Saturday, 21 November 2015

Winter in the air

What a difference a few days make. I woke up this morning to a small dusting of slushy snow on the car and a very biting wind blowing. Still, mustn't let it stop me going out, so off I pottered down to Maple Lodge for the morning work party. By about 10 it had actually become quite pleasant for standing up to your knees in mud pulling up willow saplings!!!
After coming back home for tea and mince pies I grabbed my camera and went back in the hope of getting one of the resident kingfishers sitting out in the winter sunshine. The wind though was blowing a bit too much so although I saw them flying around they never perched nearby.
There was a nice flock of siskins and goldfinches in the alders by puddingstone feeding away though.

Outside Long Hedge hide was much quieter now that the gull colony has moved off. Even the ducks seemed to be hiding away!

There was a bit of activity on the water though. This little grebe was hunting for fry amongst the roots on the edge of the lake,

whist it's larger cousin was looking for larger food out in the main channel.

and this jet-powered cormorant favoured the main lake.

Finally, there were two little egrets fishing amongst the roots on the far bank. Most of the time they were just shapes in the distance but you could make out their shapes occasionally.

One did eventually get bored though and gave me quite a nice fly past showing off it's rather bizarre yellow feet!

The fading light and fact it was getting VERY cold finally drove me back home though for another very welcome cup of tea. It definitely feels wintery now!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

When the wind blows

The first real storm of Autumn has been sweeping across the country. Rain may be bad enough but the thing which really kills good birding is wind. Birds hate it and generally just hunker down and refuse to move.
Still, you can't let these things defeat you so I tried my best to get out. The first trip was a repeat of two weeks ago to go after the SEO's at Heartwood on Friday. It was persisting it down all morning but this cleared over at lunchtime so I disappeared from work and headed off. By the time I got there it was beautiful sunshine but it was blowing a hoolie. What a change from two weeks ago when it was almost summer-like. Now it was not the weather for any self-respecting owl to be flying around. There were I suppose about 20 birders on site - all photographers as the birds have been around some time (there are now 5 of them!) and showing well. Everyone else thought like me that the sun after a mornings rain would make the owls active and the photography good. How wrong we were. I saw one owl briefly over about 2 hours. Although the light was perfect you need the birds to be present. That's not to say there weren't any birds around. Every so often either a kestrel or a skylark would fly past causing an AWFUL lot of very expensive camera equipment from bored bird photographers to go into motordrive!!"

After that things got even worth on the weather front. We went down to Weymouth for the weekend and the weather was awful. Saturday was a write-off but Sunday morning was at least dry if VERY windy. Down at Portland Bill the wind was coming sideways making it almost impossible to even stand up.

There was very little on the sea - a few gannets, razorbills and guillemots but not really the day to hang around.
Next stop was Ferrybridge. The winter flock of brent geese is up to about 3,000 now and when I got there it numbered in a few hundreds. Whilst large flocks of geese are always spectacular I was particularly after a sub-species, the pale-bellied brent goose.

In the UK you get three sub-species: dark-bellied, which is the commonest, light-bellied and the rarest the black brant. It sort of does what is says on the tin for the first two, you can tell them apart by the colour of their bellies!

If you compare both the flight shots and these two you can make out some birds with much lighter bellies, almost white on the side and underneath compared with a fully dark side and underneath.
Finally I nipped into Lodmoor which again was very quiet in the wind and occasional stormy shower blowing through. Although there was nothing rare or even unusual a few old favourites gave some interest. In the 1970's or even 1980's seeing a marsh harrier drifting over the reeds would have created a twitch. Now they breed locally and are a common sight. I quite like this shot as it shown how close to the housing estate the marsh is and people can see the harriers out of their bedroom windows!!

 Another bird which was rare but is now common in Dorset is the Mediterranean gull. In Winter the flock at Ferrybridge numbers in the hundreds and again it is a breeding bird now locally.

  Superficially they look like black-headed gulls, and out of breeding plumage can be difficult to tell apart. Once you get your eye in though they are quite distinctive. The bill is much larger, bright red and has a drooping almost concorde-like profile. Behind the eye there is a long smudge of black as opposed to the second-eye spot of the black-headed gull (in the higher photo). Finally, as seen in the lower photo they are a "white-winged" gull with no black-tips to their primaries.
The rest of the marsh consisted of the usual suspects, flocks of starlings, lapwings and ducks including these smart teal.

Lastly, on the way out, this cormorant seemed to be standing guard.

Not the greatest weekend for birds but always nice to out and sometimes good to study the commoner birds and think how things have changed over the last few years!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Owls in the heart of the wood

Just north of St Albans by Sandridge there is a whole new wood being constructed. Heartwood Forest is supposedly the largest new native forest in England. I'd not been there before but over the last week or so three or more short-eared owls had taken up residence. The combination of a new site, owls and a ridiculously warm day proved irresistible so Judith and I set out just after lunch.
We got to the car park about 2.30 and it was rammed. There were no parking spaces so we ended up abandoning the car in a passing place on the entrance road. It wasn't all birders, there were family groups, cyclists and dog walkers all enjoying the warm, verging on hot, weather.
The wood itself is still work in progress. At the moment it is hundreds or more likely thousands of small saplings in rough meadow. You could make out mixed native species though so it will be great eventually.

With the autumnal sun relatively low and no wind what did show up very nicely were the lines of spiders webs spun through the grass. Hard to really capture but you did get to realise just how many there were and what a healthy spider population there must be.

The main course though was the owls. We followed one of the paths out of the car park and fairly soon saw a group of about 5 or 6 birders standing on a piece of high ground. On enquiring about the owls we were told one had been seen about 30 minutes before. So, we just waited, a not unpleasant thing to do in the beautiful weather and with skylarks singing overhead. Everyone was looking out towards the farm when I decided to have a look behind me. A large brown shape lifted above the skyline, tilted its wings and disappeared again! "owl, right behind us". We all decamped about 100 yards along the ridge and there it was hunting over the fields.  

Initially it was quite hard to get on to. Although the scrub was low, so were its hunting habits as it quartered the fields about 100 yards away. The light was in some ways poor, with us looking almost straight into the sun, but it did mean the wings became almost translucent.
Gradually it got closer and moved away from ridge allowing us better views.

 Suddenly, where there had been one there were two. A second owl popped up on the other side of our path quartering those fields. Then within a few minutes it was 3 as they were joined by a particularly light coloured bird. For about 45 minutes we were treated to a glorious spectacle as they flew over the fields occasionally stalling to dive down on the unsuspecting vole population. 

As we were taking our leave the last drama was when one of the owls got a bit too close to a crow family and a lone buzzard causing a commotion as all of them rose up in a loud mass eventually driving the poor buzzard into a tree where it was incessantly harried by the crows.

 All in all not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Hopefully the owls will decide to over winter which will make for a great day out if we get some hard frosts!!!