20 February 2018

The beginning of the end

Year listing has definitely added a welcome note of urgency to my birding.

The comings and goings of winter birds - the geese, the wild swans and more - interest me every year of course. But the pressure of a year list has suddenly made it all but essential to see as many of these as possible before Spring sets them northwards on their way home.

It's now mid February, and while it's not yet quite the end of winter, it's certainly the beginning of the end. With a free Saturday in the diary I therefore did a quick winter species v distance calculation and settled on a trip to Slimbridge WWT. A good call as it turned out.

The Bewick Swans have already started to return north in drips and drabs, but there are still plenty on the reserve. Likewise White-fronted Geese, Bewick Geese and an unlikely (and probably not wild) Red-breasted Goose. These winter wonders were joined by on my year list by a handful of Common Cranes, a magnificent Peregrine Falcon, more than a dozen Ruff and a flighty Little Stint.

That was an excellent 8 ticks to take the year list to 101 (noting that this also includes Ring-necked Parakeet and Egyptian Goose, both picked up on a quick trip to Regent's Park in London during the week).

If all this makes the trip sound very profunctary and  year list orientated, that would only be telling part of the story. From start to finish it was a wonderful day, with J and myself enjoying the sheer spectacle of Slimbridge every much as we did the year ticks.

Both individually and en masse, the birds were fantastic - there is little to beat the sight of a Golden Plover flock wheeling in the sunlight, of a Peregrine slicing through the mayhem, or of the wonderful White-fronts which bought Sir Peter Scott to this site so many years ago.

14 February 2018

Wading in

A weekend in Braintree, Essex means only one thing for this Warwickshire birder - coast!

Specifically the wonderful blend of tidal mudflats, saltwater marshes and open water that can be found along the Blackwater and Colne estuaries. 

This is a bleak and harsh landscape on a cold, wet and windy February day, but a veritable wonderland for waders, wildfowl and other watery types.

Hoping to start the day with a couple of less obvious year-ticks I stopped first at Abberton Reservoir. The reservoir has changed out of all recognition since I was last there a decade or so ago, but the causeways remains the same, as does its track record for Smew.

Two fine drakes and three redheads made this the largest group I'd ever seen, and together with a confiding Slavonian Grebe in full winter drabs, this was an excellent start (a lurking Great White Egret would have been not only a year tick but a life tick just a few short weeks ago, but of course that ship had recently sailed at Middleton RSPB).

So on to Fingringhoe reserve, a long-standing favourite of mine - full of Nightingale and Turtle Dove in the Summer, but today my best hope to get a few waders on the board.

I certainly wasn't disappointed, particularly with the brilliant new inter-tidal hide which gave me virtually 360 degree views of mudflats bursting with waders: Grey Plovers, a Golden Plover, Ringed Plovers, a Turnstone, Redshanks, Dunlins, Black-tailed Godwits, a handful of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knots, Oystercatchers, Curlews and an Avocet.

Add to that the Skylarks, a magnificent Great Black-backed Gull and a hunkered down male Marsh Harrier, and the year list was soon merrily bouncing along to 91.

Bird of the day: Bar-tailed Godwit (Lamosa lipponica) - I've spent many a winter hour looking at one or other of the godwit species trying to work out which it was; with them here side-by-side I was able to spend a great deal of time so picking through the differences in detail, from the shorter leg length of the 'barwit' to the greater expanse of white-edging around each back feather, which generally makes it appear more 'spangly' than the more smooth-blended 'blackwit'.

8 February 2018

200 birds or bust!

A UK life list of 213 species is a pretty meagre return for the number of years I have been birding (albeit probably a fair reflection of my stop-start commitment and general lack of expertise).

OK, so there are some good birds on the list: rarities (like Ring-necked Duck); beauties (like drake Smew); lurkers (Jack Snipe); creatures of the night (Nightjar) and childhood ambitions (Great Grey Shrike).

But with no new birds added since a Black-necked Grebe at Napton Reservoir in 2012, my life list had become distinctly moribund and in urgent need of some fresh impetus.

It was this realisation that led directly to a sudden decision to aim for the not inconsiderable number of 200 species during 2018. The target, inspired by a regular feature in Birdwatching magazine, seems to me improbable if not absurd; but that really isn't the point. The point is that I needed a kick up the arse to get out and bird more often, and this seemed as good a kick as any.

And the early report is that while I'm sure I'm already miles short of the target, I'm absolutely loving the attempt.

First up was Draycote Reservoir in early January for one of the long-staying Hawfinches (already seen over the Xmas holiday period, but needed again for this 2018 list), plus Tree Sparrow (sadly a bird that is all too easy to miss out on these days).

Next was Middleton Lakes RSPB - two consecutive Sunday trips offering up goodies including Red Kite, Pintail, Stonechat, Water Rail and Great White Egret - the latter my first lifer for more than five years!

(214 species and counting...)

A family walk along the Oxford Canal at Wormleighton turned up a Brambling (well pleased with that one, my first for many years), and a lunchtime stroll near my office revealed a pair of Mandarin drakes hidden in a lakeside creek.

Even some increased effort in garden feeding came up trumps as I spotted on the feeders my first Blackcap of the year (a now semi-regular female), plus my first ever garden Lesser Redpoll.

Five weeks in and I've recorded 73 birds - not a huge number, but many more than I would normally have noted by now. And, much more importantly, I've already enjoyed a dozen or more very special moments as a result of the challenge: from the GWE lifer to the self-found Brambling; from the rush of an unexpected Red Kite to the discovery of a community of Brown Hares within a mile of my house (and the repeated pleasure of visiting them whenever I can find a free half-hour).

So will I reach 200? Probably not, though you never know. But will I enjoy getting there (or not)? Just about guaranteed I'd say.

Bird of the month: Great White Egret (Ardea alba) - a magnificent bird, essentially a white version of our familiar Grey Heron (similar size, shape and movement). Far scarcer than the now familiar Little Egret, the GWE winters in the UK in modest - albeit slowly growing - numbers.

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.