We're almost into Spring, the first reports of sand martins moving through Africa are popping up, the dawn chorus is starting to play full throttle and daffodils are poking up. Doesn't mean that Winter birding has finished though. With a record start to January, the momentum needs to be kept up and if there's something good around it needs going for. So, this morning we both set out very early for a day in Fen country.
The first target was the most popular bird this week, a stunning male bluethroat in Willow Fen which is about 20 miles north of my old stomping ground of Peterborough. This is a rare bird in the UK, a vagrant normally found in Eurasia, the Russian steppes, Turkey and southern Europe. It used to be a member of the thrush family, but now like a lot of birds it has been reclassified on DNA sequencing, and is now an old world flycatcher. It occurs pretty much every year but often as a juvenile or female and often being difficult to twitch. This though was a stunning male, with full breeding plumage, and was being very accommodating partly due to copious quantities of mealworms proffered up by photographers!
On a relatively dull day we got close to the site by about 8, but had a slight detour due to a bridge being closed for repair. In fen country, this means a long trek along the "drain" till you get to the next bridge. It did mean though that we came across lovely garden full of snowdrops, another cheery sign of Spring.
Despite the delay we got to the carpark just as it was filling up and got one of the last spaces. I've never been to Willow Tree fen before so wasn't sure on the lie of the land. From the carpark though you could one main track leading up to a group of around 20 people all clustered together! So, one coffee later we set of on a relatively short and easy walk.
The reserve was typical fen country - flat, wet, lots of reeds and pools. Ducks, swans and lapwing swirled overhead.
On the one main path was the group of birders. A quick chat ascertained the bird had been seen but wasn't showing. We only had to wait about 5 minutes before it popped up.
It appeared out of the reeds and started feeding voraciously on the mealworms and insects on the grass.
It was a really smart bird. From behind it showed a very bold eye-stripe and a slightly red-rump.
From the front though, wow! The only other bird I have seen before was a dull female, this is another beast altogether and you can see why it has attracted a stream of admirers.
There are two races of bluethroats, red-spotted and white-throated, denoting the patch above that blue collar. This is clearly a red-spotted variant, marking it out as coming from Northern Eurasia.
It is very long-legged as well, standing very proud in the grass and even more so on the path. This was about 10 feet away from the closest camera!
We stayed for perhaps 20 minutes till it flipped off into the reeds to digest its breakfast, causing a small exodus of the early arrivers, only to be replaced by more admirers arriving!
Next stop was Baytree garden centre to buy a few very good value plants and then onto another fen near Thorney Toll. This time we were after a rough-legged buzzard, a close relative of our common buzzard, but a bit larger and with a prominent white-rump in flight. After perhaps 10 minutes scanning the fields, and a quizzing from a local toff farmer about our purpose on his land, a large raptor hove into view. As it banked a bright white flash came off its rump marking it out as the rough-leg. We saw it again a few minutes later but only as it disappeared off into the distance.
We then moved off for our next stop, Deeping Lakes, for the overwintering long-eared owls. We had been on the look-out for its relative, the barn owl, all morning with no success. As I was driving along though Judith suddenly stopped me with a "what's that in the field?". All I could see was a sheepdog in the distance. Judith lowered my sights though to a caramel coloured rock in the field. How she spotted it from a moving car, on the wrong side of the road for her I don't know!
This quickly resolved itself as a barn owl having a rest.
We carried on to Deeping Lakes for the long-eared owls. They, or at least it, was there, asleep in a bush on an island. If it hadn't been for another couple of birders who had it in their 'scopes we would never have found it. Cryptic camouflage does not describe it!
After that we had a very pleasant drive through the fens, lots of long drains, kestrels, starlings and wood pigeons.
I did try for a glossy ibis in Ely on the way back but it wasn't playing ball. Still, a really pleasant day out, with 4 new year ticks. That takes me to 158, only 1 shy of my best ever February total and 5 ahead of Martin. That bluethroat though - worth the trip alone.