Monday, 22 January 2018

Birding from dawn to dusk

Rather than do a long distance twitch today, I decided to go local and see what I could find. First up was a trip out to Cassiobury Park in Watford for a little owl which has taken up residence in an oak tree. I left early as the light was coming up hoping to avoid the crowds in the park!The directions were not that precise, but I got to to the car park and headed down towards a couple of likely looking oak trees near the cafe.

I was lucky. In the slightly gloomy early morning light I could see a small greyish shape sitting out in the branches.

Little owls are the most diurnal of all the owls, and even though this one wasn't hunting by the daylight it was quite happy to just sit there whilst this strange man lurked about near its tree. I spent about an hour with it, whilst the assorted dog walkers passed by. The light was awful most of the time but the owl was sitting so still I could slow the shutter speed down to 1/60 to keep the ISO low. I was pretty pleased with the outcome.

After the owl I went home for a warming coffee then headed out to Maple Lodge. It was really quiet there although the clubhouse was full up with retired gentlemen having tea and biscuits!! The only thing I spotted was this mallard having a great wash from Teal hide, ending up with its feet in the air at times.

A friendly robin also kept me company.

I was heading to the exit for a cup of tea when I checked my phone. Top of the list was horned lark at Staines Reservoir. This was another old friend, having been around in early December but then disappeared. We know its the same bird as it is not our commoner race but the rarer American race. Anyway, it was now heading towards late afternoon so I hurried up and sped round the M25 to get to the reservoir. As I was walking up though Dom Pia (aka reservoir dom) the finder was leaving. The bird had been spooked by a peregrine and disappeared. Now Staines is a giant place and you can lose a small bird very easily. For the next 20 minutes or so about 6 or us staked out the causeway but only a few linnets and meadow pipits kept us interested. Then, a birder about a 100 yards away actually rang one of us, rather than shouting, to say he had it. Cue a rather amusing dash by old-enough-to-know-better birders down to him .

The bird was in the gravel below us, but it was some distance and the light was poor. Horned larks, or shore larks as we also know them, are really cryptically camouflaged and can vanish in the pebbles.
It wa quite happy though and started feeding amongst the pebbles.

It has a gorgeous yellow bib and an almost piratical look to it. I lasted about 30 minutes with it before the light really started to fade and I headed back round the M25 for my cup of tea. Really nice surprise that though you have to wonder where it has been for those weeks it disappeared.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

A knotty problem!

Winter is still firmly holding onto its grip,  on the weather front and on the birds. The same suspects are hanging on, but there hasn't been any new rare birds popping up within 200 miles of me for what seems like months. So, another Friday off and another trip out to keep the year list going. This time I went south and west, over to north Somerset then down to Dorset. A long trip so an even earlier start than normal - 4.30 on the road. Cats were very confused at their early breakfast!!!
My first stop was Ham Wall, near Glastonbury. I've been here quite a few times before, and it is getting a cracking reputation for its wetland birds - egrets, ibises, herons, ducks all love the extensive marshes there. Leaving so early I avoided the hell that is the road past Stonehenge so I arrived in the car park just as the light was starting to come up.

The reserve is basically a long walk between two areas of reed beds and pools with strategically placed viewing platforms and hides. I got to the first platform with dawn making shepherds very worried and the birds just starting to stir.

Within 15 minutes I had got great white egrets and bitterns flying up out of the reed beds and cattle egrets moving out into the fields to feed during the day. Cettis warblers were cranking up their songs and lapwings and ducks were moving around in the sky. The weather though, as it was for the rest of the day, was changing all the time and heavy showers with a lot of sleet mixed in kept rolling through.

 I walked down to the end of the path and came back again, trying to find the glossy ibis and water pipits but neither was playing ball despite very suitable habitat for them. There were a good number of stonechats starting to stake out territories though which gave me another year tick.

 My next stop was only 10 minutes away, a small RSPB reserve called Greylake. It is somewhat similar, a wetland reserve, but it held a green-winged teal. These are really Yank birds but small numbers come over here, or even have made their home here, as reserves like this have one most winters which are presumed to be the same bird. They present a challenge to ID as they are very similar to our teal, just with a small white shoulder stripe. As there were many hundreds of teal to sort through it could take a long time.
It wasn't only teal though to keep me interested as snipe were snoozing around the margins as well other ducks such as shovelers, smart in their breeding plumage,

and a marsh harrier stirring up the flocks as it flew over.

I was lucky though, and it only took me about 20 minutes to get onto the green-winged teal.
It was pretty distant but fortunately it was quite active and showed its shoulder flash.

Heavily cropped in, you can see it does stand out from the common teal but it is only 1 amongst I suppose a 1,000, so I was pretty pleased to get onto it so easily. I didn't stay long though, as I had one more stop to make, in Dorset, for a stilt sandpiper. This is a really rare wader, which I saw at Lodmoor last year and it has been moving along the south coast since, overwintering on Brownsea Island. Now it was on Stanpit Marsh near Christchurch. I got to the car park just as Lee Evans (for those who don't know, the most famous twitcher in the UK) got there and we both hiked it the couple of hundred yards to where some guys were watching the marsh. Before we got there though it flew off!!
It is a small to medium sized wader and had been keeping company with similar-sized redshanks, often quite close to the path. Now though, there was no sign. We scanned the marsh, checked every redshank, walked to the other end but no sign. A little egret did keep us entertained as it fished the small pools.

Other birders came and went claiming to have seen it earlier. Lee eventually walked to the other side of the estuary and looked back to where we were and you could see it asleep out of sight from the main path. Take my word for it, it is to the left of the group below! Not a great view.
Probably good enough to claim it but not exactly satisfying, so I decided to stick it out and hope it came closer. The weather though was getting worse and a giant rainstorm came across forcing me to shelter. I was just about getting set to go when Lee came back from the far end of the reserve saying it was showing well but he was off as it was pretty awful weather. I tightened up my rain gear though and headed off. I got drenched without seeing the bird but the storm did pass and the sun came out. The marsh had lots of waders, mainly godwits and large numbers of winter plumaged dunlin.
I finally got onto the redshank flock though and spotted the sandpiper  mixed in with them though. It does present an ID challenge though, and one which even had Lee questioning which bird had been seen earlier as there was a very similar knot in with them.

This is the knot, in the two photos above. A greyish wader, with an eye-stripe, green-ish legs but critically a short, thick, mainly straight bill. This makes is very similar to the stilt sandpiper.
Slightly browner rather than grey, but that is subtle depending on the light. It is also an altogether more delicate bird in structure, smaller but without comparison this is hard to tell. It's legs are  yellow-ish if you can see them. Look at the bill though - longer, thinner and down curved towards the tip.

Finally, there was a lone curlew probing the grass right next to the path. Normally they are quite spooky but this one seemed accepting of people and with the late afternoon sun showed some lovely detail on its feathers as it dug its enormous beak into the marsh seeking its supper.

With another storm looming I packed it in and headed back. A really good if tiring day. Two good quality birds and with the supporting cast I'm up to 125 for the year. Hopefully lots more to come though.