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)
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.
Rather like the song, Moon River, the Thames at Cliffe is, quite literally, wider than a mile:
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)
Also in the sky, doing its best impression of a vulture, was a Common Buzzard – the most common British raptor:
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:
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)
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)
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)
… and my first ever photo of a the sea-faring Goldeneye duck:
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.
I got some more snaps of friends I made there last time, such as Curlew:
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)
Elmley also delivered a new wader for me for the year, a couple of distant shots of the colourful Oystercatcher:
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)
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)
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.
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)
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: