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.