Tag Archives: Marsh Harrier

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.

An epic tale of birding the East; or Tick, Dip, BOC

The four most easterly counties of the United Kingdom are, in descending order: Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, and Essex. With a few days leave that I needed to use up and my wife working abroad, I decided to do some birding in all four. The following is my summarised account of: the birds I saw; the birds I didn’t see; and, any other acts of derring-do that I got up to.

Although most of the birding was conducted in those four counties, my journey took me through a total of ten counties (and not just because of incompetent navigating); some 600 miles of driving and around 30 miles of walking. Despite all being within a few days, I witnessed extraordinary changes in weather: I sat and sun-bathed in a T-shirt; I froze my hands blue despite wearing two jumpers, a coat, hat and gloves; I was buffeted by almost gale-force winds; and I was soaked to the bone by torrential rain.

Kent – Oare

Last Thursday I drove down to Kent in the early morning and spent about an hour at Oare Marshes. I didn’t tick off anything too exciting, but just breathed in the fresh air and the early morning marshland cacophony of Cetti’s Warbler, Skylark, Reed Bunting, Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher.

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View across the Swale from Oare, Kent

It was good for the soul, and prepared me for a long day of walking and beer drinking (tough life eh!?)

Kent – River Stour

[Note: the next few paragraphs take a slight detour from my birding account]

A friend and I walked from Rough Common outside Canterbury to Stodmarsh, following the River Stour wherever we could.

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The weather was simply glorious for mid-March, and I felt enveloped by Spring. I counted 19 Chiffchaff singing along the way and saw my first butterflies for the year (Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, and an early Speckled Wood). Violets were everywhere, and some of the old woodlands we passed seemed lit up by Wood Anemone:

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Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

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Wood Anemone carpeting floor of a coppice wood

I was pleased to show my friend his first Kingfisher, plunging into a lake, and we seemed to be followed everywhere by Buzzards.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

It was also Spring for livestock and we walked past fields full of newborn calves. One of which was so new-born that the umbilical cord was still attached. It lay still and the mother helplessly licked its apparently lifeless body. I found the number for the local farm and spoke to the farmer, who arrived a few minutes later, gingerly approached the distressed cow and swung the calf by its hind legs to clear the airway. Seconds later the calf was on its feet and we were being thanked for having helped save a life.

After all of that excitement, we relaxed in the garden of a country pub, ate lots, soaked up the sun and drank pints of beer with a couple of bottles of wine thrown in for good measure.

Before I return to birding more specifically, here is a picture of a frog (I’m not quite sure how else to weave in this non-sequitur):

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European Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

Kent – Elmley

The following morning, whilst nursing a hangover, I still managed to brave a bit of birding at another Kent favourite of mine and over the other side of the Swale from Oare: Elmley Marshes.

I can thoroughly recommend sitting in a hide and just observing an Avocet feeding (raking its famous bill side-to-side through the mud underwater and tugging out worms) as a good hangover-friendly activity.

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Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Elmley is probably one of the best places I know – due to the slight car-safari nature of the first part of the reserve – to photograph Lapwing.

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

It is also one of the best places I know – near London – where you can almost guarantee sightings of Marsh Harrier; at one point I had three in view at the same time. This was the first year tick of the trip for me (one of fifteen*[see bottom of post] over the five-day period).

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Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

My first big find of these few days of birding was a lone Spoonbill feeding in the ditches at Elmley and flying between pools:

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Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

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Horrendous record shot, but better view of the ‘spoon’!

From cursory research, I believe that this Spoonbill is the first recorded on site for over a year (although I am very aware that the landowners do not report rarities).

Other Elmley highlights included: a close encounter with a Corn Bunting perched on bramble (sadly flushed when I removed my camera from my bag, but which then called well as it flew over my head); the sight of hundreds of Shelduck in flight; similarly hundreds of Wigeon on the Swale; my first Turnstone for the year; and, a hunting Peregrine.

Essex and London

I came back to London where I had a short trip out on the Patch to pick up my first Wheatear for the year (thanks to Bob who found the pair for me after I had drawn an early-morning blank from a couple of circles around the Brooms).

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Male Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

After my whirl around the patch, I visited Barking Creekmouth in Essex for the first time, but I shall document this trip separately in a later post. I then drove up to visit my family in Buckinghamshire.

Norfolk – Titchwell

The East Anglian Coast contains some of the most famous and most prolific birding sites in the country. I was lucky enough to visit a few of them over the last couple of days. This began with Titchwell Marsh.

There were large numbers of Brent Goose often grouping in small flocks across the watery pockets of the extensive marshland.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)

After failing to locate a Water Pipit that was apparently on the site, I walked to the beach. Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter had both been seen out to sea. The wind picked up as I walked out, but I was lucky in that I located a raft of bobbing black ducks way out in the waves almost as soon as I arrived.

Sea watching is simply not something I have much experience of and so, commensurately, my sea-bird list is atrociously low (there are common sea birds I still haven’t seen that make me blush with embarrassment). And so I studied this bobbing raft of ducks carefully – expecting them to be largely Common Scoter (a bird I need for my year list, but not my life list) with the hope of maybe a straggling Velvet (a bird I have never seen before) with them as well. To get a sense of what I was dealing with, here is a heavily cropped photo taken at maximum zoom  with a 400mm lens…

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Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Luckily I was armed with more than just my bins and camera as otherwise identification would have been hopeless.

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My scope in better weather near Cley the following day

The photo of the ducks above makes it look like there were two or three of them in view. There were actually ten (or apparently eleven based on what was reported afterwards by other birders), occasionally appearing above and then quickly disappearing out of sight below waves, and annoyingly rarely all in view together despite being in quite tight formation. Through the scope, the white speculum indicating Velvet Scoter seemed to be present on every bird. I was relieved to read that others had also listed this flock as “11 Velvet Scoter”, and so I got the first of my two lifers of the trip.

With all the excitement of a life tick and peering far out to sea, I had failed to realise what was coming in fast from above the waves…

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One of the last photos I took before getting soaked

The weather forecasts had predicted some ‘light showers’, but this is the North Sea. Marine winds un-touched by land since forming in the Arctic slammed the wall of heavy rain at me horizontally from the North as I struggled back to one of the nearest hides for shelter. By the time I got inside I looked like I might as well have just jumped in the sea; I was completely drenched. The pull of a warm shower, and change of clothes from my hotel room meant that the day’s birding ended rather abruptly. However, whilst taking shelter in the hide, I did add Grey Plover to my year list and watched a Chinese Water Deer stare across a saltwater scrape from a patch of reeds.

Kent – New Holkham

I rose very early the next morning with one thought on my mind or, rather, one bird: Pallid Harrier. I had actually spent some of the day before driving around the little country lanes where this juvenile female had been spotted, although had seen no sign of it. On Tuesday morning I started at the crossroads – called Blunt’s Corner – where the highest density of sightings had been recorded.

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The rain from yesterday had passed and the sky was blue, but that arctic wind had not subsided – I could not quite believe how cold it was. 

I almost felt a little silly; a rare bird capable of covering huge distances had been seen here, but what were the chances I would just bump into it?

I walked around to try and keep warm. What really struck me about the agricultural land in North Norfolk was that, despite not looking all that different from anywhere else in the UK, it seemed far richer in wildlife than I am used to. I felt at times like I had been transported back in time seventy years. Almost every field had a partridge or three in it, allowing me to tick off both Red-legged Partridge and Grey Partridge for the year. Skylark song seemed to follow me wherever I went; large flocks of Linnet rose and fell on fields like silk caught on the wind; and, Yellowhammer voices reached out to me from dense holly hedgerows (also a first for year).

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella)

If Partridges were in every field, then hares were in every other…

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European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Buzzards courted and danced over treetops and a Red Kite sailed right above my head seemingly oblivious, or uncaring, that I trampled its hunting ground below.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

I walked up alongside the high hedge in the ‘stubble field’ I’d seen quoted in the reports on the Pallid, flicking my head sharply towards the central copse – which sat like a tropical island or an oasis in the desert – every time a Wood Pigeon came clattering out. But I should have known it was already too late in the morning for a Harrier to be at roost.

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The ‘stubble field’ at Blunt’s Corner

As I turned around to walk back, I raised my bins to check out a grey blob on the hedge in the distance. It could have been anything – a Wood Pigeon or Stock Dove poking out of the top of the hedge – but it wasn’t ‘anything’; it was very much something. I’d only gone and accidentally found a Great Grey Shrike! I was still a long way from it so I crept back towards it with my camera out  – that direction was also my only way back out of the enclosed field – but it flew up in the air almost immediately, its white wing patches flashing in the morning light. It rose way up over my head in a North-easterly direction past the Copse in the photo above. I was left in a state of slight shock and with a couple of crummy record shots.

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Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor)

I phoned my find through like a proud child showing his parent a painting they had done at school, only to hear the response: “Oh! Is that still there?” It appears I was more of a re-finder than a finder and that I had missed the reports as I was so focused on a certain Harrier.

At this point I bumped into a couple of other birders who had arrived. After walking around rather aimlessly in a few other directions, I headed back to the crossroads.

Crossroads have always held an important place in folklore. The place where paths meet – the ‘betwixt and between’ – is often believed to be the place where different realms touch and paranormal activity occurs. They are also traditionally a place of death; hangings and the burial places for criminals and suicides.

And so my eyes raised up beyond the crossroads and to the top of the field looking South-West and to a silhouette of a long winged bird that wasn’t right for buzzard or kite. It was something else. And so before I had seen all the distinguishing features; I called it. I literally called out to the other birders – one of whom had already got his bins fixed on it – “That’s it!”

Towards the crossroads it came, not the deathly pale colour of the male, but strangely wraith-like nonetheless, this bird straight out of Africa-on-way-to-central-Asia, but seemingly something straight out of legend. The Pallid Harrier.

I think my hands were shaking as I tried to photograph it, but even in the poor record shots I managed, the sleek harrier shape, the white tail-ring, and golden strips on the coverts of this juvenile female shine out at me.

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Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)

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The harrier swept across the lane into another field and up out of sight behind a long copse of trees. I couldn’t quite believe it and so kept checking my camera to remind myself what I had seen; I even tweeted a back-of-camera (‘BOC’) image of dreadful quality out to the world, perhaps as a further attempt at ‘making real’ what I had just seen.

For the benefit of those who might be tempted to go, or just for the visually curious, here is a map showing what happened…

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Just left of ‘A’ is the crossroads at Blunt’s Corner; ‘S’ marks the spot where the Shrike was seen, just to the left of the Copse showing as a green pimple; and, ‘P’ is where I first saw the Pallid Harrier, the direction it flew until it disappeared from view in the long copse at ‘?’

Norfolk – Cley and Winterton

Flushed with success, I left Blunt’s corner as the news had started percolating into the arrival of the twitch. I re-lived my Shrike-finder-shame with an elderly local gentleman who arrived:
Me: There was also a GG Shrike in that field just there.
Man: Oh ah! I saw that on compoot’ah.

Cley is, of course, a mini kingdom of birding legend – where so many rare birds have been seen; where the very tribe of ‘birders’ seemed to autochthonously appear in the 1950s and ’60s; where the great stories of the ’70s and ’80s were sown and shared; and, where such things happened as the re-introduction of the Avocet.

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Cley-next-the-Sea from Cley Marshes

To think that Avocet didn’t breed in the UK for around one hundred years seems remarkable now, as I have watched hundreds of them over the last few days, but similar stories are true also of the Marsh Harrier and Red Kite. I watched them all from Cley, along with another suspiciously narrow-winged harrier up over the hill.

But I soon headed further down the coast on reports that 12 Snow Bunting had just landed on the beach at Winterton. I walked the huge  stunning sandy beach and back up over the grassy dunes but there was no sign of the arrivals.

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Winterton

After the Snow Bunting, I then also ‘dipped’ a Cattle Egret and so decided to say goodbye to Norfolk and drove further south to Suffolk.

Suffolk – Minsmere

By the time I arrived at Minsmere, I felt like I was ticking off great reserves, rather than great birds (Titchwell, Cley, and Minsmere have all got to be well ‘up there’ amongst the premier birding sites in the UK).

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Minsmere

I arrived at about 3.30pm and felt a bit hand-held as I was helpfully shown Garganey (year tick) from one side of a hide, and White Wagtail (would be a year tick if it was recognised as a different species) from another:

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Male Garganey (Anas querquedula)

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

And with that, my Eastern birding trip came to a close and I can also sign off this rather epic account.

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Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) at Minsmere

*The fifteen year-ticks during this ‘trip’ were:
Rook
Marsh Harrier
Turnstone
Spoonbill
Avocet
Corn Bunting
Brent Goose
Velvet Scoter (Life tick)
Grey Plover
Grey Partridge
Red-legged Partridge
Garganey
Great Grey Shrike
Pallid Harrier (Life tick)
Yellowhammer

For fun, amongst the birds I tried to see, but failed – the dips – were:
Common Scoter – would’ve been year tick
Water Pipit – not ‘needed’
Cattle Egret – would’ve been year tick
Snow Bunting – would’ve been life tick

The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

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The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

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Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

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The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

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Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

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Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

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Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

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Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

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Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XIX (birding in mist and fog)

A foggy patch

The Wanstead Flats often wears a coat of early-morning mist.

Western Flats at dawn

Western Flats at dawn

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats

Two weekends ago I walked around mesmerised by the familiar landscape and how different it can appear. As the sun rose, the mist disappeared like it was a mirage, and the day blazed with early-autumn warmth.

Water Rail
At the other end of the patch, literally the eastern extremity from my home in the West, I bumped into Bob Vaughn by the river Roding. He had just been watching two Water Rail wade and swim against the flow of the river. We stayed together for a while and eventually Bob spotted one of them in the distance gingerly poking its head out of the reeds in that way that rails do. That was my 94th patch tick of the year.

It was a long way away, but I managed to get this snap of it in the distance:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

If your BS detector isn’t squealing at you now like a water rail, then it should be. The photo above is actually one I took in January of this year at Rainham when I was literally a few feet away from the bird which was out in the open – a highly unusual situation. The actual photo I took in Wanstead wasn’t quite as good:

Water Rail

I stayed ‘with’ the rail for about an hour and was peering at the place where it had been from across the river when a pig started squealing beneath my feet. Of course, it wasn’t a pig. It was the other water rail hidden deep in the reeds below me.

Misty river
The following weekend I drove out to the Thames at Rainham in Essex. The area is known as ‘stone barges’ after the concrete and steel barges moored there – it blows my mind that these things actually floated, but apparently they were actually used during the second world war to transport fuel (I am feeling slightly scared I am being gullible just writing this).

Unlike the low carpet of fog on the patch the weekend before, the Thames at Rainham was engulfed in mist.

I walked along, with my scope, watching Redshank, tens of Meadow Pipits, a probable Tree Pipit, a distant Wheatear, loads of skylark, and a Stonechat (some of them captured far better than I did by local birder, Shaun Harvey, who I met along the way). A dog-walker stopped me and commented that it wasn’t very good weather to take photos. I was a bit confused as I wasn’t taking photos, I was looking through a spotting scope, but I exchanged pleasantries and walked on.

It was only after we had parted ways that I realised how much I disagreed with the man. It is true that the cloud joined earth and sky with a blurring or negating of horizon like some bridge between the elements, but just as watercolour often displays a washed out bleakness in art, so can the camera pick up some of the mood of this weather. Perhaps pathetic fallacy in action, although my mood was pretty good and clear but I just wanted to show I haven’t forgotten my literary terms from my days in academia:

Thames at Rainham

Thames at Rainham

Thames

Thames

Later that day I also visited the nearby RSPB reserve – on the other side of the gigantic rubbish dump from Stone Barges – where I listened to numerous Cetti’s Warbler with their calls exploding out of the mist and watched a distant Heron move through the dense atmosphere; the moisture in the air removing most of the colour from the scene, but none of the beauty:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

And eventually, that evening, when the fog had gone (if you are questioning my use of ‘mist’ and ‘fog’ interchangeably, I believe I am correct in understanding these blurry weather forms are indeed blurred in definition as well), I raised my eyes to the newly blue sky. There in the far and high distance, was a dot. That dot was a soaring Marsh Harrier, that I ambitiously pointed my camera at:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Wilson’s and a Wheatear with a river in between

Kent: Part I

A trip to Elmley Marshes in Kent just over a week ago allowed me to get pretty close to a Wheatear:

Northern Wheater (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheater (Oenanthe oenanthe)

A Yellow Wagtail landed on another post almost as close but flew before I could point my lens at it. On the Safari-style drive out of Elmley, I found another feeding next to a cow:

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima)

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima)

Elmley rarely fails to deliver a Marsh Harrier and my latest trip was no exception:

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

As I have described before, the vast, beautiful, but bleak wetland stretches out to become farmland. I took the photo below in March last year to show (just about) a Peregrine perched on a post outside of a barn:

Peregrine in front of barn

Peregrine in front of barn

I looked back in the same direction on my latest visit and found a Common Buzzard perched in a similar place to the Peregrine 17 months before. I focused my telescope on the Buzzard and it promptly took off. Any birder will know how hard it is to track a moving bird at high magnification, but I more or less managed it. Suddenly there was a flash of white in my eye-piece and I momentarily thought that Buzzard had somehow grabbed a passing gull. The Buzzard and the white bird tussled and span in mid air. It wasn’t a gull though, it was a Barn Owl. As I focused on the mid-air scrap, the Barn Owl seemed to be the better off and had clearly initiated the attack on the Buzzard. The birds parted and the Barn Owl flew back into the large window hole shown in my photo above of the barn. It had clearly taken umbrage at the Buzzard’s presence so close to the barn. I have no photographs of this rapid and distant incident, but it is a memory that will remain etched in my mind.

I walked back to the car park and past the Wheatear again on a slightly different post and now bathed in the golden light of early evening:

Wheatear

Wheatear

The photos are not exactly Jonathan Lethbridge standards, but I was pleased with them nonetheless.

As I left the reserve, the air was thick with Hirundines. Mainly Swallows, but also House and Sand Martins.

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

By the time I was turning out of the reserve I glanced to my right and saw that they had concentrated in a meadow where they almost swarmed quite possibly in their thousands.

I drove off a happy chap and went deeper into to Kent to visit a friend.

Kent: Part II
The following day, my friend and I drove out before dawn to Oare Marshes. The fantastic reserve juts out into The Swale – the thin strip of sea (despite appearances it is not a river) that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the Kent mainland:

The Swale

I had read about recent sightings on the Kent Ornithological Society website where a Messr Wright had written that, “The regular Hobby was in the lone Elder west of the road as usual first thing.” As we arrived in the pre-dawn gloom I looked west of the road and, sure enough, there was the the little falcon in the tree as described (excuse the poor phone-scoping):

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

We walked along the sea-wall and identified a number of waders on the muddy flats of the Swale including Curlew, Dunlin…

Winter plummage Dunlin (Calidris alpina) on the right with unidentified wader to the left - it could be another Dunlin, but the bill looks more Knot-like to me

Winter plumage Dunlin (Calidris alpina) on the right with unidentified wader to the left – it could be another Dunlin, but the bill looks more Knot-like to me

… and, Golden Plover:

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) still in summer plumage

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) still in summer plumage

As we turned down to face the Oare Creek, I saw two small terns fly past in the distance. I am at least 80% sure that they were Little Tern, birds I have only seen before in France, but they were just a little too distant for me to reliably give myself the UK tick.

Back inland, the actual Oare Marshes were coming alive with activity. Soon after we arrived, around 400 Black-tailed Godwit flew in:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Some of the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit

Aside from the ‘Blackwits’, there were snipe, little egrets and Ruff:

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) - a white variant male in breeding plumage

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – a white variant male in breeding plumage

Essex
Yesterday I drove North of the Thames into Essex to Vange Marsh:

Vange Marsh marked 'X' with Oare as 'Y' and Elmley, 'Z'

Vange Marsh marked ‘X’ with Oare as ‘Y’ and Elmley, ‘Z’ with the River Thames in between

I drove with a specific purpose. It was my first Essex twitch. A Wilson’s Phalarope has remained there for a few days. The rare American vagrant was just too much of a pull to miss, although soon after my arrival a hunting Marsh Harrier almost made sure that nobody else got to see this rarity. Luckily it survived the swooping attack.

After the long walk to the site, the frenetically-feeding tiny wader was just identifiable through the scope at maximum magnification:

Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) just visible in winter plumage

Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) just visible in winter plumage

Before screwing your face up too much at the shoddy image, please note that this bird is little bigger than a thrush, is almost a quarter of a mile away and is photographed through an iPhone pressed up to a scope eyepiece!

Distant it may have been, but that is a great rarity to have seen barely 40 minutes drive from my house. Stay tuned for more twitches likely in the future.

My trusty scope and the rest of 'the twitch'

My trust scope and the rest of ‘the twitch’

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…

Lydd-on-Sea

… and then a sandy beach …

Lydd

… 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

Ruff weather birding

The great thing about early year birding is that it is relatively easy to find birds to add to your year list.

Ignoring the weather warnings, I drove to three of the best birding sites in the South East to boost my list: Rainham Marshes (a very brief visit, looking through a fence before they opened); Elmley Marshes; and Cliffe Pools.

At Rainham I quickly ticked off:

  • Common Shelduck
  • Eurasian Teal
  • Northern Pintail
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Redwing
  • European Goldfinch

… and then (because I was too impatient to wait for it to open) promptly drove on to Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey …

Elmley Marshes

I first visited Elmley Marshes Nature Reserve in January last year. The wildlife was fantastic despite the terrible weather. Yesterday, it was a bit windy, but a lot nicer. However, when I had a walked a for a couple of miles and turned around to walk back to the car, the strong winds had brought some stormy weather with them. It was like being hit by a wall of stinging vertical rain and hail that was thrown into my face with gale force winds that, at times, stopped me from moving.

I eventually got back to the car, changed my soaking trousers, and drove on to Cliffe.

But, before this, and aside from the 20-30 minute long weather adventure, I also saw some great birds:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

(That last photo was taken hastily through my car windscreen once I had time to stop the car and grab my camera from its bag. By the time I had wound down the window for a better shot, the Harrier had plunged into long grass)

Aside from these birds, I also added the following to my New Year list:

  • Common Chaffinch
  • Rook
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Reed Bunting
  • Stonechat
  • Pheasant

On the way between sites I stopped to look at an estuary and take a picture of a bridge:

Bridge

Before watching some enormous but very distant flocks of Lapwing and other waders at Cliffe:

Flock

I didn’t get any good shots of birds at Cliffe, but I did add the following three to my year-list:

  • Common Kestrel
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Common Goldeneye

I finished the day with a year list of 58 and watched the Sun set over the Thames Estuary:

Thames