Tag Archives: Sparrowhawk

The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.

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200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.

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12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.

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Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and the … err… Lesser Whitethroat): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.

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“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.

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Life beginning and ending in the wood

It may not match the scale of the ocean of Bluebells in Blean Woods, but our very own Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park – with a little help from our conservation group – puts on a pretty impressive show every year as well. Even now they are past their best, it is still an arresting sight. The peculiar combination of Bluebells with Beech – the ‘Mother of Forests’ is a true source of wonder – the deep blue-purple of Bluebell combined with the fresh life of new green Beech leaves just… works.

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Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park

I have been spending a bit of time recently in a wood at the other end of Wanstead Park: Reservoir Wood (so called because the large man-made lake that used to be located here in the palatial grounds of Wanstead House). And I have witnessed the hope that comes from the beginnings of wild-life. A Nuthatch – a scarcely seen bird on the patch with a bill full of invertebrates; a sure sign that it has bred successfully and that somewhere close by a nest of gaping mouths awaits.

Much later at night in the same wood I heard the squeaks of new life as well. Two young Tawny Owls squeaking constantly and the occasional contact call of the mother. Nothing seen, but recorded here in a video I took.

I also heard the loud squeaks of a very different sort a couple of days before; or more accurately the squawks of death. A female Sparrowhawk startled me with how closely it swooped past me and, before I could even focus, it had a Starling upside down in her talons. The terrible screams continued for a about a minute after the hawk had taken its unfortunate prey off into the seclusion of branch and leaf. The remaining flock of Starlings circled, alarmed and useless but unwilling to leave the scene immediately as if in hope that their comrade would return to them. But, of course, that was never going to happen. The woodland brought life and death, and… maybe life again as it reminded me of when I watched fledging Sparrowhawks in the neighbouring wood back in 2015.

Good Friday for warblers

Last year Willow Warbler seemed like a scarce find on the Patch. One male stayed and sang a lot in a copse we call Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI. In fact it spent much of its time mimicking Chiffchaff with its song slurring from one to the other … “chiff chaff chiff chaff-chew-chew-cheew”, somewhat resembling the famous lyrics from the Beatles’ I am the Walrus: ‘Goo goo g’joob’. And that seemed to be it. Maybe one or two other passage WWs passed through, but it seemed to be a one bird show from that part of the phyllosc family spectrum.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

This year is different. On Good Friday, I counted seven singing male Willow Warbler (video here) on my walk around the Patch – which smashed my previous Patch record – and the following day, two were heard in an area I didn’t even visit. I was particularly pleased to pick up one singing in the hyper-local Bush Wood – a first for me. There is every possibility that they number in double figures.

There were, of course, lots more Chiffchaff.

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

But even the singing Chiffchaff were significantly outnumbered by singing Blackcap – they must have exceeded peak saturation point now, and I imagine some will soon be moving on to find territories elsewhere.

I was out on the Patch to find the early arrivals of one of the Blackcap’s Sylvian cousins: Whitethroat. But none of their scratchy songs could be heard in the prime real estate locations of the scrubby SSSI. However, I did pick up a short arching refrain from Lesser Whitethroat deep within Hawthorn whilst watching a much showier Willow Warbler perform.

Bob had relayed news of a singing Whitethroat by the Roding, so I trekked across the Patch to listen out. Still no sound, but I did hear the explosive burst of something even even more welcome; Cetti’s Warbler. Two fast bursts of song and then nothing. No sight, and no further sound. But none was needed – Cetti’s was back. Last year we had our first ever record on the Patch! As this species spreads across territories and its population increases, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but I was still delighted to find it. As I write, most of my patch colleagues have now caught up with it.

Talking of impressive bird song, I had stopped in the area known as the Old Sewage Works to listen to a singing Mistle Thrush and was amazed to hear what I believe is car alarm mimicry – audible towards the end of this short video clip.

Aside from Lesser Whitethroat, and Cetti’s, I increased my Patch year list with a third tick in the form of a flushed Snipe in the Brooms following an earlier tip-off:

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Bob, Richard and I also watched a crow chase and harry a Sparrowhawk way up above the Broom fields.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Song of Spring

Lo! where the rosy-bosom’d Hours, 
Fair Venus’ train appear, 
Disclose the long-expecting flowers, 
And wake the purple year! 
The Attic warbler pours her throat, 
Responsive to the cuckoo’s note, 
The untaught harmony of spring: 
While whisp’ring pleasure as they fly, 
Cool zephyrs thro’ the clear blue sky 
Their gather’d fragrance fling.
– Thomas Gray, Ode to Spring

I genuinely enjoy all the seasons, but I won’t be original if I admit that Spring is my favourite. Yesterday, the Patch was screaming with the sights, sounds, and smells of early Spring.

It feels like we must must be close to peak Chiffchaff territory saturation; they are singing everywhere.

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I also caught up up with my first Blackcap on the Patch for the year, finding a singing male just South of Heronry Pond on Wanstead Flats.

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Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

We are obviously still waiting for most of our Summer migrants to arrive, and all the patch birders have been hoping for an early, interesting, passage migrant. It looks like we will have to wait a little longer. I got my hopes up momentarily when a finch briefly perched in a small tree in the Brooms early on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Twite, but a female Linnet – despite my naive hopes based, partly, on the fact that Linnet are rarely seen on the Patch far from around the Jubilee pond.

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Common Linnet (Linaria cannabina)

Spring is showing her wares in other, non-avian, forms too. The yellows have it with the March flowers at the moment on the patch.

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Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

The dandelion above may be common in name and status (amongst that huge and complicated plant family) but they are so magnificent when you stop to look at them; like staring into the sun with its layers and flares and knowing that it will also produce a moon of seeds later in the year. But even more impossibly yellow – albeit also very common on the Patch – is the celandine.

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Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

These early pollen providers, seem to be competing only with the nettles and Blackthorn on the Patch at the moment in terms of nectar for our early butterflies.

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Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

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Blackthorn flower in detail

Without these early pollen traps there would be no early butterflies. We have now had most of the butterflies we could expect for this time of year, although I am still missing Comma, but yesterday saw Brimstone, Peacock, and Small Tortoiseshell around the Patch.

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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Like so many species, the common nature of the Small Tortoiseshell can obscure the fact that it should be far more populous and has undergone shocking falls in numbers in the past few decades.The Spring air made me search for evidence of reproduction in every corner of the Patch, whether it was the mating Robins, or the:

Paired up Stock Dove in the Dell:

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Just one of the pair of Dell Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

A circling pair of Sparrowhawk.

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Female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nissus)

I was also pleased to tick off a calling Nuthatch, finally found – in a very vocal mood – in the Reservoir Wood.

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Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

So, nothing to report that will elicit much of a twitch on the patch, but nonetheless it is just great to be out on a beautiful Spring day.

Days with rarer birds

With one day as an exception (I was hungover), I have been out on the patch every day for the past few days. I had some holiday to ‘use up’ and we had to wait to finish some ‘things’ before flying to the second patch in France.

But really I was out because I knew I would miss things on the patch being away for 11 days at a crucial migratory period. I knew I had a good chance to see Sand Martin and Wheatear before I left:

  • Sand Martin appeared on the patch by 15 March in 2014 and by 14 March in 2015
  • Wheatear showed itself by 20 March in 2014 and by 18 March in 2015

But, it wasn’t to be. Sand Martin made a fly-by on the patch today (24 March) after I had already flown down to the South of France. Our white-arsed friends still haven’t been seen – despite moving up much of the West of the country. I did get a year tick of Buzzard flying very high over the Broom fields:

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

I also had Peregrine Falcon even higher, and Sparrowhawk flying over the cables between pylons:

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

While scanning the skies for raptors, a Sand Martin, or even an early Swallow, it is easy to forget the bird-of-prey much closer to the ground that frequents the patch:

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Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

On Monday, I gave up after a hard search for migrants and went and got a big fat tick in small park pond in South London. Bizarrely, a female Common Scoter seemingly flew up the Estuary, carried on going, flapped over some concrete and settled  for a couple of days (so far) next to some row boats while school children ran around in circles.

I stayed for over an hour while it stubbornly remained in the middle of the pond. But then, as I finally decided to go, the sea-faring duck paddled towards me and moved into the rays of gorgeous sunshine we had on that day to allow me to get a half decent photo.

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Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra)

Seven Corvids, two days
On the morning I was due to fly to France, I made one last ditch early effort to get a new migrant. I met with Bob and Nick, who told me that Rook – a very rare bird on the patch – had been seen locally. We didn’t get the migrants or a Rook (although Nick did get one today), but we got something even better and rarer. Bob found us a Hooded Crow! Another London tick for me, and I got a photo or two to record the event (albeit not the greatest):

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Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)

To give you a sense of how unusual an event this was, it is worth quoting Andrew Self’s ‘Birds of London’:

The Scandinavian birds that used to winter in England now rarely venture south due to climate change resulting in very few Hooded Crows now being recorded in Southern England. Since 2000 the only record in the London Area was at Leyton on 8 April 2010.

Nick and Dan actually had a flyover last year, but this time we got photographic evidence.

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 Now, I am in France and have a whole different set of birds to play with (not literally of course!) including new Corvids. Today I have seen our resident Ravens and Red-billed Chough meaning I have seen seven species of Corvid in two days (and that is without seeing a Rook).

A Big Birding Year: Part XII (summer migrants)

Having been out of the birding loop for a few weeks (including being out of the country for a couple), I returned to find that the steady march of Spring and Summer continues at pace.

My quest to see as many species of bird in a year benefitted from the fact that many Summer arrivals are now in our skies, trees, hedgerows, and reeds.

At the London Wetland Centre on Saturday, I added eight new birds to my year list, five of which were summer migrants…

Such as the noisy but secretive Reed Warbler:

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

… and the notoriously nondescript Garden Warbler (also notoriously badly named, as it is rarely found in gardens):

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

More difficult to photograph than even these shy warblers, were some of the speed demons of our summer skies, such as:

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

… and one of the few birds able to predate on such small and swift acrobats…

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

… although, while I watched it whip about effortlessly in the sky, it was simply feeding on insects and avoiding persistent mobbing from gulls (the photo below illustrating quite clearly how small the hobby is):

Hobby and gull

Also out patrolling the skies was a permanent UK resident:

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Far out in the wetland, I noticed something scuttle past a roosting goose. You may need to look hard just to find it. Whilst the photo is poor, it clearly shows just how tiny Little Ringed Plovers are in comparison to the Canada Goose (and in response to your inevitably raised eyebrow, I don’t know why such a bulky bird finds it comfortable to sleep on one leg either!):

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) to the right of the roosting Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) to the right of the roosting Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

…and finally, another blurry shot of the last of the common UK pigeons to be added to my year list:

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

This set of birds took my tally of species up to 82 for the year so far. Here are a few more Spring snaps I took in Barnes:

Mallard ducklings (Anas platyrhinchos)

Mallard ducklings (Anas platyrhinchos)

Eurasian Coot with chick (Fulica atra)

Eurasian Coot with chick (Fulica atra)

And finally, letting everyone know that some birds are here all year round and that not everything changes…

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)