Welcome to my birdwatching blog. This blog will contain stories about my bird watching trips, interesting bird news and other tales that may or may not be bird related. I want to make it useful to the avid birder as well as those who may only have a passing interest in bird watching. I enjoy photographing bird life, common and rare through a spotting scope, not that they always sit still long enough for me. Being on the outskirts of North East London, my reports will not only cover my local patch of Redbridge/Waltham Forest, but also dip into deepest Essex, Suffolk, Kent and Norfolk.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A bit of last minute Christmas birding

Having a few days off before the Christmas break allowed me to indulge in a bit of last minute birding. And rather than create separate posts for each trip, I am lazily putting all the highlights into one post.

Amwell Gravel Pits
At the northern end of the Lee Valley, Amwell is a good place to find wintering ducks and bittern.
Birds seen: siskin, goldeneye, wigeon, shoveler, gadwall, great crested grebe, common gull

Great Northaw Wood
Ancient woodland in Hertfordshire
Birds seen: nuthatch, common treecreeper, coal tit, marsh it, great spotted woodpecker, tawny owl (heard only)
Mammals: muntjac deer

Connaught Water
Local lake on the edge of Epping Forest
Mandarin duck, Hooded Merganser (unknown origin)
Mandarin Duck
Mandarin Ducks

Sunday, 11 December 2011

From Bewick’s swans to bouncing bombs

Following the blustery day at Rainham Marshes, the following day was calm, sunny and reasonably mild. The plan was to visit Fingringhoe Wick and Abberton Reservoir.

Fingringhoe is on the Colne esturary and can attract a range of wintering ducks and waders. There was also still a long-staying Glossy Ibis which eluded me so we’ll skip over that one.

Most action came from the esturary. There were 18 red-breasted Mergansers on the water with small flocks of Brent geese. Avocets, curlews, knots and dunlins ferried back and forth with redshanks and lapwings adding their voices to the scene. A single Slavonian Grebe drifted slowing up river providing another highlight.

Pretty Map

Brent Geese

Red-breasted Merganser

Slavonian Grebe
From Fingringhoe Wick, I headed over to Abberton Reservoir. Abberton Reservoir is famous for a slightly different type of bird. In 1943, the RAF used Abberton reservoir as a practice run site for the Lancaster bomber and the bouncing bomb, created by Barnes Wallis because it was a similar shape to the Eder Dam in Germany. Lately, and more peacefully, the reservoir has played host to hen harriers, short-eared owls and Bewick’s Swans. I was hoping that it was still the case.

Upon arriving at the reservoir, I was a little surprised to find so much land management work going on. A new visitor centre and re-profiling of the reservoir is all taking shape. Fortunately, this hasn’t affected the quality of the birds.
Roy King Hide, Abberton Reservoir
I counted five short-eared owls quartering fields around Wigborough Bay and four Bewick’s swans roosted in the same area.

Bewick’s Swans

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Gone with the wind

This is the first of two back-to-back birding trips this week while using up my annual leave.

Nothing was going to stop me, not even a little breeze coming in from the SW. Okay, so it was more than just a little breeze, more a mini hurricane to be dramatic. I hedged my bets and opted for the safety of Rainham Marshes. This wasn’t because it’s sheltered because it isn’t. It is however not far to bolt for home if the weather gets too much.

The Thames from Rainham Marshes
Fuck, it was windy. I walked along the sea wall west towards the landfill site scanning the sea for winter ducks. The wind nearly blew me over a couple of times and viewing through a scope was difficult as the wind turned my eyes to pools of water. Teal and Wigeon bobbed about probably having fun but not sure. The fun ended though when a Peregrine Falcon in the shape of an air to sea missile dived down towards the unsuspecting wildfowl. Luckily, the falcon, probably suffering from the wind in it’s eyes like me, missed catching his lunch. The ducks went all over the place.

Teal. Shortly to have a bit of a shock.

I love watching birds trying to fly in strong winds. Some manage really well like ducks and geese but magpies are really untidy. They look like puppets being puppeteered by someone having a fit.

Rock Pipit
I found a small party of Rock Pipits a bit further on. I was able to sit in relative shelter and this enabled me to take a reasonable shot of these birds. Hadn’t had one this year so this took me to equal last year’s total so hopefully by the end of tomorrow I’ll be celebrating. I guess this sounds as though totals and lists are the most important thing to me. They’re not but they serve the purpose of motivating me to get out and watch birds in the most inclement of weather.

I started the circular walk around the RSPB reserve noting Black-tailed Godwit, Redwing, Little Egret, Pintail and at least 700 Lapwings which with another Peregrine circling overhead, were continuously spooked into taking flight like a giant swamp of bees. 

Hopefully, tomorrow will be calmer and brighter than today but to be honest, I couldn’t give a damn.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Escape to Lee Valley

After four days of cutting branches from a few trees and ridding the garden of every leaf in Woodford, I rewarded myself with a trip to Fisher’s Green in the Lee Valley.

The weather had been uncomfortable with that irritating mizzle that soaks you without it feeling like it’s raining. But yesterday was great. Blue skies and a mild, shirtsleeve-ready temperature made for perfect walking conditions.

I’d seen enough trees for one week

Fisher’s Green is very popular and forms just a small part of the Lee Valley. It is also a strong link in a long chain of reclaimed gravel pits that now act as an important home for a vast array of wildlife including, the growing-in-numbers Otter to the elusive and rare-breeding Bittern

I don’t expect to see otters or bitterns although I have seen the bittern here on many occasion. The fact is, the bittern is the shy, retiring type and a bit of a dab hand in the disguise department. Fisher’s Green does everything it can to help you see one of these enigmatic birds but never a guarantee. The Lee Valley Park have built a ‘watchpoint’ for the bittern which favours a small (but dense) patch of reedbed and a bird will occasionally wander between the gaps in the reeds to tease, before disappearing again for hours.

Love this. No one in the hide which, at weekends, can feel like a tin of sardines, sardines with a ton of optical equipment and huge flasks of oxtail soup no less.

Water Rail. A battle of wits and cunning when it comes to photographing one of these jokers.

There wasn’t any sign of the star bird but there were two or three Water Rail, squealing and running between the watery channels that dissect the reedbeds.

The main lake beyond the reedbeds plays a supporting role here. For when one becomes bored watching reeds swaying or the movement in the water that turns out to be a moorhen, relief can be taken by observing the wildfowl and huge cormorants that sit on the tern rafts hanging their wings out to dry. A pair of Egyptian geese mixed with the teal, gadwall and tufted ducks on a distant scrape.

I headed from here up to Holyfield Lake. Historically, I have always had siskins and bullfinches on this trail and I needed both for this year’s list. Fifty feet from the Bittern Watchpoint hide, a bright yellow male siskin landed atop a spindly birch or larch. Another year tick. Then along the winding river, that amazing flash of turquoise and orange that can only mean a kingfisher. Yet another tick for the year. In fact, this is the first kingfisher I have seen for a couple of years. Unbelievable really.

As I approached the Grebe hide that sits facing the Holyfield Lake, a small flock of finches flew hurriedly into the larch trees. I observed Goldfinches, Siskins (about 10) and a single Lesser Redpoll. 

Look, Siskins just aren’t very photogenic.
Holyfield Lake was swarming or swimming with birds. Hundreds of Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and Teal, mixed with what seemed like thousands of Coot.


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Is seawatching a shore bet?

It’s always a gamble.

Deciding the day before about where to go bird-watching is a bit like putting your house on a horse. You can check previous days activity via websites etc. You can try to be all meteorological about it and check wind directions, the chance of fog, rain, low or high pressures over Scandinavia, blah, blah, blah. Or, if you’re like me, you hedge your bets.

lady luck for me takes the shape of North Norfolk. The North Norfolk coast can kiss my dice anytime. You just have to never expect to win the jackpot.
Holme NOA Nature Reserve
I placed my first bet on Holme-next-the Sea. The reserve is a maze of dunes with a belt of pines that faces the North Sea and a magnet for migrants. A 50/50 bet was the Pallas’ Warbler that had made itself at home in the buckthorn for a couple of days. The early morning fog hung low over the sea and dunes and a fine mist dampened the skin but it was unseasonably mild and still. A few early birders were looking for the 'Sibe' but hadn’t had a sight or sound of this eastern gem by 7am.

I politely looked for it for 30 minutes, seeing only a small group of Pink-footed Geese before deciding to move from an obviously 'crap' table, to a safer, more spreadable bet that was the sea. Bingo. ( I don’t use exclamation marks.)
Pink-footed Geese
Maybe not rare birds but Razorbills, Guillemots, Red-breasted Mergansers, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Gannets were wonderful to watch. Alas, there were no Skuas or Shearwaters about but I hasd already got a return on my investment from a couple of hours sea-watching.

Fulmar, Old Hunstanton, April 2009

A few Red-throated Divers and one Black-throated Diver flew east as the weather started to improve. Eventually, the sun broke through and I figured it was time to change locations and head just down the road to Titchwell.

Popular place, Titchwell. By the time I’d arrived, there was nowhere to park. It was like Sainsburys on a Saturday. I had to drive around in circles until I found someone who looked as though they were leaving and then drive behind them really slowly only to find they were just getting a flask of coffee from the boot.  I parked in the coaches only area. Fucking rebel me.

The only table here to gamble with was a picnic one. The good news was that a Yellow-browed Warbler was frequenting the picnic area and a number of observers were busily looking for the little leaf warbler. We heard it before we saw it but see it we did. It hovered briefly under a leaf of the sycamore before zipping off with a few tits and disappearing.

Yellow-browed Warbler, courtesy of Wiki.
Well that was a good start. My plan was still to put most of my money on sea-watching so I headed towards the sea, neglecting the new, rather posh hides that have sprung up since my last visit.

Plenty of action here. A Slavonian Grebe lingered offshore for a while and a lovely pair of Eider flew west. Along the shoreline, Godwits – both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed prodded about for food. Oystercatchers, Knot, Sanderling and the odd Grey Plover patrolled the sand bar fingers that appeared as the tide withdrew. Overhead, Dunlin and Golden Plover flew in small parties and arrows of Brent Geese went back and forth seemingly unsettled by an occasional sortie by Marsh Harriers.
My last chance saloon would be Cley. Little Auks and Sabine’s Gulls had been observed earlier in the day so everything felt positive. The sea was very calm and visibility crystal clear. A few Common Scoter passed along with more Red-throated Divers. Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Gannets. I was getting a sense of déjà vu to be honest. I checked every Kittiwake just in case there was a Sabine’s there but there were none. As I left a fellow birder enquired if I had seen that small tern with dark wings, a White-winged Black Tern or even a Sooty Tern he amusingly suggested. 'No', I said, 'fat chance, mate'.

Truth was, I left a winner. 66 species with a couple of nice scarcities, decent weather for late October and an extra hour in bed to come.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The F Word.


Finally found the Wryneck at Fambridge. Phew.

All this week I have been on a quest ti see the Wryneck along the seawall at South Fambridge. Fact is, I have seen this species on a few occasions in the past but having such a enigmatic bird so close to work has motivated me to use my early spare time to seek out this unique bird. Call it a quest I suppose but some may call it a fixation.

Fair enough but the truth is, I have seen so many wonderful birds here and it would seem South Fambridge is a rather under-watched 'patch'. I mean it’s no RSPB reserve with hides and tempting sausage rolls along the way, but just a romantic section of countryside that snuggles up against a tranquil river estuary coupled with an expanse of arable farmland. But most of all, its the birdlife that really attracts. In some ways, it makes you think anything is possible.

For example, two relatively scare birds, the marsh harrier and the corn bunting; they’re there , you just have to be there to see them. And every time this week , there has been something new to see. Yellow wagtail one day and black-tailed godwit the next. Then nothing, silence. A sparrowhawk swoops through a line of hawthorn bushes and the silence then makes sense. A swarm of skylarks take flight under your footfall and it’s still an hour before you need to be in the office. How inspiring is that?

Black-tailed Godwit
My point is, of course I wanted to see the wryneck but not to the exclusion of everything else. I’m now a total fanatic for Fambridge. I will continue to scour the landscape, not for the oddity in ornithology but for the ordinary.

Oh yes, the wryneck. No photo from this trip but I have to thank the Southend Ornithological Group, namely Don Petrie for their/his guidance and to a complete stranger who on this evening made the shout for the wryneck and between us, ensured we established a positive ID and gave us both the opportunity to share a great moment.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A little pleasure before business

Working in Rochford has its moments but not many. Unless you a member of a mobility scooter club or look forward to being poisoned by the odd Indian restaurant or two, there really isn’t much to get excited about.  Even the local Sainsburys appears to have  ended it’s Meal Deal deal.

So why the duck do I get to work 2 hours before anyone else??? There’s a couple of reasons for this – both lame. One. The traffic at that time is light and this saves me a good 30 minutes as well as fuel. Secondly, I get stuff done. No phones ring. No one demanding work and most of all, I can raid the Haribo bowl without anyone knowing. No, it’s okay, they don’t read my blog. Come to that, I’m not sure anyone does.

So, this isn’t very healthy. The Haribos and the driving are making me fat or fatter. I used to walk a good 45 minutes every day to tube stations etc and today I walk nowhere.

Until a wryneck turned up down the road.

I didn’t know it was down the road until I looked the location up. South Fambridge. Well it’s not big and it’s not famous but it sits very close to the River Crouch and it was having a moment for itself. I thought well, why don’t I put this time to use more usefully?

River Crouch viewed from Seawall
So this morning, I went to South Fambridge at 7.15am and walked west along the sea wall. A stiff breeze made things a little uncomfortable and wearing short sleeves seemed a slight faux pas.

I approached the concrete pillbox, a flock of some 40 corn buntings flew up into the nearby bushes. I have only ever seen these birds in numbers below 10 before so this was a great start. No sign of the wryneck though. Further on, a few remaining sand martins and swallows skimmed the sky just above the seawall and the odd meadow pipit skipped out of the tall grass alarmed at my clod-hopping amble close to them. No sign of the wryneck.
Corn Bunting
There were curlews and common redshank calling and lesser black-backed, herring and black-headed gulls all over the mudflats. It was time to turn back and on the return, 4 whinchats and a wheatear appeared on the concrete path; whinchat, another new bird for that list of mine. A few skylark lazily flew up and glided down into the stubble fields.

Not content with disturbing a few small meadow pipits, I then disturbed a male marsh harrier that had clearly come down to get out of the wind had to then heave itself up into the air again and away in a south easterly direction probably cursing me under it’s breath. No sign of the wryneck.

The wryneck was there by all reports. Maybe tomorrow then for another early morning workout. I love working around here.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Battered sausage knocks red-backed shrike on the head

With my year list languishing down in the near pathetic, I bit the financial bullet and fuelled the car up for a trip to Cley in Norfolk. On paper, the plan was sensible as Cley Marshes usually produces a good number of birds to fatten any weedy year list. With a blustery north-ish wind, my hopes of a bag full of seabirds was high, as well as a previous day list of sightings including red-backed shrike, wryneck and Balearic shearwater to whet the appetite.

My routine is always the same at Cley. Park at the East Bank and do an anti-clockwise sweep around the reserve. The strong winds prevented any bearded tits showing but their presence was noted by the ting-ting calls coming somewhere deep in the vast reedbeds that swayed heavily in the gusts.

Spoonbill flock

In the pools, east of the East Bank, around 20 spoonbills were feeding. Cley regularly attracts these amazing waders with a small colony recently becoming established a few miles up the coast. At the end of the track, a little egret showed well and even allowed me to take a few shots. Usually these blighters are a bit flighty but this one clearly couldn’t be asked to piss me off.

Little Egret
At this point, the huge wall of shingle rises up in front of you and beyond that, the sea could be heard crashing down on the pebbled beach. Now for all these great seabirds I thought. Er, not quite. Two hours of scanning the sea produced very little apart from a steady stream of common and sandwich terns, a few gannets and the odd common scoter. (This is a sea duck and not a moped by the way.)

Walking over this is better than any gym workout (and it’s free)
Some lucky bugger did spy a Yelkouan shearwater that was a poke in the eye for me. Anyhow, a couple of yellow wagtails attempted to cross the North Sea and then changed their minds – a bit rough today boys – so that was another one for my list.

Next I popped into the North Hide. From here, my list grew by two with curlew sandpiper and little stint. The West Bank had a greenshank sneaking about and I nearly missed the monkey but another one to the list. More spoonbills from the Daukes Hide or rather the same ones as before but they had moved.

Rubbish Curlew Sandpiper shot
Following a rather nasty, battered jumbo sausage and soggy chips, I did the circuit again. Bar-tailed godwit and spotted redshanks were noted and by now, the sea had calmed down to reveal a whole lot of nothing again.

I should have then decided to head for the red-backed shrike at Walsey or the wryneck at Wells but that lunch was doing funny things to me, and for the benefit of other birdwatchers, I opted for home instead. Overall, I had increased my list by 10 and although I was a bit lazy, I was happy to settle for that even if my stomach didn’t.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Rainham Marshes – so near yet so far.

Normally by now, I would have had a couple of trips to Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent apiece under my birdwatching belt for this year. Not by design or dementia (the latter feels too close for comfort) I have missed my regular trips to some great birding hotspots and replaced them with local, 20 minute-away trips. This isn’t because I have reached that sober moment when all that matters is my 'local patch' but more perhaps because, subliminally, I can’t afford the cost of the fuel these 200 mile round trips require. (Cue the violins)

Actually, forget the violins – I’m not unhappy. I am in fact lucky. There are some great places close to home that many a birder would travel 100 miles to visit. The whole of the Lee Valley plays host to some great birds. Smew, Bittern, Black-necked grebe, Little ringed plover and Nightingale to name but a few. The Thames Gateway also has some impressive sites too. From The Naze all the way down to Rainham Marshes there are places to see waders, raptors and rare migrants.

Yesterday, I 'popped' over to Rainham. This RSPB reserve is a newly-fledged site in terms of the RSPB but it’s growing up fast. Regular Wrynecks, Serins and the recent White-tailed Plover make Rainham a near paradise for me.

A three hour ramble, along the seawall and then a single circuit of the reserve gave me 42 species without much trouble. A couple of new birds for the year – Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper was a bonus but the most impressive sight was the gathering of Sand Martins into a daytime roost in preparation for that long march back to Africa for the winter. The air was full of them and the reedbeds bent under the weight in numbers of these small hirundines.

Sand Martins
Getting the Sand Martins in shot wasn’t difficult as there were so many. My next shot of a Little Grebe had more complicated factors to contend with.

Little Grebe
Basically, the adult grebe only surfaced for about 3 seconds before diving for food to feed the baby. It would resurface, feet away and a few seconds later dive again. Most of my images were of ripples or just the young bird. Perseverance eventually paid off though

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Brecklands for breakfast

They say nothing in life is guaranteed. Not sure who ‘they’ are but they’re wrong. I know this because every time I visit Weeting Heath, I see stone-curlews. These are rather scarce or to be precise, rare British breeding birds. I have covered these characters before in a previous blog but my birding year would never be right if I didn’t see them in this wonderful habitat.
Weeting Heath
At 6.30am I’m still blurry-eyed and the thing about Weeting Heath is that it appears to be home to the entire country’s population of rabbits. These rabbits have a special talent. They do pretty good impressions of stone-curlews.

Of the two hides, the first one produced nothing but rabbits and a mistle thrush. Normally, this position throws up a couple of the stones but not this time. And although the landscape is flat, it does have a distant ridge that drops away and you always think what if the birds are all down the bottom? That would be game over.

The second hide overlooks the west side of the heath. At first, this too looked like a rabbit fest but then a call rang out, similar to the curlew and at the far edge a stone-curlew paraded up and down much to this blogger’s delight.
This one was a bit mobile and soon disappeared below the ridge never to be seen again. The surrounding pine belt had coal tit and marsh tit but no spotted flycatchers this time. Leaving the car park, and setting off for Hockwold, another stone-curlew flew across the road and we nearly had a collision! It somehow managed to twist around and came down in a field but upon inspection, was well hidden and probably having a heart attack.

Hockwold Fen is an RSPB reserve that has shot to fame for the year-on-year breeding golden orioles it holds. It also has common cranes and a number of bittern. Apart from the occasional sound of a USAF F15 screaming through the clouds as it takes off from the Lakenheath RAF airbase, this is a very relaxing and peaceful place. The large ‘Washland’ holds a good variety of wildfowl and waders while sand martins and swallows skim the water’s surface. The edges are full of reed and sedge warblers noisily going about their business.

Today, there was a pair of garganey, a small, summer visiting dabbling duck, on the Washland and even a wigeon, a winter visiting duck to be seen. However, my mission as always to see the orioles.

Golden orioles are blackbird sized with the male a bright yellow bird with black wings. The call is a haunting, echo-like whistle that is quite unmistakable and always the first indication of a present bird. 
Golden Oriole, clearly glued to the branch by the photographer
To say golden orioles are elusive would be an understatement. The black poplars they favour are tall, heavily foliaged trees that have leaves that reflect the sunlight like a thousand milk bottle tops hanging from the branches. This makes locating this brightly plumaged bird frustratingly impossible most of the time. The trick is to stand looking through the gaps in the rows of trees in the vain hope a bird will fly between the lines. Even then, they have an uncanny knack of moving from one part of the plantation to the next undetected.

I must have stood in the one spot I chose for say two and a half hours. In that time, I saw one golden oriole for about 3 seconds. To me, that was a result as some observers didn’t even get that. Even a bittern in flight couldn’t tempt my attention away from the wood just in case an oriole chose that moment to fly through with, no doubt, a smirk on it’s face.

From Hockwold Fen, I drove up to Welney. A long-staying bluethroat and a pair of red-necked phalaropes were on my shopping list here. By now, the weather had started to take a turn for the worse. What had been brilliant blue skies with a light breeze had turned into grey foreboding clouds and a chilling wind.

Welney is run by the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and boy, was it wet. There was plenty to see though with little ringed plovers, avocet and black-tailed godwit to be seen. A few whooper swans were still here – maybe staying for the summer now.
Whooper Swan
Alas, there was no sign of either the phalaropes or the bluethroat. They clearly don’t like the rain.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Thursley Common – the rarest of places

On a beautiful spring day, Thursley Common emits a magic unique. The warm sun radiates off the sandy trails and the perfume of pine hangs in the air. A flat landscape of low heather and gorse is framed by pine trees. within this areas of mire play host to dragonflies and damselflies, a key part of a Hobby’s diet. The hobby is an elegant falcon, smaller and slimmer than a peregrine but no less impressive.

Hobby, courtesy of Wiki (my camera is elsewhere doing a fine job
for my daughter for the next month)
Two of these fast-flying falcons passed overhead hunting for food on the wing. I had missed seeing these wonderful birds last year so this was a good start to a 3 hour visit that was only going to produce 20 species but it would be quality not quantity at Thursley.

My basic route takes me around the perimeter of the reserve which on this occasion meant treading over some perilous planks and thick tree branches which had been thoughtfully put down to act as pontoons over the marsh water that had strangely flooded the paths. (It hasn’t rained for weeks so I can’t explain this.)

Cuckoos called and soon showed themselves again, overhead – two birds together in some sort of ariel combat or courtship – is there a difference?

Through the wooded area, I came across my first Redstart. A fine male. I rued not having my camera as the redstart hung around long enough to be shot but that was probably because it somehow knew I hadn’t got it. I was carrying a video camera but wasn’t prepared so decided to leave it.

I came to Thursley last year and had encountered redstart and woodlark in an area I was keen to visit again. I located the area and at first, the area was quite and birdless. I decided to have a ciggie and rest a while. I found a pile of logs just off the track and took some respite. Thank God for fags. Before long, a small bird darted across my eyeline. It was a female redstart. I had time to set up the video and waited. Before long, I captured this.

Before long, she was joined by the male and they clearly had a nest nearby. Speaking of nests... I didn’t even have to move to capture this brief moment but after seeing this, I decided it was only right to move on as the great spotted woodpecker’s nest was so close to me. the last thing I would want would be to disturb any nesting bird.

As I left this spot, about 6 woodlark flew up in front of me. these shy birds must have been there all the time and even though I was grateful to have seen them, I was also cursing myself for not having scanned the wooded floor hard enough as these birds would have be delightful to get on film. Hey ho.

I suppose the saddest thing about the place at the moment is the fact that the Dartford warbler has seemed to have diminished at this site in recent years. My first couple of trips here back in the early part of the millennium had produced reasonable counts for this delicate heathland warbler. But it would appear that the long hard winter has decimated an already scarce bird and I can only hope it manages to make a come back in the next year or two.

Heading back towards the car park, I finally found a couple of tree pipits. These birds are quite restless and constantly leave the top of a perch, usually a small tree and fly directly upwards before 'parachuting' down to another tree top. Anyway, I gave it a go and although I couldn’t film the parachute display – my ability to get anything worth filming in the frame is frankly pathetic, I did manage a long shot and a brief close up.

Monday, 18 April 2011

I will get that Night Heron even if it kills me.

There was blood everywhere. One of the hazards of making your own photo adaptor out of a toilet roll tube is the need to cut it to the right length for your lens so that it just touched the eyepiece of your telescope. This idiot thought it would be best to cut the dotted line he had drawn in mid air so as to not squash the tube. Alas, although this worked for the most of it, the final slice took the very sharp scalpel away from the tube and right across the now yelping idiot’s thumb.

Unlike my thumb, the adaptor was now the perfect length and once again, average photos were now possible.
Two Tree Island at 6am

Two Tree Island is a fantastic place in the spring, especially at 6am. Normally, I would expect to be alone at such an ungodly hour but due to the arrival and prolonged residency of a night heron, the car park was already filling up.

I had previously tried for the heron but every time I arrived, it was roosting in reeds out of sight and could stay hidden for hours. So, as I only had a few hours to spare, I opted for a walk around the island.
There was certainly plenty to be heard. Nightingales, whitethroats, blackcaps, chiffchaffs and cuckoos were all audible. And with the exception of the nightingales, all were easily seen.
Common Whitethroat

My goal though was another distinctly audible species and one that is often difficult to see and for me, one I had never seen – even after 30 years of birding. The grasshopper warbler or ‘Gropper’ as birders like to call it is a sparse migrant and Two Tree Island had a few of these and I was determined to see one.

A few birders I spoke to told me of tales of Groppers sitting up on elderberry bushes and giving great views. One even said he photographed them on his mobile. I went to the place they said and heard nothing. The best way to find a Gropper is to listen for the 'reeling' call. This sounds similar to, well, a grasshopper or really lots of grasshoppers rubbing their legs together which is spookey considering the bird’s name. It’s not loud,; in fact , it’s a soft hum that Two Tree Island makes hard to hear for the many model aircraft that are in the skies at weekends from 8am.

Eventually I caught it. I would share the snippet of it’s call with you here and now but can’t find how to embed the realplayer file into this blog. I know, I’m rubbish but try this: 

Anyway, I managed to locate the call and waited for the bird to move. This is really the only way to get a fix on it. Eventually it flew from a small bush up into a tree. I had some poor shots mainly because I couldn’t stay cool and focus properly.

Quick, just shoot the fucker before it moves

It moved closer but to more dense cover and reeled away.
The shot but for that stupid branch

At the end, I didn’t care about the night heron; I’ve seen them before and will no doubt see them again but the gropper? Who knows, it could be another 30 years.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Rule No.1. Look after your equipment Braun.

The day had started well enough. Clear skies and a warming breeze were the order of the day as I drove down to Oare Marshes en route to Dungeness.
Oare Marshes
Oare Marshes sit snugly on Kent’s eastern side, set against a backdrop of the Swale estuary and close to ye olde town of Faversham. The marshes are made of of two distinct areas. The east flood is viewable from the road and can provide close views of a number of wildfowl and wader species. Between this and the estuary is a pathway that takes you around the pools that are fringed by reedbeds.

The reeds were alive with sedge warblers and bearded tits. Both these species were establishing their territories and were actively flying back and forth, low over the reeds. Their activity precluded me from getting any photos so I kept my homemade adaptor in my pocket – or so I thought.

From the west flood, an area that is more secluded and usually quieter there were wheatear and a few lapwing.

From here I took the coastal road to Dungeness. This took some time obviously due to the good weather and everyone heading to the coast. Eventually, I got to Dungeness, full of expectation as this site has rarely let me down.

From the off, I could tell things were not going to be good. There was now a strong easterly wind across the desert area and hardly a bird to be seen or heard. I had hoped for a few migrants, a black redstart or even a wheatear would have been something…but nothing. I then headed for the fishing boats where the glaucous gull had been reported for a few days now. I located it and thought a few shots would be great but it didn’t matter how many times I searched my jacket, I couldn’t find my photo adaptor. Brilliant, I thought, this had just about screwed the day as much as was possible. Still, it was a nice glaucous gull.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Damn that Short-toed Treecreeper

Should have known it. Going to Landguard in Suffolk for a MEGA was destined to be a disaster.

I had only been saying (and joking) at work how staring a a bush for an hour or two – when the bird you want to see, isn’t even in it – was all part of the 'fun'.

Well I’ve changed my mind. Spending Saturday morning looking for a short-toed treecreeper, a little bird, no bigger than a mouse that blends in with tree bark and is elusive at the best of times is no fun. Needless to say, after a couple of hours, my eyes, mind and feet began to wander. I know, I thought, I’ll go and watch some birds that I can actually see and keep an ear out for any orgasmic shouts that come from die-hard birders if it was located.

Landguard is another one of those weird places that rare birds love. It is a finger of land that juts out beside Felixstowe at the mouth of the River Orwell. Back as far as 1540, the area has been utilised as a military defense against sea invasion. Landguard Fort was built in 1745 and was still in use during WWII.


In those trees there’s a treecreeper
There were a few birds about. A single fieldfare getting ready to leave these shores. Flocks of linnets and a group of about 12 ringed plovers.

Ringed Plover (Would only be photographed from it’s good side)
Having failed miserably to see the short-toed treecreeper (and I did spend another hour watching a tree), I tore myself away knowing full well that the little shit would show after I left.

My next target species was the Great Grey Shrike on Upper Hollesley Common. In some ways, this looked to me to be an even more futile expedition. The heathland is a big place and I had no exact details of the bird’s last reported position. Not only that but I felt I had to avoid a property called Gobblecock Cottage. God knows what would play out if I stumbled upon that place.

Upper Hollesley Common is about 15 miles north of Landguard. Near Rendlesham Forest, this is an extensive area of sandling heathland. At least the sun was out and the place was like an oven, lovely.

Upper Hollesley Common

Birdlife was evident with coal tits and goldcrests flitting about in the pine trees. I stumbled over a couple of startled red-legged partridges that scuttled away before I could even think of trying to photograph them. I entered an open area with a few low trees and unbelievably, the shrike was just sitting perched on top of a small birch. Why couldn’t the treecreeper do that?

Now the only problems were that a) the heat haze was distorting any clear views through an optic. and b) being early spring, it would have been a crime to walk across the heath to get closer because of any ground nesting birds would be disturbed.

Great Grey Shrike
I know these beautiful birds aren’t that rare but it had made my day. Not only that but it was now T-shirt weather and my afternoon would be spent at Minsmere another few miles north of Woodbridge.

The place was full of gulls. Mainly black-headed ones and boy did they make a racket. Waders were few and I only noted avocet, turnstone, oystercatcher and redshank. Winners of the best turned out gull went to a pair of pristine Mediterranean gulls.

Mediteranean Gulls

And if they were giving out prizes for the most accommodating bird of the day, then it would have to be, without doubt, this wren. It allowed me a good couple of minutes to fuck about trying to get it in my scope as I was so close to it, I even have to step back nearly tumbling into a ditch. Cursing and thinking the little 'darling' would wait just until I had it perfectly in focus before flying off, it didn’t. It just watched me, probably feeling sorry for me. Anyway, I thank it from the bottom of my heart. Might even be the best shot I have yet achieved.

Finally I visited the Bittern hide. Minsmere is famous not only as the flagship RSPB reserve but also for its population of breeding bitterns. You can’t expect to see one, only hope. Generally speaking, my day had improved and I had forgotten about the short-toed treecreeper by now. Marsh harriers displayed and even a couple of red deer showed up.

Then it happened. 

A bittern poked its head out from the reeds and slowly crept out into the water with its eye on a fishy snack. This bird’s patience was a godsend. I had time to get my camera set up and get some reasonable shots. The bittern was still a distance away but any shot of a bittern is a good shot in my book.

Bittern. It was actually motionless for at least a minute like this.

Another great day. But for those who have bothered to read this to the end, the treecreeper did show after I left and yes, I am bitter about that.