17/18 NOVEMBER 2019 - GARDEN SHOTS
This was the first time since the beginning of October that I have been able to lift the camera and long lens - due to an issue with my right shoulder which has proved very painful over the past few weeks. haven't actually been out anywhere with the camera but as it was quite sunny yesterday (Sunday) and the birds were busy around the bird feeders and the bird table, I thought I'd try to take some shots. This is a selection of the better ones.
7 OCTOBER 2019 – NORFOLK
All three of us were keen to try the north Norfolk coast as the weather forecast (previous evening) had promised the kind of conditions that bring in the migrants as well as a potentially excellent spell of sea watching. So, a pick-up at 0700 hrs set us off in good heart.
Arriving at Cley at a little past 0915 hrs, the sea conditions were nowhere near what had been forecast. It wasn’t like a mill pond, but it wasn’t rough either – and a quick scan told us that we were unlikely to get the tally of pelagic-type birds we might have expected. In the time we were there - about an hour or so – there was an excellent showing of around 20 plus Red-throated Divers (some reasonably close in); a couple of Razorbills and a Guillemot; several Gannets; three distant Little Gulls; a couple of skeins of Brent Geese; and a good numbers of Meadow Pipits coming in off the sea; but little else of note.
We were thinking of moving off east along the coast a bit, but we were persuaded buy news that a Dusky Warbler had been seen at Warham Greens, and with directions texted to us by ex-Stortford birdwatcher extraordinaire Stephen Patmore, that was our next destination.
We eventually reached the right place, following a very long and pretty muddy path from a car park, where a crowd of around 15 birdwatchers had gathered. The Dusky had been seen, but was playing being elusive, only giving tantalising views as it made its way through the brambles and hawthorn bushes some 50 feet or so away. There was quite a movement of migrant birds overhead – a few Bramblings (some alighted briefly in the bushes); Skylarks, Redwings and Blackbirds; a singleton Fieldfare seen on the way down from the car; Starlings, and Meadow Pipits.
We waited and waited, with only the occasional movement apparent from the Dusky Warbler (though it could easily have been a Sparrow or Dunnock from the mediocre views I obtained). Mike and I both lost out, though John thought he’d seen enough of the bird to tick it (the bird was a ‘lifer’ for him). A brief spell of light rain didn’t help the situation and with no more movement, we came away largely unfulfilled.
The news came out that at least 10 Yellow-browed Warblers were at the Dell, Wells Woods, and this seemed very encouraging. A sprinkling of Ring Ouzels was also reported from several sites along the coast. So off we went. Upon arrival, we were approached by a birder who reported that at least 4 Yellow-browed Warblers were performing well and giving excellent and very close views, and he also gave us directions, virtually down to the nearest Scots Pine. But we struggled to get a glimpse of even one species of warbler. We found a couple of Tits flocks in the trees, with attendant Goldcrests; Chiffchaffs, etc but no Yellow Browed Warblers – not even a sniff. Another birder told us he’d seen at least 10 - apparently, they were ‘all around’ - but we didn’t see it that way at all. We gave up after an hour or so searching, and made the decision to move on to Titchwell, where at least 2 had been reported, along with a Ring Ouzel or two. But here too, we failed to connect. It was very demoralising.
We left it at that as rain again started to fall, and made our way home after a disappointing end to the day.
30 SEPTEMBER 2019 – FRAMPTON MARSH RSPB, LINCOLNSHIRE
A new venue for two of us; only Mike had visited previously, and that was a fleeting twitch which failed to produce the goods. I had initially thought it was a longer trip than merely going to Titchwell RSPB, Norfolk, but in fact the roads to Boston are more direct, so the length of the journey was similar at a tad over 2 hours. We were there by around 9.50 a.m.
The RSPB visitors’ centre was nothing like on the scale of Titchwell, or indeed, Minsmere (Suffolk) – a small reception area, with a few tables and chairs and light refreshments on sale, so it was just a case of booking in, and obtaining the necessary info on the birds we’d come to see, namely Pectoral Sandpiper; Little Stint; and a Temminck’s Stint (the latter a more recent arrival).
The reserve was no more than a series of brackish and freshwater ‘lakes’ over a large area bordering to the East on brackish marshland, then the coast (seemingly a very long way off), but as to put it into perspective, it was possible to see right across the Wash into Norfolk, with Dersingham Woods in the misty distance.
As for birds, well initially from the centre, mesmerising numbers of (mainly) Black-tailed Godwits (a couple of thousand in strength at least) – with Northern Lapwing; Grey Lag Geese; Canada Geese all in substantial numbers – were viewable in excellent light. A minor lane led us to another (tiny) car park at the end, and in turn onto the sea defence ‘wall’ where cattle grazed, and small numbers of birders scanned the marshes for goodies. Immediately, it was obvious that the marshes held an impressive number of Little Egrets – seemingly everywhere one looked, standing in small knots across the landscape.
John immediately scoped 2 Short-eared Owls down on the marsh, and in excellent light their mottled plumages and bright yellow eyes could be observed. Unusually, both birds were temporarily grounded (possibly waiting for the tide to turn and reveal good hunting ground). A Western Marsh Harrier could be seen hawking too.
Further along, people coming in the opposite direction were reporting that the Pectoral Sandpiper was showing well, so we thought it best to get on before it too decided to move off. The bird was a juvenile in magnificently spangled plumage, seen in excellent light, as it fed in the mud showing off it’s lovely bright yellow legs. A couple of Greenshank were good comparison waders nearby, as were a couple of gorgeously plumaged Spotted Redshank, with a singleton Common Redshank and a Turnstone. Three Ringed Plover were also nearby. We returned to the Centre via an ‘island’ hide and a 360 degree hide, nearby which Mike picked up the second of our goal species – a Little Stint - which flew in calling, and landed in front of us, giving brilliant views for a while, before flying to a different area of the marsh – where, from the 360 degree hide, Mike relocated the Stint; though it was a real testament to his call recognition skills, that he was able to correctly identify the bird as Little Stint before it landed. I think John and I were suitably impressed. We returned to the main visitor centre for a well-earned Cappacino, before driving down to the top car park, resuming viewing the marshlands for a second time that day. Here John picked up a lovely female Peregrine Falcon, and we enjoyed the atmosphere here for a while, regrettably without more sightings of the Short-eared Owls.
Really good views were obtained of three Spotted Redshanks which circled the marshes, together with a couple of Greenshank, whilst literally ‘droves’ of Black-tailed Godwits, and Golden Plover flew out above us. By that stage, the Pectoral Sandpiper was still preening and feeding, but this time slightly obscured by a large clump of ‘orange’ coloured mud. Unfortunately, the Temminck’s Stint failed to be reported all day, so presumably it had moved on.
A few Painted Lady butterflies were seen, along with a single male Copper and several Small and Large Whites; Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells. A few Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters were also seen. And we all gained a species completely new to us – Sea Aster Mining Bees; an extremely attractive, slightly furry bee, with a striped abdomen. It was shortly after 3.15 p.m. by then, and with the promise of heavy, thundery rain moving in from the west, we called it a day.
Once again I was unable to take my camera due to the ongoing problem with my right shoulder, so no images I’m afraid.
OUT OF ACTION
I've been largely out of action for most of Aug/Sept due to a 'frozen' shoulder which (amongst other things) has prevented me using (including carrying) my camera and binoculars as I've been unable to lift my right arm or use my right hand. But it is slowly it is improving and hopefully I'll be able to resume my photography and write more on MY BLOG page in the near future. So watch this space.
I did however go with John Slee and Mike Harris to Holland Haven, Essex (without my camera) to see a juvenile Red-backed Shrike - which we saw briefly before it disappeared - then on to Walton on Naze, where we saw a good selection of waders, but little in the way of meaningful passerine movement.
6 AUGUST 2019 – OARE MARSHES, KENT
This was our first outing for about a month, so was hopefully going to be successful.
We started out from my house (John Slee; Mike Harris and me) at 0930 hrs arriving at Oare around 11.00 hrs with no delays through the Dartford Tunnel etc.
The weather was fine, with loads of sunshine and scudding clouds on a strong westerly breeze. When we arrived, there was a lot of human activity, giving us some hope of a real goody bird wise, but on enquiry there was nothing special about on the marsh itself – the crowds were a local birding group; so at least we weren’t missing something decent. But news of the (by now, annual) adult Bonaparte’s Gull was positive – just go down to the jetty and it’ll be on the mud. And so it proved to be ………………..in excellent light with the bird isolated from most of the other gulls, and with a Whimbrel nearby for size comparison, we enjoyed reasonable scope views, satisfying ourselves with some of its salient features – red legs and a sharply defined smallish bill compared to Black-headed Gulls nearby. Its black head was well into moult, so that wasn’t such a helpful feature at this time of year.
Deciding to do an anti-clockwise circuit of the marsh we first took a good look at the birds on the marsh in front of us. Probably 2-300 Black-tailed Godwits; 50 or so Dunlin were the probable highlights, but I soon bagged a pair of (probable) juvenile Bearded Tits at the foot of reeds some distance away (John and Mike soon bagged them too); with Yellow wagtails in some numbers flying over constantly. Along the trail as we begun the circuit, there were several Southern Migrant Hawker Dragonflies, with many Ruddy Darters too (though strangely no Common Darters) and a surprise Small Red-Eyed Damselfly found by John. But I was taken with the numbers of Painted Lady butterflies in pristine condition here – probably in excess of 30 individuals, which kept me busy photographically for a while. Whilst we were in the hide, two Clouded Yellow butterflies were briefly seen, a new species for the year for all of us. When I caught up with the others, John was showing some people a couple of Bullfrogs he’d located in a ditch; these were my first anywhere for many years, so I took full advantage and bagged a few photographs, before they comically ‘plopped’ out of sight.
Overlooking the marsh from a different location, John found a (probable) male Garganey in eclipse plumage; several Ringed Plovers and a few Ruff; and we were all amazed at the high numbers of Redshank coming in from the estuary – probably in excess of 500 birds. At the estuary itself, 300 or so Black-tailed Godwits were augmented by much larger flocks of the same species flying in from the south – a marvellous site indeed. There was a distant (early) Brent goose and about 10 Grey Seals lolloping on the beach far out on the headland opposite, and a Marsh Harrier sweeping low over the river. Nothing else of note was seen so we returned to the car for lunch, then took one last look at the marsh, where we had better views of a (different) male Garganey, also in eclipse – showing a reasonable supercilium. The Black-tailed Godwit flock had increased three-fold, and a new flock of Golden Plovers had arrived, with a few more Dunlin. As we were leaving we saw a lady pick up something from the tarmac, which proved to be an Emperor Moth caterpillar - our second of the day, and something I hadn't seen for about 50 years!
We’d had a reasonable day, with nothing outstanding bird wise, other than the amazing flocks of Black-tailed Godwits in flight, and the Bonaparte’s Gull. But I will remember this day for the beautiful Southern Migrant Hawkers - all of which were male, with stunning bright blue eyes; the dashing Clouded Yellows (seen for just a few seconds before being whisked off by an increasingly strong breeze); and the lovely Painted Lady butterflies.
6 JULY 2019 - BALLS WOOD, HERTS
This was another meeting under the current BSNHS Summer Programme of events. Eight members met at the entrance at 2.00 p.m. with Jim Fish leading. The main reason was to attempt to record as many species as possible (i.e. plants; butterflies; moths; dragonflies and damselflies; other insects and invertebrates; birds and mammals.
In a two-hour stint covering two long rides within Balls Wood Bob Reed (the Society Chairman and recorder on this occasion) informed us that we’d identified upwards of 75 species, which included the following:
Southern Hawker (1); Azure Damselfly (3); White-legged Damselfly (to be ratified); Blue-tailed Damselfly. We also found several Xuvia, probably belonging to recently hatched Broad Bodied Chaser, in the reeds around one of the woodland ponds.
White Admiral (a mating pair and one other); Silver-washed Fritillary (1); Marbled White (10 plus); Large Skipper (5); Small Skipper (10 plus); Ringlet (very common); Meadow Brown (very common); Large White (3); Small White (2). I have also included a detail from the underwing of a Ringlet.
Blackbird; Starling; Great Spotted Woodpecker (2 males); Blue Tit; Great Tit; Blackcap; Wood Pigeon; Collared Dove; Chiffchaff (probable). A large brown raptor was seen briefly by Jim along one of the rides, but he was unable identify the species. Given the type of woodland habitat there is a possibility that this sighting could be of a Tawny Owl or even a Long-Eared Owl, but of course this is only conjecture on my part.
The undoubted highlight of the day was seeing the White Admirals which was especially surprising because we enjoyed very little sunlight, with overcast (yet muggy) conditions throughout, although the sun came through briefly, which is thought the main reason the White Admirals were on the wing. Some of the party witnessed these lovely butterflies feeding and mating on their food plant – Honeysuckle. The lone Silver-washed Fritillary was seen briefly by me, but everyone else missed out.
The general condition of the rides was exceptional, with many species of grasses and wild flowers creating a wonderful diverse habitat for many insects. The edges along the rides are however, now beginning to seem somewhat overgrown, which I guess means that in the not too distant future management work will need to take this into account.
4 JULY 2019 – MINSMERE and WESTLETON HEATH
Three birding stalwarts - John Slee; Mike Harris, and myself - set out from my house at 09.15 a.m. never knowing what the day was going to bring, and with absolutely no inkling of the magical ending that was in store for us.
We arrived at MInsmere at 11.15 a.m. and made a beeline for the visitors’ centre to see what was around. We’d already decided that we were going to concentrate mainly on butterflies; dragonflies and bees, with a late stay to try for Nightjar on Westleton Heath. Before entering the reserve proper we stopped off and saw a pair of Stone Curlews in a field.
Our first port of call after that was the pond near the centre (near where the Sand Martin colony was situated). We’d been advised that Norfolk Hawkers were here on the reserve in some numbers, and we weren’t disappointed, as within a few seconds of arriving, several were already on the wing here; being very conspicuous by their stunning green eyes. We were to spend well over an hour here, with a good sprinkling of species: Norfolk Hawkers (8 or so); Emperor (2); 4 Spot Chasers (4); Ruddy Darter (3 Teneral males); Common Darter (2 in tandem); Azure Damselfly (20?); Common Blue Damselfly (1); Blue-tailed Damselfly; Emerald Damselfly; Willow Emerald, and Broad-bodied Chaser (2- m and f). It should be noted that not all these species were seen by everyone at this location; although we were to see these and another species later in the day.
A walk along the north wall presented an opportunity to observe several mining bee species, including: Pantaloon Bee; Bee Wolf, as well as a Jewel Wasp. It was fascinating to see these busy bees excavating and entering their burrows and observe their predatory nature. Further along a way we saw a specialty species of moth in the form of Six-belted Clearwings which were truly tiny, and I think a new species for all of us. Small Skippers were here in good numbers, together with 6 Spot Burnets, although general butterfly species were hard to come by. Whilst we were here a Bittern obliged with good flight views.
At the scrape, there was a frenzy of activity as birds were busy feeding chicks or just feeding. Avocets; a lone Ruff; 6 or so Spotted Redshanks; Common Redshank; Ringed Plover; Dunlin; Black-tailed Godwits (40 or so mostly summer plumaged birds); Sandwich, Common and Little Terns; Kittiwakes (6) and several other gull species including 6 juvenile Little Gulls; numerous duck and geese species; Bearded Tits (2); a singleton Juvenile Water Rail. Two male Marsh Harriers and one female could be seen interacting over the marsh. In a pool near the sluice gates at least 3 Black-tailed Skimmers vied with a male 4 Spot Chaser and a Broad-bodied Chaser. At the sluice itself a family of Swallows entertained several fascinated bystanders.
After lunch (back in the car) we took to the woodland walk for the purpose of seeing more specialised butterfly species, netting several White Admirals; 3 or 4 Silver-washed Fritillaries; 5 or so Purple Hairstreaks; a Comma or two, and lots of Common Darters; a few Ruddy Darters and a good number of Norfolk Hawkers along the rides.
Before we went for our evening meal, we took off to Westleton Heath where we soon found a small colony of extremely attractive Silver-studded Blue butterflies, which we observed in excellent evening light. A Green Hairstreak; a Brown Argus, and a Common Blue were also seen here. John also found a Vestal Cuckoo Bee with Mike, but unfortunately, John was unable to relocate, so I missed out.
A very welcome break for dinner at the Eel’s Foot Inn at Leiston (with good, reasonably priced food) was followed by another visit to Westleton Heath, though this time for the purpose of (hopefully) observing Nightjars.
As with all these things one has to have patience in abundance, although to be fair we could have made it easier on ourselves had we arrived a half-hour or so later; but at about 9.45 p.m. (we actually ‘took’ virtual bets as to what time the first ‘churring’ bird was heard - I think Mike won that one; although it was me who heard it first at around 8.50 p.m. ). So, when the ‘churring’ became more pronounced we woke John from his slumbers on the ground (?!!) and we waited for the first flight views. About 9.15 p.m. Mike shouted out ……………….’ It’s behind us’ and I turned around in time to see said bird (a male) fly over nearby gorse and disappear; John missed it entirely. But he didn’t have long to wait as the familiar ‘whip’ whip’ call was followed up with a superb views of a pair flying very close, with the male flying close over the path in front of us, only to land horizontally along the underhanging branch of a pine, merely 30 metres away. The light was fading first but it was still sufficiently light enough to see all the detailed plumage, as the bird continued to ‘churr’. It then got up to catch a large moth and flew around again when we were able to observe the long wings and tail, and the white wing patches, still in reasonable light; with exceptional telescope views as it eventually returned to the same pine branch. We were all totally mesmerised by this wonderful experience; something none of us would forget in a hurry, and easily a definite highlight in all our birding ‘careers’. As we began the walk back to John’s people carrier, a Stone Curlew flew over; and we enjoyed a distant flight view of a Hobby. Nearby, in the scrub we saw several Red Deer (adult females with calves of varying ages) in the dying light.
This was a 4th of July that would be remembered for a very long time - and nothing whatsoever to do with America!!
Acknowledgements to John for use of his photos of a Silver Studded Blue and Silver-washed Fritillary.
18 JUNE 2019 SPARROWHAWK IN MY GARDEN
I was lucky enough to catch this juvenile female Sparrowhawk on prey (a juvenile Blackbird) with a series of pictures through my kitchen window. I think the bird was certainly aware of me, but continued to pluck the poor Blackbird for at least 10 minutes before flying off with it, allowing me plenty of time to fire of these (and other, shots.
24-25 MAY 2019 – NORFOLK
Luckily, I’d largely packed a small case (before my trip to Titchwell the day before) ready for a couple of days in Norfolk, staying with friends from South Wootton, near Kings Lynn. I’ve known Dave and Sarah Garner for many years (since we met on a birding and wildlife trip to Shetland in 1982) and we’ve kept in touch ever since.
I took the train from Bishops Stortford to Kings Lynn via Cambridge, arriving at 12.30 midday where Dave met me and took me back to his house where Sarah was preparing a light lunch; after which we headed for Snettisham, with the prospect of seeing Turtle Doves.
It wasn’t long before the familiar ‘purring’ of a male Turtle Dove drifted our way, with the bird perched on a telephone wire, as plain as plain can be. It’s such a beautiful Dove, and it’s sad to see their numbers diminishing so drastically with a 95% decline in recent years. So, we were privileged indeed to see two males each singing independently of each other.
There was very little birding activity after we’d seen the Turtle Doves, but we continued our walk with signs of emerging - mainly teneral - damselflies (Azure; Blue-tailed and Large Red) with quite a good number of Four Spot Chaser Dragonflies, along with some butterflies, including Common Blue; Small White; Green-veined White; Large White; Small Copper; Small Heath; Red Admiral and a Peacock Butterfly.
After dinner Dave suggested we go Babblingly Common - a site on the edge of Sandringham Estate - where he thought we should do well for Nightjar. We arrived there just after 9.30 pm and within a couple of minutes the familiar ‘churring’ of a male Nightjar met our ears, as a singleton roding Woodcock flew over, giving excellent views as night encroached. A few minutes later, a Nightjar flew round us and over our heads, before perching in a nearby birch. This was probably the clearest and most prolonged binocular views I’ve experienced in all my birding days, and although we never saw the bird clapping its wings in flight, and the white wing patches, the views the very good at such close quarters. We had one further good view before the churring died down a bit, but no further sightings, other than another (or maybe the same) Woodcock in flight.
The following day we were out and away to Cley arriving around 9.00 pm but there was surprisingly little to see, although we did get fleeting views of Bearded Tits weaving through the reed along the East Bank. Walking up to the beach, there was an area of shingle with stretches of water each side, where we saw at least ten Little Terns (one of my favourite birds) vying with a couple of Common Terns.
Later, eastwards along the coast from Cley, we visited an area known locally as The Quag near Kelling, hoping to get some waders. This is an exceptionally pleasant area with a large stand of water near the end; but there was very little bird wise here, except for a single Avocet, and families of Egyptian Geese and Grey Lags. But what was noticeable was the rather large numbers of Sand Martins which were flying low over the pool at very close quarters. It was a very peaceful here, momentarily interrupted by the incredibly loud boom from military aircraft swooping over us.
Afterwards we had light refreshments in a nearby café cum art gallery, before moving back west towards Wells-next the Sea, to an area known locally as North Point.
The bird activity here was marginally better than other places we’d visited, with the path dissected by two low areas of water, which had only been created within the past year or so, but which had already been utilised by ducks, egrets and wading birds. There were several Avocets dotted around; with Mallard; Gadwall; Shelduck and a few Moorhens and Coots. At least one Mute Swan; several Little Egrets; a couple of Grey Herons; with Redshanks and at least three Greenshanks making up the balance. At least one ‘pair’ of Marsh Harriers were present, along with a Kestrel and a Red Kite.
There was a sudden kafuffle at the north end, when several Egrets interacted with each other and I swear to this day that there was at least one (and probably two) Cattle Egrets amongst them – a Yellow bill, and Yellow legs (not just yellow feet) amid the flurry of white wings. We waited a while, in the hope that we would get better views, but somehow no Cattle Egrets emerged – all were Little Egrets. It wasn’t until I got back to my home in Bishops Stortford, that Dave e-mailed to inform me that two Cattle Egrets were seen nearby the following day; so, it could well be the case that my two were in fact genuine.
We ended the day back at Titchwell, but we didn’t spend too much time here a sit was getting on for 6.00 pm – the only thing of interest being our first Hairy Dragonfly of the year. We didn’t go out after dinner this evening, as it had been a rather tiring day.
Before leaving for home the following morning, we visited Dersingham Common, hoping to catch a glimpse (or better) of a Tree Pipit. At the small car park Dave picked up a couple of Firecrest singing (the pitch being far too high for me to catch) and it took quite a while before a glimpse of one at the top of a tall cedar came our way. As for the Tree Pipit, well although we heard one at distance, the views were hopelessly bad, with the bird disappearing over the common almost immediately. Hoping to get down to the bog area, the boardwalk had been closed for reparations, which probably scuppered our chances of seeing any dragonflies, although to be fair, the area was exceeding dry and didn’t look in the right condition. So, my visit ended with major misses – Proper, good views of Tree Pipit; no Little Stints or Temminck’s Stints; no Curlew Sandpipers; no Hobby; no Honey Buzzard. Not that any of these are guaranteed; it was just that the spring has been disappointingly poor thus far.
But I’d really enjoyed the break, so thanks to my hosts for making this possible.
23 MAY 2019 – TITCHWEL
This was another annual trip out with Jill and Dennis Tasker (friends from years back), and it was their choice to go to Titchwell, Norfolk. Sandwiches for the day and an evening meal at a pub/restaurant in the vicinity. It’s always a very pleasant day out.
The weather forecast was for sunshine and light showers, with a light-moderate westerly wind - not exactly the best conditions for birdwatching; but this was mid-May so anything could turn up. The fact that it didn’t was very disappointing for me, but my friends still enjoyed it. They are not birdwatchers as such, but enjoy seeing nature, so were not likely to be put off by the lack of migrant species.
There is simply no need to go into detail here due to the obvious lack of spring birds; the highlights being: 2 Spoonbill; 1 juvenile Little Gull, and 30 plus breeding Mediterranean Gulls birdwise, and along the coast eastwards, a colony of Grey Seals with some pups, which were accessible at fairly close quarters (which were likely to have been a lot closer had we taken a boat to Blakeney Point to view them).
Dennis chose The Chequers in Thornham for our meal; delicious food, though a tad pricey. And the weather proved better than predicted with a great deal of afternoon sunshine in a warm westerly flow.
16 MAY 2019 – CHILTERNS
I’d somehow talked myself into thinking we (John; Mike and myself) were heading for Suffolk, but in fact when John arrived to pick me up (at a reasonable 08.30 a.m.) discovered we were in fact going in the opposite direction, into Bedfordshire. The target species not birds this time, but butterflies; in particular, Green Hairstreak; Dingy Skipper; Grizzled Skipper; Duke of Burgundy (a species new to me), and finally Small Blue (new to both John and I).
We had a good journey up with no traffic issues, arriving at our destination – Bison Hill (very near to Whipsnade Zoo) around 10.00 a.m. But the reserve gates were firmly locked; so, we had no option but to try another route via Dunstable Downs. In warm bright sunshine we were hopeful of getting at least some of our target species.
There was absolutely no information available at the visitor centre about the butterflies and where to go to get them, so we had to make our own decisions, taking a downward course along a steep chalky path. It wasn’t long before Mike found our first target species – Green Hairstreak (which was a new species for John), and then another; following that a singleton Grizzled Skipper, then a Dingy Skipper. Our final target, Duke of Burgundy, John knew could be found anywhere between Bison Hill and Dunstable Downs, so we took the decision to leave Bison Hill out and continue along this chalky path in an easterly direction.
A Small Copper and several more Dingy Skippers tantalized until we reached an area which appeared to have been cleared sometime earlier last year perhaps, but was now rich with fresh growth – just the sort of habitat for Duke of Burgundy – at the bottom of quite a steep hill with woodland on one side and low scrub on the other. A few more Dingy skippers and a couple of Grizzled later and we found the first of at least three Duke of Burgundy butterflies; and they were certainly worth the wait.
A very small butterfly, perhaps about the same size as a Green Hairstreak, this lovely Duke of Burgundy displayed attractive stunning brown and yellow markings on the upper wings, bordered with a white fringe; the underwing even more beautiful with an overall yellow-orange and black markings on the top and lovely white patches on the lower underwing, when you could see them.
After sating ourselves with these beauties, the sun was beginning to hide under increasing cloud cover, we moved on a bit until we thought it best to try our second venue at Totternhoe, where we hoped to pick up Small Blue (which was new for John and I), not ever thinking that we were going to be successful. However before we could do that we needed to negotiate a pretty steep hill, which I found extremely difficult and very challenging as the strength in my legs almost completely dissipated; by the time we reached the top I was almost too tired to take notice of more Green Hairstreaks that were flitting over the longer grasses, with Brimstones, and even more Dingy Skippers.
We arrived at Totternhoe Reserve (north of Dunstable town) around 1.00 p.m. and soon John was in conversation with two obvious butterfly enthusiasts who had seen Small Blues in the quarry. So, we were happy that we’d chosen the right place. But in fact, we didn’t need to get to the quarry because within a mere hundred yards along the chalky path I found our own Small Blue. I knew straight away what it was – a distinctive grey brown upper wings, fringed with white, and the underwings a powdery blue, with a row of dots - resembling the underwings of a Holly Blue. But it was the size that struck me - considerably smaller even than a Common Blue; it was tiny. Within a short distance, we found two more pristine males, concluding that they all were freshly emerged. But what a find.
We got to the quarry, with lots of Dingy Skippers and a sprinkling of Grizzled Skippers; a singleton Duke of Burgundy, and a couple of Green Hairstreaks. I found another Small Blue on the way back, as a Red Kite skimmed overhead.
We’d had a very successful day, achieving all our target species of butterfly with relative ease; and we can’t always claim to do.
14 MAY 2019 – WATERFORD HEATH, HERTFORDSHIRE
John suggested an afternoon trip to Waterford Heath, for the sole purpose of attempting to find Grizzled Skipper butterfly, three of which had been reported as being present over the past couple of days. His son, Jasper was in between exams, so John didn’t need to be on call today.
I was surprised just how near Waterford Heath was to Bishop’s Stortford, being slightly north of Hertford, and it didn’t take long to arrive. I’d never been here before, but was taken aback by the overall beauty of the place – a long, wide strip of ‘heath’ with some rock formations on one side and gently wooded slopes on the other – the floor of the valley comprising a mixture of wild weeds interspersed with comfrey and daisies etc, then levelling out to include large accumulations of wild strawberries (the food plant of the Grizzled Skipper) on sandy soil.
There were many butterflies here, a singleton Holly Blue, then lots of Brown Argus and largely female Common Blues, with a smattering of Small White; Brimstone; Peacock and Orange Tip butterflies (including at least one female). But we couldn’t find any Grizzled Skippers. It was on the way back that John suddenly announced that he had one in his sights, and fortunately for us, it was very confiding, allowing close views for quiet some time, despite an increasing breeze. We got only the one, but this was my second sighting – the last being almost 21 years to the day at Beachy Head; and even John had only seen the species once before, in Dorset; so, we were both very pleased.
We ended the day at Amwell, for a reported Black Tern, but all we got for our trouble was a distant Hobby.
12 MAY 2019 – THORLEY WASH and STORT NAVIGATION SOUTH OF BISHOPS STORTFORD
I hadn’t been out for at least a week, so as the weather was showing an improvement over the past few days I thought I should try Thorley Wash. I took the bus to Spellbrook, then walked north along the Stort Navigation towards Thorley Wash Reserve, giving myself roughly 3 hours to enjoy this lovely spring morning.
The first thing I noticed was that the Grey Wagtail nest (built in the lock gates at Spellbrook) was empty, so hopefully the nest of four chicks got away well, although the adult female was still very much present here. But all the way up to the bridge which leads to the reserve, there was hardly a sound, as nothing appeared to be stirring. As I approached the ‘crossroads’ the familiar song of a Reed Warbler broke the silence, followed quickly by the that of a Cetti’s Warbler. I concentrated on the former as I hadn’t seen a Reed Warbler here this year. I had to wait a while but eventually the songster revealed himself, before the first of the dog walkers arrived, and it disappeared. The Cetti’s too, went quiet, so I took the bridge over to the Reserve. But I didn’t see anything of interest (with no Water Voles at the usual site) until I got round to the northern end of the reserve, where I had the chance to photograph a male Sedge Warbler, which once again was interrupted by the same pair of dog walkers I’d encountered earlier (it wasn’t going to be my day). I did a full circuit before returning to search for the Water Voles again - with no success. However, I’d soon spied a familiar figure in the form of the Warden, Robert Phillips who took me back again, this time to see three or four Water Voles very active along the usual dyke.
There wasn’t much else to see, so I took my leave arriving at Twyford Lock without seeing a great deal other than a Large Red Damselfly; a male Banded Demoiselle and a teneral Azure Damselfly. I also tried my luck with photographing a male Reed Bunting, with only a modicum of success. Along the Stort Navigation northwards, a pair of Pied Wagtails (usually Grey Wagtails here) were collecting morsals for young somewhere obviously nearby. A little further along, a juvenile Cormorant fished, and a Kingfisher was seen catching small fish, then taking the prey to a bush where it beat the poor fish to within an inch of it's life! Some distant photographs were taken here, but the bird was interrupted by a Magpie, so I didn’t see it actually consume the fish. This was the first time I’d witnessed this behavior anywhere, so for me it was a successful morning/afternoon. In addition I'd exceeded my 3 hrs walk by another 2 hours. And I was knackered by the time I arrived back home!!
29 APRIL 2019 – NORFOLK
Setting out just after 7.00 am we (John, Mike and myself) arrived at our first port of call, Wells, heading for a small lake east of the town, at a place I believe was known as North Point, where we found at least two Wood Sandpipers (one of my favourite waders) feeding with lots of Avocets; a few duck (Mallard, Wigeon, Shelduck and Gadwall), and two Whimbrel which seemed to arrive from nowhere. Many Swallows swooped overhead, whilst in the reeds a Sedge Warbler eventually revealed itself. After a whist more birdwatchers soon arrived, and one duo pointed out a couple of male Whinchat on the fence, which we’d not seen previously. John and Mike spied a flying Spoonbill at distance, which I missed. Then we moved on to Burnham Overy Dunes.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to walk all the way to the Dunes, but after negotiating a style (I absolutely hate styles, because I don’t find them at all easy to climb over) a waiting crowd staring over the fields drew our attention to the site where an adult Purple Heron had tantalised over the past three days or so. Immediately before that I scanned the field to see what was around and found a Bittern climbing reeds (which I’ve never witnessed previously), then giving good flight views, albeit at some distance. But the heron wasn’t on show when we arrived; although it has to be said that we were receiving contrasting accounts of where exactly to look. Eventually however, said heron traipsed out of the dyke it was ‘hiding’ in, giving reasonable distant views, spoilt by a nuisance heat haze; but the bird regularly ‘popped’ in and out of sight making it quite frustrating viewing. Other birds here were three Whimbrel; Egyptian Geese; Grey Lag Geese; Pink-footed Geese; Great Egret; Little Egret; two Spoonbills; Buzzard; Red Kite; Marsh Harrier. The picture here shows the Purple Heron roughly mid-centre, though it’s very hard to see.
On to Titchwell RSPB Reserve, extremely busy, though with more people than species of birds to see. Mike thought he heard a Turtle Dove which would have been good to see had it not been for the fact that the thing fell quiet almost immediately. To be fair there wasn’t a great deal around to see, the wader passage in particular, not having materialised as one might have expected – represented by a single Little Ringed Plover; a few Black-Tailed Godwits; alone Bar-tailed Godwit; Lapwing; a Grey Plover and of course lots of breeding Avocets. There were several Sandwich Terns and at least three Common Terns, but no sign of any Little Terns. The noise from a very active gull colony, mainly Black-headed Gulls and maybe thirty or so Mediterranean Gulls, was certainly deafening at times, but it added to the overall atmosphere, and was perfectly acceptable, given the location. It became clear that the number of Mediterranean Gulls here had increased substantially on previous years, and (usually in pairs) became obvious in flight by their distinctive croaky calls (even I managed to pick some up!). The beach produced only Sanderling and Turnstone and a few gulls. On a different part of the Marshes, Bearded Tits whizzed by too quickly to see well, with Sedge and Reed Warblers singing brazenly out in the open. On a small lake, three Crested Pochard drakes were courting a female, and nearby a Lesser Whitethroat gave tantalising views as it sang from a hawthorn almost lush in mayflower. Meanwhile Mike’s Turtle Dove gave us another short burst of song before going silent again; it goes without saying that we never saw the actual songster.
For the final part of the day, we turned to the coastal path at Snettisham, where we were eventually rewarded with good views of Lesser Whitethroats (the odd one in display flight); many Common Whitethroats; both Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers in good song; the odd Chetti’s; and finally a lovely female Wheatear (my first for the year). But we missed out yet again on Turtle Dove, as none were singing here. Good views of a Red Kite being mobbed by a Lapwing were had, with more views of Grey Partridges and a Muntjac before we called it a day, heading for refreshments at our usual supermarket café before heading for home.
I managed to get 92 species of birds, though doubtless between us probably more like 95 or so.
24 APRIL 2019 – THORLEY WASH
Nothing much to report here, but just as I was leaving the Wash I saw this very small dark grey bird flying north to south along the Stort Navigation as some speed – like a bullet in fact – flapping it’s wings only occasionally. I didn’t really have time to think about what the bird was, but it was obviously a raptor, and the size recalled Merlin. But a male Merlin; very unusual? Anyway, I watched it pass me and continue along the navigation and came to rest in an Oak tree, so I thought I’d try and get a glimpse of the bird at rest. It was about 75 metres away, but I took a slight detour into the woods before coming out again directly opposite the tree. And there it was, still at rest – a stunning male Sparrowhawk (admittedly a rather small one) in full summer plumage. Luckily for me, the bird remained almost static for a few moments, enough time for me to fire off a few shots using the 100-400mm telephoto.
21 APRIL 2019 – SOUTHERN COUNTRY PARK and SURROUNDS
This morning, following yesterday’s marathon six hour walk between Thorley Wash and Tednambury, I decided on a less strenuous walk to Southern Country Park, mainly for the purposes of picking up some more migrant species, namely Common Tern; Sedge and Reed Warbler, and maybe even a Cuckoo.
The day began well, with three Common Terns seen flying up and down the lake (this was a slight increase on the two seen last year); but there was no evidence of either warbler species, with absolutely no song over the reedbed at the northern end. I waited around listening for about 15 minutes, but quite frankly, the disturbance level was high with families; walkers with dogs (some of which were sadly almost out of control); runners and bikers, so it wasn’t really that surprising that there were no songsters here, and I left a bit deflated.
Passing through St. James’ Church, I noticed an elderly lady tending a grave, and I admit my photographic bent took charge here, and I fired off a few shots, and the results are very pleasing. So, I’ve included one shot here to hopefully illustrate that I’m not a one trick pony when it comes to photography.
I walked around the Park, but there were little signs of any migrants present, so I took the bridge over the road, past St. James’ church and out again into open fields leading to a small bridge across a stream with Thorley Pit in view. But there was little evidence of anything worth spending time on – except a few flighty Sand Martins, and in any event this is a private lake with no public access (no that I am usually put off by that, but there were a few people fishing there) so I decided to leave it alone.
Turning right across the bridge, I walked along the tree line, hoping to see a Yellowhammer or two, and although it took a while, I did eventually get rewarded with views of two males and a female. On the way back to the Park - hoping to hear a Lesser Whitethroat, but I only managed a Common Whitethroat (and I failed even to see that!). I took a slightly different route back and met a young couple who were looking at something in the low nettles, and of course I had to be nosey. It turned out that she was extremely interested in insects (indeed had been since she was a child) being especially fascinated with the huge number of ladybirds present - at least three species on show - with lots of tiny green beetles and weevils. It’s so good to see young people interested in wildlife, and particularly creepy crawlies!
Through the park I took a slight detour round the small extension where the is a sheep enclosure (though no sheep at this time) looking for signs of Small Heath butterfly (maybe a tad early) but only a solitary Small White came to view. But the area looked lovely with lots of daisies spread over lush green grass.
Along Obrey Way, just outside the Park, I saw a lovely Green-veined White butterfly - the first one this year, and a beautiful stand of Forget-me-Nots.
20 APRIL 2019 – THORLEY WASH and TEDNAMBURY
I’d already made up my mind to get up early (in this case 05.30hrs) and get down to Thorley Wash in an effort to get some migrant birds – possibly including Cuckoo – for the year; especially, as I’d rather neglected local birding due mainly to building work at the house. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite to plan, as I didn’t get a wink of sleep, so was already knackered as I got myself up and down to Thorley Wash by 06.30 hrs. But I hadn’t planned for such a marathon stint!!
It was quiet - unusually so I would have said - and not much was stirring; Collared Doves; Wood Pigeons; Blackbirds; a Song thrush; a distant Nuthatch and not much else. And it was chilly, although to be fair the sun was rising quickly, so it didn’t stay that way for long; and soon it was warming up nicely.
I got all the way down to where the Reserve began (although I was on the opposite side of the River Stort on the Essex side, at that point) when the spring air was punctured by the song of a male Cetti’s Warbler, although I couldn’t see it (one very often doesn’t unless one is patient). Then the scratchy song of a male Blackcap; then a Chiffchaff. And that was it for a while. Then further along another (clearly different) Cettis’ Warbler, and this time after a few minutes wait, it made itself present, although not close enough for photography. A couple of Robins; a pair of Long-tailed Tits nest-building, and a lovely party of Bullfinches (one comprising 4 males and one female and the other a male and female) provided the only other entertainment. Across the bridge on the footpath which dissects the reserve, and yet another male Cettis’ Warbler made its presence felt – rather more loudly than the other two had done, and I got a brief yet clear view. This meant a probable slight increase in numbers over 2018. Further along, where the rail crossing is and a slight ‘bubbling’ sound alerted me to the possibility of a Garden Warbler, but I could only see a Blackcap. I was about to give up when the Garden Warbler suddenly burst into brief song and emerged into the open, where I managed brief views before it stopped and disappeared back into the shrubbery. Nearby, a pair of Reed Buntings seemed to be busy nest building too. Along the backwater, and entering the northern area of the Wash, I tried (in vain) to get photographs of singing Wrens, though all I seemed to get were ‘bum’ shots - literally. Then, a familiar ‘scratchy’ song filtered the air - though I had to look hard before I could confirm the first arrival this year (for me anyway) - of a Common Whitethroat; there were eventually three males by the time I left the Wash. Whilst I was photographing the wrens, I saw something skulking along the edge of the backwater …………… it was a Stoat - the first I’d seen at Thorley Wash for at least ten years. I followed its progress along the bank but couldn’t keep up with it, although I did manage a ‘crappy’ photograph, and I’d never done that before!
I followed the towpath south past Spellbrook, then on to Tednambury where there is a seat by the lock (roughly halfway between Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth along the Stort Navigation. A pair of Canada Geese made an attractive photograph with a barge sheering up the composition, then further along I noticed a Grey Heron sitting (literally) in a grassy field, looking very content with life. I was able to take a few photographs before it flew off, including one quite good flight shot. I’d never seen a heron in that posture before. Tednambury Marsh was quiet except for the song of a male Cettis’ Warbler which reverberated through the air. It is now abundantly clear that the Cettis’ has made a nice niche for itself along this part of the Stort Valley, and it is a very welcome newcomer.
Nothing much more came to light except that the marsh was looking in fine fettle with isolated clumps of beautiful Marsh Marigold and Lady’s Smock, with a mass of willow trees coming into leaf. It was very soothing sitting here on an isolated seat by the lock, overlooking a field studded in daisies and dandelions, with five crow species (Rook; Carrion Crow; Jackdaw; Magpies and Jay) all feeding on grubs amongst the flowers. And apart from the odd runner and cyclist, passing along the towpath, all was very peaceful indeed. I was hoping to see a pair of Grey Wagtails here - as the species bred here in the lock gates last year – but I was unlucky, and nothing more was seen in the twenty or so minutes I spent here.
On the way back there was a clear movement of Swallows (9 were seen) but disappointingly no raptors of any kind. At Spellbrook, I saw a female Grey Wagtail with a bill full of tiny insects, so I knew a nest was nearby. And sure enough, a brief inspection of the lock gates revealed a nest with at least four well grown chicks; so, I didn’t longer long. The male Grey Wagtail also made an appearance. Further along the towpath, I saw a Water Vole swimming along a dyke, on the Essex side of the Stort Navigation; a short but welcome sighting.
A member of the public told me that he’d just seen a couple of Sedge Warblers in the reeds a little further north along the Navigation, but I think he’d actually seen a pair of Common Whitethroats, which were the only species present here, as far as I could tell, and their flight pattern was wholly consistent with what he described. But it is only a matter of a week or so before they are here in reasonably good numbers.
Just as I met a friend, a Kingfisher whizzed past going south; then a few minutes later, came north again along the same stretch. It was a good record to end the day with. I’d been out at that stage for six hours, and I was feeling very tired indeed. So, we walked back as he related the story of his record of a Mediterranean Gull at the lake in Southern Country Park only three days before. He showed me a photo he’d taken which, despite being a distant shot into the light, just about confirmed the sighting. I would have loved to have seen that bird.
Other than the sighting of the Stoat, and the Water Vole, there was nothing especially interesting about today, yet this is what viewing local natural history is all about; and it was thoroughly enjoyable.
8 APRIL 2019 – MINSMERE, SUFFOLK
This was John’s idea, but potentially a good one; so, I was only too keen to join him and Mike. This time of year, the bird migration should have been up and running, but in fact it had stalled a touch in recent days, as we were to discover as the day progressed. However, we arrived in bright, warm sunshine (in contrast to the dull, cloudy conditions we started out in), and so, with a medium strength easterly wind (which blew quite cold on the beach, despite the sunshine) we began to feel more confident about the species we were likely to see.
Within a few minutes of arrival at the visitors’ centre we were listening to the songs of a Chiffchaff and a Blackcap (although neither revealed themselves physically); then out past the Sand Martin Colony (where around 20 or so Martins were seen along with at least one Swallow), and onto the coastal path with nothing to show for our enthusiasm, except a fleeting glimpse of a Cettis Warbler as it flew rapidly over the path. On the sea John scoped a party of (probable) Common Scoter – though I couldn’t make anything out in the very misty conditions. There was a hoard of excited and somewhat noisy schoolchildren here, which spoilt the ambience of our environment, so I was anxious to get on to the East Hide before the onslaught of the minions (assuming, of course, that was where they were heading for). But the East Hide was relatively quiet.
The scrape was full of birds - the noise of hectic activity quite deafening at times - comprised almost entirely of gulls, with other species set sporadically around. The vast majority were Black-headed Gulls; several Greater and Lesser Black Backs; a few Herring and Common Gulls; lots of Mediterranean Gulls (we probably saw about 40, but the RSPB said there were 141 individuals recorded recently); 5 Kittiwake, arguably our most attractive gull species; and at least 6 Sandwich Terns. Mallard; Gadwall; Wigeon; Shelduck; Shoveler and Tufted Duck represented Duck species, with up to 7 Barnacle Geese; and a sprinkling of Canada and Grey Lag Geese. Waders were few and far between, represented by a few Common Redhank; a couple of Ringed Plovers; Lapwing; Black-tailed Godwits; Curlew; half a dozen Dunlin, and a lone Ruff.
Back along the coastal path, several people were looking for a reported Dartford Warbler (which was new for me for Minsmere, and which are normally seen at Dunwich Heath where a small population breed) and were having no luck at all. But our luck was in for said male suddenly flew out into another gorse bush eventually providing us with reasonable views. But we looked in vain for a Wheatear or two along the sand and shingle. Surprisingly just a few pairs of Stonechat and Linnet were the only obvious birds - for usually, one could almost guarantee a migrant Firecrest; Bluethroat or Ring Ouzel with such favourable easterly winds. But not today it seemed.
Nothing much was discovered along the coast at the sluice, so we made our way back to John’s people carrier for lunch, via the South and West with just a handful more species, including a Little Egret - though nothing electrifying. After sustenance we took the northern route to the Island Mere Hide, where on the way John picked up a couple of Bearded Tits and both he and Mike heard the Boom of a Bittern (I missed out on both). After a while with nothing new in the hide other than a pair of Great Crested Grebes (which fascinated with their wonderful nuptial ballet performed on the mere); a pair of Little Grebes, and a few Tufted Duck - with harriers of both sexes plying the Marsh in the distance. I came out of the hide after a while in search of Bearded Tits, with no joy, except for a lovely female Sparrowhawk which flew overhead just as Mike called me back as he had found a Jack Snipe at close quarters in front of the hide; a truly superb, beautifully marked individual which ‘bobbed’ up and down comically as it straddled the grass and mud.
Just before we moved off a female Sparrowhawk flew over us, giving us excellent views. We had no luck with adders at the usual viewing site (though we did see a pair of Marsh Tits at close quarters) then we followed the path until we got to the Bittern Hide. At first there wasn’t a lot to see - except a Water Rail that Mike found before it quickly vanished into the reeds - but in the hour or so spent in the hide, we attained stunning views of a male Marsh Harrier as it quartered the marsh in front of us, coming pretty close to the hide at times, and allowing the photographers to gain some lovely shots. A Water Vole almost stole the show as it swam along a dyke below us, and nearby a male Cettis’ Warbler sang loudly and showed well briefly in the brambles below the hide. A little earlier Mike had discovered a female Red Deer ‘hidden’ amongst the reeds; but as the Water Vole was entertaining the crowd, a female Red Deer (clearly a different individual) was seen to cross a dyke and climb the bank, followed by another (possibly last years calf) to begin grazing on the pathway completely out in the open - both well aware of our presence in the hide. Red Deer are common here, but are not always easily seen, so seeing these two was a real bonus.
We had planned to visit Dunwich Heath (which overlooks Minsmere to the north) hoping to see Dartford Warblers, but as we’d already seen the species along the coastal path, we gave that a miss and made our way home via a supermarket café near Woodbridge.
Total bird species seen (or heard) was 85 between us. My own tally was 75. We plan to make another visit in late May or early June when hopefully migration will be in full swing.
As a point of interest, the only species of butterfly seen was Peacock Butterfly – they were simply everywhere.
11 FEBRUARY 2019 – W. MERSEA and ABBERTON, ESSEX
John kindly gave me the choice of venue for this half-day excursion; but I couldn’t think of one, so we opted for Abberton Reservoir, just outside Colchester, Essex, with a call in at West Mersea on the way. I was a beautiful bright, sparkling day, which augured well for a good day’s birdwatching.
When we arrived at West Mersea, the tide was out (indeed, it seemed further out than I could ever remember), but not a great deal of bird activity to be seen. With a swift scan of the Blackwater estuary with his telescope, John picked up a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe, in the company of a few Great-Crested Grebes; but that was about it for the river, except for a Grey Seal and a possible Peregrine over the far bank (which I couldn’t get onto). On the beach, not too far away, a group of gulls produced at least four Mediterranean Gulls (and adult and three juvenile/immatures) in excellent light.
So, off to Abberton Reservoir. We called in at the centre initially, to see what was around, but the lists hadn’t yet been prepared; so, we had to begin with no definite information. Within a few minutes of leaving the centre we were watching several Scaup amongst the Tufted Ducks - a winter drake; with two immature/juvenile males and at least four females - all of which were relatively close in, so were easy to watch and photograph. John soon scoped two immature male Long-tailed Ducks, which initially were a long way out on the water, but which eventually came within photographic distance. Eleven years had passed since I’d seen this species previously, so I was extremely pleased ……………………….. and promptly offered to treat John to a coffee and sausage sandwich in the centre, for finding them for me!
After elevenses, we had another look - without success - for a Ring-necked Duck, which had been notoriously difficult to observe by almost everyone who had tried, then moved off to the Layer Breton part of the reservoir. From all accounts the Smew (a drake and at least two female) had been behaving well in recent days, a and giving excellent, close views; but that was about to end, as a lone Red-head (a female Smew) gave reasonable (but not especially close) views, popping in and out of a nearby reedbed. We were certain the Drake would put in an appearance soon, but we were sadly mistaken. Meanwhile a second Redhead was located on the far side of the causeway; but nothing was seen of a drake. An adult Great Egret flew in at that point, but didn’t touch ground (or water), and was later observed on the far western edge of the reservoir.
From that point we made for home satisfied that we’d seen some good birds.
25 JANUARY 2019 – ERITH and RAINHAM
A reasonable 0800 hrs start took us down to the QE II Bridge crossing, then on to Erith, Kent to try for a Bonaparte’s Gull which had frequented the mudflats at the Pier.
Before I go on, the record the details, I feel I need to comment about a particularly horrific lorry crash on the MII Motorway, which we passed on the way down, and the incredibly long line of traffic built up on the northern lanes. It didn’t affect us on the southern side down to the QEII but was destined to do so on the return journey, although of course, we didn’t know it at the time. My feelings go out to those who were injured.
We arrived at the Pier, but we didn’t really have any idea as to where to start, because there were no other birdwatchers present to aim for. But several scans of the mudflats (the tide was out) failed to reveal the said Bonapartes. What we really needed was some bread to tempt it down, because apparently the bird had taken to being fed, even down on the Pier itself; but John had omitted to bring the loaf he’d intended for that purpose. Another pair of birdwatchers arrived, but our joint efforts failed to locate our target bird. A member of the public then arrived to feed the gulls, which initially filled us with some hope; but amid the frenzy that ensued the Bonapartes still refused to show. We gave it a good go, and even returned, after a welcome coffee, for another (admittedly very short) spell, before finally giving up the ghost.
The birds seen here included: Black-headed Gull; Herring Gull; a possible Caspian Gull; Greater Black-backed Gull; Lesser Black-backed Gull; Avocet; Black-tailed Godwit; Redshank; Curlew; Wigeon; Mallard; and Grey Heron.
So, onto Rainham Marshes back via the Dartford Tunnel. Although somewhat dull to begin with, the weather was beginning to improve, so that by the time we reached the visitor centre the skies had lightened with the promise of some watery sunshine. The café was closed due to refurbishment, so we knew another coffee was not going to materialize.
It is always a bit of a trek around the reserve, especially when there’s not a great deal going on birdwise; and so it proved to be, with highlights such as extremely good numbers of Wigeon and particularly Pintail; a couple of Little Egrets; a single Water Pipit, although, apparently up to ten had been reported (this is a species I’d not seen anywhere since 2005); good views of Marsh Harrier (including a lovely male), and a female Sparrowhawk, which swept through the flocks of wildfowl; Lapwings and Starlings, causing pandemonium briefly. Along the Thames tide-line, a large flock of 56 Avocets was observed; but no sign of a reported immature Glaucous Gull. We had hoped to see Short-eared Owls; Barn Owl; Merlin and Peregrine as the afternoon progressed, but we were unlucky in that respect. In all 53 species were recorded, which is a reasonable tally for three hours or so birding at the reserve. Although I didn't take many photographs, a pair of very tame Robins presented themselves very well, and some Pintail proved an excellent subject.
The journey home, via the M25, was a nightmare due mainly to the closure of the M11 which still hadn’t been cleared from the earlier accident. So, we were forced to go home via Waltham Cross, which meant much heavier traffic than normal, and tended to mar the day somewhat.
10 JANUARY 2019 – WELNEY
John had recently announced his intended itinerary for birding trips offered by ‘John Slee Tours’ which sounded rather ambitious in terms of the number of outings proposed, since I knew I was unlikely to be able to attend all of them, on cost terms alone. But a trip to Welney - basically for the geese – seemed like a good starter, for 10.
On the approaches to Welney we could see that the population of visiting Whooper Swans in the surrounding fields was impressive indeed; quite a number holding between 2-300 or so individual swans.
The first birds we saw when we arrived were a few Tree Sparrows, some giving extremely close views. It has always been troubling that the numbers generally of this incredibly attractive sparrow, have crashed in recent years, with only isolated flocks remaining in most places. I can vividly recall seeing regular flocks of 100 individuals in the farmlands near my home in Romford, Essex in the 1960’s-1970’s; whereas nowadays the same fields are completely empty, of these and finch numbers generally.
Looking out from the main hide (which is centrally heated for the public) there were many Whooper Swans, along with sizeable flocks of Pochard; Wigeon; Tufted Duck; Pintail; Grey Lag Geese; Black-tailed Godwits (one of which was displaying summer plumage); a few Snipe; Lapwing; lots of Mute Swans; Teal; Mallard; a few Gadwall; Shoveler; and some Shelduck. As we trawled through the flocks there were some unexpected species too. 3 Tundra Bean Geese with Grey Lags in front of the main hide; then 7 White-fronted Geese flew in; with up to 60 Pink-footed Geese, seen on a different part of the washes. A couple of Western Marsh Harriers hawked over the marshes, creating havoc amongst the wildfowl present - with impressive flocks temporarily taking to skies until the danger has passed. The same thing happened when light aircraft ventured over the scene, which they occasionally did.
After a welcome coffee, we scoured the wash on the other side of the reserve but saw nothing new accept a very distant Peregrine and a party of Roe Deer. There were no Cranes this time round; nor occasional winter species like Stonechat; Short-eared Owl; Hen Harrier or waders like Ruff; Golden Plover (except possible flock way in the distance which couldn’t be properly identified) and others.
In the four hours or so spent on the reserve, we gained a reasonable tally of 50 species, of which 10 were ‘Year ticks’ for us both. Unfortunately, because of the overall dull conditions forecast, I chose not to bring the camera, so no photographs. But it was a welcome change not having to lug the thing round; and I didn’t get to regret my decision to leave it behind. At least not this time.
3 JANUARY 2019 – ABBERTON RESERVOIR
I’d gone out on 1 January, along the River Stort to Thorley Wash reserve, with the aim of getting my local birding list off to a good start, but there was very little around; so I had to be content with 26 species, which admittedly included a Red Kite and a Treecreeper, both of which are generally hard to get so early on in the year. But John Slee came to my rescue the following day, with the suggestion of a trip to Abberton Reservoir, Essex on 3 January, which of course, I was only too keen to accept.
A relatively early start was called for - 0800 from my home. On the way we called in at West Mersea arriving just after high tide at 10.00 am; but there was little to see – except for a few Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls; with Brent Geese; Curlew; Great crested Grebes, and distant waders such as a few Oystercatchers. John was sure he saw a couple of Red-throated Divers, but the bright light was difficult to contend with, so I doubt that he could do nothing but accept them a probable ‘Diver sp’. The Thames at this point was dead calm with no wind whatsoever, and with the bright winter sunlight it was a real pleasure to be in such peaceful conditions, with just the sound of gulls and the gently lapping waves.
On to Abberton, where we called in at Abberton Church from where we could get great views of the Reservoir from the east, and where we saw large flocks of Teal; Wigeon and Pintail; a couple of Black-tailed Godwits; a Peregrine, and a couple of very distant Great White Egrets.
Before we looked in at the Visitors’ Centre, for some welcome refreshments, we viewed the reservoir from the Layer De La Haye end, where we (eventually) saw a Black-necked Grebe; flocks of hundreds of Tufted Duck, and; some 50 or so Goosander (now known as Common Merganser – but I wish the relevant authorities would stop messing about with bird names!); with another Great White Egret and a Little Egret on show nearby. After taking coffee, we returned to the Layer De La Haye viewpoint, where almost immediately we caught up with up to 4 adult Scaup (amid the many Tufted duck, so we could see why we missed them the first time) then moved off to a newish part of the reservoir at Wigborough Bay, where we added 3 Bewicks Swans (always a difficult species to get generally these days), plus Lapwings; Ruff; Dunlin; Curlew and a Common Buzzard. Further along at the Layer Breton part of the reserve, we had a lovely surprise in the form of a pair of Smew - the male, being a strikingly handsome bird, though in truth both the sexes are very attractive.
Nearby, I noticed that a pair of Mute Swans were in some pre-nuptial display which, from previous experience of watching swans, looked like it was in its final stages; so, I waited around to get some pictures. It was fascinating to watch them finally rise out of the water as if in some sort of beautiful ballet position. I just couldn’t believe I seemed to be the only person watching them, as it was a superb vision of nature at work; but I guess it was other peoples’ loss.
A few more general species were added to the day list which ended up at a reasonable 54 species.