Tag Archives: Hobby

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.

IMG_2350v2

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.

IMG_2165v2

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.

IMG_2139v2

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.

IMG_2139v3

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.

IMG_2840v2

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

IMG_2051v2

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

fullsizeoutput_99

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.

IMG_2023v2

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.

IMG_2708v2

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.

IMG_2515v2

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.

Dubonnetv2

“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.

IMG_2742v2

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.

IMG_5501v2

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.

IMG_4231v2

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.

IMG_1987v2

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.

IMG_2419v2

Rookburgh St Mary Broad

IMG_2199v2

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.

IMG_4824.v2psd

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.

IMG_6798v2

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.

IMG_0873v2

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.

IMG_7565v2

X marks the spot

Not a bad weekend overall.

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.

IMG_9628v2

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.

IMG_9683v2

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.

IMG_9786v2

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.

IMG_9835v2

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


IMG_9813v2

Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.

IMG_9763v2

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Red-crested warbler day

There will now be a short interval before recommencing my Yucatan trip report story.

Back on the patch today with a BANG! Very little time to storytell, so I’ll be briefer than usual

Caught up with this little guy again…

IMG_2533v2

‘Willowchaff’ the Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Before I left for Mexico, this Willow Warbler was jumping between Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler songs like a confused teenager. Today, he did a tiny bit of Chiffchaff, but was largely belting out his own proper song (you can watch the movie here).

Talking of belting out songs, I got a year tick just a tree or two away from old ‘Willowchaff’ with the high-volume songster, the Garden Warbler (you can also watch a video of this here)…

IMG_2599v2

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

…And later, at the other end of the patch, I was thrilled to hear “tchck…tchacklelacklelack…tchacklelacklelack”. No, it wasn’t the Hungarian Eurovision entry from 1976, it was the song of Cetti’s Warbler. The guys found it while I was away in Mexico (long-story cut short is this, once scarce, warbler is expanding its range and has been some time overdue a presence on the patch). I was worried as it hadn’t been heard for a bit, but I heard it sing its refrain three times (with multi-minute pauses in between) further down the River Roding than where found before, actually on the tiny Alders Brook. Big patch life tick.

So, a great day for Warblers – also a huge number of singing Blackcap and Whitethroat seemingly outnumbering Chiffchaff – was rounded off with a wonderful view of a pair of Reed Warbler on Shoulder of Mutton Pond (and small snippet of song from the – otherwise hopefully satisfied – male):

IMG_3065v2

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Watching the Swifts dart around the sky over the ponds today (they arrived while I was away), I bagged another year tick with Hobby in hot pursuit of them or the accompanying House Martins.

In non birding news, I was pleased to catch-up with my first Grass Snake of the year, a juvenile curled up under a mat in the sun:

GrassSnakev2

Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

But perhaps the biggest surprise was finding a feral Red-crested Pochard on Heronry Pond – a rare occasion where I was the finder of a good bird on the patch. A big patch life tick for me, and good patch year ticks for Bob, who arrived five minutes after I found it, and Jono who came along later to see it. At first I struggled to photograph it across the pond, but later walked around to the other side and found a gap just about big enough in the leaves to do a slightly better job of a record short:

IMG_3019v2

Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)

Whilst other regular patch-workers traveled off around the country scooping some super birds such as Great Spotted Cuckoo and Red-footed Falcon, I was genuinely without envy on the patch as it was just magical today.

IMG_2663v2

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

IMG_8998v2

The Roding and Ornamental Pond

A Big Birding Year: Part XII (summer migrants)

Having been out of the birding loop for a few weeks (including being out of the country for a couple), I returned to find that the steady march of Spring and Summer continues at pace.

My quest to see as many species of bird in a year benefitted from the fact that many Summer arrivals are now in our skies, trees, hedgerows, and reeds.

At the London Wetland Centre on Saturday, I added eight new birds to my year list, five of which were summer migrants…

Such as the noisy but secretive Reed Warbler:

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

… and the notoriously nondescript Garden Warbler (also notoriously badly named, as it is rarely found in gardens):

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

More difficult to photograph than even these shy warblers, were some of the speed demons of our summer skies, such as:

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

… and one of the few birds able to predate on such small and swift acrobats…

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

… although, while I watched it whip about effortlessly in the sky, it was simply feeding on insects and avoiding persistent mobbing from gulls (the photo below illustrating quite clearly how small the hobby is):

Hobby and gull

Also out patrolling the skies was a permanent UK resident:

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Far out in the wetland, I noticed something scuttle past a roosting goose. You may need to look hard just to find it. Whilst the photo is poor, it clearly shows just how tiny Little Ringed Plovers are in comparison to the Canada Goose (and in response to your inevitably raised eyebrow, I don’t know why such a bulky bird finds it comfortable to sleep on one leg either!):

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) to the right of the roosting Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) to the right of the roosting Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

…and finally, another blurry shot of the last of the common UK pigeons to be added to my year list:

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

This set of birds took my tally of species up to 82 for the year so far. Here are a few more Spring snaps I took in Barnes:

Mallard ducklings (Anas platyrhinchos)

Mallard ducklings (Anas platyrhinchos)

Eurasian Coot with chick (Fulica atra)

Eurasian Coot with chick (Fulica atra)

And finally, letting everyone know that some birds are here all year round and that not everything changes…

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)