Tag Archives: birding

The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.

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200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.

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12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.

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Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and the … err… Lesser Whitethroat): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.

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“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.

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Paean to Phoenicurus and the other patch-breeding birds

Being away from the Patch when the Autumn passage migration begins is never easy. It is made easier by having the privilege of a second patch in a different country in which to holiday.

Common Redstart has been seen again in the East London patch; a bird I hope to catch up with when I return. But I can’t complain. On the French patch, Common Redstart are also migrants, but they stick around and breed over the summer rather than just pass through as with London.

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Immature male Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

I love redstarts: they are stunning birds with bags of character and are relatively bold affording us with great views. Sadly, the only bird not showing fantastically well was the mature breeding male – the best shot I managed was this:

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Female, left, and young male, right

They will soon head back to Africa. However, their similarly red-tailed relatives, the Black Redstart – that have also bred successfully – will stick around as they are full year residents. The family that breed year after year by the house beat their ‘common’ cousins as being the most showy of the patch birds.

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Juvenile Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

It has been great to watch young birds be fed, learn to feed themselves, and grow. Other birds visibly doing the same thing on the French Patch have been Stonechat – with immature birds perching up every now and again, and several of the resident and migrant-breeding warblers. The most successful sylvians here have always been the Subalpine Warblers and I have spent hours this trip watching families of this warbler making the most of the early autumn berry bonanza to supplement their invertebrate diet.

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Male Subalpine warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

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Male with juvenile

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Male feeding juvenile

There are, of course, several other breeding birds on the French Patch that have not proved as easy to observe. August can be a tricky month in that respect as birds are so quiet – there has been very little song. In fact, it can lead one to – sometimes incorrectly – conclude that birds have already migrated. I have only had brief views of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Melodious Warbler with barely even a call out of any of them.

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Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

In may and early June the land is alive with the song of prospecting and protective males of multiple species. Most beautiful, of course, is the Nightingale. I haven’t seen a single one of these notoriously shy songsters and had concluded they had left for the South when I was treated to a few grating calls and even a short burst of sub-song from deep within the scrub.

There are also some more exotic migrants which I will return to in a different post.

 

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:

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Unknown fungi

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!

Life beginning and ending in the wood

It may not match the scale of the ocean of Bluebells in Blean Woods, but our very own Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park – with a little help from our conservation group – puts on a pretty impressive show every year as well. Even now they are past their best, it is still an arresting sight. The peculiar combination of Bluebells with Beech – the ‘Mother of Forests’ is a true source of wonder – the deep blue-purple of Bluebell combined with the fresh life of new green Beech leaves just… works.

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Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park

I have been spending a bit of time recently in a wood at the other end of Wanstead Park: Reservoir Wood (so called because the large man-made lake that used to be located here in the palatial grounds of Wanstead House). And I have witnessed the hope that comes from the beginnings of wild-life. A Nuthatch – a scarcely seen bird on the patch with a bill full of invertebrates; a sure sign that it has bred successfully and that somewhere close by a nest of gaping mouths awaits.

Much later at night in the same wood I heard the squeaks of new life as well. Two young Tawny Owls squeaking constantly and the occasional contact call of the mother. Nothing seen, but recorded here in a video I took.

I also heard the loud squeaks of a very different sort a couple of days before; or more accurately the squawks of death. A female Sparrowhawk startled me with how closely it swooped past me and, before I could even focus, it had a Starling upside down in her talons. The terrible screams continued for a about a minute after the hawk had taken its unfortunate prey off into the seclusion of branch and leaf. The remaining flock of Starlings circled, alarmed and useless but unwilling to leave the scene immediately as if in hope that their comrade would return to them. But, of course, that was never going to happen. The woodland brought life and death, and… maybe life again as it reminded me of when I watched fledging Sparrowhawks in the neighbouring wood back in 2015.

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.