Sunday, 18 March 2018


The media dubbed a recent old fashioned snow flurry as "The beast from the east", the snow's terrible for many birds if it hangs around long but does provide some close views of birds taking a few more risks to intake the needed calories.  The garden was visited by a wider variety of species and the reflected light illuminating the underside of birds makes plumage sing.

Possibly displaced by the cold weather an immature Shag appeared at the Cambridge Research Park over a week ago but I kept missing it.  Today I did see it but it was hidden away under a jetty and I may well have missed it at this spot on my previous visits.

When the bird took to the water it showed well and was a very welcome addition to my Ely10 sightings.

The wind was biting hard, fingers burnt with the cold after a few minutes out of gloves.  I headed to Chain Corner to have a second look at the Ring-necked Duck which was bobbling around in the choppy waters amongst the Pochard.

At Ely Beet Pits a 25 strong flock of Shoveler were spiralling in a tight circle, heads under but pushed towards the centre and the flock was moving in a spiral.  I'm expect that this is an effective way to create a current and draw food closer to the surface but it's the first time I have seen this behaviour, which I'm going to call kettleing, particularly interesting given the reasonable size of the flock.

I was back home by 9 as we were due to visit Walthamstow.  I managed to squeeze in 30 minutes at the Wetlands reserve and took seconds on the Little Bunting which was drawn to a seeded area.  Secretive and keeping within cover the lovely bunting did show closely although the cold again was drilling through to the bones.  Spring I am sure will spring before long.



Wednesday, 14 March 2018

I didn't have a pushchair to take the weight.

There are some birds that demand attention. The Snowy Owl is one of those birds- a myth blown in by the north wind. As it perched up on a fencepost it constantly shifted it's gaze from side to side, a look of disdain in it's catlike eyes. There was a weight to this bird, despite the lightness inherent in it's thermal plumage.
The constant turning of its head made it difficult to sketch in detail- the subtle changes in shape of eye and pout and facial disc were hard to describe in pencil alone, and I left the bird with a sense of frustration. I hadn't captured it- or at least I had grabbed and been left with only a handful of downy feathers.
I have painted a few owls before, and I wanted to make a start on this one before the memory of it faded too much. There is nothing like an owls head to test one's ability to carve out a complex shape in paint. There are intuitions to overcome. If an owl faces you head on, you expect to see both eyes clearly- but it doesn't take much of a change in angle to obscure the further eye, as the feathers surrounding the bill jut forward. An owl's face is not a flat plane, and in dull light it can be hard to make out any structure. There were subtle warm ochreous shadows around the eyes, and this was something I focused on to find the character of the bird.

Once happy enough that I'd got the basic shape of the head, I worked on the rest of the body, using photos as a guide to get the pattern of bars and wedges and drops as close as possible to the real thing.
The dilemma now was how to proceed. I needed to paint the white of the feathers, without losing the pattern I'd just marked out. Leaving the paint to dry for a while, I guessed that a thin layer over the top would cover, but not entirely obscure the dark pattern, and I was right, but perhaps a little hasty. The dark bars had not dried completely, and as I dragged the brush over the canvas, some of the dark paint was dragged out with the white. I decided to continue- feeling that the streaking effect would help add to the texture of the feathers.
I really will have to wait now for the paint to dry before I continue, in order to refine the pure white feather base colour.

Monday, 12 March 2018


I had a WOW day.  On the 10th March 1991 I saw the Wainfleet Snowy Owl for the 4th and last time.  I haven't seen one since despite several weeks spent in the high arctic and several failed attempts to see one whilst working on the Hebrides. 27 years on, almost to the day and I got to enjoy this spectacular species in the wild again.  I knew it was a long walk down the beach at Snettisham and bundled the 3 year old in the pram, mid way Ben started having some issues with the vigour of the aerobic exercise, mentioned something about burn and lactic acid. The Owl had been relocated for a third day and has moved quite a way from Burnham Overy around to the Wash.  When we did get to the end of the pits and on to the boardwalk I was elated to see the Owl was really close and hunkered down on the top of a grassy hummock.

After 5 minutes or so the bird became very alert opened it's wings and flew, WOW.  I was convinced it would glide over the sea defence and out of sight but it did the opposite and took up sentinel on a fence post.  The following hour was spent watching this epic bird doing it's thing.  Activity peaked at spells of preening but every time I looked in the scope the serotonin rushed around my brain.  I just couldn't get my head around seeing the bird this well.  I was like the Cheshire Cat, Mark reckons he's never seen me so happy to see a bird and it certainly felt that way.

The walk back was meandering and we shared the post Owl buzz with Ely's finest, as a Wildspace posse had formed and raided the coast.  The sky bruised and we returned to the Fen for tea and medals.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Lesser Matters

A week after not seeing a great deal at Santon Downham, I returned.  The previous day I had  taken my girls to Brandon Country Park via the Goshawks where they happily watched a film while I happily watched 3 Goshawks.  Good view of a brown young bird overhead which tussled with a Sparrowhawk and Buzzard a bit later a cracking male cruised across the woodland.  These birds were up and down all morning and we certainly got our money's worth. Ben had seen the Lesser 'peckers earlier that morning and we arranged to go again next day.  They didn't disappoint and along with a ridiculously confiding Otter, several catch-ups with the Parrot Crossbills and a return visit for more Gos action al made for a memorable morning.

I hadn't been home long when I was drawn swiftly from my cup of tea and stalling on starting garden chores as a drake Ring-necked Duck had been found in the Ely10 on the Washes at Chain Corner. Always great birds, it showed well, diving constantly quite away from most other Aythyas, I was on borrowed time so after half an hour returned home at the end of a very fulfilling weeks off work.

For Frosty Mornings ....

After the Norfolk trip the family headed northwards to York for a couple of days with my folks.  Two stunning, frosty mornings were spent with my Dad at Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard where Hawfinches were in abundance.  Feeding on seed scattered into the leaf litter beneath assorted clusters of trees, these finches allowed prolonged viewing.  The first morning we visited the frozen lake first where Goosander and Goldeneye were the best of the wildfowl packed into the small area of water remaining free of ice.

At the Arboretum dog walkers and volunteers stocking the bird feeders led to dispersal of the finches into several flocks which made a count hard, I estimated 80+ Hawfinch and enjoyed lots of good views but the light was becoming hazy and none of the birds that showed closely stayed for long.

The next morning we arrived earlier and I counted 108 Hawfinch on the ground and then a flock of 40 flew over and up into the tall trees along the approach road.  I have seen large flocks of Hawfinch before in Spain and Morocco but this experience was exceptional and unlikely to be repeated given the unprecedented influx this winter.  A few Brambling were dotted amongst the other finches including a male in almost summer finery.  A couple of Hawfinch came near and stayed and stayed to be enjoyed in detail.  A fantastic treat.




Albatros is moored up on Wells quayside and turned out to be a funky place for an overnight stay during a winter birding trip with great birding pals.  It was the re-convening of a Cambridgeshire Bird Race team of many moons ago as Jono Leadley travelled down from the northlands to join me, Mark Hawkes and big bad Ben Green for a few days out in Norfolk.  Saturday was drizzly and grim to start and got progressively damper during the day.  We started optimistically around Santon Warren but failed to connect with Parrot Crossbills, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or any Otters.  We did have some excellent views of several Water Rail along the riverside which were a delight.

Our optimism continued unabated as we took lunch at a Goshawk spot, it was never going to happen.  As the drizzle turned to rain we moved to Great Massingham where we did see some of the Hawfinches that have been feeding in the churchyard Yews.  Heading to the coast we stumbled upon a big flock of Pink-feet and following some group reflections upon our search images for Tundra Bean Goose and possible short cuts when scanning big flocks of pinks, Jono aced some bright orange legs.  The rest of the features quickly snapped into place once we had all pinpointed the bird amongst the masses.  The rain teemed down and curtains of water were drawn across the fields, this was not fair weather birding.

We continued with birding from the car and drove down to the quayside at Thornham where we watched a posse of Twite buzz around and watched a few of these beguiling finches , "yellow nebbed linte"  as they're called in Caithness, more closely as they fed on saltmarsh seed heads.  Onwards through the cold and gloom to look for a Hooded Crow reported around Choseley.  We found this bedraggled and wet enough to look black in all the wrong places suggesting a hybrid, pictures of the bird over following days revealed a better suite of plumage for a Hoodie.  This was our last birding of the day before boarding the Albatros settling into our cabins and then heading out for some well earned beers and food.
Next morning dawned bright, we had an unfortunate but swiftly changed flat tyre and headed out to Holkham Gap where we had a lovely quarter of an hour with 9 Shore Larks, who were happy to move closer and closer towards us.  They (and we) were not so happy when some folk with big lenses arrived who were only too happy to move closer and closer towards the birds which sent them skittish and away across the marsh.  We left, as they continued in pursuit and we made our feelings clear and known.

After a really hearty cooked breakfast back aboard the Albatros we pottered along the coast to Kelling where we couldn't find a Redpoll never mind anything starting to look like any of the Arctic Redpolls that have been here.  We cut our losses and went to Letheringsett with seeing Arctic Redpolls still our aim.  We did have more luck here with views of one of the Arctic's but not for long enough to really drink in, or even photograph.  With the sun up and a breeze we decided that Goshawks might fancy some display and headed back to the Brecks.  By the time we got their the clouds had drawn in and drizzle threatened.  I saw a Gos clipping the skyline and a couple of Buzzards, Red Kite and a Peregrine kept the interest up.  A repeat walk around Santon Warren did not live up to our hopes but did mark my resolve to return on a pristine morning to give myself half a chance of seeing Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.  We were home late afternoon, not exactly tea and medals but we'd had some good birding in fits and starts and enjoyed a great catch-up. 

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Little Sparrow

In the noughties I lived in Walthamstow for a couple of years before heading to the fens.  I came up to Cambridgeshire quite a bit but my patch was Walthamstow Reservoirs.  I never loved the place but it did allow a space to follow the seasons and get out birding nearby.  We still visit regularly as the in-laws are still in the stow and todays visit allowed me a chance to pop out and have a look for the Little Bunting that has taken up residence.  I was quite shocked at the change of visiting arrangements, the place was heaving with a large car park and visitor centre directing folk around the reservoirs.  In my day it was a coded padlock and use of the anglers car park and portacabin.  There was a crowd waiting for the bunting to show and after a half hour or so the bird popped up into the bushy tangle  and then flew to a nearby tree before heading back down into the weedy waste ground.  I had some very nice but brief views but following this showing the entire gathering dispersed, I was much relieved and the following hour the bird flew up to perches on 4 more occasions.  I had some great views, never longer than a minute and frequently ticking anxiously with wing flicks ready to fly at any given moment.
definitely not this one
nor this one
there we go


I have enjoyed Black Terns, Osprey, Turnstone, Red-necked Grebe against Canary Wharf skyline back in the day.
Snazzy visitor centre - beware, the site is crawling with hipsters of varying ages getting their nature fix - you know, in the wild.