Tag Archives: Reed Bunting

January 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I didn’t write a review for December as my birding was limited somewhat by the arrival of my son. In January, the nature of birding has also changed: short trips rather than long patch walks are now modus operandi. I made 10 patch visits during January and recorded a total of 65 species of birds. As it is January, they were all year ticks (obvs!), but no patch life ticks.

Highlights were:

  • Re-finding the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (the one I first found in november last year) about 200 metres south of where I first found it.
  • Finding an interesting Chiffchaff by the stables on 25 January. My initial instinct was ‘Siberian’ (tristis) but perhaps more likely to be abientus race or even just an ‘interesting’ collybita.
  • Connecting with one of Tony’s first winter Caspian Gull on Alex on 19 Jan.
  • Finding Firecrest and Treecreeper in Bush Wood in two short trips on 2 Jan and 4 Jan respectively.
  • Record numbers (11 for me) of Reed Bunting on the deck in the birches in SSSI on 20 Jan.
  • Having some quality time with Little Owl in one of Copses on 20 Jan until a Grey Squirrel decided to jump almost on top of it.

Lowlights were:

  • Realising the Chiffchaff was probably not a ‘Siberian’ despite some initial excitement.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Having a close encounter with a Sparrowhawk and an unfortunate Feral Pigeon on my next-door-neighbour’s door-step (see photo below).
  • Connecting again, this side of the New Year, with the regular wintering, now 5th calendar year Caspian Gull on the hyper-local, but just off-patch, Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook.
  • Finding Bearded Tit (Reedling), a local scarcity, at Dorney Wetlands near Maidenhead.

My birding month in five pictures:

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One of Tony’s 1st Winter Caspian Gulls on Alex

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Jay in Old Sewage Works

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The ‘interesting’ Chiffchaff

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Red Kite over the Jubilee River

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Sparrowhawk and pigeon right outside my house

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Rustic Bunting

I am so flabbergasted by the fact that today I saw a Rustic Bunting on my Patch in London (only the third London record ever), that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

It was found, of course, by our very own rarity-finder-in-chief, Nick Croft. The guy really is a patch birding legend.

My experience of the Rustic Bunting saga went something like this (I have emboldened the primary emotions to try and take you on my personal journey):

  1. 17 Oct, 17:00: See on Twitter that Nick has found Rustic Bunting – at first almost literal incredulity. Even looking at a picture of it, I somehow still couldn’t comprehend that it was true.
  2. 17 Oct, 17:30: Realise I am not going to be able to leave work to try and find the bird. Disappointment and strong almost primal urge to be there on the Patch as I look out of my office window a few miles south.
  3. 18 Oct, 01:00: Can’t sleep but realise I will be knackered tomorrow when I get up for the likely fruitless search for the bird before work.
  4. 18 Oct, 07:20: Walking around on the Patch, searching. Not very hopeful.
  5. 18 Oct, 07:50: Rob and I see a bunting fly out from one bush into the burnt area of the Brooms. Hope / anticipation.
  6. 18 Oct, 07:55:Bunting pops up on top of bush. Facial markings perfect for Rustic Bunting. But views are super short. Shock!
  7. 18 Oct, 08:15: After very brief view bird disappeared and nowhere to be seen. My immediate joy is displaced by the seeds of doubt. Did I really just see that?
  8. 18 Oct, 08:30: Realisation that I soon need to go to work and the views I have had (better than most of the other people there looking) were painfully fleeting. Dissatisfaction.
  9. 18 Oct, 08:40: Bird re-found by someone and I am on scene getting the first pictures of the day. Elation! Relief! Rapture!
  10. 18 Oct, all day: Slow realisation of the magnitude of getting a full world life tick on the Patch. Gratitude!
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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) with Reed Bunting behind

For a little while, the photo above was the best picture that existed of the now-famous Wanstead Rustic Bunting. Throughout the day, as more birders appeared and seed was put down, some far better pictures emerged. But that special moment when I knew in my heart that I had seen and photographed a Rustic Bunting on my Patch will probably never leave me as a great memory.

Soon after the photo above was taken, both buntings took flight circled around the gang of twitchers and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun. As the birders gathered around the long grass where we expected the birds had dropped down into, I took one last picture of the twitch and went off to work a very happy man.

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The ‘twitch shot’ – many others appeared throughout the day

I am delighted to say that all of the Patch regulars managed to see the bird throughout the day, which makes celebration of the find easier. Everyone who saw the bird will have had a slightly different experience and journey of emotions. That is one of the beautiful things about birding.

Nick, I salute you!

This Hobby of mine

Spring has been, temporarily (?), catapulted into summer on this first May Bank Holiday. Record breaking temperatures and clear blue skies. Perfect for raptors. I’ve already seen four Red Kite this Spring, which is four more than I saw last year, and the year before that! And yesterday I saw two birds, including this one with a missing eighth primary feather on its left wing.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

It was also a fantastic day for Hobby. All over East London good numbers were seen. I can’t be sure exactly how many birds I saw in the multiple sightings I had, or whether they were all repeats, but I can be sure there are at least two as I watched a pair circle each other effortlessly, getting higher and higher over the Old Sewage Works, their bright red trousers showing well in the sunshine.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

At one point I even saw one of them sweep past me with avian prey in its talons. This was possibly the first hirundine I saw on the day as there seem to be strangely few around the Patch yet. I picked up a few Swift distantly over Ilford and, later, when dozing in the sun on the Western Flats, I eventually watched a couple of Swallow fly overhead in the early evening. But I have now gone longer through the year than any previous year without seeing House Martin and Sand Martin.

The advanced and unseasonably hot weather enhances the feeling that Spring passage migration is over, emphasised even more by the lack of Wheatear on the Patch. I have probably missed the chance for Spring Redstart, Whinchat, and – most sadly – Ring Ouzel.  We have had record Ring Ouzel for the Spring, but I have seen none of them. I shall have to wait for their return in Autumn when they are normally slightly easier.

But it is hard to be too disappointed when watching birds in glorious weather. Lesser Whitethroat are singing in multiple locations, we have a couple of singing Willow Warbler, territorial Reed Bunting, and a singing Reed Warbler. All of these are small and fragile numbers across the Patch, but still more common than our warbler hopes of Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Garden Warbler which are all still missing from the Patch list so far this year.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)

Little Bunting: a crucial ten seconds in the cold rain

I woke up early this morning and dashed to the window to peak through the blinds. Just as a child on Christmas morning might be disappointed not to see a sprinkling of snow imprinted with fresh sled tracks and reindeer hoof-prints on the roofs, I was disappointed to see rain.

I checked Twitter and typed the words ‘Little Bunting‘ into the search bar and saw someone complaining that Walthamstow Wetlands didn’t open for another hour and a half.

I went back to bed.

I hadn’t slept well. Maybe it was because of the anxiety of whether I would life tick Little Bunting in London today (as one had been found the day before). Or maybe it was because of the huge quantity of caffeine I had imbibed last night to get me through Friday evening work and meetings. *shrugs*

By the time I was up and ready, it was late. I gathered my bins and camera and dashed out of the house at lightning waddle. I jumped into the bird-mobile and sped off … nowhere!

The car slouched forward sickeningly slowly like it was wading through treacle or like it had a flat tire… which it did. A neighbouring street recently suffered an attack where every single car on one side of the road had their tires slashed. Perhaps the perpetrator then came to my road to do one more car for good measure before going home for cocoa and bed, their good work done for the day.

Despite being very close, Leytonstone and Walthamstow are trickily connected (by which I mean Walthamstow has the audacity not to be on the Central Line). I didn’t want to waste precious moments running for buses in the rain, so I called an Uber. No, I am not proud.

Before long I was at the Walthamstow Wetlands (my first time there since they opened it as a new reserve) speed-walking past a very cold Tony who told me that the Little Bunting had just been seen once in the last two hours. I dutifully lined up with the green twitch brigade behind yellow and black tape as if we were witnessing a biohazard spillage.

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I stood in the cold and wet for well over an hour. Every now and then buntings would pop up from the weeds and perch in a tree to survey the line of green, wet, almost-bald apes lined up watching them. None of them were the Little Bunting …until one of them was! Hurrah!

A problem with twitches is that people get a bit bored and lazy. There are so many of you standing and watching a bush that you might as well chat to your neighbours and not really watch as someone else will be definitely be keeping an eye out… won’t they? I had been quite diligent and was watching carefully – only partially listening to people arguing about London and Essex boundaries to my left – and saw a small flurry of activity as a bird flew up from the weeds into a bush. A well known listing birder called it before I had even focused my bins: “Little Bunting!” I didn’t have my scope with me but I stared at the perched bird briefly through my rain-misted bins. It looked rather like I have come to learn a Little Bunting should look like, although the angle with which I was observing was rather acute and the head features weren’t as clear as I would have liked, but reddish cheeks and dark crown were in my mind. This was exacerbated by the distance and rain, but tens of people were looking right at it with me, so, safety in numbers, no?

I then scrambled to get my camera out. The strap had somehow got tangled around the lens, making it difficult to extend it out as a manual zoom. I cursed silently. Eventually I managed to take a couple of shots without having time to adjust any settings. The bird had annoyingly now positioned itself so its head – containing all the crucial identification features – was obscured.

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Obscured bunting

Then – and I realise this is a rather long story – something odd happened.  The bird flew horizontally out of the back of the bush but simultaneously managed to appear vertically and immediately above where it had just been. I didn’t let a minor issue, like the fact that it had broken multiple laws of physics, put me off taking lots of pictures of it in its new clearer position – head showing well and everything.  I was delighted! A life tick and photos to prove it! My delight subsided somewhat when I realised that the new bird I was photographing was not a Little Bunting with the ability to warp time and space, but rather a different bird altogether; a Reed Bunting.

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Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

A confused minute or two followed as people looked at a female (in photo above) and then at a male Reed Bunting perched up whilst the Little Bunting was nowhere to be seen. There was some discussion about the LB and backs of cameras were studied. People seemed happy.

Soon after Mr B and then Mr L arrived (both of who have written their own accounts of the day on their blogs which you should also read if this one hasn’t sent you to sleep). We stood for a bit and I picked up two more year ticks: Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. As I had seen the Little Bunting, I left them to warm up and go and see the Scaup on Reservoir Number 4 (the area clearly ran out of  names for their reservoirs as they have so many). It showed well in the rain as it bobbed about with a little raft of Tufted Duck.

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Scaup (Aythya marila) with Tufted Duck to the right

Jono and Lee B had great scope views of the Little Bunting whilst I was off looking at the Scaup (no, I’m not jealous at all). Jono and I then got public transport home together, happy with a good couple of hours birding.

But. Something was wrong. I searched back in my memory for the views I had of the Little Bunting. My first ever of the species in the field. They weren’t very good. In those crucial seconds when it was perched, I wasted time getting my camera out, and taking terrible photos. Photos which – as you can see above – don’t help me very much. In fact, photos which make the bird look suspiciously chestnutty in colour, almost as if it might have been a Reed Bunting. So what am I left with to support my life tick? Inconclusive photos, inconclusive memories of relatively poor views, but clear memories of other people calling it as a Little Bunting.

Sadly that is just not good enough. No life tick for me. The last Little Bunting seen in London was just over a decade ago. Maybe I’ll have to wait another decade to see one, or… maybe… I’ll try again tomorrow.

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Reservoir 4 – where the Scaup was

UPDATE: To find out how I got on the following day, click here.

Days with (not so) rare birds

Today, the weather just got better and better. The day began cold, misty, and cloudy, but the sun burnt through and when my eight hour walk around the patch ended, everything was bathed in a warm golden glow.

But it was when the clouds were full and low in the morning that I ticked off my 70th patch bird of the year. At Cat & Dog pond, I found a pair of Reed Bunting; spotting the female first but soon followed by a male.

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Despite others occasionally seeing them throughout the winter, I had previously searched in vain. But within half an hour of ticking Reed Bunting off my list, I found a second pair in the Brooms by Centre Road.

There was no sign of our Winter, or Spring, Stonechats, but on Angel Pond I checked in on the mass of frogspawn and the feeding gulls (now largely in Spring plumage).

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

It is not just the weather that makes me feel Spring is here or near, the bird song increases each time I come out. Three of the most common songs to be heard on the patch (and indeed across the UK) are those of the Robin, Wren, and Dunnock.

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Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Talking of song birds, I always think that a much overlooked avian vocalist is the Starling. The complexity, variation, and mimicry involved, albeit to many we just hear a series of clicks and whistles, is phenomenal.

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Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Great Crested Grebe
Today (or strictly speaking yesterday as the clock has just struck midnight as I type) I spent quite a bit of time watching the Great Crested Grebe on Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. This began with watching some limited courtship behaviour in the last veils of morning mist.

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Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

Later in the day I was able to get a bit closer to them, and with the sun behind me, I was lit for the chance of a reasonable photo. I even had a tree trunk to lean on. In such beautiful light I was really hoping to draw out the beautiful colours of the grebe. So imagine my frustration when I glanced down at my view-screen and saw that I had somehow knocked a switch and was taking photos in monochrome.

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Accidental monochrome photo, not just me trying to be artistic

By the time I had rectified the situation, the grebes had resurfaced further away making crisp photos harder to achieve.

But seeing the black and white photos transferred me back in time. Back in time over 80 years ago in fact, long before I was born, to a time when a naturalist called Frank Aspinall Lowe was writing. In his great book , Days with Rarer Birds, Lowe reminds us that Great Crested Grebe were once much less common and widespread than they are now.

One of the reasons I like old (bird) books is the beautiful, if somewhat archaic, language used in the descriptions. Lowe describes hearing the call of the Great Crested Grebe as “a harsh groaning,  like that of a cart axle devoid of grease, rended the quiet of the tarn.

Lowe had to go to all sorts of trouble in a remote area to watch this ‘rare’ species, which is now found on every other largish body of water. The change in fortunes was largely down to the RSPB being founded to protect this bird from persecution for its feathers. Indeed, even back in 1930, Lowe notes an improvement: “Under protection, this bird seems to be expanding its range all over the Country“.

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Today, one of them resurfaced from the weeds with a small Tench. As a former angler, I recognised the dark olive sheen, thick tail and rounded fins and remembered the fight these powerful fish used to put up, as well as the thick layer of slime that coated their fine scales. That slime and power appeared to do this fish no good in the grasp of the grebe’s bill, although I was interested that the bird dived with the fish still gripped, presumably to attempt to swallow it underwater.

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With a small Tench (Tinca tinca) prey

Other great piscators I watched today included:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

…and…

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

As well as other water fowl more generally:

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Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

…and finally this portrait of one of our resident Canada Goose:

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

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.

A Big Birding Year: Part XXVII (End of year flurry)

A year ago I visited Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottingham. This morning, whilst staying with the in-laws, I returned to watch the dawn in the snow:

Nottingham dawn

For the British, snow is a novelty (last winter it did not snow once in London) and occasionally an inconvenience. For some of our wildlife, persistent freezing weather can be disastrous – it is estimated that some very cold years will see 30-40% of the individual birds in some species wiped out.

Some of the birds at the Attenborough reserve did not look fussed, like these Mute Swans on the River Trent:

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

However, not all the birds appeared quite so relaxed. This Moorhen approached the cracked ice with some trepidation:

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

… and I detected a greater sense of urgency in the feeding behaviours of some birds such as this female Reed Bunting:

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Moving equally quickly through bushes in search for food was my 101st species of bird photographed in 2014, a bird that would be common to many in the UK, but one I have not seen at all for almost two years and so I was delighted to be reacquainted with:

Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

A frozen Nottingham had further Christmas gifts for my Big Birding Year of photography, my second Goldeneye captured in pixels this year (albeit very far away – excuse extreme blur):

Male Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Male Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Distant ducks would also add to my year list (102):

Goosander [or Common Merganser] (Mergus merganser)

Goosander [or Common Merganser] (Mergus merganser)

And then finally, what is likely to be my last new bird of the year, an absolute gem. Although she remained very far my camera, my 103 species of the year was wonderful and quite rare for the UK. This female Smew will be one of only 100-200 individuals that will have visited the UK this year – I was privileged to end of my year in style:

Smew (Mergellus albellus)

Smew (Mergellus albellus)

Just to remind readers that some ducks do come slightly closer in range, I also took a shots of a Mallard drake:

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

I walked around the frozen landscape reflecting on what has been a wonderful and fun search for British birds and yielded 103 photographs of unique and different species.

I also reminded myself of “the ones that got away”. Birds I saw but which I didn’t get photos of:
Jack Snipe
Bittern
Kingfisher

Happy New Year to you all!

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