Tag Archives: A Big Year

A Big Birding Year: Epilogue (Black-headed Gull and friends)

I had an unexpected birding trip out on New Year’s Eve itself. I visited Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre near Nottingham. The man-made rowing lake is 2km long by about 100m wide and is a great place to see waterfowl:

Holme Pierrepont

I saw online that there had recently been sightings of Scaup duck at the rowing lake. This was would have been a tick for my photographic Big Year, so I scoured the lake carefully.

Half the lake (length-wise) was covered in a thin sheet of ice which meant I was confident I was able to accurately monitor all of the birds on this narrow waterway. And indeed I saw it – a female Scaup swimming towards me with her characteristic white feathers around the base of the bill showing well despite the distance. I started clicking away with my camera and was delighted to see she kept on swimming toward me, closer and closer. Unfortunately, as she got closer my initial enthusiasm turned to disappointment as I realised she was not a Scaup at all, but the far commoner Tufted Duck (the females occasionally have Scaup-like white patches which have undoubtedly led to mis-identification on many occasions). I stood there feeling a little silly as I had taken loads of shots of a common duck. The clues were all pretty obvious:

A – The dark bill tip is more extensive than the tiny dark ‘nail’ present on a Scaup’s bill.
B – I just thought I would point at the confusing white markings.
C – The bird has a tuft for Christ’s sake!
D – The back is too uniformly dark and brown to be Scaup

Ignore the photo-bombing gull…

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

So I didn’t add to my year-list, but I did get a couple of other shots of birds with Black-headed Gulls almost always getting into the photo…

Little Egret  (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

As it is already the 3rd of January, I should really be out and building up my year-list for 2015, but the weather is so bad I used the excuse to stay in with this one last reflection on birding in 2014.

A Big Birding Year: Part XXVII (End of year flurry)

A year ago I visited Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottingham. This morning, whilst staying with the in-laws, I returned to watch the dawn in the snow:

Nottingham dawn

For the British, snow is a novelty (last winter it did not snow once in London) and occasionally an inconvenience. For some of our wildlife, persistent freezing weather can be disastrous – it is estimated that some very cold years will see 30-40% of the individual birds in some species wiped out.

Some of the birds at the Attenborough reserve did not look fussed, like these Mute Swans on the River Trent:

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

However, not all the birds appeared quite so relaxed. This Moorhen approached the cracked ice with some trepidation:

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

… and I detected a greater sense of urgency in the feeding behaviours of some birds such as this female Reed Bunting:

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Moving equally quickly through bushes in search for food was my 101st species of bird photographed in 2014, a bird that would be common to many in the UK, but one I have not seen at all for almost two years and so I was delighted to be reacquainted with:

Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

A frozen Nottingham had further Christmas gifts for my Big Birding Year of photography, my second Goldeneye captured in pixels this year (albeit very far away – excuse extreme blur):

Male Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Male Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Distant ducks would also add to my year list (102):

Goosander [or Common Merganser] (Mergus merganser)

Goosander [or Common Merganser] (Mergus merganser)

And then finally, what is likely to be my last new bird of the year, an absolute gem. Although she remained very far my camera, my 103 species of the year was wonderful and quite rare for the UK. This female Smew will be one of only 100-200 individuals that will have visited the UK this year – I was privileged to end of my year in style:

Smew (Mergellus albellus)

Smew (Mergellus albellus)

Just to remind readers that some ducks do come slightly closer in range, I also took a shots of a Mallard drake:

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

I walked around the frozen landscape reflecting on what has been a wonderful and fun search for British birds and yielded 103 photographs of unique and different species.

I also reminded myself of “the ones that got away”. Birds I saw but which I didn’t get photos of:
Jack Snipe
Bittern
Kingfisher

Happy New Year to you all!

Trent

A Big Birding Year: Part XXVI (A sacred century)

I have made a bit of a meal of getting there, but I have finally photographed my 100th species of bird this year in the UK. Huzzah!

The sacred pest
My century bird is appropriately special:

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

The beautiful Egyptian Goose is a difficult bird for a birder to add to his list. This is because they are commonly held in bird collections (e.g., if you see one in St James’ Park, that’s nil points for you I’m afraid). But sometimes these birds escape and breed in the wild. These feral birds, originally from Africa, are now considered a pest in the UK. It is, or was, quite a different story on their native African continent. The birds were sacred to the ancient Egyptians, which – coupled with their distinctive eye markings – is the reason for their name.

The Egyptian Goose is one of the birds that straddles the hazy line between duck and goose (they are much smaller than most geese, but bigger than all ducks) and sit in glorious isolation in their own genus, Alopochen, which is ancient greek for ‘fox goose’ (in reference to the rufous or ‘foxy’ colour of its back).

The pair in the photograph were on a small pond in my local Wanstead Flats trying to get bread from people but largely being bullied by their bigger cousins, Canada Goose. London and East Anglia are two of the best places to see feral Egyptians outside of Africa as this BTO distribution map shows:

Thanks to the British Trust for Ornithology and the Bird Atlas

Thanks to the British Trust for Ornithology and the Bird Atlas

The century
So here they all are – all one hundred species of bird photographed this year in the UK – with the vast majority taken in London and the South East – from Magpie (the first bird I photographed this year) to Egyptian Goose (taken this December) and the other 98 in between:

100 birds

The year is not quite over, although with other ‘life’ getting quite busy in the run-up to Christmas (our house is still a building site!), it would not surprise me if my Egyptian friends were the last in my Big Year list for 2014. We shall see!

Thank you. It’s been emotional.

A Big Birding Year: Part XXII (a dip and a scrub)

Wormwood Scrubs in West London is famous for its prison. It has housed everyone from Britain’s “most dangerous” prisoner, Charles Bronson, to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. The prison is named after the scrubland that neighbours it: Scrubs The prison can be seen in the satellite photograph below at point ‘A’ at the bottom of the image: SCRUBS map Point ‘B’ on the map shows the wooded area that covers much of the perimeter walkway around the Scrubs: woodland I walked through the woods largely undisturbed and occasionally wondering if there was any wild fauna aside from the odd Speckled Wood butterfly…

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Quiet woodland will often come alive when a large mixed flock of Tits moves in to the area where you are standing. In particular, Long-tailed Tits can suddenly make the woodland come to life , albeit only temporarily…

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Whilst the high pitched chirping and chattering of tits alerts you to their presence, other birds require spotting first, such as this woodpecker:

(Dendrocopos major)

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

But the most interesting part of Wormwood Scrubs are the scrubs themselves, to the west of the mown playing fields and marked by a point ‘C’ in the map above. Pedestrian traffic is limited here to protect the large number of breeding Meadow Pipit – which meant I only got some distant shots of a pair in flight as they flew up out of the long grass. In fact no other ‘Mipits’ (as they are labelled by birders) breed closer to central London than these.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

All great, but unfortunately, this visit was one of a small minority where I did not add any new species to my UK year list – a ‘dip’ as it has become known in birding and twitching circles.

A Big Birding Year: Part XXI (zoom and zoom again)

In my last post, I had a little whinge about how difficult it is to photograph birds unless you have huge lenses worth many £thousands.

Well, the whinge continues. Generally bird photography falls into two categories:

Aesthetic – where one is searching for the perfect image. Light, composition, sharpness are all super important. You generally need reasonable equipment and to be close to your subject, or professional standard kit and be up to medium distance from your subject. This often means that the best photos are often of relatively common and reasonably tame birds

Record – essentially just a step up from putting a tick in a box or writing the name of a bird in a notepad. The photo shows that you saw ‘x’ bird at ‘y’ location on ‘z’ date. If you are human as well and not an ornithological wizard, photos can be handy to verify a sighting or even identify a bird in the comfort of your own home hours or days later.

Unlike ‘Aesthetic’, ‘Record’ photos are generally squirrelled away in some hidden folder on your hard-drive and rarely will anyone else have the misfortune of squinting at the fuzzy and blurry dot which you have labelled as a bird. Unless, that is, the amateur photographer in question has decided to share his records/list of every bird through the year. Hence anyone who has read more than one or two blog posts this year by iago80 cannot help but have noticed the propensity to post some absolute bilge (case in point below).

I want to give a sense to you (excuse my patronisingly didactic tone, but I am assuming not all readers are birders or photographers) of what taking a photo of a bird in the wild is often like when out in the field. The photo below is the view West from Peacock Tower, the impressive three storey hide at the LWC. It’s a nice view over the main lake and grazing marsh. The inset photograph is taken from the same place but at maximum zoom with my 300mm lens. You may just about be able to make out a tiny splodge, through the wire fence in the middle of the image, that could be a bird if you really put your mind to it.

LWC Main Lake

Now let’s take that zoomed in image and look a little closer at it (below). This time the inset image is a heavily cropped section of the main image. Now that splodge is a bit bigger and you may even say with confidence that it is a bird. But could you identify what species it is? Well, neither could I. Even through my binoculars it was tricky. But luckily, there was a chap on hand with a powerful spotting scope. I had a quick look and could then see that the splodge was in fact a Wheatear…

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Although you can’t see in the sorry excuse for a photograph, the Wheatear is actually a beautiful bird. They spend the summer generally breeding in grassy hilly parts of the country. As the breeding density map below shows – from the excellent Bird Atlas from the BTO (You would not even be able to guess at the scale of millions of hours of volunteer work it would have taken to compile that book) – Wheatears are generally not found in London.

Bird Atlas

However, when the birds’ internal alarm-clock/calendar goes off they fly South and often take a few re-fuelling stops. We are lucky that the LWC appears to have been chosen on this occasion as one such stop and us Londoners get to see a bird that normally only the Scots, Welsh, northerners, and Cornish get to enjoy.

By the way, that Wheatear, was the 94th species of bird I have photographed this year. About ten minutes later, I got my 95th (as you can see, I won’t be framing this photo above my mantelpiece either, although this time you can actually tell what the bird is):

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

That dinky little fellow (barely bigger than a Starling) was scuttling about on his own making nearby Coots look enormous.

And just to show you how my photos improve (although only marginally as even this photo is a little too noisy and blurry for my liking) when I get slightly closer to my subjects, here is a posing Heron:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A Big Birding Year: Part XX (Room 101)

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” – O’Brien, 1984, George Orwell

I thought I would dedicate my 101st blog post as iago80 to ‘Room 101’. Orwell’s 1984 is one of my, and 25 million other people’s, favourite book. However, instead of really staying true to the 20th century classic novel, I am actually following the model of the 1990’s British television programme, ‘Room 101’, where celebrities would attempt to persuade the host to put their pet hates in 101.

Birding is probably my favourite hobby, and it gives me enormous pleasure, but there are many things about it that drive me up the wall. For the sake of brevity and not whinging too much, I shall suggest the two things which part of me would like to send to Room 101 about birding, but should actually have rejected as they are crucial to the challenge and success of the pastime…

Room 101 for birding

1.People: Having slight misanthropic tendencies or a general need to be away from people for periods of time, you would think that birding would be the ideal hobby for me. In actual fact, to be a good birder, and certainly to be a good twitcher (I’ll explain the difference another time if you don’t already know), you need to rely on other people to work as a community to show each other where interesting birds are lurking. I often and reluctantly sidle up to a group of birders with their scopes trained on some distant patch of water, reed-bed, or bush and hate myself for asking the cliched, “seen anything interesting?”, “anything about?”, or “what have you got?”

2. Birds are always so far away and so frightened of everything! We do our best to make them come near us by: hiding inside funny wooden shelters; wearing camouflaged clothing; attempting to make them think we are one of them by mimicking their voices (the beautifully named, pishing), and using special eye contraptions such as binoculars or spotting scopes. However, to take a photograph of a bird, even with a zoom lens, you need it to be surprisingly and awkwardly close. Unless, that is, you spend half of the Greek deficit on a huge and heavy super-lens.

In this series of blog posts, I have been counting how many species of UK wild birds I could photograph in a year. This has meant I have had to post a lot of rubbish… distant fuzzy blobs that I tell everyone is a rare bird. And so it was with my 93rd species of the year:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This Whinchat was photographed at the Waterworks nature reserve in East London. As its name suggests this small reserve is a former water treatment plant and you can clearly see the different treatment pools from space despite nature reclaiming it (with a bit of help from man) – the red ‘W’ shows where I saw the Whinchat:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Numbers of Whinchat breeding in the UK have sadly and inexplicably halved in less than 15 years. Furthermore, they do not breed in London or much of the South East so this individual was almost certainly a passage migrant, stopping off at this tiny patch of London greenery before continuing its journey to Sub-Saharan Africa where it will spend the Winter.

A Big Birding Year: Part XIX (good creature of mud)

This blog has described Rainham Marshes before, (here and here), and Saturday was my second visit as part of my Big Birding Year. There have been numerous sightings recently there of the very rare Spotted Crake, and I always go full of hope to see my first Bearded Tit. Unfortunately, I did not get any life-firsts or see any particularly rare birds, but I did add a tick to my year list.

But first, I want to re-cap a bit on the terrain as it fascinates me. As I have pointed out before, Rainham Marshes sits next to the Thames about 18 miles down river from Central London, but the steel and glass spires of London can just about be seen looking West up-river in the distance:

Rainham and view to London

The marshes are now protected from the tidal Thames by some flood defences, although every time I visit, I am struck by how close to the water level the marshes are:

View East

To illustrate this better, I want to return to my new favourite online map tool (topographic-map.com) which shows clearly that most of the marshes sit below sea-(and Thames) level.

topographic-map.com

In fact, Rainham Marshes is the lowest lying land inside the M25. Despite its importance for wildlife, I would guess, sadly, that the chances these marshes will still exist in 100 years are very slim indeed.

But, for the moment, the marshes provide refuge to important wildlife, including the bird which has become my 92nd species to be photographed of the year (A Kingfisher nearly became my 93rd as well, but was too fast for me), the Black-tailed Godwit. In the heavily cropped and fuzzy zoom image below, two Godwits can be seen in flight along with a Lapwing and Black-headed Gull whilst you can see another Lapwing in the background and a third (male) Godwit looks on from the right almost nonchalantly:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Godwit, as a word, is from two old English words meaning ‘good creature’, and its Scientific name, Limosa, means mud, which is appropriate as these beautiful birds hunt for small creatures in the mud with their long bills.

Formerly heavily hunted – shamefully it still is in France – even 170 years ago Yarrell noted that numbers of these birds were declining:

Yarrell

In fact less than 40 years after Yarrell was writing, the breeding population was extinct in the UK. Luckily, these migrant waders started breeding again 70 years later in the 1950’s and every year around 100 birds will spend the Summer in the UK, like the birds I photographed, and even smaller numbers will breed.

The UK is already starting to feel a bit Autumnal and soon these birds will migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. However, unusually, it is in Winter when you have the best chance these beautiful birds. this is because the UK receives its own Winter migration influx from a slightly different sub-species that breeds in Iceland. Around 44,000 Black-tailed Godwits will winter in the UK, but I was particularly pleased to see the much rarer (in the UK) European form here during breeding season.

Black-tailed Godwit has been assigned red conversation status in the UK. If important sites like Rainham Marshes disappear under water, the threat to these birds will increase further and they could disappear from the UK as a breeding bird like they did in the 1880’s for another 70 years, or perhaps even forever…?

A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:

Yarrell

Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.

A Big Birding Year: Part XVI (tree creeping)

Today I returned to see a tree. A Sweet Chestnut that I saw last weekend to be precise… Except, of course, I am not being very precise at all. I did not travel to see a tree; I travelled to see a bird.

But alas, the perch on which the Little Owl is known to sit on a, seemingly, daily basis in the Kensington Gardens was empty. My third owl for the year eludes me still (thinking ahead to my possible fourth, does anyone know anywhere I am likely to get good photos of Barn Owls?). But I comforted myself by finding my second species of owl to photograph again.

The Tawny Owlets in the park are maturing fast and I found one in a tree next to where I saw them last week:

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

It then took off and flew back to the tree where I had seen them last week. There was a cacophony as other birds, including ‘squawkers’, or Ring-necked Parakeets, took flight making alarm/distress calls at the sight of the bird of prey. The juvenile owl was then promptly followed by two siblings that I hadn’t initially spotted before it stared down quizzically at me:

Watching me, watching you! Aha!

Whilst in the park, I also got a picture of an obliging female Blackbird (to be contrasted with the exceptionally shy Blackbirds I shall be seeing shortly in the South of France):

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

I then found a tree alive with a family (or two) of Nuthatches busily scouring the bark for insects:

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

I then nipped down to the London Wetland Centre (where I negotiated a mortgage over the phone whilst wandering around, and…) where I saw my 87th species of bird for the year: a bird even more suited to scaling up and down tree trunks than the Nuthatch. I seem to have spent the day creeping around trees for views of different birds, so it seemed apt that I would be rewarded with my first photo of a Treecreeper for the year:

Eurasian Treecreper (Certhia familiaris)

Eurasian Treecreper (Certhia familiaris)

A Big Birding Year: Part XIV (the pointy headed reed walker and its homoplastic friend)

Moving house and birding are not conducive to one another. The process of trying to sell property, and then hunting, buying, and moving (with all the bureaucracy and hassle that it entails) clashes badly with a desire to wander the countryside taking pictures. Even on a Sunday, when there is little that can be done, the guilt of taking time off for such an indulgently ‘removed’ (if that adjective makes any sense in this context to you – it was the best I could think of) pastime, acts as an internal barrier.

So, whilst my aim of photographing as many bird species as possible in a year has hit a treacly obstacle, it has not been forgotten. Today, I took some time to walk in the sun hunting for birds rather than houses. I chose the Hackney marshes for ease:

Hackney Marshes

My steely house-hunter’s determination was usefully applied by going in deliberate search of a specific species of bird. Given the time of year, I chose a place with lots of reeds where in previous summers I have seen one of our summer migrant warblers. I was duly rewarded:

Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

My 84th species caught in pixels for the year is well named as the Sedge Warbler, but I personally prefer its lengthy scientific name. The latinised Greek, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus, roughly translates as ‘pointy-headed reed-walker’ which I think is terrific!

I was also pleased to get a reasonable profile of the homoplastic* female Reed Bunting.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

* Note: I couldn’t resist using that biological term, homoplasy, which describes the fact that the Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler share many behavioural and environmental similarities, but have a radically different evolutionary ancestry – although the distinctions in form between the birds, mean I should properly have used the term, biologically analogous, but that just isn’t as cool.