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.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Return to Wallasea Island (The Sequel)

After days of dark clouds and heavy rain, the weather finally abated and gave us blue skies and a chilly ground frost that warmed my heart. The bird I have been chasing for a few weeks now doesn’t really enjoy damp wet conditions and so with my new fur-lined trapper hat attached to my head, I headed out to the Wild Coast Project at Wallasea Island. I was a man on a mission but a man without wellies which would prove to be only a small oversight as it would turn out.

Reed Bunting
So I had light, I had a camera (of sorts) so all I needed was the action. I’m still not totally sure about my little Nikon in terms of its ability to do what it says. The Sports mode seems to blur things even more than the Auto mode and everything else seems to do nothing I need. I did get this smart Reed Bunting though so it can do it when it wants but I need good light.

The mudflats held pretty much the cast I would expect for this feature. Dunlin, Common Redshank, Shelduck, Ringed Plovers, Lapwings, Curlew and a few Black-tailed Godwits. As I trod carefully along the seawall trying hard not to slide in the rivulets of muddy water that lay hidden below innocent patches of grass, I noted Meadow Pipits and a few Skylarks. Every now and then I would stop and scan the distance – across to Foulness Island and Holiwell Point for a glimpse or suggestion of the star performer, a real A-Lister, the Hen Harrier. Nothing doing. Was I going to fail again or would this epic end happily ever after?
View across to Foulness Island
After about 1.5km beyond the earth conveyor belt, the reserve comes to a halt. There is no access beyond this for mere mortals like me. A couple of other birders obviously have special needs or rather privileges as they were able to go beyond this point without a care in the world.

Common Buzzard
In the distance on Foulness, a Buzzard perched on a mast. It stayed on that mast or one nearby for a good hour but was difficult to see clearly (as you can see) and I missed it in flight the few occasions it moved from one perch to another. You see, a Rough-legged Buzzard is also on Foulness and although I’m 95% sure this is the common variety, I just wonder if there’s a ghost of a chance...

After some time spent scanning the horizon, an agile raptor flew low across the banks of the shoreline on Foulness. At first I thought it was a Marsh Harrier due to the darkness of it’s appearance but as it flew out into the sunlight more, I could clearly see the telltale tail with the white rump that meant I had a 'Ringtail' or rather a female Hen Harrier. Eventually it disappeared behind some farm buildings and was gone. I was well happy.

I decided to head back along a path that would test Indiana Jones, as I hoped from one safe bit to the next while still trying to keep one eye out for birds. And then it happened; the twist in the storyline. Just when I thought it was safe to go home a happy man, a raptor flew right beside me, teasing me with it’s beauty and grace. Another ringtail but this time I could almost touch it. It quickly realised its mistake and started to veer away from me. I quickly grabbed my compact and tried to zoom in on it but it was all a bit fiddly and the result a bit pointless.

Hen Harrier in flight from me.
It is a terrible image, heavily cropped and as it faded into the distance and the hairs on my neck calmed down, I knew I had to have a proper camera with a decent lens. It’s the only way now and although this may well take me two years to save for, it will be worth it.

Wallasea Island

Friday, 13 December 2013

Rainham Marshes. Mine for a day

It’s nice to birdwatch during the week when most pepole are working. Hides are empty and I can spread myself out. dash over to the other side of the hide whenever I want; open all the windows even talk to myself (this often happens even when there are people about).

So I goes to the Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve. The tide was high from the recent North Sea surge but not enough to affect any part of the reserve. I had hoped to see the pair of European White-fronted Geese that had dropped in the previous day but they proved to be elusive – something fairly common when I’m looking for particular birds.

A walk along the Thames river path, something of a custom for me, produced the usual species. Wigeon and Teal on the river, a few Rock Pipits playing in the flotsam and indeed, the jetsam that litters the foreshore. The wind was brisk and the skies threatening but the walk along the river was still a release from the 9-5 slog many people were enduring.

I headed up to 'Serin' Hill. Never seen a Serin here or anywhere for that matter in the UK – another one of those elusive bogie birds that tease me every year. Not so elusive at Rainham is the delightful Common Kestrel (common can be a bit of a clue to any birdwatching novice; most of the time this means you can’t miss it but not always). Anyhow there is a certain Kesser that has been affectionately named Nelson who does allow people and even dogs to get reasonably close and the opportunity for a photo was too great to turn down.

Naturally the Kestrel wouldn’t let me that near but let a woman with a dog and an iphone to practically do a 'selfie' with it. Such is life.

Common Kestrel or Nelson as he is fondly known as.
From Serin Hill a Marsh Harrier sent the huge flocks of Lapwing and Gulls into the air and couple of Little Egrets with eight Grey Herons stood on sentry duty along the watery channels that cross the marsh. It was time to head back and enter the reserve.

The White-fronts hadn’t been seen. I wasn’t shocked. I headed in an anticlockwise direction around the reserve, finding a Water Rail in the Ken Barrett hide – not literally but you know what I mean. It was on a mud bank a bit confused by the fact that there was no cover for it. It quickly scampered off and dived into the reeds, no doubt wiping the sweat from it’s brow.

Atop its regular pylon, a Peregrine Falcon sat observing the reserve like reading a menu in a posh restaurant. I'I think I’ll have Teal to start followed by Pigeon for main and perhaps a Snipe or Redshank for dessert.' It clearly couldn’t decide as it stayed up there for ages.

On the Aveley Pools, there were four Pintail and more Teal and Wigeon than you could shake a stick at.

Drake Pintail
Drake Teal
Further along the trail, I found up to five Stonechats flitting about behind some tall reeds. This made digiscoping them a bit tricky but managed one shot with a bird in it.

Drake Wigeon
It really did feel like my reserve for the day. Sure, there were few senior citizens going around the reserve but a flick of my elbow and a slight splash soon dealt with that. Joke.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Wallasea Island v Tollesbury Wick

I thought it might be nice to Wallasea Island where the RSPB along with Crossrail have embarked on an impressive venture known as the Wild Coast project. The project is huge but they are slowly but surely sculpting an impressive wetland and salt marsh landscape using dumper truck after dumper truck of earth taken from the Crossrail tunnelling currently boring its way through the earth while at the same time, allowing the sea to flood into it, thus creating a natural biodiverse environment that will take until 2019 to complete.

The birds don’t seem to mind all this work going on and are largely undisturbed by it anyway. On the seaward side, Shelduck were counted at around 120 birds. lapwing about 450 and dark-bellied Brent Geese 240. Dunlin 135, Black-tailed Godwit 35, Ringed Plovers 20+. On the land a flock of 20 Skylark were of note as well as a pair of Stonechat in the Wild Bird Cover. This area by the car park also had a pair of Marsh Harriers but no Hen Harriers.

It’s going to be amazing one day.
There are no facilities here, no centre, no toilets (the funny thing is the RSPB website states that there are loos 7 miles away. Useful!) This is not a criticism, nearly an observation so go prepared – whatever that might be. I saw a Kestrel well I saw this Kestrel a lot. Every time something interesting caught my eye it was this blessed Kestrel. Not complaining.

The light was shit as you can see.
I walked the 2.5k that you can do before a sign stops you. It was enough but I will return...soon.

Should have bought my watercolours
Fron Wallasea Island, I went on to Tollesbury Wick – a very similar environment but Tollesbury has been a great reserve for a very long time and I hadn’t been there in a while. It was a favourite for my dad and it proved to be a great place to reflect on those times when he was around.

Borrowdyke and Tollesbury Wick Marshes

Looking across the Blackwater towards Bradwell Power Station
The birdlife here is much the same as Wallasea Island. Large numbers of Curlew, Golden Plover. lapwing and Brent Geese are the norm as well as a party of 23 Avocet on the edge of the South Channel which is always nice. A couple of Marsh Harriers quartered the Reed Fleet but no SEO or Hen Harriers here either. There is now a hide here and a you get good views of the marshes looking towards Ho Fleet and the large flocks of Wigeon that feed by the pools. A Kestrel brushed past the one open window of the hide giving me a slight shock...very close.

View from the hide
On the South Channel, there was more interest. I scanned the water for Slavonian Grebes or Black-throated Divers and came up with Red-breasted Mergansers and a smart drake Smew. Would have preferred the former but beggars as they say...

Red-breasted Mergansers
I continued around the reserve, all 8km but didn’t see much else. Another visit later in the winter is very much on the cards though when hopefully there will be more to see.

Overall, the match was a draw. Wallasea is playing catch up in my opinion but it will very soon be the  top reserve in Essex and it won't be long in coming.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A day in the valley

I seem to have done quite a bit of birdwatching lately. It’s hard work you know. Not only do I have to* carry a ruck sack with a heavy duty Thermos, a not so light telescope which is inevitably attached to a tripod which, no matter which way I sling it over my back, sticks it’s lever arm into my back and a pair of bins to boot. Add to this a camera and assorted bits and pieces for digiscoping, a pen that works and a notebook with blank pages (rare), gloves, hat and iPhone. Everything is always in another pocket to the one I put it in and it can all get a bit frazzling. Then, when I get home, I go through all the bad pictures and try to salvage at least one to add to the blog I feel I must write now I have been doing them for 4 years...I have duty to my reader you know.

* I don’t have to do any of this really.

So sometimes, it’s easier for me to just go local. No fuss and no thinking. I know the valley well from Walthamstow to Ware and on a good day it can be as good as anywhere in the country. So it was decided. A morning trip to Amwell NR followed by an afternoon at Fishers Green; all very simple and all very relaxing.


Cormorants and Coot
Most of the time I spend my time at Lee Valley Park as a volunteer. So for the afternoon I decided to be Joe Public and headed to Fishers Green. I wandered up to Holyfield Farm first to see Common Buzzard and the regular Yellowhammers. The wind was gusting a bit and it made the usual 'find a yellowhammer by the call' game a little harder but I managed one at least. The Buzzard came slow and low across me so I had time to catch it on camera...miracle.

Common Buzzard
A quick look for a Bittern at the watchpoint proved fruitless but the Water Rail tried hard to impress me but I was cold and tired and probably a bit offish towards it by now. Sorry little guy.

Sod you then.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Oozing Whoopers if little else.

It must be 8 years since I last went to RSPB’s Ouse Washes. I wasn’t able to get there for the Northern Harrier but thought I might get a few of the species missing from my year list here. Specifically, Tree Sparrow, Short-eared Owl, Bewick’s Swan and Hen Harrier.

Wrong. I did find one Bewick’s Swan among the hundreds of Whooper Swans that honked back and forth from the Washes to the blackest fields you’ll ever see.

Whooper Swans

Quantity, not quality was the order of the day. Thousands of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Wigeon grazed on the islands across the Wash, only taking to the air when an interested Marsh Harrier glided through.

In the hedgerows that dissect the fields, only Corn Buntings were found. No Tree Sparrows among them either but there was a Canary of all things. Not sure I can count that though. Very bad photo coming up....

That whitish blob in the middle dummy!
Things could have been better. I think I forgot to mention that i had a hangover and my recently cleaned car was now covered in half of Cambridgeshire (but it looks cool).

I have to say, the visitor centre was a little under-manned. In fact, there was no one about. There were no feeders so no Tree Sparrows which I had photographed all those years ago. A real shame.

Monday, 28 October 2013

North Norfolk. A wild and windswept adventure to a land with weak wireless.

Saturday 26 October 2013

So everything was planned down to the last bacon roll. My yearly (this may change) pilgrimage to the birding hotbed of North Norfolk had arrived. With my good friend Ed riding shotgun, nothing could go wrong, could it? On Friday evening I set up a text account with RBA (Rare bird alert) for a free trial. Brilliant, I get 5 free texts for Friday night only. Totally useless and so they’ve now lost me. At least I have a Birdguides App staring at my on my phone, so we wouldn’t miss a thing so long as the 3G works up there...............

With the car loaded with beer, bacon and binoculars, we dashed up the A11 to Thetford. Just north of Thetford lies Lynford Hall, famous for it’s Arboretum.  And here was where a Two-barred Crossbill had been seen rubbing wings with a flock of 20 or so Common Crossbills. We found the spot and a few other birders and began staring up at the top of a few larch trees. The first bird we found was a Hawfinch. wasn’t expecting this as they tend to appear in December but who cares? We checked our phones for updates but no internet service.

Ed looking for Crossbills (use the scope dude)
It wasn’t long before a small flock of Common Crossbills came calling and flying in. The birds were fairly mobile and it was difficult to keep tabs on them all. No one found the Two-barred Crossbill in the couple of hours we were there so we heading north to Holme. Still no internet service.

Female Common Crossbill

Male Common Crossbill
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a great deal bird-wise on this trip. The wind direction was all wrong and there was a threat of rain, on and off at any time. Still, we had beer and that tends to sort things for the better anyway. Still no internet service.

Once I had nursed the car over an excessive number of speed humps along the road to the Holme-next-the-sea’s excellent nature reserve and bird observatory, the strength of the wind and a fine spray of wet weather had set in. Areas of the North Norfolk coast are lined with pine belts and Holme is no exception. In the pines, there were Coal Tits, Goldcrests and Chaffinches. We carried on through the pines to check for birds on the sea and used the trees as a natural shelter from the wind. In fact, the wind had blown the rain front away and things were quite pleasant for a late October morning. Visibility was reasonable and we could see a good number of Northern Gannets feeding offshore.

Streams of Common Scoters flew low over the sea in both directions. There were also a few Velvet Scoter to perk things up a bit. On the sea we found a couple of Eider and a pair of Great Northern Divers sat before taking flight west. We then had a Red-necked Grebe in front of us found by a birder from Derbyshire who joined us sea watching and seemed more intent on talking about his mother-in-law. Fascinating stuff. Still no internet service.
Ed and the Eiders. (Good name for a rock band)
Just before we left Holme, seven Whooper Swans came in off the sea and a Guillemot flew west. Ed missed this because a) it was flying very fast and b) we only have one telescope between us and a dramatic difference in eyesight which means a lot of focusing!

Oh look at the time. Yes, it was pub time. We left Holme and headed to the Jolly Sailors at Brancaster,just beyond Titchwell which would be our afternoon destination.

Ed with a pint of Oystercatcher. Just needs a pirate hat now.
The pub was okay but full of kids. It was like a scene from Peter Pan with the 'odd' pirate wandering around with loads of kids intent on knocking your pint over. Okay, there’s no pint spilling in Peter Pan but you get the picture. Ed had one bar on his phone!!!!!!

So onwards or in our case, backwards to Titchwell. Titchwell is a small village but is home to one of the key RSPB reserves in East England. We scanned the meadow areas first and found a female Merlin and a female Marsh Harrier both hunting. On the meadows themselves small flocks of Brent Geese grazed and a few Curlew, a single Little Egret and Common Redshank were seen.

Ed scans the wet meadow area for geese and stuff.

Pink-footed Geese
We popped into the Island Hide but there was only Teal and Shoveler to see but they were close and we both took a few pics because we could. No internet service.

Drake Teal
Teal Duck
The wind was getting stronger as we headed to the beach bypassing the Parrinder hide which we felt would make a good refuge a bit later so beach first. The problem is the wind direction only serves to push birds further out rather than bring them in so the sea was rather disappointing as far as a sea can be. So we took pictures of sand and sky instead.

Peach of a beach.
Better head for the hides!
We scurried back along the boardwalk and to the Parrinder Hide. Since i was last here, the hide has been posted up and is quite impressive as too are the birds from it. There were 3 Whooper Swans, hundreds of Golden Plovers and masses of ducks with none more impresive than the Pintails even though they preferred to sleep with a storm brewing.

Golden Plovers 
Drake Pintail
As we left the Parrinder hide, a few people were watching a small island close to the footpath from the hide. The high-sided banks made it awkward to view but after a few moments we saw a Jack Snipe step out from behind some suaeda for a few seconds and then disappear again. Something sent a lot of the neighbouring ducks up and we cursed our luck that most probably, the Jack Snipe had gone too. However, it reappeared and although it was never going to be good shot, I took a random shot of the vegetation and crossed my fingers.

Jack Snipe coming out just as the sun did.

Day one had been great. and with the sun disappearing, we departed for our swanky apartment to plan our evening pub sortie and stick a few beers in the fridge. On the journey to Langham, we saw a group of birders by the side of the road. In the adjacent field we could see the focus of their attention. A ghostly Barn Owl was quartering the field – a perfect end to the day.

So the pub think didn’t exactly go to plan. Who would have figured that pubs would be fully booked at the end of October? Well not me. I had found a good yet remote pub with recommendations for beer and food aplenty that required infra-red vision goggles to find but once we stumbled upon it, we found it full of bloody people! I mean, a pub, full of people. Why? It’s not fair. We retraced our steps to the car and headed for Stiffkey, requiring a stiff drink. The bored local teenagers or OAPs (don’t know which) had attempted to scratch out the K of Stiffkey from the road sign. Quite amusing but not when it was seen with the word mussels after it. We avoided the Mussels.

Even the Lion’s pose was a little worrying.
So, of course, a few more pictures of me and Ed eating and drinking pub fayre.
This is what happens to you when you’ve been staring through binoculars all day.
Note how much slower Ed drinks his pint of Woodfordes Wherry.
We had now been in more bars than we had had on our phones. I was building up to this as you probably expected.

Sunday 27th October 2013

Was awakened by the strong wind and rain lashing against the bedroom window. Not good. With a head a bit fuzzy from a night of Merlot, Bombay Mix and a 4-1 Liverpool win, I pushed myself into the shower (not the outdoor one obviously). It didn’t work. Actually, does anything work in North Norfolk? No shower, no phone signal and no street lighting near pubs. To be accurate, the shower did work and the options were either scalding hot or cryogenically cold. Some choice. I opted for a bath. No photos. Sorry.

Now, it looks like Ed made breakfast but really it was me with help from Ed. He seems surprised that I said I cooked??? Well I do. He clearly didn’t trust me and set about assuming control in the kitchen. I checked my phone....no signal.

Ed, I can do that....
British weather is quite amazing. One minute it was chucking it down and sideways and the next it was brilliant blue skies but with the wind. Our plan was to go to Holkham. Our Derbyshire friend had erred against that but I wanted Ed to see a beach even more impressive than that at Titchwell.

Our gaff in Langham. Most comfortable once you get a proper access code.
I don’t like pay & display machines at the best of times and the ones at Holkham and to be precise, the devil of a contraption in Lady Anne’s Drive was close to Machiavellian. £4.50 for 4 hours was acceptable in my book for such a beautiful location but the damn machine needed to be woken up with a constant feed of coins which cascaded through said machinery before being spewed out at the bottom. I persevered. Eventually, my coined started to be accepted. I was so impressed when the second of my £2 coins stayed in that I pressed the green ticket button. I had of course forgotten the fee for 4 hours was £4.50. We had 2 hours for £4. Brilliant. I know this is my fault and not the councils but honestly, if it had taken the money in the first place I would have.....fuck it this is taking too long to explain.

Onwards to the beach and what a beach. This is a £2 an hour beach to me so I was going to enjoy it.
Worth every penny.
So to the birds. well, we were never going to match the 78 species we had on the Saturday so this was going to be a top-up kind of day but we topped it it up with premium stuff.

Ed saw one first. There was a large raptor hugging the dunes and battling the forceful winds. The tail told the tale. It was a Red Kite. Now I thought this was very unusual but it would seem there are breeding kite in Norfolk and there has been a reintroduction programme. We found two birds being mobbed by gulls between the dunes and the pine belt.
Red Kite...some distance away I might add.

We trudged up the sand dunes to get a better look. As we watched the kites, I carried on along the dunes and flushed six Snow Buntings that had been sheltering from the winds. They all dropped down to the base of the dune and we slid down to get closer.

the sand was snaking over the surface of the beach and making life difficult through the lens of the scope. I managed some reasonable images but not great considering the closeness of the birds.

Today there was nothing on the sea...not even an Albatross which was a few miles away at this stage anyway. We went back over the dunes to relocate the kites but they had vanished. A few Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, each a potential Shore Lark teased us as we walked back to the pine belt. The pine belt was empty with no signed of any bird life. Thank god I only had 2 hours in the car park. More Pink-footed Geese in the fields beside the Drive and a single Kestrel made the bird list complete.

Because of the weather which was starting to change for the worse, we decided to revisit Titchwell. It was never going to match the previous day but with our stomachs shouting louder than our desire for a longer list, we headed to Titchwell for a couple of hours and then to the pub. Oh, one of us had 2 bars on our phone but I can’t remember who now...sorry.

Farewell Titchwell, it’s been a breeze.