Tag Archives: Short-eared Owl

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.

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Things I saw while searching for a Nightingale

Dawn on the Patch

I think I carried the scars of missing the patch Nightingale through to this long weekend. I determined that I would find good birds on the Patch and find a Nightingale somewhere. Anywhere.

And so a pretty frenetic three days of birding followed; starting, as it should, at dawn on the Patch…

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Sunrise on the Wanstead Flats

Saturday morning began very early; I was up just after 5am and out shortly afterwards. The combination of the early morning light and our low-lying mist, bathes everything in gold and it reminded me why dawn is my favourite time.

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

The golden light was not auspicious, however. It soon became a beautiful day, but the birding was poor. No interesting new migrants had stopped over, although there were a few Wheatear around (it seems to be an exceptional year for them), which we had fun photographing (see here and here for better versions of my effort below).

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

There were, of course, other birds on the Patch, but none that whet the April appetite of listing birders.

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Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Therfield, Hertfordshire

And so news of Dotterel in a field less than an hour’s drive away had me dashing for my car and promptly missing my second Sedge Warbler (which would have been a patch tick for me) in the space of week.

But I can’t complain. Sometimes we need a change of scenery and seeing Dotterel so far South is always a special occasion and it was an England tick for me, and my first ever clear views.

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Female Eurasian Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus)

Two pairs showed nicely, although the relatively drab males often required re-finding due to their camouflaged plumage.

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Male Dotterel

Watching Dotterel whilst the sounds of Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting provided a wonderful, rustic backdrop (see videos here and here), was, simply, special.

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Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

East Tilbury

On the way back, I dropped in at one of my favourite Thames-side sites, East Tilbury as I heard that both Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler had been heard that morning. I didn’t find them, but I did enjoy some other year ticks in the form of Short-eared Owl, Cuckoo, and Whimbrel.

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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

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Common Cuckoo* (Cuculus canorus)

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

But even while not ticking off new birds for the year, the birding was excellent. The SSSI scrub and grassland (on the other side of the flood defences and expansive reed-beds and mudflats) are just full of migrant warblers and some very showy pairs of Stonechat amongst other things.

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Male Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Also videoed calling here.

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Female Stonechat

I love how easily you can get lost in the wildness of the scrub, full of birdsong, be alerted to a flock of Whimbrel calling (I had one flock, or ‘fling’ of 12 birds pass by down the Thames) and then see a 25,000 ton oil tanker pass right by. Surreal!

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‘Baltic Faith’ obviously with full cargo as sitting low in the water

The Blean

I then drove to the other side of the Thames and visited a friend in Canterbury for dinner and drinks. The next morning, while out walking with my friend and his dog, and… hangover aside… partially plotting my best place to find a Nightingale, I heard a … er… Nightingale.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Blean Woods – where we were walking – is known to hold an important population of Nightingale. I had no intention of trying to see this elusive and protected bird, but it flew right up into view (videoed singing here)…

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Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

I even heard a second Nightingale singing as we walked through this truly stunning ancient woodland.

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English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the Blean

Back to the Patch

So instead of driving around Kent trying to find my favourite bird, I left after breakfast and got back to the Patch to tick off Whinchat for the year – a pair were showing as well as five Wheatear all lined up on the path.

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This morning I gave myself a lie-in, which cost me another patch-life-tick in the shape of Rook, but I was able to get into the Brooms in time to see my first Swift and House Martin for the year, as well as being alerted by Jono to my first patch Common Tern for two years with three flying very high over indeed.

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Record shot of Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Rainham Marshes and the Thames at Rainham

But again, soon, the allure of more exotic birds off patch proved too magnetic and so I whipped down to Rainham Marshes where I dipped Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, but made up for it by getting year ticks out of Bar-tailed Godwit, and Greenshank, and a full blown London life-tick in the form of Little Gull.

Luckily I was river-watching with a couple of much younger and much better birders than me who helped locate the Little Gull on the other side of the Thames, in time for me to get my scope on it and just about get enough ‘on it’ to tick it for the year. To give you sense of how far away it was, here is the digi-scoped view (although it did look a bit better before my iPhone mashed up the pixels):

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Distant Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) preening on a buoy (bill tucked into feathers)

We then had it (or a different bird??) much closer and on our side of the river. The two young guys dashed off for a photo whilst I stayed with Nick and admired it through the scope as it settled on the mud. When it looked like it was going to sleep I waddled off after the teenagers in comic pursuit. Having stopped jogging a few times due to lack of fitness and a distracting Short-eared Owl on the adjacent marshes, I arrived too late to take its picture (according to Nick who had been watching the scene from afar, the bird ascended rapture-like vertically up in the air and out of sight!!). This is one of the photos Dante took of the same bird; to get an idea of what I should have been posting.

Little Gull

The impressive Dante had already scored big earlier in the day with a Black Tern. This grates a little as I have never seen one, apart from a ‘probable’ over Canary Wharf a couple of years ago (when I was without bins) and another, today, on the other side of the Thames that I watched for a while but couldn’t get enough on to be sure (I still maintain it was smaller, darker, and sleeker than accompanying Commons, but the better birders didn’t come to my rescue – I’m unclear as to whether they didn’t see it or whether they were stood behind me shaking their heads).

It then started raining so hard that we left the hardy young birders to it and went back via the Grasshopper Warbler bush, that was annoyingly empty of Grasshopper Warblers. Its commoner cousins were showing and sounding well across the reserve, including an unusually showy, Sedge Warbler (also videoed in song here).

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

So, three days of birding, a couple of big dips on the patch, a few more off the patch, but some amazing experiences and my patch year list nudges up to 91 with four new additions, and my UK year list grows by a giddy 12 to the barely-respectable total of 137 as we enter May (Nick has seen more than that in the month of April alone, but he is properly year-listing at the moment).

Post Scriptum: a legless lizard (and no, that’s not my nickname)

I also got another lifer this weekend, in the form of a reptile in Kent.

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Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

Which, in turn prompted me to check our own reptile mats back on the Patch:

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Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

I know this account sounds a bit like a cold ‘tick fest’, but if I had got all poetic over the experiences I had (as is sometimes my want) rather than just quickly listing things I saw, you would probably still be reading this post by the time next weekend appears.

*The photo of the Cuckoo is actually from Rainham Marshes two days after my Tilbury visit, but why allow accuracy to get in the way of narrative!

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

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

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

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

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

Cliffe Pools

Sheep

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

Thames

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

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

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

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

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

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

Flock

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

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

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

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

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

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

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

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

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

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

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

Elmley Marshes

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

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

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

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

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

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

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

Birders

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

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

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

Elmley sunset

Elmley sunset 2