Sunday, 19 December 2010

Bohemian Rhapsody

I hadn't managed to get to Woburn to see the Waxwings previously but the thought of seeing several hundred was just too much to resist today. And what a sight it was - trees, aerials, wires, in fact anything 'perchable', was covered with them.

They were very mobile, with large groups breaking off and flying along the street and back again. At one point they all suddenly took off together and it was soon clear why, when a Sparrowhawk flew up across the gardens with a Waxwing in its talons. Even though I know birds of prey struggle to survive in this weather too, I couldn't help but feel a bit sad about that.

Trees traced white with frost and multi-coloured Bohemian Waxwings... what a combination.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Winter sun

Spent a lovely day birding in North Norfolk on Saturday with the bright sunshine bringing out the best in the birds we saw - first of which was this Water Rail, eating an eel just off the path at Titchwell...

There were plenty of birds on the Freshwater Marsh, but more than anything it was Pipit territory – Meadow Pipits were everywhere (one flock held twenty birds or more); also a Rock Pipit and three Water Pipits in front of the new [yet to open] hide.
Down at the beach the light was particularly good, so much so that even the less colourful birds seemed to glow...

Grey Plover
Every now and then the Plover would stop and look in my direction, and what an inscrutable expression that bird had!

[Click on the photo once or twice to see it better.]
The cutest bird of the day was, without doubt, this little podge...
We later made our way to Cley, stopping along the road near Burnham Overy to look for a Rough-legged Buzzard that had been in the area for some time. No luck with that, but we did see a pair of Barn Owls and a beautiful ring-tail Harrier with unusual plumage – a dark back and rusty tan underneath (later reported as a juvenile Hen Harrier). 
Cley held the promise of some Shore Larks, which were in the company of a flock of Snow Buntings. On reaching the North Hide area we found the flock quite easily, but unfortunately they were being chased around by a chap with a camera - and the Larks were nowhere to be seen. Thankfully the ‘photographer’ eventually gave up and wandered off, and within minutes the Snow Buntings returned to the shingle, followed closely by four Shore Larks.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Rainham Reedlings

After a very cold morning’s walk round Elmley Marshes, Kent on Saturday - shrouded in freezing mist which stubbornly refused to clear, Carolyn, Malcolm and I decided to spend the afternoon at RSPB Rainham Marshes. We reasoned that even if birds were scarce there was always the option of hot chocolate in the Visitors Centre. As it turned out we made the right choice; not just because of the hot chocolate [with whipped cream – need I say more], but because we managed to catch the matineé performance of a party of Bearded Tits feeding in reeds near the exit gate. They were stunning – we counted a dozen or more, acrobatically working their way through the reeds just a few metres from us and seemingly unconcerned by their audience. Supporting act was a Water Rail doing a Basil Fawlty walk across the channel a couple of times. Cold weather... what cold weather?

Thursday, 25 November 2010


In North American English this was the name once given to the bird we know as the Long-tailed Duck – a migratory sea duck found in northern Europe, North America, and Asia. In the UK it’s usually seen around northern coasts in winter, although the one sighting I’d had of Long-tailed Duck previously was a distant view off the North Norfolk coast. At the weekend, however, I was pleased to get the chance to see a first winter drake that had turned up at Fen Drayton Lakes in Cambridgeshire.
I read somewhere that of all diving ducks, the Long-tailed Duck spends the most time underwater relative to time on the surface and that was certainly true of this bird because it was constantly diving, which made it very difficult to photograph [and indeed to watch].  I don’t think it stayed on the surface longer than 4 or 5 seconds at a time - and often less than that...

But perseverance paid off and I managed a few photos from its brief appearances...

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Owls, exotics and a murmuration

Last weekend’s trip to the Cotswolds and Slimbridge got off to a great start when we called in at the Cotswold Water Park and found, with the help of a local birder, a Short-eared Owl quartering one of the marshy fields. It didn’t take us long to work out which post was its preferred perch and so when the owl went off hunting for a second time we positioned ourselves to get a good view of the post - and waited. As we stood there a Barn Owl also flew in which was great, at first – until a mid-air altercation between the two birds resulted in the disappearance of the Short-eared Owl; but at least it allowed the Barn Owl to hunt undisturbed for a while. Fortunately, once the Barn Owl had caught some prey and left the scene, the Short-eared Owl returned and to our delight landed on the post we had picked out, giving us perfect views of it.
Mind you, I’m not sure who was watching who...

After a few minutes rest and a shake of its feathers, it was off hunting once more...

Late afternoon found us crossing the county boundary into Somerset for the Starling roost at RSPB Ham Wall reserve. I’ve seen such a spectacle reported a number of times on nature programmes but, believe me, no TV programme even begins to capture the atmosphere of the real thing - it has to be seen [and heard]to be believed.

On Sunday we spent the day with Beds Bird Club members at WWT Slimbridge. There were plenty of birds on view from the hides overlooking the Severn Estuary, and we enjoyed the 4 o’clock floodlit bird feeding from the Peng Observatory, but I particularly liked all the exotic wildfowl. Even if the day was rather grey and dull, those birds were anything but...

Ringed Teal

Hooded Mergansers

Chiloe Wigeon

Red-breasted Goose


Monday, 8 November 2010

That's another Eider down

A visit to Minsmere on Saturday [6 November] provided Malcolm, Carolyn and me with an opportunity to catch up with one of the rarer species of Eider Duck - a drake King Eider that had been in the area for some time. Finding it was not going to be easy, though, as we had been told it usually did a daily commute between Dunwich and Sizewell – that’s a lot of sea to search for one duck! As we walked to the beach I don’t think any of us felt too confident that we’d see it but incredibly, after ten minutes or so of scanning and just as we were beginning to resign ourselves to a long search, Malcolm said he thought he’d got it – and sure enough it was the Eider. It was quite distant at that point but soon afterwards we had a stroke of luck when a small fishing boat spooked the bird into flight, bringing it a bit closer - close enough for us to watch it easily through the scopes as it dived and fed, and preened itself.

After a celebratory lunch in the visitors centre involving lots of cake, it was off to Covehithe, a few miles away, to try for a reported Richard’s Pipit. Yet again, within ten minutes of arriving we had the Pipit in our scopes, after seeing a number of birders making their way through the churchyard to a field beyond. To say this bird was mobile was the understatement of the year - it didn’t stand still for a second and we were continually losing it in the rough grass and weeds of the field. Eventually, however, it did stop for a short rest which gave us a chance to try a photo or two…

Back at Minsmere, a single Waxwing in a tree close to the visitors centre was the only bird I saw that day of a larger flock that had been around earlier…

…while the final half an hour in the Island Mere hide gave me probably the best view I’ve ever had of a ring-tail Hen Harrier. It almost made you hold your breath to watch it - flying in an arc around the front of the hide, its feathers tinged gold by the setting sun.

Needless to say, another great day’s birding.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Vagrants and winter visitors

There was definitely a feel of autumn in the air on Sunday when I went to North Norfolk with the Bedford RSPB Local Group.  Not only because of the weather (it was overcast and chilly) but also because of the birds that were around. We saw plenty of Geese - especially Brents, also Redwings flying over, and Red-throated Divers on the sea.
Several vagrants had been spotted in the area in previous days and we were hopeful of seeing something special. As it turned out, we didn’t find the Pallas’s Warbler reported at Warham Greens; and missed a Red-flanked Bluetail at Holme by minutes – but we did get to see a really neat Red-breasted Flycatcher at Holkham.
And talking of neat birds, there were two immaculate Snow Buntings at Cley. One of my bird books describes their winter plumage as ‘subdued’ but I certainly don't agree with that - to my mind it's more attractive than their breeding plumage. Smart little birds...

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A lifer before breakfast

It may sound surprising, but that’s exactly what happened, on more than one occasion, during a ten-day birding holiday to the Eastern Algarve [1-10 October] with my friends Malcolm, Carolyn, John, and Pete.
We were based in Arroteia, a few miles from Tavira, and stayed at the idyllic Quinta Cerro da Vela  [The Lagoon Cottage]...
Early mornings were arguably the best part of the day. As we sat on the terrace birds were all around us and it wasn’t unusual for a bird new to me to fly past, or land on the salt marsh - Red-rumped Swallows one day, White Storks another.
During our stay we travelled from one end of the Algarve to the other; often near the coast but also inland - into the Alentejo and Cachopo regions. We paid a couple of visits to Cabranosa, a raptor watch point between Sagres and Cape St Vincent; and even nipped over the border into Spain, to Odiel Marshes. Needless to say, I saw many excellent birds (we managed 156 species in total for the trip), but before I go any further I must introduce the sixth member of our party...

Gordon Gecko
Gordon and his family lived in the space between the roof and the bamboo ceiling of the cottage and one evening he decided to hang out with us while we went through our bird lists for the day.

Now for some birds...
Many of the sites we visited were wetlands - salt pans, marshes and lagoons. At Quinta do Lago we had good views of Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Purple Gallinule...

... and Squacco Heron (they're much smaller than I had imagined).

At Ludo Farm salt pans these two Black-winged Stilts were engaged in a courtship display and in fact mated just after this photo was taken.

Salgados lagoon was home to one of my favourite birds of the trip – Greater Flamingos. I found them fascinating – elegant yet at times ungainly; stately but also comical. Watching them was like watching an alternative production of Swan Lake, but in this performance the dancers really were large fluffy birds – and everything was pink.

It wasn’t all wetlands though. We spent one day with local guides Peter and June in the plains of the Alentejo region watching Great and Little Bustards, a field full of Stone Curlews, juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, and a group of Griffon Vultures giving a spectacular soaring display above the Hermitage at Monte Salto, after which they landed in a nearby field...

We even managed to squeeze in a ‘twitch’ during our stay. A couple of days before we’d flown in an Upland Sandpiper (a vagrant from North America) had been spotted near Tavira, and Peter and June took us to find it at the end of our day with them.
Other favourites of mine were...
Azure-winged Magpies
Both were relatively common, but I've always wanted to see them - and wasn't disappointed.
A few ‘non-bird’ lifers were also seen... for mammals it was Short-beaked Common Dolphins, on a pelagic out of Sagres; Gordon was a reptile lifer for me; plus a couple of butterfly species - Swallowtails at Castro Marim and Cabranosa, and this stunning Monarch at Vilamoura...

We ended the holiday in style. On the final afternoon, back at Salgados, Carolyn spotted a Sacred Ibis on the far bank among some White Storks. There are feral populations of these birds in Spain and Italy so it may have been from one of those, or an escape. Whatever its provenance, we loved it.  I wasn’t able to get a photo as it was distant and most of the time stayed hidden in long grass, but you knew it was there - this White Stork wasn’t at all keen on having a stranger on his patch.

So how to close this... well, instead of the usual sunset shot [lovely though they are], I’m going to end on the same note as I opened with - the magical early mornings.
You're sitting on the terrace watching the sun rise slowly over the distant sea, with calls of Grey Plover, Redshank and Curlew drifting over from the salt marsh. In the garden soft piping calls of Hoopoe distract you momentarily from the Sardinian Warblers and Waxbills flitting from shrub to shrub. Then all of a sudden your attention’s caught by a group of large birds flying sedately over the marsh – Flamingos. Wow... how’s that for a lifer before breakfast!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Now you see me...

This Lapland Bunting was one of the birds seen on a trip to Norfolk on Sunday with the Bedford RSPB Local Group. We knew a sizeable flock had been at Cley in recent days, but only managed to find a single bird – and we were lucky to spot that as it moved around, beautifully camouflaged, amongst the rocks and vegetation on the shingle bank.
Even though we were quite close, you only had to take your eyes off it for a couple of seconds and it was difficult to find again, especially when it decided to do its best impersonation of a pebble...

It was a good day for waders - large numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, plus Dunlin, Knot, Redshank, Ruff, Little Stint, Avocet, Grey Plover, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, and a rather grubby Spoonbill at Thornham.  My favourite birds of the day, apart from our little camouflaged friend above, were the first Pink-footed Geese of the Autumn, an Arctic Skua in aerial combat with a Tern, and three Common Scoters bobbing up and down in the sea off Cley – yet another case of ‘ Now you see ‘em, now you don’t’.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Freiston and Frampton

A visit last weekend to the Lincolnshire reserves of Freiston Shore and Frampton Marsh gave me plenty of opportunity to brush up on my wader ID. On Saturday we travelled to Frampton via Titchmarsh reserve in Northants. Neither produced anything exceptional although we did get good views of a Peregrine Falcon at Frampton being seriously mobbed by Lapwings.
The real spectacle was awaiting us at Freiston Shore on Sunday morning, where we were joined by friends from the Beds Bird Club. Everyone was in the hide for high tide - around 9.30 am - by which time the lagoon in front of us was teeming with thousands of waders. Most numerous were Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Dunlin, Knot and Oystercatchers; but there were also Turnstones, Grey Plovers and a few Bar-tailed Godwits. This was the first time I had seen waders in such numbers – and so close. It was the perfect opportunity to practise sorting out Knot from Redshank...

...and the occasional Bar-tailed Godwit from among its Black-tailed friends...

By the time the birds started to leave the lagoon as the tide receded, we had made our way to a shelter overlooking the shoreline to enjoy watching the swirling flocks as they flew back.
The latter part of the morning was spent watching Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints on a scrape on the western edge of the reserve. I was pleased to finally catch up with Curlew Sandpipers, having not seen them before, but the Little Stints were something else – working their way across the mud like dinky little clockwork toys.

Frampton Marsh in the afternoon added some wildfowl to our day’s list – Pintail, Shelduck, Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon and Egyptian Goose to name a few, plus a Green Sandpiper; but the best was saved till last when a walk to one of the hides late afternoon turned up a perky Whinchat posing on the fence along the path, accompanied at times by a Wheatear and juvenile Goldfinch.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Is it or isn't it?

A genuine wild Marbled Duck... 

This individual was found at Broom Gravel Pits today.

There was a lot of discussion about whether it was a wild Duck or an escapee; but wild or not, it's an attractive Duck and was definitely worth the quick trip after work to see.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Red-backed and Red-necked

We're certainly perfecting our Red-backed Shrike ID at the moment. Having seen the adult female at Biggleswade last weekend, we arrived at Holme on Saturday [4 Sept] to hear that a juvenile was present there, and soon caught up with it – frequenting a patch of scrub in the middle of the dunes area.

An exciting bonus was the Barred Warbler keeping it company (which apparently is often the case) – although this was much more elusive and several vigils throughout the day were rewarded with only a couple of brief appearances.

We ended the day in the hide at Redwell Marsh watching a Red-necked Phalarope that had flown in the previous day. This bird definitely wasn’t hard to spot – it had the pool more or less to itself. Feeding frantically, it stopped for barely a second and made you feel almost dizzy watching it. After leaving its breeding grounds in the Arctic this one had decided to break its journey in Norfolk in readiness for the final stage of its journey to the Arabian Sea. The Arctic to the Arabian Sea... no wonder it needed to eat so much.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Shrike Zone

Although now considered virtually extinct in Britain as breeding birds, Red-backed Shrikes were, apparently, once common in the UK and particularly in what is now the A1 area of Bedfordshire; so it was fitting that when one decided to visit the county last weekend it chose the same area for a stopover - on this occasion Biggleswade Common.

We had good views of the adult female bird - perching in the open, and occasionally dropping into vegetation to catch prey. Don’t you just love it how some birds can keep their head still while everything else attached to it moves with the breeze...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Dungeness - 11 July 2010

The day started fairly normally - a trip to Dungeness with Carolyn and Malcolm hopefully to see the Purple Herons that were breeding there; but it ended up being one of those days that birders dream of - all thanks to a lone visitor from southern Russia.

On any other day seeing Purple Herons flying over the reed beds would have been the highlight, or even the Great Egret fishing in the pool in front of us. But both birds were eclipsed by our discovery of an extremely rare vagrant on the ARC pit during the afternoon - a White-tailed Lapwing. This particular bird had previously done the rounds of UK reserves - Seaforth NR, RSPB Rainham Marshes and WWT Slimbridge - but fortunately for us it chose this day to visit Dungeness.

As the realisation of what we had found dawned on us, a sort of stunned disbelief set in. Malcolm and Carolyn went to the Visitors Centre to report the bird while I stayed in the hide and did my best to get some photos and video for identification purposes in case it flew off - no pressure then!

It was quite distant and the bright sunshine and strong winds meant conditions were far from ideal for photos and video. But when something like this comes along you just have to get what you can...

A mega bird, and a mega day.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Loch Ruthven - May 2010

... is a peaceful Scottish loch and RSPB reserve about 25 km south-west of Inverness.

Loch Ruthven
 My visit there in May was primarily to try to see these fantastic birds...

Slavonian Grebe
 The Grebes are easily watched from the hide on the banks of the loch. At one point a pair came fairly close - bobbing up and down on the water not too far from the hide. I couldn't resist trying to get a little video of them, with the sun on their russet and gold plumage ...

Truly stunning birds.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A special bird

The first bird on this blog just has to be Tuppy - a Blackbird who was my friend and companion for seven years. He would call me out into the garden when he needed me, fly to greet me when I came home, and was never further than a few feet away when I was in the garden - chatting to me in the shared language we developed over the years. Despite all this he remained, in essence, a wild bird; and that's why it was a privilege to be his friend and protector. I miss him still.