Friday, 29 January 2016

Sideways in Norfolk

One of my bogey birds at the moment is Pallid Harrier. I've dipped on them three times so far, once by about 10 minutes after it showed as I was driving out of the car park! So, a long stayer in Norfolk was a temptation not to be missed. The only down side was that the big storm which had dumped feet of snow in the USA was heading our way with high winds predicted!
Never mind, I got to Norfolk early doors hoping the forecast might be wrong. It wasn't. The harrier had been seen at Abbey Farm near Flitcham, just north of Kings Lynn. On opening the door you could tell it as a tad breezy. Fortunately though two other birders were just coming back to the car park and confirmed the Pallid harrier was braving the elements and was hunting over the fields.
It was only a very short walk to a few hay bales which seems to be acting as an impromptu shelter for  birders. 
First up I saw there was game strip with feeders on it that was attracting a number of small birds. I thought first of all it was chaffinches but then you started to se there were a number of bramblings, then that it was mostly bramblings!!    

Not only were there brambling, but a healthy colony of tree sparrows was mixed up with them. I guess there were at least 40 possibly 50 bramblings, by far the biggest ever flock I have seen.
The main course though was the harrier or should I say harriers. The first bird to pop up over the stubble field wasn't a palled harrier but its cousin a hen harrier. These are now very rare in the UK with the population down to a very few or perhaps no breeding pairs in England. The blame is put at the door of the shooting industry and the managed game estates. Quit soon another harrier was in the air, and this was my target bird - the pallid harrier.

Yes it is in this picture! It was favouring a hedge line at the back of the field probably as it may have given it a bit of protection from the wind. Going into the wind it hardly made any progress, with it behind it, the field was crossed in seconds!
I watched it for about 30 minutes and gradually it came a bit closer letting you see it's very striking markings.

It had a very noticeable almost golden tinge to its plumage, a slight ringtail when it turned and that amazing head pattern. It often stooped down into the field causing panic amongst the small birds feeding on the grain.

With the wind if anything getting worse I bade it goodbye and trundled off on my usual route along the coast.
No more photos as everything was hunkered down but I did manage to pick up a number of new birds for my year list. Ringed plover, snipe and mergansers at Titchwell were nice if not exactly rare! Better were the white-fronted geese and english or grey partridge in the fields near Holkham. Finally a guillemot was sitting on the sea at Cley. I had hoped to find both snow buntings and shorelarks on the beaches but the sand was coming sideways and taking your skin off so no self-respecting bird was going to hang around much!!!
I gave up about 3.30 and wended my was home. First lifer of the year, up to 120 for the year so far and a nice brill acquired from our favourite fish shack for tea!! What not to like.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Que serin serin

With Winter now starting to get set in there are fewer and fewer "good" birds to go for. You can always amuse yourself with getting year ticks of common birds or you can go for some of the longer staying birds which make for much better ticks. Two of these were the party of serins which have taken up partial residence at Fen Drayton lakes in Cambridgeshire. These are birds of normally warmer climes than here and like many go into that group of previously much more common. They don't breed her but are regular visitors, never in large numbers but now a truly twitchable bird, or in this case birds, are worth getting out of bed early for.
So, another early start got me to a very frosty and cold Fen Drayton just after dawn. This is a relatively new RSPB reserve, a series of lakes and roadbeds on the edge of the fens. I'd been there before for Baikal teal and black-winged stilt. It's a bit of a strange reserve being bisected by a bus
tramway taking commuters to and from Cambridge!
Anyway, after a warming and reviving coffee I set off out the car park. The birds were only a short walk away, normally feeding on the verges of the bus tramway in the company of goldfinches and redpolls. After an hour though there was nothing moving! A couple of marsh harriers drifted over the sedge beds, a family party of bullfinches kept myself and about 10 other birders amused but if the sins not a tweet. Then finally there was a sharp trill and a small bird flipped up onto a nearby tree. It only stayed for about 30 seconds but enough for the gathered hordes to agree on female serin. Fortunately as it flew off we tracked it and all followed it down the tramway to the bus shelter (it sounds urban but it's really not!!).
We had another 20 minutes or so wait until someone called out "low down, far side" and there were both birds happily feeding away.

They didn't seem to upset so we all gradually got a bit closer as they continued to pull seeds from the plants by the verge.

Every so often they would get either bored or spooked and move on, sometimes a few feet, sometimes getting lost for 20 minutes or more.

After about an hour watching I called it a day and headed home.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Duckin' and diving

I had my annual trip to see my accountant today to get the year end tax return sorted! After only being told off slightly I decided to make a day of it and do a bit of birding.
First off was Farmoor, a pair of gravel pits the far side of Oxford. I'd been there last for a rather nice red-necked grebe and it was a distant cousin this time which was attracting me - a pair of great northern divers. Normally associated with either Scottish lochs or the coast there are normally a few of these large divers over-wintering inland making use of the well-stocked fishing lakes and pits.
The weather was chilly, unusual for this year, but at least it was not too windy when I got there. Sometimes you have to work hard for birds, sometimes not. Fortunately this was a "not" time. One was immediately obvious about 50 yards off the sailing club.

This one proved to be a bit shy though and after a few minutes of preening and fishing it swam off and around the corner!

Great northerns are one of the 3 common divers we get in the UK, along with red- and black-throated. These two are very uncommon on inland waters in southern England. They are also smaller and altogether more delicate compared to the larger, bulkier gnd's. These are in their dull winter plumage as opposed to the much smarter breeding plumage which they will get in a couple of months as Spring comes on.
On the other pit, only separated by a narrow walkway, it's friend was much more obliging though. This bird was fishing only about 20 yards off the bank!

Well, when I say fishing I watched it for, I guess, 30 minutes and despite it diving very frequently I didn't see it catch anything!! It was VERY loyal though to the same patch enabling me get quite close to it.

Sometimes it got a bit bored of not catching fish and had a bit of a preen which involved rolling over and scratching itself with its long webbed foot.

I was tempted to hang around and see if it ever caught lunch but I had other stops planned which involved a bit of motoring so I left it and struck off across country.
Next stop was Henley Road gravel pits in Reading, a new stop for me. It is on the edge of the town and not easy to find, especially after the sat nav dumped me in a housing estate!! Finally I got to the site, which is another set of pits, this time with a Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent rowing club attached. I was looking for a more natural setting though and there were three pits which looked good. My target was a smew but no clues as to which pit it was on, and no there birders around.
Sometimes, as I said though, lady luck smiles on you and the very first pit I looked at turned up trumps.
Smew are another of our winter ducks, previously more common and almost annual in Rickmansworth. Now they are harder to find but are well worth seeking out, especially the very smart males. The downside though is that they do tend to be a skulker and this one was no different. It was tucked up on the edge of the lake fishing but underneath the overhanging branches.

These two give you a slightly better idea of what it is like - a very smart white bird with black highlights. There was a female around somewhere though I couldn't find it. They look very different, plainer with a redhead.

After here I had one final stop before going home. Staines reservoir is another large body of water and is recognisable to anyone flying out of Heathrow at it's right at the end of the runway! It is massive though, with two separate basins each holding hundreds of water birds, but nearly always miles away. Today was no different. With two other birders who arrived just after me we did manage to find not only my two targets - scaup and black-necked grebe - but also another 2 great northern divers! The scaup is a diving duck superficially similar to a tufted duck but a bit larger and males have a grey rather than black back. This one took some finding as there were at a guess 500 tufties, probably more, needing sifting through. It didn't help that it was asleep as well. The grebe was slightly easier to find as there was only a couple of little grebes hanging about to confuse. Otherwise there were a a few goldeneye about as well as the usual common ducks.
So, a good day, both useful and productive, 4 more for the year list which is now up to 103. Will try to get to 120 by end of the month but that may be tricky!

Saturday, 9 January 2016

One amongst many

Just into the new year we took a day off and went to Norfolk for a day. Got the year off to a reasonable start with most of the usual suspects including 3 different barn owls but dipped on most of the rarer targets (shore lark, hen and pallid harrier amongst others). It was still quite strange for January with lots of geese around but all in small flocks with there being lots of food around.
Ironically that morning the rarest of all dropped into one of my local patches. A Bonapartes gull was seen very briefly, for only about 15 minutes, at Wilstone reservoir. Over the next couple of days despite much searching it didn't reappear. Finally yesterday it did drop back into the same reservoir and was commuting back and forth to local fields to feed. So, after a morning breaking stones at Maple Lodge I pottered off to try and track it down.
It was still being reported both from the reservoir and a sheep field nearby. I picked the reservoir and about 10 other birders were already on site. Unfortunately the bird wasn't!! It had been about 20 minutes previously but had flown off. General wisdom was to wait for it to return rather than chase it up and down fields which LGRE had done earlier causing it to spook off!
A Bonapartes gull is a very rare bird in the UK - annual but only in very small numbers and often hard to pin down. They are small gulls, closer to a little gull than a black-headed. In breeding plumage they have a strong black mask but this is not that time of year! So, we camped out with 'scopes trained on the 100 or more black-headed gulls grilling them all. You could see the other gulls about half a mile away feeding amongst sheep and there was a constant flux in and out meaning we were always having to be alert.
This was the typical view we were scanning, the above shot with a 500mm lens and uncropped. Everything was a quite a distance so it wasn't east to say the least.
Finally one of the guys about 3 'scopes down from me said "i've got it". There then followed a frantic 5 minutes or so as he tried to describe exactly which gull it was and where! Not easy with hardly any landmarks and all the gulls being pretty similar. Finally I got onto it and it suddenly became quite obvious.

This photo although heavily cropped in shows two or three of the diagnostics you look for. The Bonapartes gull is in the middle looking right. For this bird the clearest thing is the back of its neck. Whereas black-headed gulls have a white neck, the Bonapartes has a grey neck, with almost no demarcation to the mantle. This is a much darker shade of grey as well, which doesn't show up as well here. Finally. on the ground you look for the bill which is much smaller and darker.

These shots gives you a better idea of the colour difference of the mantle and the small dark bill - still very much a record shot though unfortunately!!
There wasn't much else new on the reservoir apart from this grey wagtail just below us on the bank.

Still, a nice bird to get this early in he new year and takes the year list to 99.

Friday, 1 January 2016

One year ends, another begins

With all the relations now gone we have got some time to go out and see some birds, or not see as it turned out! On New Year's Eve we went back to Heartwood Forest to see if we could find the short-eared owls which are still in residence. Walking around St. Albans it looked quite nice weather however when we got to the car-park it was apparent the bright blue skies and a stiff wind meant it was a tad chilly! Still, we joined the 5 or so other photographers by the owl's favourite field and whilst I scanned the skyline Judith set up her art-pad and did a bit of sketching.
It soon became apparent though that although the owls had been seen earlier they weren't playing ball. The very large number of families out with their dogs and children didn't help. There were a few birds around though, including a good number of skylarks who seemed to be getting a bit territorial judging by the number of conflicts going on.

Another bird which it is always nice to see were these yellowhammers. Like many of our previously common farmland birds they are now getting increasingly hard to find.

Mixed in with them were a few confiding reed buntings although they were some way distant from the nearest water!!

New Year's Day though was a very different prospect - cloudy, dull and wet. Still we did manage to get out down to Maple Lodge and to the aquadrome to get the year-list going. Whilst there wasn't anything particularly rare around I did manage to finish the day on 60 species with some highlights being a little owl on Stockers flooded field, goldeneye and red-crested pochard on the lake, siskins in small but numerous flocks at both sites and a buzzard actually perched on the roundabout at the end of the Uxbridge Road. Hopefully a couple more trips including Norfolk before work starts again should prove fruitful!