Monthly Archives: October 2015

The last three weeks: a not-so-brief summary

It has been a busy few weeks. Work has been busy, life has been busy, and the birding – at weekends – has been pretty frenetic. I am behind in what I could post, so have decided to share a sort of medley of my birding experiences over the last few weeks.

The twitches
A couple of weeks ago I, along with every other birder in the country it seems, descended upon Wells and Holkham on the North Norfolk coast after a basket of eastern rarities had dropped in with the Easterly wind.

I stood in a rather strange circle of green and glass in the middle of ‘the dell’ and we all tried to get good views of a Red-flanked Bluetail as it flit back and forth down amongst the saplings:

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus)

Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus)

Red-flanked Bluetail

Also at Wells I joined a group of birders looking at bushes. This behaviour is normally rewarding. And it was, I heard a Yellow-browed Warbler call. Excellent! Except, it wasn’t a YBW, it was the very closely related, but even rarer, Hume’s Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus humei). Despite me mistaking the call, better birders than me actually use the call as a distinguishing characteristic between the two incredibly similar birds – it makes a ‘dsu-weet’ rather than a ‘tsoeest’. Obvs! I watched the tiny thing move through the bushes – never quite still or unobscured enough to photograph – along with Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests.

Goldcrests. I have noticed significantly larger numbers of Goldcrests on the patch during the Autumn migration period compared to normality, but nothing prepared me for Wells. The woodland just on the other side of the beach dunes was absolutely full of them – blown across the North Sea alongside some of the rarities as they made their journeys South.

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

I missed the Pallas’ Leaf Warbler that was also there. It wasn’t so much a dip as disorganisation on my part that led to that. As it was my first time at this birding Mecca, and there seem to be very few good site maps, I wandered a bit confused and dazed (by all the anoraks – I am allowed to insult birders as I am one – and rare birds) in odd directions.

I also missed the Blyth’s Reed Warbler, but it would have been almost criminal to have missed the ‘Izzy’ Shrike. As is the habit of shrikes, it perched incredibly obligingly on exposed branches. Occasionally taking flight to grab an insect and then back and looking stunning…

Isabelline Shrike (Lanius isabellinus)

Isabelline Shrike (Lanius isabellinus)

So, Norfolk was super, if a little weird (nothing inherently weird about Norfolk of course, just what birds and birders can do to a place when they fall upon it in such large numbers).

Essex was fun too. Yesterday I twitched a Rough-legged Buzzard at a place called Holland – the Scandinavian visitor is one of several on the East Coast at the moment. Some have seen it up close and very personal, whereas I watched the raptor from a fair distance – perched on a mound of grass on a golf course seemingly unperturbed by golfers walking and thrashing around almost right in front of it.

Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus)

Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus)

The excitement was intensified by the fact that a Short-eared Owl (also over in large numbers at the moment – I missed one on the patch today unfortunately as I was busy watching a Water Rail in the opposite direction to its flight-path) flew a few feet right over the Buzzard – I won’t show you my attempt at a photograph of this event as it is beyond atrocious.

I dipped a Great Grey-Shrike at Heybridge Basin on the way back from the Buzzard that had been showing well yesterday morning, but still enjoyed my time there (see below).

The scenery
After scanning for the Shrike for some time, I turned around from the quarry/lagoon/basin thing and just soaked in the huge Blackwater Estuary at low tide. It is super rich in both wildlife and history and I shall definitely return for a better look another day:

Blackwater Estuary

Blackwater Estuary

I have spent a lot of time on Essex coastline and Estuaries in the past few weeks, including at East Tilbury, by the ruins of the old defences of Coalhouse Fort:

Second World War radar tower near Coalhouse Fort

Second World War radar tower near Coalhouse Fort

East Tilbury

Waders and Waterbirds
It was at East Tilbury where I ticked off Grey Plover for my 2015 list:

Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

And my second Bar-tailed Godwit of the year…

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

…alongside much larger numbers of Black-tailed Godwits.

I liked East Tilbury so much that I have visited twice in the past few weeks, although slightly mis-timed the tides on my second visit so it wasn’t quite as fruitful, although I could still make out a flock of hundreds and hundreds (my reckoning was 800) of Avocet just over the reeds:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

On the subject of large flocks of waders, here is a distant shot of a flock of almost exactly 1000 Golden Plover (yes, I did actually count them) on the Blackwater Estuary – definitely a record for me:

European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

I have spent a lot of time watching waders over the past few weekends. Nothing rare, but…

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Although I did spend some time working out whether I had seen the two main Dunlin subspecies together in Norfolk:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) alpina subspecies on left (and above in box) and schinzii on right (and below)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) alpina subspecies on left (and above in box) and schinzii on right (and below)

Other waders watched have included:
Lapwing
Turnstone
Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Greenshank
Redshank
Spotted Redshank
Snipe
Ruff

As well as my first Brent Geese for the year as they fly in up the fluvial motorways in large numbers:

Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

And finally, the patch
I have driven a lot of miles and visited six different sites in three weekends, but I haven’t completely neglected the Patch.

I have picked up three new species for my patch year list.

Getting my first Ring Ouzel (embarassingly a life tick for me) was fantastic alongside Bob and Tony. I looked up at what I suspected was a silhouetted Fieldfare flying over, but as it got closer the pale crescent on the dark body became clearer and as my mind clicked on Ring Ouzel, Bob’s voice behind me confirmed it. Shortly followed by a distant shout from Tony who had heard it call over him. It perched briefly on a tree, not long enough for me to get a good photo, but long enough for me to feel a lot of gratitude.

I also finally allowed myself to tick off Lesser Redpoll as one flew over low enough and calling clearly enough for me to be sure of myself. I clearly need more visible migration call practice.

And today, I caught up with the return of an annual patch regular, a ringed Mediterranean Gull named Valentino (see here and here for more on this specific bird) after being led on a merry dance. Nick told me he had been seen on the football pitches with all the Black-headed and Common gulls, so I dutifully scanned every single bird before walking on to Alexandra lake where I saw the pristine bird almost immediately. Almost as immediately, Valentino took off. He flew around the island and despite me walking around the lake twice, I couldn’t re-find him. Later, Nick found him back on Alex so I traipsed back from the park where I had been watching a Water Rail and Kingfishers. And so finally, I photographed him:

Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

Valentino takes me up to 97 patch species for the year; tantalisingly close to my goal of seeing 100 species there in my first year birding it. But even without the new ticks, the patch still entertains:

Little Egret and Grey Heron

Little Egret and Grey Heron

Common Gull - one of many returning after the Summer away

Common Gull – one of many returning after the Summer away

Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtail

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Wanstead Patchwork: Part XIX (birding in mist and fog)

A foggy patch

The Wanstead Flats often wears a coat of early-morning mist.

Western Flats at dawn

Western Flats at dawn

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats

Two weekends ago I walked around mesmerised by the familiar landscape and how different it can appear. As the sun rose, the mist disappeared like it was a mirage, and the day blazed with early-autumn warmth.

Water Rail
At the other end of the patch, literally the eastern extremity from my home in the West, I bumped into Bob Vaughn by the river Roding. He had just been watching two Water Rail wade and swim against the flow of the river. We stayed together for a while and eventually Bob spotted one of them in the distance gingerly poking its head out of the reeds in that way that rails do. That was my 94th patch tick of the year.

It was a long way away, but I managed to get this snap of it in the distance:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

If your BS detector isn’t squealing at you now like a water rail, then it should be. The photo above is actually one I took in January of this year at Rainham when I was literally a few feet away from the bird which was out in the open – a highly unusual situation. The actual photo I took in Wanstead wasn’t quite as good:

Water Rail

I stayed ‘with’ the rail for about an hour and was peering at the place where it had been from across the river when a pig started squealing beneath my feet. Of course, it wasn’t a pig. It was the other water rail hidden deep in the reeds below me.

Misty river
The following weekend I drove out to the Thames at Rainham in Essex. The area is known as ‘stone barges’ after the concrete and steel barges moored there – it blows my mind that these things actually floated, but apparently they were actually used during the second world war to transport fuel (I am feeling slightly scared I am being gullible just writing this).

Unlike the low carpet of fog on the patch the weekend before, the Thames at Rainham was engulfed in mist.

I walked along, with my scope, watching Redshank, tens of Meadow Pipits, a probable Tree Pipit, a distant Wheatear, loads of skylark, and a Stonechat (some of them captured far better than I did by local birder, Shaun Harvey, who I met along the way). A dog-walker stopped me and commented that it wasn’t very good weather to take photos. I was a bit confused as I wasn’t taking photos, I was looking through a spotting scope, but I exchanged pleasantries and walked on.

It was only after we had parted ways that I realised how much I disagreed with the man. It is true that the cloud joined earth and sky with a blurring or negating of horizon like some bridge between the elements, but just as watercolour often displays a washed out bleakness in art, so can the camera pick up some of the mood of this weather. Perhaps pathetic fallacy in action, although my mood was pretty good and clear but I just wanted to show I haven’t forgotten my literary terms from my days in academia:

Thames at Rainham

Thames at Rainham

Thames

Thames

Later that day I also visited the nearby RSPB reserve – on the other side of the gigantic rubbish dump from Stone Barges – where I listened to numerous Cetti’s Warbler with their calls exploding out of the mist and watched a distant Heron move through the dense atmosphere; the moisture in the air removing most of the colour from the scene, but none of the beauty:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

And eventually, that evening, when the fog had gone (if you are questioning my use of ‘mist’ and ‘fog’ interchangeably, I believe I am correct in understanding these blurry weather forms are indeed blurred in definition as well), I raised my eyes to the newly blue sky. There in the far and high distance, was a dot. That dot was a soaring Marsh Harrier, that I ambitiously pointed my camera at:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)