Thursday, 22 May 2014

That's just great

We're coming towards the end of the main period of spring migration when rarities can crop up anywhere. The problem is, they don't always do it within striking range or when you can get them. Today though, a great reed warbler did hit the brief. This is the big cousin of our common reed warbler, a giant of a bird with a distinctive, loud song. This one was first of all heard early morning then confirmed around 10.30. The location was one I'd not heard of before - Green Park near Reading - which was only up the M4.
So, I took a half day and left at lunch time. With a stop at home to get my gear and change clothes I got to Reading about 1.45. The weather was awful - rainy with thunder around. The location was actually not a park in the usual sense but one of those new office complexes, lots of large offices surrounding a series of lakes with reed bed margins. A birder was leaving and pointed me in the right direction, which was a small reed bed surrounded by about 10 other people.
Almost immediately I heard a loud burst of scratchy song, and two or three birds chasing each other through the reeds. One was clearly a "normal" reed warbler, the other looked huge in comparison. It was a dark almost chocolate colour from what you could see. Clearly this was the great reed warbler. We watched it for about an hour, with the rain being either drizzly or heavy.
I had to leave for a work phone call for about an hour and when this was over the weather had changed for the better. The crowd had grown a bit but the bird was very elusive. Over about two hours it was heard calling in the reeds but our views were normally fleeting and often you struggled to make out the shape in the reeds as either common or great reed. I did manage to grab a few record shots.

  These two show the size comparison against reed warbler, which is the top bird of the pair.  You can also make out the dark colour and the prominent eye stripe.

These photos, which wont win any prizes, show most of the relevant id features. The is a prominent eye-stripe, the beak is very stout, the colouration is richer and doesn't show as much white on the body. What I didn't capture was the call though, which is totally distinct and incredibly loud.
I finally left about 6, with a small crowd of after-workers starting to gather. A great bird, a lifer for me and it was good to spend so long studying it.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Three's a crowd

Usual Saturday morning down the Lodge. Beautiful weather and the place was looking in good form. It even seems to be drying up a bit now, although there is still more standing water in the "everglades" than might be expected.
First stop was to go round to Long Hedge to check on the grebes. On the way there was lots of song - blackcaps and chiffchaff mainly. When I got to the hide the first sight was a bit of a surprise. There was a pair of red-crested pochards swimming across the lake. They are common, or at least regular, on Stocker's Lake, but we only get occasional reports. This pair were pretty flighty though and flew within 30 seconds or so. No sign over the rest of the day, so must have relocated to another lake. My guess was that they were only here because of the disturbance from the canal festival on the main lake anyway.
The great crested grebe looked settled on her/ his nest and the little grebe nest was empty. I could see one over by Shell Hide so I relocated. One adult was in front of the hide but as soon as i opened the flap it moved, slowly, round to the sheltered bay to the left. I did manage to grab a few shots. I could see one head sticking up from her (?) back and one other youngster trailing.

What I hadn't realised though was that if you look closely at the middle photo there is actually two birds on her back. you can just see another eye poking out. So, its a brood of 3.
After that I pottered round to Rotunda where Colin was already on rail-watch. No sign but the garden warbler was showing and singing well, a reed bunting visited the feeder and the usual reed warblers were scratching away if not showing themselves.

The Cettis was also shouting like mad but was pretty elusive to see. Surely it (they?) must breed this year, although it could be difficult to pin them down. Terns were around but showing no signs of nesting this year, as their rafts are full of gulls. The kingfisher was about but no sign of hobbies. Swift numbers had declined from last weekend, but they were still over the reedbed in good numbers. Finally, the treecreeper was feeding its family in double-decker. so, a pretty good morning.
Afternoon was over the Aquadrome for the canal festival, where the only "spot" I had was this one.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

If i tell you i have to shoot you

I keep looking at my life list and seeing what are the obvious targets to go for. Montagu's Harrier is near the top of the "birds seen by other people but not me" list. I had it on my list from years ago, but I've taken it off as I don't really think I could have told a Montagu's from a hen harrier then.
They do breed in Norfolk though, and have been reported this year, so I thought a quick trip up could be in order to go for them. Only problem was, I had only a vague idea of where they are. Monty's are the rarest  breeding raptor in the UK and as such even mentioning having seen one is frowned upon. Disclosing where is a total no-no. A trawl of the internet got me to Downham Market, but no closer. So, with more hope than expectation I just downloaded a map and decided to drive around and see.
With a very silly early start I stopped firstly at Wolferton to try for the Golden Pheasants that are there. I really do think they are mythical. I have tried sitting in the car, driving around, playing calls, walking around. Nothing, not a glimpse of a feather. Still, I did pick up tree pipits on the heath.
Next stop was on to Burnham Market for the Monty's. Now, for obvious reasons I am going to play the game and be coy about "where". After driving around a lot and stopping to look at what looked like obvious spots I finally identified the "usual spot" by the normal method - looking for the blokes with 'scopes. Although the area looked perfect, and on talking to the locals already there, it was where they bred last year, so far this year no sign. At least no repeat sightings. Apparently they need a combination of the correct height of crop at the correct time so can move where they might nest to find those. It was clear though that there was nothing so far this year, but at least I know where to go in future. If anyone does want directions then please get directly in touch, otherwise, no clues!!

So, I moved on to go and have a look at Titchwell. It was a lovely day by now, and the reserve was, as ever, busy with family parties. The birding was a bit mixed. Most of the birds you would expect to be there were present - both godwits, grey plover, lrp, knot, avocets, common terns, warblers. One year tick was got in the shape of common sandpiper and a pair of little terns behaved well on the freshmarsh.

Next stop was to go to Cley for the Temmincks stints which had been around for a few days. These tiny waders are the rarer cousins of the little stints we also get here, and are best told, as a family anyway, by their size. Even compare to dunlin they look small. In the field they can be difficult to tell from little stint, but they have pale legs rather than dark and white outer tail feathers rather than dark. The patterning on the back is quite distinctive of little stint as well. Temminck's sort of look like a miniature common sandpiper. When I got there, two were showing reasonably well on Pat's pool from the hide. It is amazing down there the number of bird photographers who don't recognise the birds. Two with large 500mm lenses were taking flight shots of mallards but id'd a common sandpiper as "the stint". When the stints did appear they didn't bother taking a photo. Takes all sorts I suppose. Not much else around in addition to what I had got at Titchwell.

A couple of blokes in the hide did mention that Kelling Heath was good for turtle doves, so that was my last stop.
Kelling heath was larger than I remembered and two things were against me. It was now about 3.30/ 4 and getting hot. The chance of the doves calling was low and the site was large. I walked around for 30 minutes, with lots of whitethroats rattling in the bushes. A few pigeons flying about got my interest up but nothing definite. I was doing nothing much when from behind a clump of trees I heard a strong Yorkshire accent say "overhead, going right". I looked up and saw a buffy shape with black wing bars flying past and landing in a tree about 50 yards away. It only stayed for a minute or so, long enough though to get a few record shots. Turtle doves are now incredibly rare, compared to even a few years ago. Sites where they used to breed are now deserted. Accepted wisdom is that "unless something is done" it will only be a few years before they go the way of the red-backed shrike and lose their breeding status. What the "it" is may be less clear but many are killed on migration every year, as Chris Packham has highlighted recently. 

I thanked the other birders, two of whom I had previously met at both the Monty's site and Cley, and called it a day with 4 new year ticks, taking me to 206 on BOU or  210 vs 400 club rules.

One last thing which was very pleasing was the number of hares I saw throughout the day. The crops were low enough for them to be seen, mainly just eating away. One local was saying they are so common around there that they are shot and eaten. Seems a shame as I do love seeing them.

Saturday, 10 May 2014


This weekend was the Open Weekend down at Maple Lodge, our main recruiting fair so to speak. The weather was iffy to put it at best, which meant numbers were down throughout the day. The wind and the rain kept the wildlife, and wildlife spotters, down as well.
tow highlights through the day though. The first was the numbers of swifts going through. From the start of the day there were smallish flocks both over clubhouse and long hedge, and this carried on throughout the day. I would estimate the numbers to be in the hundreds but could be more. Difficult to give accurate counts as, obviously, they move so fast, and secondly you don't know how move straight through.  We also spent large amounts of time trying, and failing, to make them into pallid or alpine swifts without any luck. I also wasted lots of time trying to capture them in flight and my "best of the worst" shows i didn't succeed.

By Rotunda hide there was a garden warbler singing and showing well from the brambles for a lot of the day, along with reed warblers and the Cetti's (when will they nest???). 

Apart from these, a lone hobby was scant reward for a day that should have given good numbers, with low cloud and rain keeping the insects down and the swifts making a tempting target.
Still, i took two parties round the reserve and i think got at least 3 new members, which is what the day is more about, and the sun did shine occasionally.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

What an afternoon

Sometimes things conspire together to give you great afternoons, and yesterday was one of them. Saturday is work party day down the lodge and the reserve was looking good. Early doors the hedges were full of warblers - blackcaps and chiffchaffs - there were terns over the lake, both the great crested and little grebes were happily on their eggs and the mistle thrush chicks looked almost too big for the nest. As a foretaste of things to come myself and Colin spotted a water rail darting into cover in the reed bed, the first time I've seen one for a few weeks.

After the work party I didn't come back home as normal as Judith was working so I stayed down the reserve and Dave and I pottered along to Rotunda to try to pin down hobbies and the reed/ sedge warblers. We could certainly hear warblers calling and the Cetti's was in full song. A blackcap and reed bunting pair were also giving good value for money nearby. Whilst studying some passing swifts we finally picked up 3 hobbies over long hedge - distant but great to see.
We then picked up the sharming call of a water rail from opposite Rotunda Hide. Dave was first to see an adult bird, coming towards us, then disappearing into the reeds. Then a second bird appeared, clearly two individuals as one looked quite skinny compared to the other. "would be nice if they had chicks" we joked! Then we spotted a small black thing in the reed bed edge. I wont repeat the language!!! Then a second blob appeared and you could see they were chicks. Almost all black, with a cute red blob on the top of their heads and a white, slightly downcurved beak. They kept coming towards us and then we spotted a third trailing behind. Eventually the whole family - both adults and all 3 chicks - were on the mud strand to the left of the hide. Over the next 90 minutes we watched them feeding, with Derek getting there in time and Chris lucking out and being on site as well.

The adult were coming out of cover quite frequently and one even made it over to the bird table area. The chicks were much more cautious and mainly kept to the margins. The adults were not just feeding the young but were showing them to how feed as well, raking over an area and leaving the young to pick up their own food. From a few if the shots it looked like it was larvae of some sort as you could see the divided body parts.

Although they could clearly see we were there, they did not seem to be too bothered by our presence even with camera shutters going off and happy laughter in the hide!!
Occasionally a fight would break out with a moorhen who also had her chick nearby. They would rush at each other, the rails screaming away and the reeds would move wildly. Once the moorhen chased a rail round the same path three times. We couldn't make out who was winning but it seemed harmless enough!!
After 90 minutes we left them still happily feeding away.

A first for me, I've never seen rail chicks, and the first confirmed breeding for a number of years on the reserve. It was a magical afternoon shared with some great wildlife and mates and really brings home how lucky we are to have Maple Lodge.
Below are a couple of videos which I hope brings a little of the scene to life. Good luck anyone who goes for them.