Category Archives: Travel

Peak District: the barren hills

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River Ashop, Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak District contains some of the most dramatic scenery in England, and is a great place for walking. It is beautiful, historic, and interesting, but also bleak, damaged, and perplexing.

The famous Gritstone rock formations were like natural staging posts and diversions on our walks up in the hills.

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Sometimes the layers – that would have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago from depositions of sand under the sea – were visible.

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And sometimes it was hard not to anthropomorphise the escarpments overlooking the plains down below the Kinder Scout plateau.

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The bleakness of the moors is famous and loved by many. I can certainly appreciate a beauty in the desolation of the moors, hills, and plateaus, but there is also something that leaves me uneasy.

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That unease stems from the knowledge I have that these areas should not look like this. This is not a natural wilderness, but – like so much of British uplands – a scraped, denuded desert shaped by the hand of man and the teeth of sheep.

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George Monbiot describes the ‘white plague’ and the ‘sheepwrecked‘ landscapes that have been stripped of so much that is ‘natural’.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that some wildlife seems to thrive in these landscapes. Everywhere we went the squeaks and songs of Meadow Pipit followed us, and Skylark seemed to punctuate the bleakness, singing and looking down upon the land we have stripped almost bare for them.

Of course, the careful management of the land is deliberate to encourage one species in particular to flourish: Red Grouse. I didn’t have my camera with me, but even with an iPhone and some binoculars, I was able to pick the odd head out of the heather.

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Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

Occasionally, a parent would be separated from a chick, and the stripey young birds would scuttle across the paths in front of us.

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Red Grouse chick

And, of course, when land is maintained (burned and stripped) for one species, others sometimes benefit as well. Curlew were sometimes seen suspended in the wind or passing over our heads in small herds (yes, that is the correct collective noun), but more often they would announce their invisible presence with their mournful cries. At one point two almost sea-bird-like shapes appeared above our heads and seemed to hover over and watch us. Before I put my my bins to my face to identify them, they gave the game away with not just a call, but a song: weirdly my first Golden Plover for the year. I later watched one drop down in the grass so I took a record shot with my phone up against my bins:

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European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Despite trying to make a case against the wildlife desolation, I was also lucky enough to see a pair of Ring Ouzel and Whinchat. Whenever there was a tree – rare but present in gorges and river valleys – there were Willow Warbler singing – far more common up there than the also-present Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

Despite wheezing my office-air-con fuelled lungs, hungover, up hills, I also turned my eye to other non-avian fauna. Not exactly spectacular from the lepid-pespective, but a year tick for me was Green Hairstreak – a butterfly I expect to see many of shortly on my local Patch, but haven’t yet.

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Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

I was also quite pleased with this rather uniquely marked Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (I have looked through tens of pics of this species and can’t find any that look quite like this):

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Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

So… not dreadful, but still a pretty small number of species given the expanse of wilderness. I tried to cast my mind back before memory to what these hills would have looked like just a few hundred years ago. Fully wooded and just full of life. Life that is now not just gone, but beyond gone, before memory so treated as an irrelevance or a non-existence by the powers that be.

My perspective became ‘resolve’ and hardened when I saw this sign.

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Let’s just read that first paragraph again:

This apparently simple landscape has been shaped by people over hundreds of years. Forest clearance, farming and grouse shooting have all had a lasting impact.

You don’t say! Perhaps those words washed over you as neutral or benign, but just imagine flying to Brazil to visit the Amazon Rainforest and when you get there, there are just burnt and empty fields or pasture land for cows and there was sign saying “forest clearance, farming and wild animal shooting have all had a lasting impact”! Yes they ‘effing well have. We have wrecked our wooded island like a larger scale version of Easter Islanders who wiped out first their trees and, then, themselves.

It appears that some authorities are aware of the problem. We walked past a field of plastic posts. My friend remarked it was probably a commercial plantation, but when I peered into the tubes I was heartened to see a mix of species: English Oak, Birch, even Rowan had been planted and protected from the ever-hungry mouths of the white plague.

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Rowan. I thought back to the ancient stooping tree over the trout-filled stream that we walked by in some inaccessible corner. I thought back further. I thought back into the depths of imagination when dots of Rowan would have appeared in the newly ice-cleared land dominated by the pines, oak, and birches.

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An old Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

The rowan with their many leaves and colourful berries bringing something different to our newly re-forested land. Our land that soon after became an island (when dogger disappeared under the waves), and then… just a few thousand years later (blink of an eye in geological terms) has been stripped and scoured and scorched to the bleak and barren hills we now know that overlook our equally barren agricultural lowlands.

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Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

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Walking through planted pine woodland

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Well established pine and fir plantation

And so, during my walks in the Peaks, I reflected on the wild, the re-wild, the desolate hills, the life wiped out that is never to come back, and occasionally also the human life forgotten and lost in these hills, like the villagers of Derwent whose homes were ‘drowned’ in the name of progress (Ladybower Reservoir) with only the odd sign left telling of their presence.

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Looking down to Ladybower

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Gateposts from a now destroyed and drowned house in Derwent

If you would like to read more about re-wilding, I can heartily, and strongly, recommend George Monbiot’s magnum opus, Feral, which I see as a manifesto for the wild we so desperately need to let back into our hearts, our lives, and our environment.

 

Norfolk Broads and the Common Crane

Sometimes it is good to be out in the wild but not birding. I actually have two weekends of that in a row. This weekend just gone saw five old school friends and me on a boat on the Norfolk Broads (what could possibly go wrong?!) and this weekend coming I will be hill walking with two other friends in the Peak District. On both occasions, I am the only birder.

I could wax lyrical about the history of flooding and marshlands and navigation and… water and wetland generally in East Anglia, but tonight I just don’t have time. As many will know, the Norfolk Broads are flooded peat-works (excavated by the monasteries back in the Middle Ages) and joined by some of the major rivers.

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Historic wind drainage pump on the River Yare

The six of us chugged along in our hired boat doing a spot of fishing, playing various musical instruments, drinking beer, bird watching, sunbathing, drinking beer, playing poker, drinking beer and various other activities that may have also involved drinking beer.

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My pals armed with guitar, harmonica, and fishing rod and comedy captain’s cap of course

But a lot of the time we just enjoyed the expansive waterways, the expansive vegetation, and the even-more-expansive skies.

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Rookburgh St Mary Broad

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Distant rain and rainbow over the marshes

I obviously had my binoculars to hand most of the time, although trying to operate them in one hand whilst standing on a boat and drinking beer simultaneously with the other hand is not all that easy, so sometimes I lay down to do it more easily (you understand?) and was occasionally snapped naturally for a photo.

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Yours truly ready to pounce into birding action

We didn’t spot anything unusual, but by the end of the trip I made sure my friends could all identify a Cetti’s Warbler by its song. I think they struggled a little more with all the Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, but were suitably impressed with the Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, and Short-eared Owl sightings. I didn’t have my camera, so no bird pics this time, just iPhone shots of landscapes and thirty-something-year-old men.

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One of the narrower waterways linking a flooded ‘broad’ with the river

One of the birds you might hope to see in this area is the Common Crane; made extinct but reintroduced to a couple of secret sites in East Anglia. However, it was only when back in London that I heard this bird was at Rainham Marshes – a huge London tick for me and many others, and a first ever site record.

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Common Crane (Grus grus)

This record shot was taken from up on the ridge of the Rainham landfill site and looking down several hundred meters on to Wennington Marsh towards the A13.

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X marks the spot

Not a bad weekend overall.

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.

Things I saw while searching for a Nightingale

Dawn on the Patch

I think I carried the scars of missing the patch Nightingale through to this long weekend. I determined that I would find good birds on the Patch and find a Nightingale somewhere. Anywhere.

And so a pretty frenetic three days of birding followed; starting, as it should, at dawn on the Patch…

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Sunrise on the Wanstead Flats

Saturday morning began very early; I was up just after 5am and out shortly afterwards. The combination of the early morning light and our low-lying mist, bathes everything in gold and it reminded me why dawn is my favourite time.

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

The golden light was not auspicious, however. It soon became a beautiful day, but the birding was poor. No interesting new migrants had stopped over, although there were a few Wheatear around (it seems to be an exceptional year for them), which we had fun photographing (see here and here for better versions of my effort below).

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

There were, of course, other birds on the Patch, but none that whet the April appetite of listing birders.

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Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Therfield, Hertfordshire

And so news of Dotterel in a field less than an hour’s drive away had me dashing for my car and promptly missing my second Sedge Warbler (which would have been a patch tick for me) in the space of week.

But I can’t complain. Sometimes we need a change of scenery and seeing Dotterel so far South is always a special occasion and it was an England tick for me, and my first ever clear views.

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Female Eurasian Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus)

Two pairs showed nicely, although the relatively drab males often required re-finding due to their camouflaged plumage.

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Male Dotterel

Watching Dotterel whilst the sounds of Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting provided a wonderful, rustic backdrop (see videos here and here), was, simply, special.

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Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

East Tilbury

On the way back, I dropped in at one of my favourite Thames-side sites, East Tilbury as I heard that both Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler had been heard that morning. I didn’t find them, but I did enjoy some other year ticks in the form of Short-eared Owl, Cuckoo, and Whimbrel.

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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

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Common Cuckoo* (Cuculus canorus)

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

But even while not ticking off new birds for the year, the birding was excellent. The SSSI scrub and grassland (on the other side of the flood defences and expansive reed-beds and mudflats) are just full of migrant warblers and some very showy pairs of Stonechat amongst other things.

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Male Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Also videoed calling here.

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Female Stonechat

I love how easily you can get lost in the wildness of the scrub, full of birdsong, be alerted to a flock of Whimbrel calling (I had one flock, or ‘fling’ of 12 birds pass by down the Thames) and then see a 25,000 ton oil tanker pass right by. Surreal!

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‘Baltic Faith’ obviously with full cargo as sitting low in the water

The Blean

I then drove to the other side of the Thames and visited a friend in Canterbury for dinner and drinks. The next morning, while out walking with my friend and his dog, and… hangover aside… partially plotting my best place to find a Nightingale, I heard a … er… Nightingale.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Blean Woods – where we were walking – is known to hold an important population of Nightingale. I had no intention of trying to see this elusive and protected bird, but it flew right up into view (videoed singing here)…

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Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

I even heard a second Nightingale singing as we walked through this truly stunning ancient woodland.

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English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the Blean

Back to the Patch

So instead of driving around Kent trying to find my favourite bird, I left after breakfast and got back to the Patch to tick off Whinchat for the year – a pair were showing as well as five Wheatear all lined up on the path.

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This morning I gave myself a lie-in, which cost me another patch-life-tick in the shape of Rook, but I was able to get into the Brooms in time to see my first Swift and House Martin for the year, as well as being alerted by Jono to my first patch Common Tern for two years with three flying very high over indeed.

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Record shot of Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Rainham Marshes and the Thames at Rainham

But again, soon, the allure of more exotic birds off patch proved too magnetic and so I whipped down to Rainham Marshes where I dipped Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, but made up for it by getting year ticks out of Bar-tailed Godwit, and Greenshank, and a full blown London life-tick in the form of Little Gull.

Luckily I was river-watching with a couple of much younger and much better birders than me who helped locate the Little Gull on the other side of the Thames, in time for me to get my scope on it and just about get enough ‘on it’ to tick it for the year. To give you sense of how far away it was, here is the digi-scoped view (although it did look a bit better before my iPhone mashed up the pixels):

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Distant Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) preening on a buoy (bill tucked into feathers)

We then had it (or a different bird??) much closer and on our side of the river. The two young guys dashed off for a photo whilst I stayed with Nick and admired it through the scope as it settled on the mud. When it looked like it was going to sleep I waddled off after the teenagers in comic pursuit. Having stopped jogging a few times due to lack of fitness and a distracting Short-eared Owl on the adjacent marshes, I arrived too late to take its picture (according to Nick who had been watching the scene from afar, the bird ascended rapture-like vertically up in the air and out of sight!!). This is one of the photos Dante took of the same bird; to get an idea of what I should have been posting.

Little Gull

The impressive Dante had already scored big earlier in the day with a Black Tern. This grates a little as I have never seen one, apart from a ‘probable’ over Canary Wharf a couple of years ago (when I was without bins) and another, today, on the other side of the Thames that I watched for a while but couldn’t get enough on to be sure (I still maintain it was smaller, darker, and sleeker than accompanying Commons, but the better birders didn’t come to my rescue – I’m unclear as to whether they didn’t see it or whether they were stood behind me shaking their heads).

It then started raining so hard that we left the hardy young birders to it and went back via the Grasshopper Warbler bush, that was annoyingly empty of Grasshopper Warblers. Its commoner cousins were showing and sounding well across the reserve, including an unusually showy, Sedge Warbler (also videoed in song here).

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

So, three days of birding, a couple of big dips on the patch, a few more off the patch, but some amazing experiences and my patch year list nudges up to 91 with four new additions, and my UK year list grows by a giddy 12 to the barely-respectable total of 137 as we enter May (Nick has seen more than that in the month of April alone, but he is properly year-listing at the moment).

Post Scriptum: a legless lizard (and no, that’s not my nickname)

I also got another lifer this weekend, in the form of a reptile in Kent.

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Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

Which, in turn prompted me to check our own reptile mats back on the Patch:

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Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

I know this account sounds a bit like a cold ‘tick fest’, but if I had got all poetic over the experiences I had (as is sometimes my want) rather than just quickly listing things I saw, you would probably still be reading this post by the time next weekend appears.

*The photo of the Cuckoo is actually from Rainham Marshes two days after my Tilbury visit, but why allow accuracy to get in the way of narrative!

Concrete at Creekmouth

My local river, the Roding, leaves the ‘Patch’ through a grate and flows a final five kilometres before discharging into the Thames at Barking Creekmouth. I finally visited this stretch a few days ago, finding a path hidden behind a cinema on an uninspiring retail park.

Government money has poured into this area and a mini nature reserve around the final muddy stretch of the river is well maintained.

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Warehouses, reeds, then mud and water. The low-tide trickle still had over seventy Teal dotted along the water like punctuation marks added at random to a stream of consciousness, and ended with the exclamation of a few paddling Shelduck. But what consciousness?

Fences and reeds provide barriers and curtains as if protecting the modesty of this dying river. But is it dying? It certainly meets its end at a Guillotine.

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The barrier at Creekmouth

Some three hundred tons of metal that can descend down forty metre towers of concrete to decapitate the river and cauterise the risk of flood.

The river oozes through mud and is seemingly contained in a sarcophagus of concrete on either side. To the East, the industry of demolition and waste, of scrap, rubbish, and recycling. Things being churned up by metal claws and blades and then re-processed somehow, I don’t know how; or disposed of somewhere – burnt or buried, but – like energy – never truly destroyed.

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Meanwhile, on the western bank, another form of waste is processed. The huge concrete dials of Beckton sewage works with hands that turn day and night, but tell a story other than time.

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Beckton sewage

Effluence in, again processed, and then water out. On one side of a path, the slow snaking river – the Roding – and on the other, a man-made waterway of processed man-made waste flowing straight and dark towards the same fate as its natural neighbour: discharge in the Thames.

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The concrete, the waste, the rubbish, the noise, but also… the wild. It is also here. While peering into the deep flow of this canal, this final sewer, an explosion of sound alerted me to the presence of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds behind me; present yet, of course, invisible.

Willows line one side of the path, while prison-style fences line the other, not keeping inmates in, but trespassers out – as if a sewage farm is an enticing prospect for break-and-entry.

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And then it ends. Both waterways, ‘natural’ and constructed, empty into the estuarine Thames. It ends, but it does not die – a river is surely the ultimate riddle or dichotomy of life: it has a beginning and an end, but it does not finish; finite yet also ‘in’-finite. So not death. But death has visited this place.

In 1878 – where the freshwater flow of the Roding meets the brackish behemoth of the Thames – two boats collided and sank. Some 650 souls lost in a matter of minutes – many drowning, not in water, but in raw sewage according to accounts of this horrendous disaster – to this day the worst ever single incident recorded in British history.

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The water continues to flow, the waste continues to churn… and a Chiffchaff continues to sing in this extraordinary place of life, death, change, and continuity. A place out of sight for most, unattractive to many, abandoned by some… perhaps abandoned by many… but not by all.

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An epic tale of birding the East; or Tick, Dip, BOC

The four most easterly counties of the United Kingdom are, in descending order: Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, and Essex. With a few days leave that I needed to use up and my wife working abroad, I decided to do some birding in all four. The following is my summarised account of: the birds I saw; the birds I didn’t see; and, any other acts of derring-do that I got up to.

Although most of the birding was conducted in those four counties, my journey took me through a total of ten counties (and not just because of incompetent navigating); some 600 miles of driving and around 30 miles of walking. Despite all being within a few days, I witnessed extraordinary changes in weather: I sat and sun-bathed in a T-shirt; I froze my hands blue despite wearing two jumpers, a coat, hat and gloves; I was buffeted by almost gale-force winds; and I was soaked to the bone by torrential rain.

Kent – Oare

Last Thursday I drove down to Kent in the early morning and spent about an hour at Oare Marshes. I didn’t tick off anything too exciting, but just breathed in the fresh air and the early morning marshland cacophony of Cetti’s Warbler, Skylark, Reed Bunting, Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher.

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View across the Swale from Oare, Kent

It was good for the soul, and prepared me for a long day of walking and beer drinking (tough life eh!?)

Kent – River Stour

[Note: the next few paragraphs take a slight detour from my birding account]

A friend and I walked from Rough Common outside Canterbury to Stodmarsh, following the River Stour wherever we could.

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The weather was simply glorious for mid-March, and I felt enveloped by Spring. I counted 19 Chiffchaff singing along the way and saw my first butterflies for the year (Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, and an early Speckled Wood). Violets were everywhere, and some of the old woodlands we passed seemed lit up by Wood Anemone:

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Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

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Wood Anemone carpeting floor of a coppice wood

I was pleased to show my friend his first Kingfisher, plunging into a lake, and we seemed to be followed everywhere by Buzzards.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

It was also Spring for livestock and we walked past fields full of newborn calves. One of which was so new-born that the umbilical cord was still attached. It lay still and the mother helplessly licked its apparently lifeless body. I found the number for the local farm and spoke to the farmer, who arrived a few minutes later, gingerly approached the distressed cow and swung the calf by its hind legs to clear the airway. Seconds later the calf was on its feet and we were being thanked for having helped save a life.

After all of that excitement, we relaxed in the garden of a country pub, ate lots, soaked up the sun and drank pints of beer with a couple of bottles of wine thrown in for good measure.

Before I return to birding more specifically, here is a picture of a frog (I’m not quite sure how else to weave in this non-sequitur):

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European Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

Kent – Elmley

The following morning, whilst nursing a hangover, I still managed to brave a bit of birding at another Kent favourite of mine and over the other side of the Swale from Oare: Elmley Marshes.

I can thoroughly recommend sitting in a hide and just observing an Avocet feeding (raking its famous bill side-to-side through the mud underwater and tugging out worms) as a good hangover-friendly activity.

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Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Elmley is probably one of the best places I know – due to the slight car-safari nature of the first part of the reserve – to photograph Lapwing.

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

It is also one of the best places I know – near London – where you can almost guarantee sightings of Marsh Harrier; at one point I had three in view at the same time. This was the first year tick of the trip for me (one of fifteen*[see bottom of post] over the five-day period).

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Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

My first big find of these few days of birding was a lone Spoonbill feeding in the ditches at Elmley and flying between pools:

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Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

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Horrendous record shot, but better view of the ‘spoon’!

From cursory research, I believe that this Spoonbill is the first recorded on site for over a year (although I am very aware that the landowners do not report rarities).

Other Elmley highlights included: a close encounter with a Corn Bunting perched on bramble (sadly flushed when I removed my camera from my bag, but which then called well as it flew over my head); the sight of hundreds of Shelduck in flight; similarly hundreds of Wigeon on the Swale; my first Turnstone for the year; and, a hunting Peregrine.

Essex and London

I came back to London where I had a short trip out on the Patch to pick up my first Wheatear for the year (thanks to Bob who found the pair for me after I had drawn an early-morning blank from a couple of circles around the Brooms).

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Male Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

After my whirl around the patch, I visited Barking Creekmouth in Essex for the first time, but I shall document this trip separately in a later post. I then drove up to visit my family in Buckinghamshire.

Norfolk – Titchwell

The East Anglian Coast contains some of the most famous and most prolific birding sites in the country. I was lucky enough to visit a few of them over the last couple of days. This began with Titchwell Marsh.

There were large numbers of Brent Goose often grouping in small flocks across the watery pockets of the extensive marshland.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)

After failing to locate a Water Pipit that was apparently on the site, I walked to the beach. Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter had both been seen out to sea. The wind picked up as I walked out, but I was lucky in that I located a raft of bobbing black ducks way out in the waves almost as soon as I arrived.

Sea watching is simply not something I have much experience of and so, commensurately, my sea-bird list is atrociously low (there are common sea birds I still haven’t seen that make me blush with embarrassment). And so I studied this bobbing raft of ducks carefully – expecting them to be largely Common Scoter (a bird I need for my year list, but not my life list) with the hope of maybe a straggling Velvet (a bird I have never seen before) with them as well. To get a sense of what I was dealing with, here is a heavily cropped photo taken at maximum zoom  with a 400mm lens…

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Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Luckily I was armed with more than just my bins and camera as otherwise identification would have been hopeless.

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My scope in better weather near Cley the following day

The photo of the ducks above makes it look like there were two or three of them in view. There were actually ten (or apparently eleven based on what was reported afterwards by other birders), occasionally appearing above and then quickly disappearing out of sight below waves, and annoyingly rarely all in view together despite being in quite tight formation. Through the scope, the white speculum indicating Velvet Scoter seemed to be present on every bird. I was relieved to read that others had also listed this flock as “11 Velvet Scoter”, and so I got the first of my two lifers of the trip.

With all the excitement of a life tick and peering far out to sea, I had failed to realise what was coming in fast from above the waves…

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One of the last photos I took before getting soaked

The weather forecasts had predicted some ‘light showers’, but this is the North Sea. Marine winds un-touched by land since forming in the Arctic slammed the wall of heavy rain at me horizontally from the North as I struggled back to one of the nearest hides for shelter. By the time I got inside I looked like I might as well have just jumped in the sea; I was completely drenched. The pull of a warm shower, and change of clothes from my hotel room meant that the day’s birding ended rather abruptly. However, whilst taking shelter in the hide, I did add Grey Plover to my year list and watched a Chinese Water Deer stare across a saltwater scrape from a patch of reeds.

Kent – New Holkham

I rose very early the next morning with one thought on my mind or, rather, one bird: Pallid Harrier. I had actually spent some of the day before driving around the little country lanes where this juvenile female had been spotted, although had seen no sign of it. On Tuesday morning I started at the crossroads – called Blunt’s Corner – where the highest density of sightings had been recorded.

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The rain from yesterday had passed and the sky was blue, but that arctic wind had not subsided – I could not quite believe how cold it was. 

I almost felt a little silly; a rare bird capable of covering huge distances had been seen here, but what were the chances I would just bump into it?

I walked around to try and keep warm. What really struck me about the agricultural land in North Norfolk was that, despite not looking all that different from anywhere else in the UK, it seemed far richer in wildlife than I am used to. I felt at times like I had been transported back in time seventy years. Almost every field had a partridge or three in it, allowing me to tick off both Red-legged Partridge and Grey Partridge for the year. Skylark song seemed to follow me wherever I went; large flocks of Linnet rose and fell on fields like silk caught on the wind; and, Yellowhammer voices reached out to me from dense holly hedgerows (also a first for year).

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella)

If Partridges were in every field, then hares were in every other…

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European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Buzzards courted and danced over treetops and a Red Kite sailed right above my head seemingly oblivious, or uncaring, that I trampled its hunting ground below.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

I walked up alongside the high hedge in the ‘stubble field’ I’d seen quoted in the reports on the Pallid, flicking my head sharply towards the central copse – which sat like a tropical island or an oasis in the desert – every time a Wood Pigeon came clattering out. But I should have known it was already too late in the morning for a Harrier to be at roost.

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The ‘stubble field’ at Blunt’s Corner

As I turned around to walk back, I raised my bins to check out a grey blob on the hedge in the distance. It could have been anything – a Wood Pigeon or Stock Dove poking out of the top of the hedge – but it wasn’t ‘anything’; it was very much something. I’d only gone and accidentally found a Great Grey Shrike! I was still a long way from it so I crept back towards it with my camera out  – that direction was also my only way back out of the enclosed field – but it flew up in the air almost immediately, its white wing patches flashing in the morning light. It rose way up over my head in a North-easterly direction past the Copse in the photo above. I was left in a state of slight shock and with a couple of crummy record shots.

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Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor)

I phoned my find through like a proud child showing his parent a painting they had done at school, only to hear the response: “Oh! Is that still there?” It appears I was more of a re-finder than a finder and that I had missed the reports as I was so focused on a certain Harrier.

At this point I bumped into a couple of other birders who had arrived. After walking around rather aimlessly in a few other directions, I headed back to the crossroads.

Crossroads have always held an important place in folklore. The place where paths meet – the ‘betwixt and between’ – is often believed to be the place where different realms touch and paranormal activity occurs. They are also traditionally a place of death; hangings and the burial places for criminals and suicides.

And so my eyes raised up beyond the crossroads and to the top of the field looking South-West and to a silhouette of a long winged bird that wasn’t right for buzzard or kite. It was something else. And so before I had seen all the distinguishing features; I called it. I literally called out to the other birders – one of whom had already got his bins fixed on it – “That’s it!”

Towards the crossroads it came, not the deathly pale colour of the male, but strangely wraith-like nonetheless, this bird straight out of Africa-on-way-to-central-Asia, but seemingly something straight out of legend. The Pallid Harrier.

I think my hands were shaking as I tried to photograph it, but even in the poor record shots I managed, the sleek harrier shape, the white tail-ring, and golden strips on the coverts of this juvenile female shine out at me.

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Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)

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The harrier swept across the lane into another field and up out of sight behind a long copse of trees. I couldn’t quite believe it and so kept checking my camera to remind myself what I had seen; I even tweeted a back-of-camera (‘BOC’) image of dreadful quality out to the world, perhaps as a further attempt at ‘making real’ what I had just seen.

For the benefit of those who might be tempted to go, or just for the visually curious, here is a map showing what happened…

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Just left of ‘A’ is the crossroads at Blunt’s Corner; ‘S’ marks the spot where the Shrike was seen, just to the left of the Copse showing as a green pimple; and, ‘P’ is where I first saw the Pallid Harrier, the direction it flew until it disappeared from view in the long copse at ‘?’

Norfolk – Cley and Winterton

Flushed with success, I left Blunt’s corner as the news had started percolating into the arrival of the twitch. I re-lived my Shrike-finder-shame with an elderly local gentleman who arrived:
Me: There was also a GG Shrike in that field just there.
Man: Oh ah! I saw that on compoot’ah.

Cley is, of course, a mini kingdom of birding legend – where so many rare birds have been seen; where the very tribe of ‘birders’ seemed to autochthonously appear in the 1950s and ’60s; where the great stories of the ’70s and ’80s were sown and shared; and, where such things happened as the re-introduction of the Avocet.

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Cley-next-the-Sea from Cley Marshes

To think that Avocet didn’t breed in the UK for around one hundred years seems remarkable now, as I have watched hundreds of them over the last few days, but similar stories are true also of the Marsh Harrier and Red Kite. I watched them all from Cley, along with another suspiciously narrow-winged harrier up over the hill.

But I soon headed further down the coast on reports that 12 Snow Bunting had just landed on the beach at Winterton. I walked the huge  stunning sandy beach and back up over the grassy dunes but there was no sign of the arrivals.

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Winterton

After the Snow Bunting, I then also ‘dipped’ a Cattle Egret and so decided to say goodbye to Norfolk and drove further south to Suffolk.

Suffolk – Minsmere

By the time I arrived at Minsmere, I felt like I was ticking off great reserves, rather than great birds (Titchwell, Cley, and Minsmere have all got to be well ‘up there’ amongst the premier birding sites in the UK).

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Minsmere

I arrived at about 3.30pm and felt a bit hand-held as I was helpfully shown Garganey (year tick) from one side of a hide, and White Wagtail (would be a year tick if it was recognised as a different species) from another:

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Male Garganey (Anas querquedula)

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

And with that, my Eastern birding trip came to a close and I can also sign off this rather epic account.

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Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) at Minsmere

*The fifteen year-ticks during this ‘trip’ were:
Rook
Marsh Harrier
Turnstone
Spoonbill
Avocet
Corn Bunting
Brent Goose
Velvet Scoter (Life tick)
Grey Plover
Grey Partridge
Red-legged Partridge
Garganey
Great Grey Shrike
Pallid Harrier (Life tick)
Yellowhammer

For fun, amongst the birds I tried to see, but failed – the dips – were:
Common Scoter – would’ve been year tick
Water Pipit – not ‘needed’
Cattle Egret – would’ve been year tick
Snow Bunting – would’ve been life tick