Saturday, 28 June 2014

Rain doesn't stop play

It's Wimbledon fortnight so the weather of course is set fair - or not!! Not too bad first thing but torrential storms forecast for later.
So, down to the reserve early-ish to see what's about and do a bit of manual labour. A walk round first thing showed most of the usual suspects were still around. A lot of blackcaps singing, great crested grebes building another nest, loads of black-headed gulls on the tern rafts! The nicest spot was a whitethroat singing away behind the owl meadow, which was joined by either a female or a juvenile (hardly any white patch on the throat, overall muted plumage).
Most of the rest of the morning was shovelling mud from one area to another in a chain-gang style but at least it was good honest labour!!
By midday when we'd finished the rain had started to set in though, so Dave, Derek and myself didn't venture far, in fact we spent the rest of the afternoon at Maple Lodge.
They say that in August birders become butterfliers as one replaces another in the interest stakes. We started early and had a look around in between the showers. There were good numbers of butterflies and moths about, mainly in the meadow. No sign of the marbled whites but we did see
Small skipper
Broad-bodied chaser 
Common blue damselfly
 We also saw small tortoiseshell, meadow brown and small white.
The flowers were looking good as well, with some lovely drifts in including these bugloss and mallows.
On the bird front it was not about rarities but watching the more common birds going about their business. This stock dove was prowling about by clubhouse and being picked on by its larger cousins the woodpigeons.
Over on the reedbed there was a family of reed warblers feeding near double-decker hide. We saw at least 5 and probably 6. As ever they were most often heard. Reed buntings were singing away and we saw obvious evidence of breeding success in the form of a young bird. Sightings were fleeting but they did seem to be enjoying themselves flying around in the reeds.
 Over by long hedge hide the great crested grebes are doing well. As well as one almost full-sized if still stripy young, they are also now building another nest, so hopefully we should have two families to watch this year. The young bird was constantly pestering its parents for food, but they seem much more interested in collecting twigs for the new nest.

Finally we went and had a look at Lynsters lake. The weather now had turned awful and it was chucking it down with rain. A kingfisher did show on a tree opposite, fishing from the branch which was out of the rain!
There were a number of common terns fishing on the lake, with some degree of success judging by the number of times they came up with small fry. I've added these photos more to give an idea of the weather - note the rain splashing on the lake.

  Bearing in mind the forecast we still managed to see quite a bit and the reserve is certainly still in a purple patch.
As an addendum, when i got home, the weather had forced our resident house martins down low and we enjoyed watching them skimming over the lawn. We also found this sheltering in our lounge from the rain - a small magpie moth.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Every year, or at least most years, I try to get a fix of puffin watching with my friends Mark and Giles. Normally we go to Skomer in Wales but recently they've made this hard. Boats are easily cancelled because of bad weather and now you can buy tickets in advance, but only in person at 6am from the harbour. This means it's a lottery whether you get on a boat so we've abandoned that for the time being.
Enough of the moaning. As the weather looked nice we decided sort of last minute to go north, to Bempton cliffs RSPB in Yorkshire. Giles sadly couldn't join, so it was just the two of us. This is just north of Flamborough Head and holds the largest mainland gannet colony in England. I've been a few times before, but not since 1985 when I was coming back from my honeymoon!!!
As it's almost 4 hours it meant an overnight in Bridlington. We got there about 8.30pm due to a complicated series of occurences  centring around rivets falling off a plane Mark was on, thus delaying his flight by almost 3 hours. A word of caution. Bridlington closes early. In a very Fawlty Towers moment we checked in and asked "can we get food" at the hotel. "oh no" said the slightly orange lady on check in, "i think the chef has finished for the night". A short walk into town though and we found a  totally empty steak house that served beer!! On the way back we stopped for pint at the only pub open in Bridlington, and walked in on grab-a-granny night. A bloke on a guitar was playing 2-4-6-8 motorway and the residents of next doors retirement home were shaking their replacement hips to the beat. Very bizarre….
Anyway, the next morning we set off not too early and got to Bempton about 8.30. Beautiful day, blue sky, hardly a breath of breeze and we were virtually the only car there.
The car park had a bird feeder with sparrows on it. Amazingly not just house sparrows but tree sparrows, their much rarer cousins. There were loads all over the reserve. I have no idea on numbers but it must be well over 50 and probably much more. Really nice to see as there is only one colony in Hertfordshire now I think.

We walked the few hundred yards to the cliffs. You could immediately see the size of the colony. Gannets were everywhere, passing by at eye level, on the sea, on the cliffs. None were feeding so the shoals of fish must be further off.

\Of course, the thing with colonies like this is not just the sight but the sound and the smell as well. You got both before you could see over the cliff, but it was only when you looked down you got the full scale.
As per any seabird colony the cliffs were packed with nesting birds - fulmar, kittiwake, razorbill and guillemot as well as the gannets. Many had chicks or visible eggs.

What weren't in view though were puffins. You could see a few flying around but any actually on the cliffs were difficult to see. I think over about 3 hours we were there we only saw 4 or 5 and then all at some distance. I know the north sea colonies have been hit hard recently with warming waters moving their favourite food sand eels much further north. The fields behind the cliffs had more sparrows as well as skylarks, linnets and meadow pipits and swallows and swifts were hawking for food.
The main attraction though was the gannets. We both spent quite a time trying to capture them on film (what is the digital equivalent, capture on card doesn't sound right??). With very little wind they weren't messing about stalling near the cliff edges or hovering so it was a case of trying to grab shots of them passing overhead. Since I was last there they have put up a lot more fences so you can't get close to the edge so it was grabbing shots as they passed. I got a few which pass muster though.

We finished the day off with a nice fish and chip lunch at Flamborough head, where you could see the ling lines of gannets and auks heading off south presumably to the fishing grounds. Overall a really pleasant day out, not great for puffins but really good to see the rest of the colony thriving.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

An eagle-erly awaited twitch

Sorry about the appalling pun. For the last two weeks or so, a short-toed eagle has been on holiday in the south of England. Initially seen at Morden Bog in Dorset it then went on walkabout around Hampshire and the allied counties before finally settling down to a favoured area in Sussex. Although the late sunsets mean a long night watching crepuscular birds, it does afford the opportunity for after-work twitches. So, at 5.30 I found myself sitting in traffic on the A40/ M25 and fretting about the slowness of the pace of the journey.
The bird had been seen from two locations - Gills Lap where it has been hunting, and "Long car park" near Wych Cross, where it was roosting. Both are in Ashdown Forest. It was reported about mid afternoon at Long car park but nothing since.
It took till about 7 to get on site. The car park was reasonably full and I arrived at the same time as another who had driven down from Norfolk. Walking onto the heath it was strangely quiet with no birders in sight and about 5 tracks leading in different directions. Then an alert came through that the bird was still present "in a lone pine south of the car park". Well, a lone pine is difficult to spot in a forest. Luckily some local birders turned up and pointed us in the right direction. About 500 yards down was a group of around 50 birders, all with 'scopes pointing at a wood. They put us onto a taller pine, where the eagle was apparently sitting in.
Now I've had some poor views of birds before but this was ridiculous. It was in deep cover, behind branches and around half a mile away. The call was "look for a white patch" and that was all you could see. You could see movement, and feathers and tell it was a bird but not more than that.It has been here for about two hours but no way could you claim you identify it.
So, the long wait started. It hadn't roosted there before so we were hopeful of it moving on, and after, I guess, 45 minutes suddenly there was a "it's flying" call. This beautiful, very white raptor took to the air over the tree line. It was in view for around a minute before drifting out of sight, but without gaining any real height.

   Although the photos are taken at extreme range you can see the colours and the "short-toes".
The happy throngs hung about for a couple of minutes and gradually wended our way back. No sign of the bird in the air.
Cresting a small rise though I saw a small crowd with the 'scopes all pointing in the same direction. An increase in pace and I saw what they were looking it. It had only moved about half a mile and settled again, this time at the top of a tree, in perfect view. It was still a long way off, but with the setting sun behind me it gave stunning 'scope views. The crippler was when it looked straight at you, it's piercing golden eyes almost glowing in the evening light.
This photo shows you what it actually looked like, this through a 100mm lens.

These are as good as it gets at 400mm. Nowhere near does this give the bird justice. People just couldn't leave. One couple I had been talking to I met at three points along the path out, both of us stopping for "one more look". Finally, with the sun setting and the light fading I left to the joys of the M25. A superb bird and I'd like to go back to see it hunting where apparently it's being mobbed by a honey buzzard!!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Making a spectacle.....

We're coming to the end of the Spring migration, when the number of "good" birds starts to drop off. One long-stayer though was the spectacled warbler in Norfolk. This male bird has been present at Burnham Overy Staithe for almost 2 weeks now. It is a very rare bird, this being only the 8th accepted record and is easily the longest stayer.
Another very early start (4.15 out the door) got me to Norfolk by just after 6.30. There was already a couple of cars parked up in the lay by. The weather was set fair and I just hoped the bird hadn't done an offsie overnight!
The walk was about 20 minutes to the dunes and I was met by 2 other lads lads coming in the other direction. They'd been down since 5.30 and the bird was showing well. As soon as I got off the board walk I spotted another birder sitting in the dunes pointing a camera at a bush. A loud burst of scratch song, reminiscent of a whitethroat, told me I'd got the bird straight away.

Over the next 90 minutes, in the company of Rob Wilson and another birder from Yorkshire we followed the bird as it moved from bush to bush, feeding and singing happily. most of the time it was sitting up on brambles singing its heart out in a desperate attempt to find a mate. You wonder how long it can keep going till it realises there are no lady spectacled warblers around!

With there only being the three of us on site, we had some cracking views of the bird. There has been a lot of chat on the internet about people getting too close and chasing the bird for good photos. With upwards of a hundred people initially this could be an issue, but when we were there the bird would just do circuits and by letting it settle near us we got really close up views, down to 15 or 20 feet at times. When not shouting the odds from a perch it would settle into the bushes and disappear for a few minutes, but then you could find it again lurking around, often giving if not a full song then a lighter sub-song from the cover.

Of course, all this exercise made it hungry and so it did stop occasionally to have a bit of a pit stop. We did see it catch this lovely big caterpillar which it seemed to enjoy!

Sorry for the large number of photos but with a bird as stunning and rare as this and being so confiding it's a shame not to show what a cracking little gem it was. I'll leave you with another extended video of it calling away.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Night-time manoeuvres pt 2

After going to Chobham last week, with a warm day and clear skies, I went back again last night but this time in the company of Dave Simms and later on my brother-in-law Martin
Bird-wise it was very much as before. After getting there at about 7.15, the first thing we saw was this broad-bodied chaser soaking up the evening sun.

We quickly picked up Dartford warblers on the heath, , including this one with a large juicy caterpillar. Despite searching we couldn't find any tree pipits though.
Presumably because of the nicer weather, the main course got going a lot earlier. It was still quite light, around 8.30, when we both saw our first woodcock and heard the first nightjar churring in the heath. Over the next two hours, the woodcocks were regularly seen, I'd guess we had over 20 sightings. The only estimate of total birds though can be 4, as we had that number all together chasing each other at one time. I did try to photograph them, but the fact it was almost dark didn't help!!

The nightjars gradually warmed up and started calling from 9.30 onwards until we left at about 10.30. Again, it was hard to give an accurate number but we think at least 5 birds were calling. We only in that time had one very brief glimpse of a bird in flight. In future I think the lower rather than higher path may be a better place to watch from, as the calling seemed louder there.
I still want to go back again to get a better view of the nightjars though!!