Tag Archives: Kingfisher

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.

By the early evening light: the Autumnal migration orrery

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This year I have got better at snatching short opportunities to bird the patch: still sometimes at the weekend, occasionally early in the morning, and occasionally after work.

The late summer/early autumn migration – my second on the patch – has delivered old friends from fly-over Yellow Wagtail, to the watchful Muscicapidae (and/or Turdidae depending on whose authority you follow) using our trees and bushes as we might use service stations on a long motorway journey: Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, WhinchatStonechat, Northern Wheatear, and Common Redstart.

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Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

When seen after work, these birds have often been bathed in the golden light of early evening. Wonderful when the light was behind me (with the birds above); not so wonderful when the light was behind the bird as was the case below.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Sometimes the flycatching birds – like those above – are mimicked by normally shyer, more skulking, birds. One balmy evening, the air was so thick with insects that the warblers were out darting out of their usual bushes to catch flies mid-air or chase each other around. Whilst a poor quality photo, it was on this evening that I got some of my best views of our resident Lesser Whitethroat – coaxed out of the thickets wearing its bandit mask to attack the mass of airborne protein:

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Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca)

As Autumn moves closer, some our summer breeders have their numbers swelled by more northerly kin stopping off on their way south: in particular Willow Warbler, Goldcrest and Chiffchaff.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The local birders have all been following mixed flocks with hope and anticipation. The high pitched calls of Long-tailed Tits often the first sign that something interesting this way comes. Moving through the trees, raiding the twigs of invertebrate life as they go with Blue Tit, occasionally Coal Tit (whose distant calls yesterday had Nick and I holding our breath in vain for the hope of Yellow-browed Warbler), and then the comparatively massive Great Tits barging through the leaves like american footballers.

One afternoon in the Old Sewage Works, I watched a particularly large caravan of mixed birds pass by, counting tens of tits along with multiple Chiffchaff, Blackcap, and Goldcrest. I thought that was it, but decided to check with a quick burst of taped yellow-browed and then Willow Warbler. On the second try, almost immediately, up popped a lovely bright bird just a few feet in front of me. I fumbled with my camera like poor old brother Fredo using a gun in the film ‘The Godfather: Part I’ when his father, the old don Corleone, is ambushed while shopping. Fredo’s father is critically injured and he is left facing his own incompetence sat on the side of the road; I was left with photos of a twig where moments before a beautiful had perched just a few metres in front of me. Despite there having been many Willow Warbler through the late summer, I seem to be camera-cursed with them, only snatching this poor shot in near darkness (since my photos of our territory-holding bird in the Spring):

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Sometimes my late evening jaunts would mean I literally ran out of light before I had quite finished my birding. And so it was as I walked slowly around our grottiest of ponds, the Jubilee, looking for a relatively long-staying wader. As the sun went down I dodged almost mutantly large rats – fat from the industrial quantities of bread thrown into the pond and rubbish deposited all about (see Jonathan Lethbridge’s excellent post on the problem with this pond, here) – as I continued my search.

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Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)

After a little while  of searching I eventually saw my quarry through the gloom. It was still feeding on the fringes of the pond island. I scurried forwards to get a photo… the most successful mammal on earth sending the second most successful scurry, in turn, right in front of me and into some undergrowth. I stood right by the rat tunnel to get my shot of the Common Sandpiper, any view of a wader on the patch is a moment to be savoured as they are scarce indeed, just before the light disappeared altogether.

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Breeze Block (Lateres aurita*) and Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Even knowing the photos would be atrocious quality, I was pleased to have seen this little chap. I walked off into the dusky night  happy, but scratching. Within a few minutes I found a flea on my arm. Within a few minutes more, I had found another. It appears being that close to rats can be rather more hazardous than I had imagined.

Sometimes Autumn doesn’t feel like a season in its own right, but rather as an extended transition between Summer and Winter. Passage migration brings the regular stop-overs and flyovers, and – of course – it sometimes brings something truly special, like this year’s Ortolan Bunting which I feel incredibly lucky to have seen. It also brings gatherings and movements of birds: from mini murmurations of Starlings, to the trickle of South-bound Swallows feeding as they fly, but which have yet to become a great flow.

While some leave, others arrive, like these Wigeon (albeit I doubt these ducks view any of our ponds as their final wintering destination).

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Eurasian Wigeon (Anas Penelope)

Of course, some birds seem untouched and untroubled by the changing of seasons like these two inhabitants of our local river Roding:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

All together, it feels like some ancient astronomical contraption (or Orrery). Different species moving in different directions and at different speeds and orbits, (with some stock still like a pole star) as the single giant cog of time moves inexorably around. Unlike the early scientists observing and turning the wheel, as birders we may observe but there are no wheels for us to turn. Humanity overall is not just an observer though. Occasionally we manage to throw giant spanners in the works. To finish where I started, Whinchat numbers in Britain have more than halved in the last twenty years. As we slow some orbits or break cogs altogether, who knows what damage we are doing to the contraption overall. Will we one day be left with the giant wheel of time turning and no bodies (biological rather than astronomical) to whir around it?

*my translation 😉

Sand, shingle, and sky… and a Great White

After a solid day’s birding on the local patch on Saturday, I travelled south on Sunday as far as I could go – which is just under 80 miles to the South Kent coast and the headland of Dungeness.

Any birders or photographers in the UK will be very familiar with Dungeness, but if you are unfamiliar with it, the simplest way to describe it would be to say that it is a wonderfully strange place:

Dungeness

The photo above was taken in the RSPB nature reserve and you can see the nuclear power station in the distance and one hell of a lot of shingle in between. In fact, Dungeness has one the largest concentrations of shingle in Europe. So much so, that it can be seen from space:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Apparently, due to this geology, the Met Office classifies Dungeness as the only desert in the UK. British pub quiz fans may be furrowing their brow now as we are taught that the Tabernas desert in Spain is the only desert in Europe (I once walked for several miles through the Tabernas in midsummer wearing flip-flops – very uncomfortable – with some friends to go to a nudist beach, but… ahem… back to birding). Either way, the shingle is incredible and despite its designation as a desert, it is wonderfully rich in wildlife (as I have blogged about before).

I snapped some common birds, such as Kestrel (c.46,000 pairs in the UK):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Some less common, such as Kingfisher (c.4,000 pairs):

Common (or Eurasian) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Common (or Eurasian) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Some scarce, such as Smew (c.180 birds visit the UK each winter, with several at Dungeness on Sunday):

Smew (Mergus albellus)

Smew (Mergus albellus)

Another scarce bird I should have photographed was the (Eurasian/Great) Bittern, as I watched this incredibly secretive bird take off in front of me – looking at first like a Grey Heron wearing a tiger-print costume – whilst I had my camera in pieces after taking a landscape shot:

This is where the bittern was - doh!

This is where the bittern was – doh!

And finally, I also got a poor quality shot of a downright rare bird, Great White Egret (c. 35 birds visit the UK each winter and at times a significant proportion can be at Dungeness):

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

OK! I admit I shamelessly used the words ‘Great White’ in the title of this blog post to lure people into thinking it was about a large shark

Throughout the day at Dungeness and Romney Sands, I added 9 species of bird to my UK year list to take it to a total of 88).

As well as some of those above, these 9 also included one of the most exciting birding spectacles anyone can ever see: watching the fastest bird-of-prey hunt at high speeds. By the time I got the distant photo below, the Peregrine had narrowly missed a Lapwing it sent spinning in mid-air, and perched on the telegraph pole while thousands – yes, literally thousands – of Lapwing remained in the air and rightly on edge:

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

I also just managed to get this poor shot of the only stoat I have ever photographed as it bounded around in the grass under the inquisitive – but not really very threatening – eye of the kestrel above:

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

I then moved on to nearby Lydd-on-Sea and spent a couple of hours walking on the shingle beach…

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… and then a sandy beach …

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… as the sun went down over the largely empty beach at low tide. In the distance, you can see the white line as the waves break. But looking closer, you can see that the first white line is not actually the breaking waves, but instead a line of thousands of gulls and waders:

Beach

I saw Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Sanderling (see below)…

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

… as well as several hundred Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Just to recap on the new birds I saw which added to my UK 2015 list:
– Bittern
– Great White Egret (UK first for me – I have also seen them in Costa Rica)
– Smew
– Bar-tailed Godwit
– Oystercatcher
– Sanderling
– Peregrine
– Red-legged Partridge
– Chiffchaff