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.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Sitting Ducks

Could be a good birding weekend this. Today I was working at the Lee Valley Park and as per usual, I went for a walkabout before the shift. You probably know I have had some camera problems and this morning was a chance to test out my new Nikon Coolpix 6500 with my scope. This is always a bit hit-and-miss so I had to pick an easy target to get going. The Holyfield Weir seemed the perfect place to shoot ducks. They (Mallards) like to hang out along the concrete edge of the weir and I have some cover so as not to freak them out.

Mallard Duck
Unlike my old Samsung, the Nikon needs some manual zooming to lose the vignetting. I was spoilt with the Samsung as this framed perfectly so now I have to fiddle a bit.

Mallard Drake
On the whole, I’m liking the results although I still need to sus out a faster shutter speed or the fps setting at least.

Coot, nearly a duck
Well spotted. Not a duck
So, so far so good but sitting ducks are fairly easy. The Bittern watchpoint was fun today with some good people, some good company and of course some good birds (Hobby, Sparrowhawk, Kingfisher and Cetti’s Warbler). Something about the place (The park) makes you just want to spend your whole life doing conservation or working with nature in some way.

We had an enlightening visit from the head ranger who has spent a lot of his time dry stone walling, teaching bush survival techniques (including eating slugs) and basically living a life outdoor and out of this world. It’s a romantic notion to just drop everything and take up a new life in the wild but he looked very healthy and rode a quadbike. My kind of company vehicle if you ask me.

I think when you live in the modern world with all the modern pressures of life, you are basically a sitting duck. It can depress you, stagnate you and control you. We all have to accept this right? Wrong. We can if all the circumstances are favourable, do what we need to to change this. It may be a bit late for me but the volunteering, the people I meet and the people I work with make the aches and pains of the world go away for a while.

The view from Holyfield Weir.
Wouldn’t this be an amazing office?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Therfield Heath. Awash with raptors

No camera. In the old days this wouldn’t have been a big deal when I went birdwatching. However, digiscoping has become a big thing for me. I might not do it properly, i.e. with all the proper attachments but I can get results I like and it means I can populate my blog with the images of the subjects I’m subjecting you all to.

So I decided to paint instead. I haven’t picked up my brushes for a few months and as I had the day to myself, I thought about going a bit further afield and combine it with a reccie of a birding site I had only read about. Therfield Heath in Hertfordshire. The Icknield Way is an ancient track that runs south from Royston and was the path I chose to take. I can imagine in winter this is a harsh environment to be in. Apart from the irregular hedgerows, there is little cover or protection for the cold winds that must stab through here.
View from the Icknield Way looking East.
I found a place to stop with good views across swathes of fields and sketched a watercolour. It wasn’t long before a very dark female Marsh Harrier swooped low across the borders of the fields causing much disgust and furore from the local crows. I spent a good hour working on the painting and in that time, I saw a covey of at least 14 Grey Partridges that made a terrific sight and sound;  A Common Buzzard flew right over my head and a Kestrel came to rest close to meeven a Red Kite that mewed as it glided (sometimes backwards) across the sky seemed oblivious to my close proximity. The crows were not amused.

Therfield Heath watercolour sketch.
Further along the path a large flock of Corn Buntings mixed with about 8 Yellowhammers noisily flew from tree to tree not really bothered by my presence. I could have had some good shots there I mused. Another Red Kite or maybe the same one came overhead and a couple of Kestrels hovered working a field for food.

I found another place with a view and did another painting. There is definitely something to be said for just sitting still and watching. I had another bigger covey of Grey Partridges, this time much closer to me.

Therfield Heath
I will be coming back here come the winter. More raptors, winter thrushes and maybe a shrike or two would be worth the nut freezing weather.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The call for Shrike action.

It’s all a bit slow really. Any decent birder would look at my totals and think I was a bit of a slacker. I wouldn’t argue with this view really as there have been moments or opportunities I suppose where if I had just pushed myself a little bit, I might have a few more to that meagre total. Such fellows as Pied Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, Common Redstart could all have been picked up 5 minutes down the road but I just wasn’t in the mood you know.

This Thursday just gone, I along with all the other volunteers in the Lee Valley Park were invited to an annual awards party with volunteers recognised for their sterling efforts over the past year and an unveiling of the photography that had been selected for the Park’s calendar. The whole shebang kicked off at 6pm so I decided the best thing to do would be to take the day off work to ensure I made it in good time. So all I had to do was find a suitable location to enjoy a few hours birding.

So it rains. Well it rains in the fog to be precise. This is what I have to contend with in my quest to make an effort with my list. Not fair. I had chosen to fly along the A13 to Canvey Island for the Red-backed Shrike that had been reported a couple of days prior. I arrived at West Canvey Marsh to find the gates locked so I had to park away from the reserve and trudge through the bad weather with a sinking feeling in me old heart. Naturally I couldn’t find it and there was no one else about to ask. I went to the roadside hide and watched a Green Sandpiper in the margins and a few gulls, none of which were Meds and the weather continued to close in. In the distance a bird flew up and onto the barbed wire along an adjacent path. Could it be?

It was. I got as close as I could and took a few images (200) in dull, damp conditions. I wasn’t confident of getting anything decent but it was another tick and a cracking bird to watch. A Whinchat joined it looking a bit bedraggled and it tried to shake off the surplus moisture from itself.

One Wet Whinchat
I then made the decision to check out Canvey seafront. I had hoped for a few good seabirds here like a skua or a Black Tern so I left the West Canvey site. A quick stop off at Morrisons for a coffee and a cherry bakewell?? Not really my thing but when in Canvey...and downloaded all the images I had taken. God they were rubbish!! Not only that, but my camera was doing strange things and not turning off or closing the lens down. I was less than a happy boy.

Canvey (is that the sun breaking through?)
The seafront was not bad. Curlews, Common Terns, Oystercatchers, Redshanks and a couple of passing Black Terns cheered me up. Oh and barrow loads of Little Egrets. They must holiday here because there were at least 12 together and loads of singles over the mudflats. Excellent but no skuas or Gannets or stuff so I had to decide what to do. Of course from the picture above, you can deduce that I got my camera working again and as the weather improved, my decision to head back to the shrike appeared to be the bright thing to do.

Once back, Icouls at least now park in the car park and saw another birder sitting in the roadside hide. I approached the area where I had seen the shrike and it was still there. I didn’t want to disturb the view for the other birder so held off wondering if I should go to him and ask if I could go nearer for some photography. Didn’t need to. He came to me and asked if I had found 'it'. I just pointed. His name was George. Lovely man and we spent the next couple of hours with a growing entourage of birders, photographers and general inquisitors watching this amazing bird. Now for some better shots.

It was a brilliant day and I was glad I made the effort to go back. It’s not really about totals at all. It’s about catching a subject and enjoying it and the time spent capturing it for years to come. I met some really lovely people; all of us polite and respectful of each others opportunities to photo the shrike and the respect for the bird as well. We didn’t go close or stress it. It ate for England, consumed loads of bees, crickets, caterpillars, beetles and various other unidentified creatures.

NB. Since this trip my camera has given up the ghost but what a way to go out.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Wrynecks tale.

The last day of August is quite a significant date in the birding calendar. It closes that rather slow moving book of summer and opens a thriller of a novel entitled Autumn.

The first chapter opens on a scene at Old Hall Marshes in Essex. It’s early and the narrow track that leads to a small car park is travelled by three vehicles, in convoy but not together. I’m at the back of this  caravan and close the big iron gate as the two vehicles in front rumble slowing to park up.

There are three of us. We all look to each other, acknowledge our presence and lock and load our various weapons of choice; binoculars, scopes, cameras and thermos flasks. The older man, from under a huge bush hat speaks first. "You both here for the 'Neck?" We both nodded stupidly and he smiled, looked to the sky and muttered something about the wrong wind or something. His mane was Steve and this was his third attempt at the Wryneck. He had good info that the best way to track the bird was to travel low and swiftly below the seawall all the way to the conservation field, climb back up to the seawall and double back along the seawall, taking the 'Neck' by surprise.

The third amigo was Graham. He was new to this but hadn’t wasted time with basic equipment. Oh no, he was carrying the latest Swarovski scope and a confidence in his eyes of someone who has never dipped anything before. Steve and I just caught each other thinking this at the same time. As we set off, Steve spoke again. " What we don’t need is any dog walkers fucking this up." Just then two women and a poodle? were seen walking along the seawall clearly intent on 'fucking it up' for us.

I think if Steve had had a rifle in his rucksack, he would have shot them. Luckily he didn’t so instead, he just started marching at a speed I wouldn’t have thought possible for an older gentleman. Graham and I tried to keep up but I kept slowing down to look at butterflies. I think Steve thought I was a pansy. I had to run to catch up. Eventually we got to the point on the seawall at least 5 minutes before the women so we were okay. We slowly walked back along the seawall with only my wheezing lungs making any sound. Nothing. No Wryneck. The women came past, we all exchanged pleasantries even though Steve was probably thinking something different.

We split up (three sets of eyes you know) and spread out along sections of the wall. I have no idea how long we looked for but Steve and Graham had almost disappeared from site and I had the need for a quiet moment with nature. Thank God for the corners of my eyes. Because, out of the corner of my left eye, a small brown bird flew from the seaward side of the wall straight into some hawthorn close to me. It was the Wryneck. I had to let the guys know. I hollered, whistled waved and jumped up and down but they were both watching something through Graham’s scope and the brisk NW wing was carrying my alert out across the saltmarsh. The wryneck had of course heard me and seen this mentalist leaping up and down and had decided to retreat into the bowels of the briar.

I identified markers, fenceposts, bushes and distinguishing marks of the bush the bird had sought shelter in and heading away back to the other two guys. They had been watching a Hobby and hadn’t heard or seen my 'fit'. We headed back to the spot I had seen the Wryneck with me thinking that it could now be anywhere. We watched and waited. There! It flew again from the seawall into a briar and we all watched it weave it’s way through the thick twines of branch and leaf until it appeared at the top. It stayed here long enough for us all to photograph it and admire the amazing plumage of this exciting migrant.


The three amigos were indeed happy. My thoughts went back to butterflies, all probably trampled underfoot as we had abandoned our regard for all other forms of nature in our quest for the Wryneck. I bade my new friends farewell and headed back to the car park area. Anything now would be a bonus.
There were loads of dragonflies along the path. They always look like radio-controlled aircraft with no particular direction in mind. Some were so close to me I could hear the mechanical sound of their wing beats. I thought they were as interested in me as I with them.

Migrant Hawker

Migrant Hawker
Small Copper

Small Heath
I guess there’s little time left for the butterflies and dragonflies now. Autumn is a key birding period and especially for me as I try to reach that distant target of 200. I had 153 before today and only 90 days to get that difficult last 50. But it’s all about attitude. Speaking of attitude I may as well tell you about the final character in this tale.

i saw him coming along the path to the car park on his push bike. A well-built man in his late 50’s puffing with exhaustion whilst carefully balancing his scope and tripod as he peddled. He asked me if it was safe to lock his bike here...I shrugged my shoulders but said I couldn’t imagine anyone coming here especially to steal bike.  I didn’t tell him no-one would steal that bike, that wouldn’t have been nice. I gave directions to the Wryneck and went on my way. As I walked towards the reserve, I watched a Green Woodpecker on the path. It didn’t hang around and I was unable to get a shot off. Instead, a bird caught my attention as it flitted from post to post. It was a Wheatear.

Northern Wheatear
I walked up along by the creek to view waders. I needed a Spotted Redshank and guessed this was as good a spot as any. There were Curlews, Common Redshank, Grey Plovers and Little Egrets among the Black-headed Gulls and solitary Lapwing. I sat to have my lunch here watching the redshank and grey plovers when another wader joined the redshank. This was clearly a Spotted Redshank. It was taller and more elegant than the commoners and it had that distinctive white stripe above the eye.

Spotted Redshank. Albeit a long way off!
I watched a couple of Green Sandpipers pipe overheard as I carried on. I headed back up onto the seawall and saw Dave coming my way. He hadn’t seen the 'neck' but didn’t seem too bothered. he told me he was sleeping rough and told me tales of being thrown off farmers land and the amount of mileage he does when he goes birding. I felt for him and asked him perhaps rudely if he owned a home? "Of course I do!" was his response. "I just don’t own a car". So you see with Dave, he too was trying to get to 200 species for the year and without his own car, and the fact he doesn’t work, he just  gets on his bike and travels around Essex with a sleeping bag stopping at all the good bird spots. A true Travelling Man. We spent about half an hour chatting, interrupted only by a hawking Hobby. I now have good places to visit for some of the difficult species I need thanks to Dave. He is a few species ahead of me but all of his are seen in Essex. This is to be admired. He said with a grin that he was off to Abberton now and wished me luck. He was a top bloke and I could have spent the rest of the day with him. I watched him as he rode off into the sunset and I headed back to my car which, naturally, I take for granted but not any more.