Sunday, 11 January 2015

A distant white nun

Go back even 5 years and people used to regularly cone to Rickmansworth to visit Stockers Lake to see the over-wintering smew. These are small diving dicks, the female's called redheads for their distinctive cap and the very smart males referred to a white nuns. Recently though they have been absent or at best fleeting visitors. So, when I was sitting the car outside M&S waiting for Judith and I saw that a pair were on Stockers Lake I took the chance. It's only a 5 minute drive to the car park which was packed, not with twitchers but happy families still enjoying the Xmas scooters!!
I quite quickly found another birder who pointed me in the right direction. The bird though, a very smart male, was tucked up asleep under some vegetation on the far bank.

These 3 photos are increasing crops and even with my 500mm lens the bird was never bigger than the focus point!! A real shame as they are very smart birds and great if you can get them close. Never mind though at least it's here and perhaps it (I never saw the second reported bird) will stay. May even encourage some goosanders to drop in as well, which as absent for the second year in a row as well.
Not much else on the lake apart from the usual ducks.

They do look smart though in their breeding plumage.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Rivers of sand

Although the weather was promising almost gale force winds and a "band of heavy rain" crossing the country, we decided to use Saturday to visit Norfolk for the first time this year. This was going to be a combination of two different trips: birding to get the winter geese and a nice lunch in Burnham Market.
As we are only just past the shortest day there was no point setting off at silly o'clock so we got to Norfolk about 8.30. After a brief stop to not see the Golden pheasants at Wolferton (I really do wonder if I will ever actually see one of these mythical beasts again) we headed for Holme. The idea was to walk across the golf course to the dunes where two flocks of about 30 each of snow buntings and twite were reported. As we arrived though, so did the weather front. The rain was coming sideways and the wind was blowing a right hoolie. Never mind, we are British, so we put on our foul-weather car in the car (try putting on over-trousers in the drivers seat, not easy!!) and set out anyway. With much grumbling about the stinging nature of the rain we did reach the beach and almost immediately spotted a nice little mixed flock of twite and buntings feeding on the path. We didn't stop though and retreated back to the car. The weather front was moving fast though and whilst we were spotting the tree-sparrows in the hedge by the toilet block the rain was drying up. By the time we got to Titchwell it had stopped altogether.
The wind though was punishing. We walked down to the beach but watching anything was almost impossible as the scope was rocking and even binoculars were hard to keep still. The beach was spectacular though with a river of sand moving along it in the wind and a single sanderling plying its trade in the surf. I should say, pretty much all the photos on this post are from Judith who had control of the camera whilst I was trying to identify birds!!

  We stopped in the nice new hides on the way back to the car park, which got us out of the wind. Most of the common waders were present, including both godwits, ruff, grey plover, knot, turnstone and redshank. Brent geese, shelduck and pintail were also firsts for the year. There was also a nice water pipit pottering about on the islands. Elsewhere on the reserve we also saw bullfinches but no sign of bitterns or marsh harriers. Most birds were keeping low out of the wind.

We then drove down the coast to Burnham for lunch. Everywhere you could see small numbers of geese flying around but no large flocks, so they had to be feeding in the fields somewhere. We stopped at the Hoste Arms which was ok. The shops there are very good though, especially the fishmongers. Wish I had one of those near me.
After lunch we headed back to the coast road. We stopped first off on the north side of Holkham. The fields all along here are magnets for the large flocks of geese and there were thousands of pink-footed geese. This one pull-off though is always good for white-fronted geese. It took me about 5 minutes but finally I found a bird with a distinctive white-band above its beak and striped sides. Another year-tick! As we drove along towards Lady Anne's drive the flock got larger and larger. We eventually pulled down the road leading to Holkham pines and the field on the left was full of pink feet.

   Like all flocks, there was a constant noise and bustle but they seemed pretty settled even with cars going past. I would estimate this field alone was over a thousand birds and the couple of miles stretch along the coast here must have held upwards of 10,000 birds. Almost all were pink-footed geese. I'm sure if you worked hard a few bean geese were in there but needles and hay-stacks comes immediately to mind.
After this we set out for home. A good day all round. With a few other bits and pieces I got 27 new birds for the year taking me to 100 and a nice potter around. Even the weather brightened up after a dismal start. I'm sure it wont be long before I'm back!!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

At last.....

Another year, another year list. After an all-time high in 2015 it will be hard to keep up the pace, but lets set a target of 275 and see how we get on.
So, 1st of Jan means everything counts. Magpie was actually my first bird, closely followed by wood pigeon and carrion crow. Nothing that rare in the garden, although the coal tit which is now a regular on our front feeder is a good. By the afternoon I had completed all the relevant tasks around the house which needed doing so I dived out to Staines reservoir. Despite it's location under the Heathrow flight path it does hold some good birds. Over the Winter this normally means ducks, divers and grebes. When I go there another two birders were already on the causeway. They quickly got me onto black-necked grebes, which are pretty much resident all year. Right at the far-end was a nice male scaup, a winter duck quite reminiscent of a tufted duck but with a lighter back. Out in the middle was a lone great northern diver, also a winter  near resident on the reservoir. Most of the commoner ducks were there including goldeneye and wigeon as well as lots of gulls.  I then nipped round the aquadrome on the way home and ended up with 51 species for the first day with 3 nice birds.
Day 2 was mainly taken up with us returning Rita, my mother-in-law, to Weymouth. A few birds were got on the journey, like buzzard. We left the house about 1 though which left us enough time to head to Portland Harbour. As the weather has been relatively calm there were no big numbers of divers. There are always lots of over-wintering red-breasted mergansers both at Ferrybridge and Osprey Quay. The two birds I was after though were both on station. For the second winter a black guillemot has been hanging about near Portland Castle. Who knows but it is probably the same bird as it is in virtually the same place as last year. The other was a black redstart on the old derelict building. I was particularly pleased with the redstart as I missed it totally last year. A few other bits and bobs like med gull kept the list ticking over.
So, onto the main course. Over the last few weeks a Blyth's pipit has been in residence in a scruffy little bit of waste ground near Wakefield. It initially started a very large twitch as this is a pretty rare bird and a truly twitchable one is even rarer. With Xmas and bad weather intervening I didn't manage to get up in 2014. So, with Judith going to the sales and it still there on the 2nd I set off at 5.45 to drive up to junction 39 of the M1. The weather was truly foul until about Yorkshire when it at least dried up a bit. I parked up in a country park 5 minutes from it's favourite field and set off with another 6 birders.

This is the field. It's basically a small industrial estate with 20 birders scanning around. It took about 20 minutes for someone to get onto a largish pipit in the long grass. With all the 'scopes on it eventually it was nailed down as a Blyth's. Larger than a common meadow pipit, it is most commonly mistaken for a Richard's pipit, but has softer streaking. The call is also diagnostic.
I watched it for about 45 minutes, or rather I looked at the grass and occasionally it showed in the open. Often you just saw grass moving.
 This photo is still cropped in. It is a small brown bird in a large brown field!
The photos show the main characteristics of the bird. It is relatively long-legged, with a stout but not overly long bill. The upper parts are subtly streaked with clean underparts. The eye-stripe is not prominent. Of course, you can't get an idea of size, which is noticeably larger than mipit, or it's call, which it didn't give whilst I was there.

On the way back south I diverted via Northampton to Billing Aquadrome for the same ring-billed duck I saw in 2014, with awful views in pouring rain. Finally I stopped at Pitsford for a great white egret lurking in the gloom. These are becoming increasingly common now and can be told from the now common little egret by their size and large yellow bill. The only other confusion is with cattle egrets, which also have a yellow bill, but are little egret sized.

 With the weather carrying on being wet I did take a few photos of some confiding teal but without sun the colours don't shine.

So, 2015 off to a good start. 72 species in 3 days including one lifer. Without any waders of Norfolk geese that's not bad. Only another 202 to go then!!