Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Two for one

This is an account of two different birding trips. I'm just too lazy to write two separate posts!!!
Anyway, both took place over last weekend. The first was my usual combination of birding and family duties. I had to go down to Weymouth to help the mother-in-law with some administration and so with Judith away in Vietnam I took an extra day and swung down to the coast.
My first stop was a long way down, going all the way to Broadsands on the south Devon coast. I first went last year to the same spot. As well as a nice holiday area in the Summer it is the most reliable spot in Britain for cirl buntings. These are one of those classic farmland birds in decline. They were never common but now only really hang out in the south-west. At Broadsands one kind individual has set up a feeding site at the back of the public car-park and you are almost guaranteed to get them there.

The day was cold and blowing a hoolie when I got there, but that didn't put off the birds. I would guess about 12-15 were present, with up to 10 on the ground at any one time. The males are particularly striking with their bold eye-stripe. Whilst watching them a pair of ravens passed overhead making their presence known by their characteristic cronking call. It wasn't the day for hanging around though so I quickly moved on.
Next stop was at Dawlish Warren. My main target was a Bonaparte's gull which had been, and as of today still is, hanging around. The weather though wasn't kind. The wind was fierce and any gulls around were not staying put. I did connect with my first common scoter of the year in the bay and a lone female stonechat in the car park.
Finally I carried on along the coast to Portland. Again, the weather wasn't good for birding but off the bill there were large numbers of gannets fishing. I still don't know how much is aiming and how much is luck when they dive into the race off the bill. Guillemots and razorbills were also moving just offshore. I failed to spot the purple sandpipers but there were a few hardy rock pipits moving ab out in the rocks. I did try Portland harbour as well but it was only by Sandsfoot Castle that you could get out of the wind. As usual there were dozens of mergansers but I did pick up a pair of  Slavonian grebes.
My last stop of the day was Lodmoor which was pretty quiet. A solitary marsh harrier was hunting and a few snipe were poking in the mud but not a lot else.
   
On Sunday, I took off in the opposite direction. Together with Dave Simms and my brother-in-law Martin, we went east to Lakenheath. Nothing rare around but another good chance to get the year list ticking over.
We got there about 9 and the day was gorgeous. Cold but clear and little wind. I decided to let the other guys carry 'scopes and I toted my 500mm lens hoping for some luck with the clear light.
If you don't know Lakenheath it's basically a giant man-made reedbed on what used to be carrot fields in the middle of East Anglia. The reeds, and it must be hundreds of thousands, were all planted by hand. So, the middle of the reserve is wet with woodland and fields around it. It used to be reliable for nesting golden orioles but they have not been there for two or three years now.
We got lucky though right outside the visitor centre. They have feeders set up and we straight away got onto 3 bramblings in the trees behind.

 You can make out all 3 in the photo above. They were mixed up with dozens of reed buntings as well as lots of goldfinches and chaffinches.
They are very superficially similar to chaffinches especially some illustrations in books, but like many birds if you only think you've seen one you haven't. They stand out as being very different even in flight with their bold red breasts, white underneaths and bold side markings. They also have a lovely head marking, which Judith describes as felty.
You can just about make out what I mean in this photo, which isn't great as they weren't coming in close, but you can see how different they are to chaffinches.
Before moving onto the main course I'll just go over the species we saw (and didn't). We missed the cranes which nest here by about 5 minutes as thy flew into an area of long grass and stayed put. We saw no bitterns and despite working hard couldn't find the 3 bean geese in amongst the greylags. We did see a couple of great white egrets, quite a few skydancing marsh harriers and heard water rails.
The stars of the morning though were a pair of male bearded tits. In my youth these were as rare as hens teeth and I really struggled to see one. Now, although not what you'd call common, most large reed bed areas, especially in East Anglia, have healthy populations of them. Often you hear them first, with their distinctive "pinging" call and then see them dart across the reeds to disappear from view. This pair though were feeding quite happily on the reeds about 20 feet from the main path. Two other photographers were already on them and I was so happy I had my 500mm lens. It was fill your boots time. Although mobile and often partly hidden behind reeds the light was gorgeous and the birds were stunning. Apologies if there are a few snaps here but you don't often get them performing so well.













 
I've posted a few of these on the Maple Lodge Forum Facebook page and someone commented they looked very like a Japanese painting. So, in a first for me online, I was inspired to write a haiku in their honour!!

Cold, frost-covered reeds,
beardies perch and fly. Hungry
in the dawns warm light

Well I like it anyway!!!

After Lakenheath we moved 30 minutes away to Welney. By now it almost felt spring-like and the reserve was very quiet. Normally it is packed with winter swans - 3,000 Bewicks and 4,000 whoopers - but there were only a few around. Most of the rest were out in the fields eating. We picked most of the common ducks including pintail as well as dunlin, curlew and ruff but not much else.

Still, a cracking weekend. Decent birds, reasonable weather and good company. Year list looking respectable now on 132 with loads of common birds still not seen.