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.