Tag Archives: swallow

A late evening twitch: Stone-Curlew

I woke up last Sunday morning intending to right a wrong. Sadly I don’t mean combating a great global injustice. I simply wanted to add a bird to my UK life list.

A Stone-Curlew had been present at RSPB Bowers Marsh at the top of Canvey Island in Essex, about 22 miles due East of my house. But there was no news on the bird sites or social media, so I stayed locally and saw the sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst other things. It was only much later in the day that late news dripped through that the Stone-Curlew was still present. And so I headed out for the 45 minute drive in the evening, somewhat racing against the fading light.

The reserve is accessible 24/7 although the car park was closed. I had the words of a well-known birder ringing in my ears:

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When I arrived, the small lane was littered with literally hundreds of the tiny nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters and a couple of cars were parked up as people conducted a car sale (I didn’t stop to ask them why they needed to be doing that down a deserted lane). I started the walk not knowing how far it would be until the Stone-Curlew would be visible. In fact, I had no idea where the bird might be as I had never visited the reserve before. The closest thing I had to directions were a tweet from someone saying the bird was visible from the ‘two benches’ area.

The empty car park was not quite empty as a father taught his young son how to ride a mini-motorbike. I walked on.

I stopped briefly at the slightly sorry-looking reserve noticeboard and map which confirmed that the reserve was big. super! I walked on.

The skies opened up and were huge with a few Swift still circling (all of our local ones seem to have long-gone) and a few Swallow trickled through. I walked on.

Sign-posts pointed to different bits of the reserve in different directions with mile+ distances attached. I was running out of time and needed some ‘gen’ or some luck quickly. I walked on.

Most of the wetland parts of the reserve were obscured/protected by high hedges. I walked on.

I saw some people in the distance: a chance for local knowledge/help. I walked on.

They turned out to be a couple out for an evening hack on horses. I asked them if they had seen any birders, to which they replied that they had, but some time ago and some distance away. Oh! Thanks. I walked on.

The light seemed to bleed out of the sky faster than ever. I walked on.

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RSPB Bowers Marsh at Dusk

The wind-pumps add to the sense of desolation and slightly foreign feel of the bleak landscape – it felt more like the US Midwest than Essex. I walked on.

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Bowers Marsh, Essex (not Kansas)

And then I stopped.

There were two benches, diagonally opposed and overlooking the water stretching out back towards the car park from whence I had come. I set my ‘scope up tall and stood on one of the benches to get the best possible view. I scanned the parts of the wetland and grassland that looked most promising  for the Stone Curlew, and just as the light was getting so gloomy that it was beginning to get silly, a distant bird scuttled into the view of my scope. My first Stone-Curlew in the UK. Another rather embarrassing gap filled on a list.

 

It was an odd sight. Not the bird, although Stone-Curlew is a strange large-eyed bird, of course, but me in the landscape. A man stood on a bench looking through a telescope at a distant bird on a vast reserve all alone apart from the midges and the weather. I strained the technical capabilities of my iPhone to photograph the Stone-Curlew through my scope.

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Eurasian Stone-Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)

The output was rubbish, of course, but it just about counts as a record shot of a bird I last saw when I spooked a running gaggle (I don’t know what the collective noun is for Stone Curlew) from the hiding place in a parched field in a remote part of Ibiza. The remoteness was even more intense in Essex, but the landscapes could hardly be more different.

As I watched the Stone-Curlew a tiny Yellow Wagtail pottered past in front of it. I was also pleased to see a Black-necked Grebe (possibly two as one disappeared around a corner and another materialised somewhere else suspiciously far away) in mid-moult. I am not sure these birds had been recorded at the site on that weekend by others so a reasonably nice find, perhaps. I photographed the bird in the murky light and remembered the last time had been watching these birds, in full black and gold breeding uniform, like science fiction fascists, in Japan.

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Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

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And here is a photo I took of them in full breeding plumage in Japan earlier this year

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)

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.

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Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


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Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

 

A Big Birding Year: Part XVII (Hammering home my 90th species)

The Jubilee River at Dorney looks the very picture of a quintessential natural English river.

Jubilee River

However, the ‘river’ was shaped by man and is barely 20 years old. Correctly speaking, it is a 7-mile long hydraulic channel, designed to relieve flooding risk from the Thames near Maidenhead. Nature has embraced it so quickly, that it effectively looks and acts like a natural tributary of the Thames. It is the largest man-made river in the country, the second largest in Europe, and attracts as much – if not more – wildlife than the nearby section of the Thames: truly an eco-engineering marvel of the modern age.

There is a section where one can walk along boards through overgrown reeds. The view from space shows a nice clear path looping out in the reeds with square viewing platforms:

Walkway from space - thanks to Google Maps

Walkway from space – thanks to Google Maps

The current reality is somewhat different from when this satellite photo was taken. The boards are heavily overgrown with weeds and reeds. The stinging nettles have grown to at least 2 foot above my head and stung me several times as I pushed my way through, squashing Deadly Nightshade berries beneath my feet as I walked. In the photo taken from my phone below (at point marked with a red ‘X’ on the map above), the path is actually to the immediate left of the nettles:

Nettles

But the scratches and stings were worth it to be immersed inside a wetland habitat which allowed me to get closer to a Reed Warbler than I have ever been before:

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Whilst slightly obscured, it stayed its ground and made quite a lot of noise a few feet away from me as I took his photograph and then moved on. His home was amidst the reeds seen below left (and at point marked with a red ‘Y’ on the map above):

Reeds on river

I also snapped this female Banded Demoiselle amongst the reeds:

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)

On the walk I also managed to get photos of two more bird species to add to my Big Year photo-list:

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

… and…

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

These photos were all taken last weekend on a scorching English summer day. I then drove to another nearby man-made water-feature: my birding nemesis, Staines Reservoir:

Staines Reservoir

Whilst there, aside from photographing distant ducks which turned out just to be mallards, I managed to capture my 90th species of bird in pixels for the year in the UK:

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Whilst my birding year will not break any records, I am quite pleased that in less than 20 birding trips out in the first 7 months of the year, I have photographed 90 species of birds. My target for 100 for the year is within sight.

Northumberland landscapes

The northernmost English county is a beautiful and wild place.

Northumberland road

Northumberland 1

wall and hill

Stream

We spent time in a remote valley for a wedding, only two weeks after our own (the main reason for Iago80’s recent online silence).

Lily

My wife and I were not really equipped for walking in the hills, but that didn’t stop us.

James

As we walked, I attempted to photograph some of the valley’s avian residents…

A female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Female Whinchat

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Meadow Pipit

Female Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch

And Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) fishing in the streams

Grey Heron

It was also rare to look at the sky and not see (unusually) noisy Buzzards, hovering Kestrels, and circling Ravens (although I didn’t get a good enough shot of any of them to share). Seemingly oblivious of the predators, the sky was also often rich with our summer Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and House Martins (Delichon urbica).

Swallows