26 JUNE 2017 – HATFIELD FOREST
Because we’d seen both Purple Emperor and Silver-washed Fritillaries at Oaken Wood, Surrey recently, John suggested that it might be an idea to check out areas where both had been seen in previous years at Hatfield Forest, Essex. As the weather was relatively still, and very warm and sunny, this was a perfect day to try.
We entered the forest from the back (Woodside Green) end, and got our first Silver-washed Fritillary with seconds, with two more before even reaching the first ride adjacent to Emblem’s Coppice. Then, taking the ride towards Forest Lodge we found our first Purple Emperor flitting round the tops of an oak; though it was difficult to see well because it was continually circling rapidly. Commas flitted with the Fritillaries, along with Meadow Browns and Ringlets. Our second Red Kite of the morning (the first being as we’d passed through Great Hallingbury) soared high above us.
Past Forest Lodge we came to a ride which in the past had been excellent for Silver-washed Fritillaries, and it proved the case on this occasion too, with 15 or so individuals seen.
We then followed the ‘path’ through to the long ride known as Boxwood Drive, and approached which was used as the ‘master tree’ last year by the Purple Emperors, without sightings of any individual. We walked a long way down this open ride, and were on our way back when John spotted a male Purple Emperor circling the canopy of a tall Ash tree, where eventually we got reasonably good views (through binoculars) of this stunning butterfly, although it proved impossible to photograph it. There were several Purple Hairstreaks here too.
On the way back, with lots of Ringlets (seemingly outnumbering the Meadow Browns) flitting in the hedgerows and grasses, along with Commas; a singleton Red Admiral; several Large and Small Whites; Large Skippers; two Small Skippers, and more Silver-washed Fritillaries (we must have seen around 30 individuals all told), John found a Damselfly which looked familiar from our time in Oaken Wood the previous week and which he thought might be a White-legged Damselfly; from our photographs identification was confirmed by referring to relevant guide books at home, and our first ‘local’ record of the species.
23 JUNE 2017 – THURSLEY COMMON and OAKEN WOOD
John Slee had been roped in to provide transport to take Daughter Clara, and three of her friends, to Thorpe Park, and suggested to me that it would be an opportunity for us to travel on to Thursley Common (Surrey) where we would spend the rest of the day, picking the girls up on the way back. I jumped at the chance; nothing to do with being in John’s People Carrier with four young girls (as pleasant as that might sound) but an opportunity to see some interesting species of dragonflies; butterflies and birds, some of which are no longer as common as maybe they used to be.
Having ‘dumped’ the girls at Thorpe Park, we were at Thursley by 10.30 a.m. There was a strong breeze, with the clouds scudding across the sky; but it was warm and bright, with no hint of rain. So, the conditions were generally favourable, except for the breeze.
One bird I thought we might struggle to see was a Redstart, but virtually as soon as we were out of the vehicle and making our way over to The Moat Pond (a large expanse of water near the car park) a lovely male Redstart was in our sight, picking up insects from the floor of the woodland; and a female was seen in the same vicinity, so we assumed they’d nested nearby. Several Siskin and tits were active in the tree canopy; but there was no such activity obvious over the lake, and no dragonflies were seen there until later in the day.
Out onto the heathland, we followed the boardwalk to try and observe some of Thursley’s dragonfly delights. Our first was a singleton male Small Red Damselfly. Not having seen the species for several years, I was struggling to confirm my identification, but it was noticeably smaller and more delicate than the Large Red (we saw a couple of individuals later for comparison, so both of us were happy that we’d got Small Red in the bag, without being able to photograph it). There were lots of Four Spot chasers and a few Keeled Skimmers (another of our target species) with three or four Black-tailed Skimmers. I had hoped that the unseasonably warm weather of late might have influenced an early eruption of Black Darter, but we were to be disappointed on the score. Nor did we see the lovely Golden-ringed Dragonfly, only three or four Emperors.
A High-flying Hobby overhead was mobbing a Buzzard, and later another Hobby, were only raptors on view. A while along the boardwalk and onto a sandy trail, we failed to connect with Silver-studded Blue butterfly (which were said to be present), but the sweet song of a Tree Pipit soon brought the songster in view. There was a flash of a Dartford Warbler across the track, with a scorning chirr to warn us to keep away; but were not destined to see the bird any better.
Back at the lake, there was still surprisingly little activity, but eventually we ‘pinned’ down a Downy Emerald (possibly two individuals involved), and a superb Emerald Damselfly (one of my favourites). Azure and Common Blue Damselfly were present too.
Having partaken of lunch, we moved on to Oaken Wood a few miles south and east of Thursley. As soon as we arrived the sight of Marbled Whites in an adjacent field greeted us; whilst several metres into the wood, we hadn’t even taken a few steps along the ‘Butterfly Trail’ when a lone Silver-washed Fritillary flew by, and a little further on another, then a White Admiral, and after that several more. Lots of Meadow Browns and Ringlets, with a spattering of Large Skippers, with one or two Emperor Dragonflies. It was wonderful, though I admit extremely difficult to photograph any successfully as the insects were almost constantly on the move.
A little later, once out of the wood and into clearings again, the Marbled Whites and White Admirals were much more obvious, together with an Emperor Dragonfly or two. Suddenly, along the ride we were both aware of a large Butterfly flying strongly around the tops of Aspen and Oaks, which could only be a Purple Emperor, but rather frustratingly it was soon lost to view. Another large dragonfly flew by which I identified latterly as a probable Southern Hawker, and a little further along, John called out ‘Purple Emperor’ which was dancing around the tops of an oak; and suddenly it was joined by another, but the views were restricted because of poor light. A trio of Purple Hairstreaks were also seen here.
Back at the vehicle, we met another butterfly enthusiast, who put us right as to the best place to view Purple Emperors at close quarters; something to bear in mind maybe for a trip next year, but we didn’t have time to pursue that today as we had to leave to pick up the girls back at Thorpe Park.
We both enjoyed the day immensely; we’d not seen some of our target species - Wood White still eludes me - but we had seen some fascinating and beautiful species, so all in all a successful day.
13-16 JUNE 2017
13 JUNE THORLEY WASH
I’d been hearing of sightings of Barn Owl and Grasshopper at Thorley Wash and decided to try and do something about getting either species for myself. I was slightly concerned about the Barn Owl because through February – May I’d made several evening visits without connecting, and that despite meeting a few dog walkers who had confirmed regular sightings of at least one (occasionally two) birds mainly over the northern section. So, with more recent morning sightings being reported, surely, I’d be successful this time round?
Up at 4.00 a.m. with ablutions and breakfast quickly out of the way, I was down Thorley Wash by 5.15 a.m. eagerly awaiting some interesting sightings - maybe a fox; a Roe Deer (one had been reported recently with a fawn; a Stoat or a Weasel; a Water Vole or two; maybe even a Willow Warbler, which has sadly been missing from my local list thus far this year; and more importantly a Barn Owl and/or the purring sound of a Grasshopper Warbler. But, it didn’t quite work out that way as none of the aforementioned put in any sort of appearance, much to my great disappointment.
But after an hour or so of trying, and with the sun beginning to peak out from behind early morning clouds to the east, I turned my efforts instead to my photography. And there was much to take delight from as the mist began slowly began to rise then dissipate from the river, and the crystal morning light bathed the landscape before me in a beautiful, pristine silvery light. The Reserve holds many species of grasses which glistened with dew, like a myriad tiny diamonds. Also, with such glowing light the play of light between the trees south of the river was challenging for the photographer.
Here too, a pair of Cetti’s Warblers performed well in both song and presence, and a nearby Garden Warbler sang his little heart out, giving me lovely close views for the camera. Along the river Moorhens; Coots and Mallards were feeding young, but did not always comply photographically – which really didn’t matter one iota as just seeing these wondrous scenes was a privilege indeed.
But I did get a view of a flyover Marsh Harrier, which was my first for the reserve. Unfortunately, I picked it up rather too late, and with my views initially restricted by tall trees, I had to use all my knowledge of the species to form an opinion. By that time of course, it was moving away but the overall jizz and shape of the bird; the long wings held in a shallow V with wingtips held slightly upwards; the plumage colour – flashes of grey and brown in the sunlight; the flight pattern – flap, flap glide, led me to conclude that it was indeed a male Marsh Harrier. But it was useless trying to photograph the bird because of the distance involved.
It was far too early in the day to get the dragonflies in any appreciable numbers, just a handful of Banded Demoiselles; Common; Azure Damselflies Blue-tailed Damselflies.
I was out for nearly five hours in total, but despite feeling somewhat tired, I was revelling in the beauty I’d witnessed on that crisp, sunny morning. I must do it again sometime soon.
15 JUNE – WEETING
John Slee had organised a trip to the Brecks, and for the first time Colin Wills came too. Our target species were Turtle Dove; Woodlark and Tree Pipit.
We started off at the hides, watching a pair of Stone Curlews – apparently with young, though we didn’t see any; then a walk through the woodland (which netted a singleton Spotted Flycatcher), and across the road, again through woodland, and a long trail which eventually took us out to more open moorland habitat. Here we heard my first Willow Warbler of the year (without a sighting of the songster itself); then from a lone Birch, the song of a Tree Pipit. After a while the bird took to the air, with that lovely gliding parachute flight so typical of the species, with the tell-tale song flight thrown in for good measure. It was the first Tree Pipit any of us had seen for several years, so well worth the long walk. But we missed out on Turtle Dove and Woodlark, I guess because the main activity had long passed, making it quite apparent that we should have made the effort to come here when we were last in the area a whole month ago.
16 JUNE – AMWELL DRAGONFLY RESERVE
Just by chance, Gary Raven called in to see if I wanted to go to Ware to get some plants and other things for the garden, and luckily, he was happy to make a small detour to the Dragonfly Reserve nearby. I’d heard that both Norfolk Hawker and Scarce Chaser had been seen the previous day, so I suggested it might be a good chance to see them. So, after a refreshing coffee and scone at Van Hage’s Garden centre, off we went to Amwell.
Strangely, there wasn’t a lot of dragonfly activity on the reserve itself; but we were lucky when Gary brought my attention to a large (Emperor sized) dragonfly hawking over the grassland. It was exceptionally difficult to track the insect but eventually it came near enough to observe the beautiful green eyes characteristic of Norfolk Hawker. There were a male and a female Emperor; a few Four-Spot Chasers, along with the usual Common and Azure Blue Damselflies, a single Brown Hawker, and one Black-tailed Skimmer, and that was about it.
One of the two rarities had been seen - with no sight of Scarce Chasers, so we couldn’t complain. Maybe another visit will secure them.
25 MAY 2017 - A DAY IN THE CHILTERNS
John Slee asked me if I would be interested in going to try and find some rare Orchid species in the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire area, and I jumped at the chance since I’ve never spent any appreciable time there in the past – except for a twitch to see a Baltimore Oriole several years back.
We were to visit three sites – Homefield Woods (Bucks); Hartstock Reserve (Oxfordshire) and Watlington Hill (a National Trust site in Oxfordshire). The weather was set fair, but extremely warm, even hot. But before we could do any searching we had the M25 and A40 gauntlet set before us, although it was surprisingly relatively plain sailing, and we arrived at the first site shortly before midday. Usually, I prefer to set off early, but there was no great advantage in doing so, as butterflies for example favour the warm hours around late morning into mid-afternoon and later.
The site for the orchids was very near to where the tiny car park was located; so, it wasn’t far to walk. Immediately, John tagged on to the song of a Firecrest (which I couldn’t detect), but despite a few minutes spent looking, no adult bird was forthcoming.
Through a gated field, one could see where the target species - Military Orchid - were located as most of the spikes were protected by unsightly wire ‘cages’. But the species is doing well now with over 100 spikes on view (compared to just the two when the site first became known as an established territory). There was a sprinkling of Common Spotted Orchid, and two spikes of Greater Butterfly Orchid (also protected by the wire cages, which made photography challenging to say the least). Later, we were shown a spike of Fly Orchid by another interested party, and we discovered two more spikes of this extremely rare orchid. John provided a better photograph than mine, which is included here because the Fly Orchid is so rare.
Red Kites were almost prevalent here too; indeed, as soon as we came into Buckinghamshire kites were everywhere. An adult Raven ‘croaked’ nearby, but we were never destined to see one, although we did see two immature Ravens in the tops of pines trees above us. The lack of butterflies was noticeable, but Common Blue; Small White and Brimstone were the only ones seen. Two Slow Worms were also discovered beneath a square of tin, obviously put down for that purpose.
We stayed here for about two hours, and lunched in the car park, where two elderly ladies gave us a site for Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which we visited later in the day.
On to Hartstock Reserve near Goring, Oxfordshire. An extremely attractive town on the banks of the River Thames, set in idyllic rolling countryside, with Kites all over the place. After parking the car, we had a walk of about two miles or so, before reaching the reserve proper; and in the rapidly waring heat that was a challenge. As we approached the site I could see that it was set on a very steep hill, which again in the heat was challenging to say the least (well it was for me, suffering with hip problems). Eventually, reaching the top of the hill, with lovely views over the Thames, the entrance to the reserve introduced one final very steep incline before reaching the site for the orchids – this time our target species were Monkey Orchid and Lady Orchid, although to be honest, I think John was convinced most of the spikes were of Hybrid Monkey and Lady Orchids. Butterflies here were again surprisingly few, with several Brimstone (including a mating pair); one or two Orange Tip and a few Common Blue being obvious. One tiny individual was difficult to pin down at first as it was continually on the move; but eventually my initial identification of Grizzled Skipper was narrowed down to Dingy Skipper, courtesy of John’s guide. Other species included Brown Argus and Small Copper, and an early Hornet.
We then headed for the site we were given for Duke of Burgundy butterfly, near Saunderton; but we not entirely convinced we’d got the right location, and although there were several ‘skipper’ type butterflies flitting around, we were never able to confirm any sightings, and of course, Duke of Burgundy butterflies were not in evidence. Another Brown Argus, caused some discussion between John and myself as to whether it was in fact a female Common Blue, but I was convinced my identification was correct, and we left it there. Looking at the photograph now, I am sure it was indeed a Brown Argus, a there was a distinct lack of blue on the upper wings.
Our final site of the day was Watlington Hill in Oxfordshire, a National Trust site, which John said was known as being excellent for good views of Red Kite. And so, it proved to be, with some of the best views of this gorgeous raptor I’ve ever experienced.
A tasty meal at the nearby Golden Cross
pub/restaurant, ended a lovely day. I was sure it wouldn’t be the last time
we’d come this way again.
22 MAY 2017 MINSMERE
I usually get together with friends from Upminster, Essex - Dennis and Jill Tasker - for a day out in the countryside. This year we chose the RSPB Reserve at Minsmere, which in late May can usually be guaranteed to provide some good birdwatching and general natural history experiences. Well, not this year it seems.
Firstly, the Sand Martin colony was largely absent of Martins, mainly because the whole colony had relocated - lock, stock and barrel - to Dunwich cliffs. But apart from that the usual frenetic activity on the scrape/s was substantially subdued overall. The gull colony was alive with noisy activity, largely down to breeding Black-headed Gulls; but this year the bonus were the numbers of breeding Mediterranean Gulls – we were lead to believe up to 50 pairs, although of course, not every pair was on show. But Avocets numbers were clearly down, and as far as I could tell, the tern colonies were also not as active ………….. only Common Terns and one or two Little Terns were obvious. Apart from a few Avocets, waders appeared totally absent, which for the time of year, was unbelievable.
A Bittern flew over briefly, soon to be lost amongst the reedbeds, but another surprise was the complete lack of sightings of Marsh Harrier. We knew they were breeding here (possibly up to five pairs) but to get no views whatsoever, was disappointing, especially for Dennis and Jill.
As the afternoon progressed, the warm sunshine brought out lots of damselflies and a few Dragonflies (mostly Four Spot Chasers), which led to increased activity with the camera. But otherwise, photography was very sporadic.
An excellent evening meal at an Asian restaurant in Leiston - a few miles away - ended a pleasant, but somewhat disappointing day (well it was for me).
2-14 MAY 2107 - VARIOUS LOCATIONS
2 May - Thorley Wash and Tednambury - A Rabbit and Konic Ponies
It was sunny, yet cool and breezy, so no insects were seen. Bird migration had been temporarily halted.
5 May – Burnham Overy Downs, Norfolk - with John Slee.
A Wall Brown and Small Copper butterflies; a Red Kite, and Northern Wheatear were the coastal highlights on the dunes.
Unfortunately, I missed out on seeing Ring Ouzel, although John Slee (who was with me) saw a fleeting glimpse of a likely female flying quickly away. General, birdwatching was very good, with the addition of those seen at Titchwell Bird Reserve, later in the day. I added 27 species to my total species count for the year.
10 May – Linton Zoo, Essex – with Dan Kell, and 18 month old Michael.
Lioness; Lion; Both; Bearded Dragon Lizards; Boa Constrictor; Victoria Crowned Pigeon (Silhouette); Blyth’s Hornbill; Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, and Ground Hornbill, were arguably the highlight species, I was able to photograph reasonably well.
14 May – Lakenheath, Norfolk- Suffolk border. With Colin Wills and Keith Fox.
A Glossy Ibis was arguably the rarest bird on show here, but it was far too distant for decent photography. There were a few cuckoos around, the males singing echoing all over the marshlands. Hobby were in abundance, with well over 40 individuals (with doubtless some duplication). Reasonable view of Marsh Harriers, including the male passing food to the female (too distant for photography). Reed and Sedge Warblers were mainly heard, with only a handful showing briefly. Highlight for me were the Hobbys; a singleton Green Hairstreak butterfly; Hairy Dragonfly and Variable Damselfly, with a sprinkling of other Odonata species. A Bittern ‘boomed’ but didn’t show.
A brief visit to Weeting later in the day netted a singleton adult Stone Curlew seemingly on the nest; a newly arrived pair of Spotted Flycatchers, and a few more common birds at a watering hole, including a Marsh Tit and a pair of Coal Tits. We were told of a nearby site to get Turtle Dove; Wood Lark and Tree Pipits, but as time was getting on we decided that was going to be the venue for our next outing.
The general countryside was in a superb, pristine state, with the May blossom in full bloom.
29 APRIL 2017 – THORLEY WASH
Well, the weekend is here, and I’ve decided to go down to Thorley Wash looking for spring migrants and possibly, a few Water Voles. Complete silence on the latter front – not even a tell-tale ‘plop’. it wasn’t looking good; and when the early sunshine began to fade, things looked decidedly dull.
Then, the loud blasting vocals of a male Cetti’s Warbler, virtually a few metres away, stung me into action. I took myself down to a spot that I’d seen the male quite well on previous occasions recently, and waited, camera poised, for the show to begin. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the said male was strutting his stuff from a nearby ivy-clad bush, and out he came into the open, bold as brass, with another (presumably a female) a short way behind. And then he few towards me, and within a few feet, sang his heart out again (though I was too slow to get the red throat inside the bill); then effectively ‘posed’ for me, before moving off to sing from another bush across the river. A Reed Warbler came out at the same place and posed for a short while; and nearby I disturbed an adult Water Rail, which came up from a ditch and landed in some sedge, where I got just the one shot before it too moved away (if you look closely you can just see the red bill). I also got reasonable shots of Common Whitethroat and a Sedge Warbler.
Quite a morning really.
27 APRIL 2017 – DOTTERELS AT THERFIELD
John Slee and I had intended to go to Norfolk, but heavy showers predicted for the North Norfolk coast around midday, prompted a rethink. John had heard that four Dotterel had been reported in a field at Therfield, North Herts; so that was where we headed instead.
There was no problem locating the site because there were several bird watchers already in situ, so the birds were in fact easy to locate, despite being somewhat distant. However, eventually we achieved substantially closer views without spooking them, so we gained excellent binocular and/or scope observations.
There were two female and two male birds present, always keeping a safe distance away. The females were in superb condition, just coming into Summer plumage - with Dotterel the traditional, more colourful plumage, is reversed in the sexes (as are their adult roles), with the male displaying an arguably duller, though nonetheless incredibly detailed plumage, compared to the snazzy female.
There was a haze over the field initially which affected our views as well as conditions for photography, but this lessened as the sunlight diminished, and reasonable (though still relatively distant) shots were obtained. And considering I’d never photographed this species previously (except for a rather moribund female sheltering in a bunker on St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly many years ago), I was well pleased with the results.
We also saw a female Wheatear and an adult Red Kite.
Thanks John for the opportunity.
2-16 APRIL 2017 - A LUCKY MAN
I haven’t done much in the way of birding, and in fact I’ve only been out trying on four occasions in this period; but I do seem to have had some appreciable luck of late – though not necessarily only with birds.
A visit to Abberton Reservoir, Essex early in the month, did not produce the wealth of migrant species expected: several Yellow Wagtails; two distant Little Ringed Plovers; two male White Wagtails; and a male Spoonbill, but no hirundines, despite the calm, warm conditions. But I noticed a pair of Great Crested Grebe that were showing signs of starting the ritual mating routine, so I hung on for a while; and although they didn’t actually mate, the preamble was fascinating to watch. A pair of Little Egrets nearby posed well for me too.
Then earlier this week (on the 13th April – unlucky for some) Derek Barry from the local Badger Group, invited me over to his house to see a young boar which had been badly bitten on it’s rear, doubtless the consequence of a badger fight, and which he was nursing back to health, before being released back into the wild. He had also picked up a 6-week old cub (a female) which he allowed me to hold. And what a wonderful experience that was. I was suitably privileged. The cub, which had been bitten at the back of its neck (possibly by a dog) was only in Derek’s charge for a day or two before being handed to another badger group to nurture until it was right for release.
And then, two days later, I was walking along the Stort Navigation, when I saw a beautiful Water Vole on the Walbury Estate side (directly opposite Thorley Wash where 180 or so water voles were released almost two years ago now). This was a good sighting as it represented clear evidence that the voles were beginning to spread out a bit. Unfortunately, I was only able to fire off one shot before the vole ‘plopped’ out of sight; but this represented my first sighting for several years, so I was well pleased. It sort of made up for the distinct lack of migrants birds although a Cetti’s Warbler was heard nearby, and a pair of Bullfinches (always difficult here) were seen.
8th APRIL 2017 - ICKWORTH HOUSE: BATTLE OF WATERLOO RE-ENACTMENT
A relatively early start was necessary, to get to the venue well before the event opened at 10.00a.m. Gary and I picked Terry up and arrived shortly after 9.30 a.m. - long before the main public rush.
I didn’t really know what to expect (though Gary and Terry had been previously) but I was amazed at the level of precision set out, as virtually everything – even down to the cutlery - was reproduced in the style of the early 1800’s, the uniforms in particular were meticulously made. Some of the regiments represented included 95th Rifles; 92nd Regiment of Foot; Hussars, and some representing France and Prussia.
When we arrived, there was a slight mist, which in the strong morning sunlight, washed everything in a beautiful glowing light, accentuating the atmosphere enormously. Later, as the mist lifted, the sunlight proved too harsh for successful photography; but we did the best we could, and fortunately, obtained some lovely photographs despite the conditions.
Regrettably, we didn’t get to stay for the main battle enactment mid-afternoon - as by then the public numbers would have swelled considerably, and even impinge on the photographic opportunities; so, we left around 2.00 p.m.
These are arguably some of the best shots of mine.
4 MARCH 2017 – THORLEY WASH
I hadn’t been down to Thorley Wash for a while, and as the weather was for once, playing ball, I picked up the rucksack (with my trusty Canon 6D) and took my first tentative steps towards the bus stop.
I had intended to take the bus to Spellbrook then walk back via Thorley Wash and Twyford Lock, but at the last minute decided do the walk down via Rushy Mead and Thorley Wash, returning the same route. It proved a good decision, because passing the kayaking centre and looking across the field to the north of the river, I immediately spied a Little Egret, the first I’d seen in this area, and very probably the same individual that has been seen on and off between Spellbrook and Grange Paddocks in recent weeks.
I took a look at Rushy Mead, and although there were few birds to be seen, recent workings were obvious, with a fair amount of scrub clearance and coppicing around the water areas, which hopefully will attract more species later in the year, including more waders such as Snipe; more species of Dragonfly, and hopefully Water Vole, which are apparently beginning to expand from the introduced population at Thorley Wash Reserve. Of course, only time will tell if that proves to be the case.
The track along the river was extremely muddy, making progress along it quite difficult at times, so I was a lot slower than might otherwise have been the case because I was concentrating my efforts on the surrounding environment, as well as looking down on where I placed my feet. But there was very little to see birdwise (except for a flighty Skylark over the reserve itself - not as common here as one might have thought). As I made my way around the reserve from the northern periphery, three Common Buzzards came into view from the woodland at Great Hallingbury, and soared overhead for a while. On the way back along the river Stort (in fact the navigation canal) I was able to take a series of photographs of a Little Grebe (of which there were two along this stretch) which was just beginning to come into its summer plumage.
It wasn’t the most productive walk, but mentally it did me a lot of good, and made me hanker for spring to get its act together.
25 FEBRUARY 2017 – RYE MEADS
There was no concrete news coming out of Rye Meads RSPB Reserve, but we decided to make a go of it, in the event that the Bittern might make a showing. Unfortunately, despite (a relatively short) vigil at the Kingfisher hide - which was where the said Bittern had been showing at close quarters in recent days – we were unlucky.
But, making our way back, we came across a photographer who clearly had his quarry in sight, below a wooden walkway leading up to the Ashby hide, and although we were careful not to disturb him, he invited us up to join him. I mistakenly thought he was photographing a Water Rail (which would have been excellent enough), but in fact it was a Water Vole; so, for me this welled up some considerable excitement, because I hadn’t seen the species anywhere since 2005. And this was how I managed to get a few photographs of the animal, nonchalantly munching on reeds, within a few feet of us. It was a truly wonderful few minutes.
Highlight of the year for me thus far!
13 FEBRUARY 2017 - SUFFOLK AND NORFOLK
Thank goodness it wasn’t Friday 13th, otherwise we might not have done as well birdwise, even though the tally of species seen was hardly electrifying.
John Slee had suggested we start at Hockwold Fen (RSPB Lakenheath) by around 9.00 a.m. then move on to Santon Downham; then Cockley Cley, and ending the day at Lynford Arboretum.
The RSPB reserve at Lakenheath in mid-winter wasn’t exactly a mecca for birds at this time of year; but John wanted to try for Common Cranes and Bittern as the light was excellent, despite a fairly strong easterly flow, which made it feel colder than it might otherwise have been in the sunlight. But in fact, we failed on both counts - no cranes and no bittern. I missed a Bearded Tit which John called out, but several female Marsh Harriers hawking over the marshes made up for that. I swear a Merlin zoomed by, but the view was so short that I couldn’t be certain; so, unfortunately it remained off the list. The only other birds of note were Common Buzzards (3) and waterfowl, including Shelduck; a lone Northern Pintail; a few Northern Shoveler; Teal and Gadwall. At least three Little Egrets were seen along the banks of the Little Ouse which runs through the reserve. A Water Rail in the pond behind the visitor centre provided excellent views for a short while, and all the opportunity I needed to utilise the camera.
On to Santon Downham, where we began with reasonable views of Bramblings (mostly colourful males) in two separate flocks of around 15-20 and 30-40 birds respectively. We might have been able to get a touch closer were it not for the fact that there was already a sizeable contingent of birdwatchers present, and we didn’t want to cause any ructions. But it wasn’t conducive to photography. Later, we made a half-hearted search for Wood Lark which proved fruitless.
On to Cockley Cley, a site which was known to be excellent for watching Goshawks, especially displaying males during February. Regrettably, we missed a sighting by just a few minutes, and no others were seen whilst we were there, although a Peregrine Falcon pursuing a woodpigeon in flight was a reasonable substitute. It was here that I missed the second ‘goody’ of the day, as John picked up a Wood Lark, which flew overhead, when I failed to locate the bird against a pristine cobalt sky.
Finally, we found ourselves at Lynford Arboretum, and immediately made our way down to where in the region of a hundred or so birdwatchers (including the same group we’d encountered at Santon Downham) were awaiting the arrival of Hawfinches. Trees and bushes in this particular field had, over many years in the winter months, attracted usually up to fifteen of these stunning finches, which had gathered here to roost (but could also be seen during the day); but this year the numbers were quite exceptional with upwards of 50 individual birds involved. My main concern when we arrived at the site, was that the numbers of birdwatchers had prevented the finches from flying down to their normal roost, since in the time we were there none came close or even moderately close, with the consequence that unless you had a telescope, viewing was almost impossible even with good binoculars. But, at distance we probably saw up to twenty or so Hawfinches as they continued to arrive in small clusters. Nearby, a male Marsh Tit called, and gave close views; whilst a male Crossbill, vied with several Siskin in tall deciduous tree, at the end of the lane. And all the while, the light was fading, so we called it a day.
28 JANUARY 2017 – THAXTED, ESSEX
My friend Dan and I had planned a ‘photographic day’ for quite some time but it was only now that he found some free time, what with family commitments and other things.
I agreed to take travel down from Bishop’s Stortford by bus, with the aim of meeting him at the guildhall (which is near to his home, to which he and the family had moved four months or so previously) and then walking round the top end of town, looking for things to photograph. He wanted to hone his landscape skills, and I was just looking for general photographic delights to add to my previous ‘portfolio’ of subjects from my previous visits to Thaxted over recent years.
It was overcast when I arrived, and suggested that we should take a coffee break first to allow the weather to brighten up a little. We emerged some 30 minutes or so later, into bright sunlight and beautiful blue skies and scudding clouds; perfect conditions for what we wanted.
It was a successful morning for both of us photographically, followed by a visit to his home, seeing the family, and later, being treated to a tasty Chinese takeaway to celebrate my birthday, the following day. And whilst the peace and tranquillity of the morning didn’t last into the afternoon and evening, I enjoyed the interaction with the kids immensely. Thanks Dan and Leanne (and the kids) for an ‘interesting’ encounter.
As usual, I have posterizsd a couple of the images, to bring out the detail in brickwork etc.
24 JANUARY 2017 – BURWELL FEN, CAMBS
John Slee kindly gave me the nod on this short trip to Burwell Fen in Cambridgeshire, a place neither of us has visited previously. The draw on this occasion was the possibility of seeing Short-eared Owls, up to nine of which had been reported there in recent weeks.
It was a beautifully sunny, cold and slightly foggy day as we set out, but in just under an hour, the fog had largely cleared over the Fen as we arrived.
I don’t really know what I’d expected other than pure fenland in every direction, interspersed with a few areas of still water and long canals and/or ditches, with little in the way of trees, except those which lined the major canals. The fields were fence-lined with dry tracks criss-crossed over it as far as the eye could see. Yet it certainly held its own fenland atmosphere, with the rising fog adding to that immensely.
I started the photography going as soon as I got out of the car with reasonable shots of a Redwing and lovely adult Fieldfare. In the surrounding fields a group of around 20 Whooper Swans was the first I’d seen for 3 years or so. A glimpse of a distant Short-eared Owl, admittedly into the sun (never ideal) gave us some hope; but for a long while it was false hope.
There wasn’t a lot to see here (although there were surprising numbers of Roe Deer and some Konic Ponies unobtrusive in the long grasses), but walking along the available tracks, birds gradually began to show. A male Green Woodpecker was a surprise in this environment; whilst a lovely (albeit quite distant) male Marsh Harrier was a sight to behold in the golden sunlight; but it didn’t come near enough to warrant a photograph. Several groups of noisy Grey Lags flew in and out of the marsh, but apart from a few Reed Buntings; Meadow Pipits; a large flock of Goldfinches; a male Stonechat; a lone Common Buzzard; a Little Egret, and some very good views of Kestrels, that was about it bird-wise until shortly after 2 o’clock when I spotted a Short-eared Owl quartering the far end of the field we were looking over. And then there were two - occasionally sparring briefly; and latterly a third. But none of them came as close as we would have liked, though never having photographed Short-eared Owls previously, I was in fact pleased with those I did manage to get.
Unfortunately, John had to be back around 4 o’clock, so we were never to discover how close to the usual viewing point they came; but we promised ourselves a return trip later on.
21 JANUARY 2017
I’ve always advocated that local birdwatching should be the foundation of any birdwatchers’ regime; and today was a case in point.
I had to go into town (Bishop’s Stortford) anyway, then had planned getting a bus to Spellbrook (on the way to Sawbridgeworth) then walking back to BS along the River Stort via Thorley Wash. But I changed my mind at the last moment and instead - after visiting my Bank - walked east along the Stort towards Farnham, simply because I hadn’t done any birdwatching in the Grange Paddocks area for well-nigh two years. It turned out to be an inspired decision.
As I proceeded along the Stort (through the Castle grounds) thrushes seemed everywhere - several Blackbirds; at least 5 Mistle Thrushes; 3 Song Thrushes and a few Robins. But the first real bird of note was a lovely Red Kite - the second I’d seen in the Bishop’s Stortford area in the last fortnight - against a pristine blue sky. Further along the Stort, across the Farnham Road, a Little Egret (with slightly soiled plumage, which might have been oil) was seen in a field alongside the railway, in company with two Grey Herons. Under the A120, I was struck by the numbers of Fieldfare in the fields - at least 15 in the first field, which was being grazed by about ten horses from nearby stables); flocks of Redwing too - possibly totalling around 70 individuals (there was a light easterly flow to the wind which may have explained this). Small groups of Goldfinch twittered high in the Aspens (though surprisingly no Siskin or indeed Redpoll were seen or heard); whilst Great Tits and Blue Tits, with a few Long-tailed Tits, called incessantly, along with twittering Wrens.
One bird caught my attention, or rather it’s call, which I wasn’t familiar with. I eventually located the bird, small and tit-like, and immediately saw that it had a black cap. So, then I had the task of trying to see it well enough to distinguish it between a Marsh Tit (which has a noticeable glossy black cap) and a Willow Tit (which has a broader head and a noticeable wing panel). Both are rare these days in our catchment area. I was watching the bird into the light which wasn’t helpful, but it didn’t have a wing panel, and it did have a shiny cap; so, identification was confirmed - it was indeed a Marsh Tit, which I hadn’t recorded locally since 2006. For me, easily the bird of the day. Then the familiar mew of a Common Buzzard, as the bird flew I overhead being mobbed by a couple of Carrion Crows. I rounded the morning off on the way back with a female Grey Wagtail along the river by the Swimming Pool.
Arguably, at 31 species for the morning, it wasn’t an especially large total, but the quality undoubtedly stood out, with the star birds being Marsh Tit; Red Kite and Little Egret.
The sighting of the Marsh Tit was especially gratifying because I had to work hard on it before confirming the bird’s identity, and more particularly, because it was a (relatively) local record.
18 JANUARY 2018 – SOUTHERN COUNTRY PARK
It was such a lovely, frosty morning that I couldn’t resist such a brilliant photographic opportunity. Dan Kell was due to come over for coffee with his one year old son Michael, so I suggested we take a walk in Southern Country Park, and he was happy to defer coffee until later in the morning. It was a good decision, as the morning light was still extremely intense and, together with the heavy frost, gave Southern Country Park a beautiful, ethereal feel, ideal for photography.
Dan was content to utilise his phone, though I feel he regretted not charging up his camera battery; but I was in my element, with my Canon EOS 6D, with 100-400 mm telephoto, and made the best of the conditions, the first time this year the camera got used properly.
The lake was frozen over - as was evidenced by the gulls, moorhens and coots standing still on the ice, with movement on it extremely difficult; but this made access to the birds more readily available, and with the beautiful, glowing light still much in evidence too, our shutters were busy.
Unfortunately, little Michael was clearly less enamoured with what was going on. I guess the cold was getting to him, despite the copious layers of clothing - gloves; a woolly Pokémon hat and a blanket that Dan had heaped on him - and he cried pretty much constantly the whole time we were there. So, we called it a day after about an hour. As soon as we reached home and Michael was freed from the shackles of warm outside clothing, he was in a better frame of mind. And us, well a good cup of coffee helped the mood immensely, despite the photography being abandoned earlier than maybe we’d anticipated. Luckily, a few reasonably good shots were obtained, of which these are a few.