Tag Archives: Kestrel

Days with rarer birds

With one day as an exception (I was hungover), I have been out on the patch every day for the past few days. I had some holiday to ‘use up’ and we had to wait to finish some ‘things’ before flying to the second patch in France.

But really I was out because I knew I would miss things on the patch being away for 11 days at a crucial migratory period. I knew I had a good chance to see Sand Martin and Wheatear before I left:

  • Sand Martin appeared on the patch by 15 March in 2014 and by 14 March in 2015
  • Wheatear showed itself by 20 March in 2014 and by 18 March in 2015

But, it wasn’t to be. Sand Martin made a fly-by on the patch today (24 March) after I had already flown down to the South of France. Our white-arsed friends still haven’t been seen – despite moving up much of the West of the country. I did get a year tick of Buzzard flying very high over the Broom fields:

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

I also had Peregrine Falcon even higher, and Sparrowhawk flying over the cables between pylons:

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

While scanning the skies for raptors, a Sand Martin, or even an early Swallow, it is easy to forget the bird-of-prey much closer to the ground that frequents the patch:

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Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

On Monday, I gave up after a hard search for migrants and went and got a big fat tick in small park pond in South London. Bizarrely, a female Common Scoter seemingly flew up the Estuary, carried on going, flapped over some concrete and settled  for a couple of days (so far) next to some row boats while school children ran around in circles.

I stayed for over an hour while it stubbornly remained in the middle of the pond. But then, as I finally decided to go, the sea-faring duck paddled towards me and moved into the rays of gorgeous sunshine we had on that day to allow me to get a half decent photo.

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Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra)

Seven Corvids, two days
On the morning I was due to fly to France, I made one last ditch early effort to get a new migrant. I met with Bob and Nick, who told me that Rook – a very rare bird on the patch – had been seen locally. We didn’t get the migrants or a Rook (although Nick did get one today), but we got something even better and rarer. Bob found us a Hooded Crow! Another London tick for me, and I got a photo or two to record the event (albeit not the greatest):

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Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)

To give you a sense of how unusual an event this was, it is worth quoting Andrew Self’s ‘Birds of London’:

The Scandinavian birds that used to winter in England now rarely venture south due to climate change resulting in very few Hooded Crows now being recorded in Southern England. Since 2000 the only record in the London Area was at Leyton on 8 April 2010.

Nick and Dan actually had a flyover last year, but this time we got photographic evidence.

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 Now, I am in France and have a whole different set of birds to play with (not literally of course!) including new Corvids. Today I have seen our resident Ravens and Red-billed Chough meaning I have seen seven species of Corvid in two days (and that is without seeing a Rook).

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Wanstead Patchwork: Part VII (Reflections and echoes of wildlife)

Echoes in the woods
This morning I spent several hours carefully ‘working’ Bush Wood in the patch. Bush Wood is the most densely wooded section of the Wanstead Flats and is home, or stopping point, for several species of bird I would like to add to my patch list, namely: Firecrest; Treecreeper; Nuthatch; and, Tawny Owl.

I worked the area hard – slowing walking up and down every path in the wood (in fact I actually sketched out a map as I went, which I may share on this blog another day) listening and looking carefully.

I confess I also resorted to the controversial birding technique of ‘playback’ (also know as ‘tape-luring’) where I used an app to play the bird calls/song of the target species.

I would never use playback during breeding season, anywhere where other birders are likely to be in ear-shot, or for rare birds, but it can be a useful technique. It is certainly a step up from traditional ‘pishing’ where one aims to mimic a bird through whistling etc

I played Treecreeper a few times in select locations and Nuthatch and Firecrest a couple of times each, but had no luck. In fact, I started to wonder whether playback was an effective technique at all, or whether any of these species were anywhere near this wood. So, I tried another bird call. This time, one which I had not seen thus far in the day, but I do already have on my patch list for the year: Coal Tit. The effects were immediate! My phone had barely played a few notes when the tiny bird zoomed onto a nearby branch and was noisily responding to the apparent intruder in its territory. I felt a mix of joy and guilt and watched it move around, calling loudly and obviously listening for the non-existent competitor. As it moved further away, I relaxed enough to remember my camera and tried to get its picture. Whilst the shot below was poor quality, there was no way I was going to pull that stunt again just to get a better photo:

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Corvid reflections
After my careful working of Bush Wood, I walked more quickly around the rest of the patch, which currently has more water on it than I have seen before (although I know that in years’ passed the area has effectively been turned into a giant lake).

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Mirror, mirror, on the floor, who’s the wickedest bird of ‘lore?
Carrion Crow

The crow’s connection with evil is well known, and now – thankfully – people are instead realising that crows are one of the most intelligent species of bird.

Fleeting glimpses
A male kestrel hovered close by me. I began to take out my camera. It hovered lower, and then lower, and then plummeted to the ground so violently it made me jump. I watched to see if it had caught anything and got this picture of it:

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnununculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnununculus)

Just as I got to a respectable range to watch it, two teenage girls seemed to appear out of nowhere and ran past, flushing the small falcon. They were almost as startled as the bird as it flapped up right in front of them and flew away (I muttered in annoyance as I never did see if its plunge had been successful).

Shortly afterwards, I watched the resident flock of Linnets flit about near their preferred area around the Jubilee pond – there are sometimes up to 20 in the parcel. Yes, ‘parcel’ is the collective noun for linnets (somewhat less menacing than a ‘murder’ of crows!). One female stopped long and close enough for me to grab a quick shot:

Common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

Common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

I only saw the Linnet and Kestrel for a few seconds each, but even more fleeting were a Kingfisher (being chased by a crow in Wanstead Park) and a Common Buzzard flying high and quickly out of sight away from the park, but nevertheless, they were special glimpses for me. The Kingfisher was my second on the patch and only the third or fourth I have seen in London. The Buzzard was a new bird for me on the patch this year and so became my 60th tick for the year.

On my walk back I stopped at one of the smallest ponds on the Flats, Cat and Dog pond (apparently so named because it only really fills up when it rains ‘cats and dogs’ [DIGRESSION: I once had an english student in Spain who would delight in telling me that it was raining cats and dogs if it even so much as spat or drizzled a few drops – bless him!])

I was looking for a Snipe – which would have also been a patch tick for me – and which has been seen there recently. I didn’t see any snipe, but as I approached the water there was a sudden splash of movement below me. I just about caught sight of something brownish that I suspect was a mammal – it would have flown if it was a bird and it didn’t look like an out-of-season amphibian. I suspect it was just a brown rat in the water, but I like to imagine that it was a Water Vole (I have no idea how a water vole could have crossed traffic to get there though). I looked suspiciously at a number of tunnels and holes near the water and wondered, just wondered…

Who's been hiding here?

Who’s been hiding here?

Species of bird seen today: cast in order of appearance
Starling
Goldfinch
Wood Pigeon
House Sparrow (there is only really one bush where these guys hang out)
Black-headed Gull
Feral Pigeon
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Song Thrush
Wren
Robin
Wood Pigeon
Great-spotted Woodpecker
Long-tailed Tit
Magpie
Carrion Crow
Blackbird
Sparrowhawk
Stock Dove
Cormorant
Goldcrest
Coal Tit
Dunnock
[all the above were seen in Bush Wood apart from the sparrows]
Tufted Duck
Mute Swan
Mallard
Pochard
Great-crested Grebe
Gadwall
Coot
Moorhen
Shoveler
Canada Goose
Ring-necked Parakeet
Buzzard
Kestrel
Greylag Goose
Common Gull
Jackdaw
Grey Heron
Mistle Thrush
Greenfinch
Jay
Green Woodpecker
Egyptian Goose
Pied Wagtail
Linnet
[total seen today: 47]

Wanstead Patchwork: Part II (Skylark Highway or Police Scrape Patch?)

After Saturday was spent gallivanting around in Kent and Essex trying to improve my year list, I realised my new patch list was not going up on its own, so I nipped out early on Sunday morning.

It was not exactly prolific birding to be honest; especially after the excitement of the Slavonian Grebe last weekend (it is still there by the way). But I did add four species to my UK year list (62 so far) and eight to my patch list (now at 43 – pretty poor, but that is with only about 3 hours birding on the patch so far this year), with…

  • Green Woodpecker
  • Dunnock
  • Skylark
  • Stock Dove

… all new for the year, and…

  • Chaffinch
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Kestrel
  • Goldfinch
  • Pied Wagtail

… new for the patch this year.

I must confess that I shamelessly exploit the excellent Twitter updates from Wanstead Birding to find out what has been seen where as I stroll around. Nick Croft’s Twitter tips had me on the hunt for Linnet on an area of gravelly grass known as the Police Scrape (see point X on the map below). I wandered around wondering how this uninspiring patch of land could be of use to any birds of interest when I saw a flock of small birds in the distance. I was sure they had to be Linnet, but closer inspection left me surprised but equally pleased to see seven Skylark (which close-up look nothing like Linnet – even when they are as blurry as in the picture below):

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

I have to say, seeing Skylark on this scrubby playing field seemed a world away from the wonderful moment in the excellent Kingbird Highway when Kenn comes across the small population of Skylarks in the US on San Juan:

Kenn Kaufman, Kingbird Highway, 1997, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Kenn Kaufman, Kingbird Highway, 1997, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

[Back to reality] I then promptly bumped into Nick and some of the other Wanstead birders who kindly pointed me in the direction of a pair of displaying Stock Doves.

I shall leave this rather dry update of my patch search with a photo of a Kestrel who I found on the edge of Bush Wood at the spot marked Y on the map below.

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

A Big British Birding Year: Part X (distant dots)

We are now in Spring. The weather shows it, the flowers show it, and the birds know it. However, the calendar tells us we have another 5 days to go in the UK. The calendar is wrong, or rather, it is inflexible. I spend enough time out in the wild to back my judgement on this one.

Two weeks ago today was also a beautiful day, but there was a definite sense that we were still within the grip of Winter. But even in the dying days of Winter, the harbingers of Spring were starting to break through, such as the first Bumblebee I have seen this year:

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Cliffe Pools is part of the scientifically important Northern Kent marshes. They sit on the Hoo Peninsula in the Medway right next to the Thames Estuary.

Cliffe Pools

Sheep

Rather like the song, Moon River, the Thames at Cliffe is, quite literally, wider than a mile:

Thames

Everything here is big: the sky, the river, the lakes, and the wild marshes. Unfortunately, this scale has implications for a birder: the birds I photograph are often far, far away. My bid to photograph as many species of birds as possible in a year went well on the day, but, as you will see, the shots of birds are sometimes atrocious quality or distant dots.

It was a great day for raptors. The first of four birds of prey to be added to my year list on the day was the Kestrel (seen below in two merged photos silhouetted against the sky and being harried by a Black-headed Gull):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Also in the sky, doing its best impression of a vulture, was a Common Buzzard – the most common British raptor:

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The Buzzard caused havoc amongst an enormous number (well into the thousands) of waders attempting to roost on islands deep in the centre of one of the lakes:

Flock

Peering slightly deeper into the swirling cloud of waders, I was able to identify two new birds for the year, albeit admittedly two of our commonest water birds, Dunlin and Redshank. There were well over 1000 Dunlin present – the smaller bird consisting of a sizeable majority of this flock – and a few of the much larger Redshank to the bottom of the shot:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Whilst both of those waders are a fairly common sight on wetlands, less common is the iconic Avocet, which I could only photograph at the other side of one of the largest lakes:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

As well as waders, there are also hundreds of ducks at Cliffe, most of which I have already photo-recorded this year. However, I photographed my first Shelduck of the year:

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

… and my first ever photo of a the sea-faring Goldeneye duck:

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

So Cliffe added 7 new species to my year list of photographed birds, but it should have added 8. I heard a familiar song and scanned the sky to find a distant speck rising vertically with its call: despite the great distance, it was unmistakeable in song and behaviour as a Skylark. I lined it up in my lens and got a few snaps. Back at home, going through my hundreds of photos, I had just finished deleting a set of images of an unrecognisable dot in the sky when the memory of the skylark came flooding back. I cursed… a lot.

I left Cliffe in the afternoon and drove back to Elmley Marshes which I had visited a few weeks earlier. The weather on my two trips could not have been more different. Last time I struggled to walk in the driving rain and icy wind. This time the water was as flat as a millpond and the sky was blue.

Elmley Marshes

I got some more snaps of friends I made there last time, such as Curlew:

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

… and more Little Egrets than I have seen before (I got a great video of the Egret hunting, by stirring up the silt with its colourful feet in a sort of shaking dance and catching a couple of fish and a snail, but unfortunately I can’t upload videos on to this blog, so you shall have to make do with a photo):

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Elmley also delivered a new wader for me for the year, a couple of distant shots of the colourful Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

I got somewhat closer to a Reed Bunting (although I have already photographed this smart species this year):

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

I met a ‘peering’ of birders (I have decided that should be the collective noun for birdwatchers) gathered around spotting scopes (normally a good sign) who told me there were a couple of “short-ears” around and who also kindly let me see a Peregrine about half a mile away on a post through their powerful scopes. Unfortunately, I had left my iphone in the car and so had to try and snap it with my 300mm lens. The main photo below is at maximum zoom and in the digitally further-zoomed section, you may be able to see a grey/blue shape on top of a post with a patch of white near the head. This was the first time I had ever photographed the fastest bird in the world – it was just a shame it so distant and fuzzy:

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I left the birders (seen below with billowing chimneys behind them) to go in search of the Short-eared Owl – which would be a lifetime first for me.

Birders

Last time I came to Elmley (click here) I was lucky enough to photograph rare Marsh Harriers with their distinctive low-flying hunting technique. Two weeks ago I spotted another doing exactly the same thing way off in the distance. I swung my lens towards the movement and snapped away, taking many shots. I then looked at my view screen and zoomed in on the harrier to see it was strangely pale and had a wide round face. It wasn’t a Harrier at all, it was my first sighting of a Short-eared Owl:

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

I had walked for several miles in two bleak but beautiful wetland environments in Kent and added ten new species to my year list, taking me to a total of 72 species so far for the year. As I left Elmley with an amazing Kent sunset, I could not have been happier:

Elmley sunset

Elmley sunset 2