28 April 2017

Hunting high and low

Recent months have seen plenty of birds, but not much birding. How many times in The Hornet's Nest have I written that, or something like it?!

By which I mean of course that while dedicated birding trips have been few and far between, I never stop seeing, hearing and experiencing birds in my surroundings. From the Peregrine which flew low over my train as I headed south out of Banbury to the Cetti's Warbler which exploded into life as I crossed a river bridge on a recent lunchtime stroll, birds are always with me.

But now, having said all of that, I need to record a few notes (largely for my own benefit) regarding a recent, actual, proper birding trip to that most birding of birding destinations - Minsmere RSPB.

With Southwold being our base for a couple of days, I was able to spend the night before exploring the land to the south - Town Marsh and across the river to Walberswick.

It's a remarkable landscape to find so close to the town itself, and I had a great time with great birds: a lone Snipe among the Sand Martins on the marsh, plenty of Oystercatchers and Redshanks along the river, a few Curlews here and there, Little Egret and then a glorious one-two of Marsh Harrier gliding above a fox (Aha's classic 80s Hunting High and Low album immediately sprang to mind at this point...).

I was honestly concerned that I might have spoiled my Minsmere day by seeing so much the night before. I needn't have worried - Minsmere in April was never going to disappoint.

There were great birds to find and watch from start to finish - just short of 70 species on the day, plus some lovely non-avian moments. A detailed account would run to many pages, so I shall confine myself to a few bulleted highlights:
  • A male Ring Ouzel, a lifer (previous sightings have been unconfirmed, a couple of tails diving into hedgerows)
  • Plenty of Wheatear spread across the same field - still one of my favourite birds, rarely seen this closely or in this number
  • A spread of Sandwich Terns (if I may be permitted to invent my own collective noun) - such a striking and handsome bird
  • The usual smorgasbord of waders, including Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Turnstone, Redshank, Snipe and Oystercatcher
  • Mediterranean Gulls in a much larger number than I have previously watched - I'm not much of a gull man, but these are superb birds
  • The most extraordinary displays in front of Bittern Hide by one particularly showy male Bittern. Watched, snapped and filmed for 15 minutes but I suspect he's still there now, a full week later!
  • Snatched glimpses of Bearded Tits in flight, always a thrill
  • Great views of a male Adder, dressed in snappy green and black diamonds, and less than 2 metres from me on the edge of the woodland. Spellbinding.
Bird of the trip: Bittern (Botaurus stellaris). Perhaps it should be the Ring Ouzel as a lifer, or any of the other wonders on view among a trip total of 70+ species (the Avocet for example, one of the RSPB's highest profile conservation triumphs). But Bittern views like this don't come along every day / year / decade, and it was a spell-binding, breath-holding moment. 

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.