8 August 2016

Best 'til last

On a perfect Sunday morning - sunny and warm with a gentle breeze - I was back on patch after a week chasing some local rarities.

Leam Valley continues to look in fine fettle, but it was deathly quiet when I arrived. For a long while only the hither-thither jangling of Goldfinches broke the morning stillness. 

Birds eventually started to appear: a small flock of juvenile tits including a few willowchiffs (probably chiffchaffs, willow warblers are still uncommon here); a male blackcap around the hide; good views of both woodpeckers species; a jay; a pair of moorhen with two chicks on the scrape. But it still wasn't what you would call buzzing.

The real highlight of this first leg came as I crossed the meadow via the raised path. From here I was able to track a female kestrel as she left the woods to my left and then hunted - repeatedly but unsuccessfully - in the morning sun. Close, perfectly lit and perfectly poised, she was another reminder (if one were needed) that rarities and scarcities are only a small part of birding's appeal.

A quick hop to Ufton Fields soon unlocked another magic moment as I watched a male Bullfinch strip a grass seedhead just yards from the hide window. Again, the lighting and view were perfect.

And gradually Ufton went on to yield the rest of the species which I think of as its specialities - several Willow Warblers, a Garden Warbler, a Treecreeper, a Goldcrest and - saving the best 'til last - a family group of Spotted Flycatchers feeding around the far pool.

This understated beauty is a red listed conservation concern across the UK, and the position in Warwickshire is no different. They are still here, but in increasingly small and isolated groups. So a thriving family party is always a welcome sight - and all the more so when they are all around you, are happy to pose for a quick photo, and one of the youngsters seems keen to hover hummingbird-style just feet from one's face!

Bird of the Day: Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) - a little beauty, delicately marked and fascinating in behaviour. It shouldn't be a scarcity but it is, so will always be a highlight of a morning on patch.

6 August 2016

It's a 'start

As birding summer presses on into birding autumn, things are starting to hot up across Warwickshire.

Monday's Wood Sandpiper was part of the larger wader-fall which began in earnest last week (as I write there are now two Wood Sands at Middleton, and reports there and elsewhere of Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Curlew and Whimbrel moving through). 

Now the more elusive passerines are also starting to show up in hedgerow, hill and tree, including a report on Thursday of a pair of juvenile Redstarts at Napton Reservoir. 

With no Redstart at all on my patch or county lists - despite numerous previous attempts for one at Napton Res and Hill - I was obliged to head over after work, despite the ominous skies and yellow-exclamation-mark weather forecast.

With the faulty logic for which humans are so well known, I headed straight to the far sheep fields where Redstarts have been reported in previous years. A thorough inspection turned up plenty of Common Whitethroat and juv. Chiffchaff, very many biting insects (welcomed by the hundreds of swallows above), and the first of two massive downpours. 

But no Redstarts.

Fortunately a quick check of the fields back at the car park instantly turned up both the reported birds, moving along the hedge at the side of the entrance/exit track. One was particularly obliging, sitting high (for a Redstart) at the top of the hedge for a good five minutes, until a departing fisherman drove past and scared it away over the fields to the north.

Thank you to Boatbirder for sharing his discovery via Twitter. My own photos were merely black outlines in the gathering gloom, Boatbirder's distant record shots were at least in colour! 

Bird of the day: Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), a bird of mature oak woodland that is long since finished as a breeding species in Warwickshire, and is now largely confined to the west and north of Britain. The migrating birds which pass through the country every spring and autumn are therefore a real highlight, all the more so since this is among our most handsome passerines.

2 August 2016

Not Waderless!

Reports came in during Friday of a wader-fall at Brandon - six Black-tailed Godwits and a Curlew were among the key arrivals that caught my attention.

Sadly, by the time I could complete my work and get to Brandon, both species had flown. 

With the reserve feeling increasingly quiet, and the weather increasingly ominous, I was left with more usual fare: several Ringed Plovers, 200+ Lapwing, three Green Sandpipers, a Common Sandpiper and a couple of Little Egrets. 

Then came the inevitable heavy downpour which sent me on my way a trifle disappointed at yet another wader dip (see also Waderless, last week).

However, with return migration now well underway it was only a matter a time until something new turned up, and so it proved with Monday's reports of a Wood Sandpiper at Draycote Reservoir.

So, ignoring the rain and the fact that every other birder in the country was in Suffolk, I headed straight to the overflow where it was still being reported through the afternoon. 

It was easily found, busily feeding along the broad stretch of shore from the overflow back along the exposed Hensborough Bank. 

The snapshot doesn't do it justice, in particularly its spangly back which seemed almost black-and-white in the gathering gloom of a rainy summer's evening. That long, strong eye-stripe is a key diagnostic, along with the square white rump revealed in a quick burst of flight.

With the lowish water levels exposing so much of Hensborough Bank it looked perfect for waders, so it wasn't a huge surprise when a Dunlin (already in its winter drabness) flew in to join the juv. Little Ringed Plovers, followed by a Common Sandpiper. 

Two Little Egrets and a number of young Yellow Wagtails kept me company on a contented, if wet, walk back to the car.

Bird of the day: Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola), a welcome local highlight which crops up on passage every few years. Only a very few breed in the Highlands, the rest in Northern Europe. They are now on their way to Africa, this one taking an extremely westerly route.

21 July 2016


The Green Sandpipers and recent Greenshank at Brandon March mean only one thing to an ever-optimistic patch watcher - autumn migration is already underway, albeit tentatively.

Mindful of the late summer / early autumn mornings when Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover or Common Sandpiper have  dropped in at Leam Valley, I was up bright and early for a quick visit on Saturday.

Sadly, there were no waders in sight. What's more, there seems little prospect of any in the short term - the water level is much higher than it has been in recent summers, so the 20 or so Mallards (mainly hybrids in fact) were much more at home than any of our smaller waders are likely to be. 

Still, migration is only just beginning so there are a few months to go yet.

Plenty more to see around the reserve though, which is looking better and better under the careful management of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust (and, I'm sure, a dedicated team of conservation volunteers). 

A good amount of homogeneous 1960s tree planting has now been felled or cut back, leaving a better blend of trees and more diverse open spaces featuring a mix of ground cover and understory / scrub. Ideal for wild flowers, insects, nesting birds and more, and a real step in the right direction for a reserve which has always seemed to me to have so much promise.

Birding highlights included plenty of Chiffchaffs, a possible Lesser Whitethroat (lots of juv. Common Whitethroat around though, so I'm far from sure), great views of a number of Blackcaps, and a brief appearance from the regular Kingfisher.

17 July 2016

An evening at Brandon: The Movie

More fine weather on Thursday; it could almost be summer :-/

But an excuse, nevertheless, to rush down to Brandon Marsh for an evening of birding and playing with my new digiscoping / vidiscoping kit.

No Greenshank-like excitement on East Marsh this time, nor Hobbies at the Alban reedbeds. Instead I was able to grab some nice footage and images of close-to Oystercatchers, a Common Tern on a not-too-distant perch, and then spend a bit of time sketching these and others.

So the Common Tern first, as a short video (spoiler: the (modest) action sequence is at 00:53):

And then, because I can, as an animated gif. You won't be surprised to learn that there's an app for that :-)

The Oystercatchers were more of a challenge - they wouldn't stop moving! If I'm to catch video footage in those circumstances then I might need a steadier, more fluid tripod head. But in the meantime, here's a couple of jpgs and another gif.

Other birding highlights included  4 Ringed Plover and a Little Ringed Plover on the main island, and two Green Sandpipers at Teal Pool,

16 July 2016

Photography good. Video better?

I mentioned in my last post that I was intrigued and excited by the opportunity to use my iPhone's video as well as the still-image camera when digiscoping. It has taken only a couple of days for the advantages to become clear.

Take this short film of Swallow chicks for example. Taken right outside my office door just a few hours before they fledged from the nest, it isn't amazingly sharp or eye-poppingly bright.

But it does instantly demonstrate a number of advantages to video:

  • Insight: we thought there were three chicks; studying the footage carefully showed four mouths suddenly appear at feeding time.
  • Detail: this insight was possible thanks to some clever slo-mo technology applied to the video, extending the feeding episode from a couple of seconds to a more leisurely pace.
  • Timing: it is incredibly hard with a still camera, even with modern burst modes, to get four chicks with their mouth open. But video makes it a doddle - simply set it running, cut it to size later, apply the slo-mo to the key part (and extract a still image as well should you so wish, see examples below).
  • Quality: video simply demands less quality; for a photo to excite in this digitally perfect age it has to be pin sharp and compositionally perfect, but videos seem to engage audiences at a far lower quality.

There's undoubtedly more video to come on The Hornet's Nest, for all these reasons and more.

14 July 2016

A new toy! or Phonescoping arrives at the Hornet's Nest

It was only recently, as I re-read some old Hornet's Nest equipment reviews, that I realised I've been using pretty much the same birding gear for a decade or more.

Bins, scope, even my shoulder bag - all have been with me for many years and, aside from the odd new notepad. sketch book and pencil, there have been no new toys to play with.

Except cameras that is. Over the years I have chopped and changed a bit with cameras.

I was there in the early days of digiscoping - if not at the actual beginning then certainly in the first flush of innovation. Cameras were heavy and/or unreliable (Coolpix 990 or Contax SL300 anyone?), adaptors were clumsy and expensive, batteries depleted fast, and results were decidedly hit and miss. I got some great results, but got pretty fed up lugging all that gear about.

So from digiscoping I moved on to a superzoom camera (Panasonic FZ20, still regret selling it) and then a DSLR with cheap 300mm lens + teleconverter. 

But more than anything what this all taught me was that good birdwatching and good bird photography rarely go hand in hand. Sure, good bird photography requires field craft and knowledge of birds. But it also needs obsessive attention to an individual bird at the expense of all others; attention to light and composition; and a thousand technical details from pin-sharp focus to batteries. And then there are the hours 'developing' the images on a laptop.

So I pretty much quit bird photography all together, preferring instead to find wonderful Creative Commons licensed images to use in this blog, and to sketch my own birds as I find them in the field. My sketching is awful, but I learn vastly more about birds and bird ID from doing that than I ever did from photography.

However, there are undoubtedly occasions when a photograph would be useful - either for identification, confirmation, or perhaps to complete a sketch after the bird has flown.

A bit of reading around suggested that digiscoping in its latest guise - phonescoping - might be the answer. So this week I finally got my hands on a new toy - a Carson is-100 universal phone adaptor from Sherwoods near Wooten Wawen (thanks for the great service guys). 

This clever device is able to pair my iPhone 6s with either my Zeiss Diascope 65 or my Opticon MM2 ED scopes. The results are a revelation.

The smartphone camera is vastly better than the technology of years gone by, so the images - in good light at least - are plenty clear enough for my purposes, with bags of spare resolution for cropping. Additional features like video and slo-mo are the icing on the cake - I can see plenty of birding applications and look forward to playing in the coming months and weeks.

So there you have it - a small piece of plastic I can throw in the shoulder bag and be ready  to photograph at a moments notice. Wonderful. Here are the obligatory garden test shots (taken from a bedroom window at 20 metres or so); I'm sure there will be plenty more to come.

11 July 2016

The blur of pencil on paper

Nothing suggests a good bird like a busy notebook and sketch pad. Take Friday evening, for example, which saw a proper blur of pencil on paper as an unexpected wader greeted me at Brandon Marsh.

I arrived at Brandon just before 5pm with the vague aim of watching and sketching Hobbies for a while. And I did, eventually.

But first I was waylaid for nearly an hour at East Marsh. Because as I counted Common Tern chicks and sorted through the Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Ringed Plover and Little Ringed Plover, my scope came to rest on an elegant, but sleeping, wader.

Pale, slim and speckled, it looked for all the world like a Greenshank, a bird I haven’t seen in Warwickshire for absolutely ages (possibly since this digiscoped beauty at Draycote in 2005). 

 And when it lifted its head and started elegantly feeding around the island, I was able to confirm that it was indeed Tringa nebularia – an unexpected treat and a joy.

It’s not a terribly difficult bird to identify of course, but I took my time to work through its distinctive features – the green(ish) legs, the needle-thin and slightly upturned bill and, when it eventually fluttered gracefully from one side of the island to the other, a diagnostic white ‘cigar’ shape on its back.

Having watched and then sketched the bird to my own satisfaction (fortunately I set low, low standards for my own artistry), I moved on to Green Sandpipers at Teal Pool (now up to three in number), and then on the Ted Jury Hide for some Hobby sketching. Just one Hobby showed, but it did me the great service of sitting stock still in the nearest tree for half an hour – a great end to a great evening.

Bird of the day: Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), a returning migrant which will be found at shallow waters around the country over the next couple of months – but usually only as single birds. Their relative scarcity in inland counties like Warwickshire only adds to their elegant charm.

7 July 2016

The warp and the weft

One of birding’s many glories is the way it can be fitted around the warp and weft of everyday life.

Unlike fishing, cycling and my (many) other interests past and present, birding require no great preparation, no great amount of equipment and little forward planning. Simply pick up binoculars, notepad & pencil and step out the front door.

Southern Hawker at Snitterfield
So with a spare lunchtime hour on Monday I could head to Ufton Fields; in the same slot on Tuesday I was at Snitterfield Bushes; after dinner that night the fine weather called me to Leam Valley; and Wednesday lunchtime saw me on a canal side stroll near Edstone.

Birding is tough wherever you go at this time of year, but doubly so in woods. I heard plenty but saw few - warblers, Wrens and Song Thrush have all been in good voice. 

The real birding highlight was over water though - a pair of Kingfishers fishing and playing together for a good half hour at Leam Valley.

But non-birding highlights have been plenty, including late season spotted orchids throughout Ufton and Snitterfield, Marbled White butterflies at Ufton and two Southern Hawkers at Snitterfield.

Species of the week: Southern Hawker, simply an astonishing creature. The more you look the more amazing they are, and it’s well worth investigating their ‘back story’ (including most of a life spent underwater, with just weeks in this amazing, prehistoric state).

5 July 2016

A fine Hobby

The merest hint of warmer weather was enough to send me scurrying to Brandon Marsh for a Friday evening stroll.

It’s been a while since I’ve done an evening session, and I’d forgotten how gloriously tranquil it can be.

A couple of Common Terns provided the early entertainment, alternating between feeding two chicks and squabbling over their own share.

The Oystercatcher chicks are now up and around, and starting to look like small Oystercatchers in their own right (albeit very scruffy ones). Talking of scruffy, most of the ducks are now well into eclipse.

On the Teal Pool it was great to see my first two Green Sandpipers of the year, presumably females which have left their breeding grounds ahead of the young and male birds (as is their habit). One of these two certainly had the boldly-speckled back of a breeding bird, the other less so.

Photo: Ron Knight
News of both Barn Own chicks and Hobbies from the Ted Jury Hide had me scurrying to the end of the reserve – sadly neither appeared during the half-hour I had left.

But there’s always another day, and it happened to be Sunday. Back with J at my side, we were down to one Green Sandpiper but up to a full complement of two Hobbies.

These are thrilling birds – powerful, agile, elegant and beautiful. I could watch them for hours: perched one can only admire their colours, their markings and their poise; once airborne their hunting of dragonflies (and occasionally hirundines) is frankly astonishing to see.

Bird of the weekend: Eurasian Hobby (Falco Subbuteo), I think probably my favourite raptor. A summer visitor, the Hobby is best seen on warm days from June to September hawking over water, marsh and scrubland for dragonflies and small birds. 

2 July 2016

Spring into summer: four months in one post

Ah, the catch-up post – the tax demand of the blogosphere. No one wants to read it, few enjoy it when they do, and the longer you put it off, the worse it gets.

However, for the sake of keeping my own notes up to date (and remember that The Hornet’s Nest serves above all as my birding diary), I’m afraid that a short review of recent months is required.

Clearly disillusioned by my autumn dips (most notably on the Bearded Tits at Napton Reservour) my notebook suggests I took off all of December and January.

February saw a resumption though, with Draycote to the fore: drake Smew, Great Northern Diver, Greater Scaup, and a stunningly low fly-by of 200+ Golden Plover were among the highlights.

A country tick (photo by Jez)
March featured the miracle of a county tick. As I drove to work near Norton Lindsey one morning, the usual drag of being stuck behind a tractor was considerably alleviated by the sight of a Red Kite drifting slowly across my windscreen from left to right.

It’s taken years for me to finally connect with one of these beauties inside the county boundaries, and would you believe that not two weeks later I ran into another, this time while out cycling near Napton (and that only because I took a turn down the wrong lane for 200 yards).

By April and May I was back in full birding swing (in so far as I ever am these days).

An early April trip to Brandon Marsh threw up joys aplenty: 2 Black-tailed Godwit, 2 Little Egret, a male & female Pintail, my first Willow Warbler of the year, Redshank, Oystercatcher and a pair of Shelduck.

Spotted Flycatcher (photo: sebastien bertru
Just a few days later I enjoyed a magical evening at Napton Reservoir where hundreds of newly arrived hirundines swept low over the water and surrounding fields. 75% Swallows, 20% Sand Martins and 5% House Martins - plus great views of a Lesser Whitethroat and a beautiful White Wagtail.

I was all over May; I smashed it out of the park ;-) Yellow Wagtail at Napton Res (admittedly that was while I was dipping on a Redstart, but hey ho),  Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover at Brandon, Red-legged Partridge as I cycled near Offchurch, and a beautiful (and very early) family of Spotted Flycatchers at another favourite local destination – the patch had truly come alive.

Two special trips bring this marathon catch-up to a conclusion.

In mid-May, J and I took our first (and much overdue) trip to Upton Warren in Worcestershire. We went principally to see the Avocets which are encouraged to breed there by the unusual brackish inland waters. But there was so much more besides. Ringed and Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Little Egrets, great views of a Water Rail just in front of the tiny book hide and – this the crowning glory – three Black Terns feeding relentlessly over the larger of the waters, a small part of a widespread national fall.

By June we were in Devon, where a trip to Yarner Wood is always an absolute must. No Redstarts on this occasion, but I did connect with a female Pied Flycatcher and enjoyed the closest possible views of a brilliant yellow-and-white Wood Warbler.

Eurasian Golden Plover (photo: Sue)
Ancient oak woodland is in short supply in Warwickshire, but so (as you might have noticed) is coastline. That made Dawlish Warren at the mouth of Devon’s River Exe pretty hard to beat.

We were there for a family beach day, and found the nature reserve by chance. Something of a result all around, since at the end of a great beach + funfair day we took the opportunity to walk across to the main hide, finding as we went plenty of Stonechat, Linnets, a score or more of Oystercatchers, 2 Bar-tailed Godwits, 2 Whimbrel (my first for some years), Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Great Black-backed Gulls and, most surprisingly of all, a Golden Plover in virtually full breeding plumage – an unusual bird in these parts at any time of year, and in these colours a first for me.

Full circle then from February’s fly-by of winter-plumaged plover, and a gloriously bright conclusion to four months of episodic but enjoyable birding.

Bird of the season: Almost impossible to call, but I’m going for Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striapa): admittedly one of the more common of the birds recorded in this post, but much declined in recent years. As a patch-birder at heart, finding a successful brood in the heart of my patch probably brings me more pleasure than any number of exotic rarities elsewhere (although as a county tick the Red Kite's were both a bit special, and that breeding-plumage Golden Plover did lift the heart more than a little).