and months.

But my hopes aren't necessarily that high.

Bird of the fortnight: Dunlin (Calidris alpina), a common and unremarkable wader, but not so much so in land-locked, winter-locked Warwickshire. All the more unremarkable to look at in winter for the lack of the black belly patch it sports throughout the breeding season.

7 January 2015

So, that's Christmas gone then...

Blimey, isn’t December a busy month?! No sooner had it started than it seemed to have ended – plenty of family and friends and fun and laughs and good times, but all over a bit too quick for my tastes… and with not much time in between for birding.

Green Woodpecker (photo: Peter Walkden)
What highlights there were came from that most regular, if not always fruitful, of patches – the garden.

Along with our regular visitors – blue and great tits, house sparrows, starlings, dunnocks, blackbirds, robins, wrens, wood pigeons, magpies and one or two others – we were delighted to see the colder weather bring to our feeders daily flocks of long-tailed tits, the occasional goldfinch, our first great spotted woodpecker for several years and, most excitingly of all, a garden tick – our first ever green woodpecker.

And now, as we head into 2015 I have a number of birding related resolutions in mind, including a bit of effort towards some new lifers. But, as ever, we'll see how that pans out in practice. 

Bird of the month: Green woodpecker (Picus viridis), the largest of our three woodpeckers and a real garden treat in a largely birding free month.