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.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Are you a birder, a photographer or a common or garden polymath?

Let me help you before you answer. I’m sure I’m a birder. For as long as I can remember,  I have owned a pair of bins, a notepad and had a general sense of where I was going, and I was as happy as Larry. (Never met this Larry but I hear he is a rather nice chap)

Over time, I noticed a major change happening in the hides of this fine land. Large optics were being ‘adapted’ and some folk had even abandoned these tools of true birding for cameras with large…appendages screwed onto the fronts of them. There was barely room in a hide for the owners of these huge camera combinations let alone a serious birder trying desperately to hear a bird song above the sound of shutters firing at 8fps.

And some of the images people were getting were amazing. Shots of Snipe being carried away by a Sparrowhawk and a Herring Gull consuming a Little Auk are a couple that have stuck in my mind. And I remember when I was a boy and got my first camera, the first thing I tried to shoot was a group of Lapwing in the local field. I suppose it’s akin to the classic white hunter with one foot on the dying tiger having it recorded for posterity. Now of course, the need to photograph a real rarity is almost de rigueur, as rarity committees might not accept it.

So I reckon there are birders who have bins, scopes, flasks, rucksacks and tripods to carry round. There are amateur photographers with camera(s), lenses, rucksack, tripod, portable hide and a beanbag to carry. Our third group are wildlife photographers who carry all of the above but not a scope and then there is the one who can’t decide what they are. They were once a birder but now the need to get the perfect picture has super-ceded the need to get the perfect Pratincole.

I think I might be falling into this box and frankly, I don’t know if I can be saved.

First it was digi-scoping. This was a revelation. I got some good shots using this method and the camera was under £100. My adapter was homemade and although the results were mental, I liked it. Then I loved it. Then I couldn’t live without it. And if I went out and either forgot the camera/adapter or the battery was out of juice, it ruined the trip. I mean, what’s the point if you can’t capture the moment?

Took forever to get this dig-scoping
Black-bellied Dipper, digiscoped with ease, Thetford
You see once you have that good shot; it might be a common duck at the local pond or a nuthatch on your bird table but whatever it is, it’s there and it ain’t going away. In fact, you then have to better it or better still, get more species as good as it wherever you go. The skills improve and the traditional field craft gains a dimension as you learn to predict bird behaviour so that you’re prepared for the shot before the bird has even appeared.

It becomes a new form of listing; a new challenge that you can then pit yourself against fellow birders – the Essex Birdwatching Competition via Facebook is a great example of this. Nearly every website now displays libraries of images that have been uploaded by amateurs every year, these keep getting better and better...because the technology is developing faster and faster and more and more birders are slinging a camera over their shoulder instead of a scope.

I have now been given the opportunity to try out a DSLR  camera with assorted lenses and I feel excited about it. I spend hours trying to get a Dartford Warbler digiscoping and it was a pain albeit a success eventually. I would never be able to take birds in flight digiscoping because I’m not as good or have the best kit as some digiscopers who are gods in this field. But I love birds and I love catching their behaviour and what is a blog without a few choice images to support it?

DSLR, A different quality altogether and I don’t want to stop...

DSLR. A flight of fancy for me.
So, I leave you with this question. A question that sorts the birders from the (David) Baileys.

If you had to chose between having a camera but only ever seeing the birds you have already seen till the day you die or never using a camera and seeing new birds every year, which would you choose?

If I had to, I’d choose the latter. But I think you can be both, a birder and a photographer and the two compliment each other enormously when you really think about it.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The weekend was the wrong way round

I’m not complaining but...

...this weekend was the wrong way round and I’m the only one who noticed.

This is probably because it only affected me. It began you’ll notice on Saturday – no point there and I took myself off to Northaw Great Wood when really I should have gone for my haircut. I can’t see treecreeper in my local barbers because I’ve looked. These little devils have been a bane for me this year and now in mid November, I hadn’t had a sniff of one.

North Great Wood is great for these mouse-like tree scamps and I was determined to see one. I’m sure most riders get their bird in early Jan but they had eluded me to the point of hysteria. Dreyfus meets Clouseau territory I suppose.

I arrived at the wood, near Cuffley in Herts at 9am. Nuthatches were calling in the car park but not visible and a few Jays ferries acorns to their burial grounds. I always take the yellow path out of habit and soon saw a couple of Nuthatch in a Hornbeam. Coal Tit, Blue Tit and Great Tit soon followed and my hopes were high. Always follow a tit flock is my philosophy (in life) but no sign of any creepers.

Northaw Great Wood
My urge to use my camera focused on fungi. Digiscoping little bids flitting high up on the canopies is next to impossible so to the ground I looked.

How I wish I could ID fungi. They are worse than gulls. They change shape, colour and smell with age and I really have no patience with my inadequate book on edible mushrooms so you tell me!

For some reason, I left the yellow path and found myself on the blue one. This proved to be somewhat fortuitous as almost immediately, the wood was full of birds. Chaffinches, Tits of all sorts were feeding on the ground by a huge pool left by the overnight rain. Nuthatches – at least 5 bounced from one tree to the next and Goldcrest called from above. Then I had a bird fly straight into a tree trunk. A Common Treecreeper. Finally. What a relief but although I tried to get it in the scope, I was too slow.

Never mind. I had the bastard and that’s all that mattered. I ended up with 3 treecreepers and 8 Nuthatch in a two hour visit. Most happy.

From here I went to Lee Valley for some camera training at the Bittern Information Point. We now have state-of-the-art HD cameras and software here so we can record activity and direct cameras to ket action for our lovely public. This was also a chance to meet up with Brenda who had kindly suggested I borrow her DSLR camera kit for a few weeks as it was gathering dust for her.

I have to say I was excited. I have digiscoped for a few years and think I have reached the point where the quality I take can’t improve unless I invest in new kit. My experience told me to invest in a real camera with a decent lens but I have been trying to save money but it always has to go on more deserving causes. Anyway, I accepting this trial with glee and although the pictures I took that late afternoon were all rubbish, I knew all I had to do was get to know the camera and the lenses at my disposal.

On the Sunday I had an hour to myself so popped over to Connaught Water for a test shoot. I was blown away by the results.

I am now officially a child in a sweetshop. These aren't perfect; the light was poor, my understanding of the camera setting is non-existent and I should have used my monopod. However, I couldn’t have had the spontaneity with a scope and camera combo as I currently use and the speed of capture is like going from a peugeot to a porsche.

So if I had had this camera and the Sigma 500mm at Great Northaw Wood, I would have proof that I finally got the Treecreeper to share with you.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Stop moving, I’m trying to count you!

With a few spare hours before tripping over to Brentwood for my daughter’s birthday, I could have easily tried to pick up a few more of the ‘easy’ species I’m missing. These include believe it or not, Common Treecreeper, Common Sandpiper or even, a Siskin or a Med Gull. I know it’s pretty pathetic to have these missing by mid November but there you go.

So instead of using these few hours selfishly, I used them wisely. In a moment of madness, I signed myself up to be the WeBS counter through the Lee Valley Park for the BTO. My own little area is Nazeing Meads, used primarily by fishermen and sailing enthusiasts and it comprises of four large expanses of water.

Nazeing Meads

There’s a knack to counting birds. It’s not as simple as just counting each bird while pointing your finger at them. No, they move a lot which is quite inconsiderate of them. After all, the BTO and their surveys are really for their benefit but there’s no telling them I’m afraid.

Counting each individual bird you see can be a challenge, but it can also become valuable information for scientific research. As populations of birds change, those fluctuations may indicate shifts in pollution levels, climate change, habitat loss, migration timing and more.

There a few techniques to this counting game. Some of it is common sense and some of it a bit scientific with words like transect and impoundment entering my vocabulary.

Fortunately I had a good map (not the one above) that showed the best advantage points to use to view each impoundment (confined area of water). With this, I was able to get good views of most of each lake. The lakes were mainly covered in Tufted Ducks and Great Crested Grebes. A large flock of Canada Geese flew in but overall, it was fairly easy and straightforward. I would hate to think what might happen if a peregrine came through and everything took to the skies. Start again I suppose.

So for 2 hours, I plotted my route around Nazeing Meads and I was really quite surprised by the numbers of birds I was recording. I was able to estimate large groups of duck by creating a mental grid, counting ten birds and then multiplying that by the area they occupied across the rest of the overall area. I then repeated this in a more point and count way and found the number was only about 3 under from the actual count. You have to allow for density and mixed flocks but essentially when winter really arrives, the wildfowl numbers could increase ten-fold and grid estimates will be the only way to do it.


Four Goldeneye and a fly by Kingfisher were the highlights and of course, the scenery at 7am is incredible.

View towards South Lake

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Suffolk coast. More storm-watching than bird watching.

Where are we with the weather in this country? It is now November and there hasn’t ben a proper easterly wind for yonks. Every time I go birding, the wind is always blowing hard but in the wrong direction. This weekend’s trip to Suffolk was no exception. In fact although it was rubbish for sea-watching, it was okay on the ‘how dry do you want to be’ scale-o-meter.
Another major plus was that the car didn’t break down. I did have a heart-stopping moment on Saturday where the wipers failed to wipe or even move to be precise. And with a forecast of heavy and prolonged showers to hit on Sunday, I can admit that I was a bit worried. Cars are weird. I stopped the car, turned off the engine and then started it again. I had wipers again. No idea what that was all about but I said nice things to it and gave it a bath to show my appreciation.

The plan was to get to Lowestoft for the Red-backed Shrike; a long-stayer near Ness Point and at the same time, search for those little Purple Sandpiper rascals. We arrived at Ness Point with the weather behaving although there was a rather noticeable SW Wind that made life difficult but there was very little at sea worth watching bar a few Brent Geese and a Common Scoter skillfully picked up on between the white horses by Antony. We hunted high and low for the Shrike but there was nothing (it was there but the wind must have pissed it off a bit so it kept under cover).

We went looking for the Purple Sandpipers and found them sliding about on the huge sea defense granite blocks. There were three birds and they all took great pleasure in disappearing from view just as I was taking a photo. I have some great shots of granite rock if you want to see them? No, thought not. I did of course persevere and managed a couple of okay shots. We had another look for the shrike and figured that the smell from the Birds Eye Factory was possibly the reason the bird had gone (it hadn’t and maybe, just maybe we should have hung around like that bad smell for a bit longer). 

We quickly popped into Lowestoft to see if we could at least see a Siberian Lesser Whitethroat or at least, a 'possible'. It wasn’t possible as it had hiked off down the way with a bunch of Long-tailed Tit we were told by a guy who then offered to get us a sausage roll for Greggs. We hopped it or rather climbed what appeared to be Suffolk’s answer Mount Everest – Mariner’s Score. if we had accepted the sausage rolls, this climb would have killed us. It was steep.

Don’t let anyone tell you Suffolk is flat.
Our next stop was Kessingland Beach. It’s a bit like Dungeness’ little brother with pockets of Marram Grass sprouting up from the shingle and other tundra-like flora spotted about. The only difference is there are no old shacks, fishing boats and no birds. I suppose we did chase a Meadow Pipit around for a bit but it bored with that game and disappeared. Oh and a couple of Gannets. Whoopee!

And you should have seen what the wind was doing to my hair.
I know, let’s go to Minsmere I said. We arrived at lunchtime and were met by an enthusiastic RSPB man. ‘You been for the Hoopoe?’ ‘Nope. we said. We just wanted quantity now not quality although that all depends on your outlook and what you consider quality.

From the North Wall, we saw very little as the wind cut into our eyes. We made it to the dunes and attempted to look for life out at sea. All I got was sand in my coffee and watery eyes. The sky was looking proper dirty so we ducked into the East Hide mainly to get a few birds as that was the whole idea of the day after all.

This was better. No wind and plenty to see. Ducks-a-plenty; Pintail, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall and Shoveler were all here. Shelduck, a single Greylag Goose and Moorhen and Coot added to the list. Waders included Avocet (2) 40+ Black-tailed Godwit and a handful of Dunlin. A Marsh Harrier quartered the reed beds to the south battling against the wind – probably with sand in its eye.

The rain was now tipping down and in protest, Ant tipped coffee everywhere. The rain was getting in and it all just too much and we donned our plastic trousers which was all too much for the rest of the hide’s inhabitants.

Plastic trousers are good. They keep the rain out but a call from nature can be a little tricky…enough info there.

Ant with Minsmere’s answer to Stonehenge

Soggy Stonechats, birds, not the result of the call of nature in plastic trousers, were feeding on the ground in the dunes close to the concrete blocks. We slowly made our way to the Island Mere via the South Hide from which we watched a Kingfisher and a Common Buzzard. We then made our way to the Island Mere hide and had a couple of Red deer along the way. The reason for going to the hide was because we had been informed that up to 50,000 Starlings have been roosting in the reed beds and the classic Mumuration display would start around 4-4.30pm. It was like going to a west end show. A trickle of people were making their way to the hide and like us, you could tell it was for the mumuration as we all passed the Bittern Hide without a glance at it.

However, there was more to the Island hide than we had catered for. Actually the only catering was from my brother who had fortunately brought some egg sandwiches with him from a party the previous day. Trust me, they were better than you’re thinking. In fact, they were lovely but I was hungry.

It has clearly been a while since I could be bothered to trudge down to the Island Mere hide as the thing had transformed itself into a civilized and totally modern hide.

We watched at least five Marsh Harriers hunting in front of us before the Starlings started to fly in. They came in waves of hundreds and you could hear the wing beats as they flew over the hide away towards the reed beds.

Great White Egret
To the right-hand side a large white bird started to show. This wasn’t a mute swan or a little Egret, no, this was the Great White Egret that has resided here for some time. It stayed distant but came out into the mere to fish. A Bittern flew low over the reed bed coming into roost. Then another Kingfisher followed by a Water Rail followed by another Bittern.

It was a good trip even if things didn’t quite go to plan. Starting to think about the next one now...maybe Norfolk or maybe Nepal in the rainy season.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

New England birding on a non-birding holiday

I don’t really do birding holidays or treks or whatever they’re called because I have to spend my money on a normal holiday. My wife usually has all the ideas and I”m cool with this. If I was ever to buck this trend and blurt out Trinidad & Tobago for instance, she would eye me suspiciously and accuse me of picking a birdwatching hotspot and, well, she’d be on the money. So I leave it to her. It actually doesn’t matter where in the world we go because wherever it is, it will have birds and more to the point, birds I haven’t seen...and if I’m really lucky, birds I haven’t a clue about.

New England. Unlucky.

It’s good but not exactly South Africa (next year hopefully) I love America though and this wasn’t a bird trek so I couldn’t expect much. More than that, it was a coach tour so I didn’t even have the luxury of slamming on the brakes and running through the undergrowth to spot a fly by.

We were going to whale watch so I had a plan there. Screw the whales – but not literally you understand.

So it goes like this. I only had a compact camera so the images are record shots at best so pleas be underwhelmed.

Our first stop was New York and the only birds I could positively ID were these two Red-tailed Hawks circling over Central Park when we visited Strawberry Fields and the John Lennon Memorial.

There were thrushes hanging out in the park but I couldn’t get a good look at the so have to leave that to imagination which is apt I suppose. We weren’t in New York State for long and headed into Massachusetts where we stopped at a farm shop to get coffee etc. While everyone took photos of pumpkins and other random crap, I found a Hairy Woodpecker taking lumps out of the next door farm. There were also a small party of Red-winged Blackbirds and a rather elegant Monarch butterfly.

Hairy Woodpecker

Red-winged Blackbirds
My first Monarch Butterfly.
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler
There was quite a lot of bird activity at our next stop over. By now, we had arrived in Vermont and were based in a ski resort hotel in the Green Mountains. I had an hour or so to spare after breakfast to check out the hotel car park which was surrounded by forest. First, I had Yellow-rumped Warblers. One was in the trees close to the hotel and the other was actually on the hotel roof which I managed to shoot through a forth floor lobby window as it hunted for flies.

Back in the hotel grounds, things were hotting up. Birds were flying about everywhere. Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers and a Field Sparrow grouped together under a few shrubs close to the hotel entrance. I wish I had been staying all day in the hotel but I was booked on a trip up Mount Washington so any detailed viewing was nipped in the bud.

Dark-eyed Junco and Field Sparrow

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is small, smaller, just, than our Lesser Spotted Woodpecker by about 10mm. Most of the time I found it climbing the limbs of small shrubs it is that small!

I also saw a Northern Cardinal but couldn’t get a shot, not that any I may have taken would be any good.

On the road to Mount Washington, I had an American Kestrel and an unknown raptor in a telegraph pole – how I wish I could have stopped the coach for a better look but that’s package holidays for you.

American Herring Gull

Cory’s Shearwater

Cory’s shearwaters



Ring-billed Gull

Manx and Cory’s Shearwaters

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Ring-billed Gull
Great Shearwater
So from Vermont, we traveled back to Boston and apart from some mandatory gulls on the beach beside our hotel – Ring-billed Gulls and American Herring Gulls, I did spook four Black Ducks out of the reeds early one morning before we set off whale watching.

Very Black Ducks

The whale-watching was of course the perfect place to watch birds. Everyone got very excited about the humpbacks, me included but when the marine biologists told us that an indication of where the whales were would be huge seabird activity, my excitement was always going to be greater than anyone else's. Gannets first followed by an A-list of Shearwaters including Manx Shearwaters, Great Shearwaters and very numerous Cory’s Shearwaters really made my day.

Trip List: Common Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Mute Swan, Mallard, Black Duck, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Wild Turkey, Killdeer, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Hermit Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, Eurasian Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle), Field Sparrow, House Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, House Finch.