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.

Friday, 2 February 2018

siberian suspect

The sewage farm at Ely has provided some interseting Chiffchaffs over the last few winters- it's almost suspiciously consistent in turning up pale grey-buff birds that contrast with the dingy olive collybita. Last weekend's bird was no less compelling- Dunc's first response was to compare it to a Booted warbler. There was no umming and arring about the question of when olive becomes brown, or when yellow becomes buff- this bird was brown and buffy white. Although distant, other features were just as obvious. The bold supercilium and pale cheeks, the fine pale wingbar and dark bill and legs.
I recorded my impression of the bird in this rough sketch below, with a collybita for comparison.

The weather has been fairly unpleasant, and it wasn't until Thursday that i returned for a proper look for the bird again. The morning sun had already disappeared by the time I got there, and after a few minutes scanning the bushes in the compound, I was beginning to think that the brisk wind was forcing the warblers to stick to the shelter of the underbrush. Remembering that in the past I'd encountered Chiffchaffs in the brambles just outside the sewage farm compound, across the railway line- I thought it was worth a quick look. A passing fellow asked what i was looking for, and almost before I'd got the words "possible siberian" out, a pale flash flitted to the top of the bramble thicket. It moved quickly and was soon lost, only to re-emerge further along the railway embankment. The light was grey and I only managed a few shots before the first spattering of rain started falling, but the results are, I think, quite convincing. Little details like the white eye-ring and a milky-lemon tint to the wing feather edging add to the evidence that supports this bird being Siberian- but it didn't call, and I wonder if, as Dunc mentioned, diagnoses can be made certainly without sonographic confirmation. If this bird isn't a Sibe- they can't be done on sight alone.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Smew Faith

We started our morning at the Beet Pits where a panicky flock of Lapwing gave us the heads up to look for a Peregrine and sure enough a very compact and small Peregrine flew across the back and away off towards Chettisham.   Just outside the Ely10 there are regular wintering Smew along the Ouse Valley gravel pits, although this year they have been pretty scarce.  A little gathering on the sailing pits at St Ives has included some smart drakes, White Nuns, alongside the redheads.  We enjoyed distant views of a drake and 4 redheads as soon as we arrived and after a while in poor light we decided to leave them.  Fortunately we met an old boy who described a few paths around the pits and we decided to explore a little further.  It didn't take much exploring to find the path around the lake and were soon enjoying some great views in nice light.


After a while the trio took flight, circled the pit and left so we continued our exploration.  We found 2 of the three Smew on the smaller pit and enjoyed them further from various vantage points, a Woodcock made a surprise fly past and Skylarks were singing their way into something that may have been a little warmth when the sun broke through. 
On our return leg we decided to have a look at the Chiffchaffs at Ely Sewage Works.  At least 3 collybita were nice and easy and then a very different beast popped up, a very good candidate for a tristis showed well.  On field characteristics and plumage a classic buff and white bird, but my memories of last years bird at Titchwell which also looked the real deal but was reportedly recorded with a call within the collybita range. A bit of work and luck will be needed to get some vocalisations if a clear positive ID is to be possible.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

All The Young Dudes

In Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book a Dude is described thus "The dude is not into discomfort. He potters out after breakfast, stays in posh hotels and waits for the sun." I am getting much more dude these days and this is exemplified by the time it takes me to get around to looking for rare birds that are hanging around.  Over Christmas we stayed in Whitby for a couple of nights and it took until the last morning to make the 15 minute walk onto the cliff top to look for the wintering Desert Wheatear.

Months after their discovery I managed to see the Parrot Crossbills at Santon Downham a couple of weeks ago, well worth the wait but very dude.  I joined Rich and Ben for a day out, and we hit the Brecks.

I'm reading Nick Bakers book on rewilding yourself, quite dude again, and have just read about how to reduce your sonic footstep and improve your fieldcraft.  We were much more social than mindful as we guffawed our way across Santon Warren.  Over the frivolous banter I heard them. A long way off, suggested sound, stopped, silence, a lag period of a 5 seconds or so and then the first fruity calls became audible.  15 or so Crossbills, in chorus, appeared as dots and flew swiftly over and down towards the car park. 

We did take a while to get there, mostly distracted by Ben's detailed account of how he had fantasised our finding of the birds, to more guffawing. When we finally arrived at the car park we did see a female Parrot Crossbill, huge billed, sitting a top a pine.  It was grey and dark but hugely engaging as a view and, oh so quickly, the tree burst into life and the flock took to the wing and left and disappeared into the distance.  We decided to amble down along the river and it wasn't long until we re-found the Crossbills in a tall deciduous tree.  We were able to enjoy them on our lonesome for quite a while as they used this as a vantage point to drop down from into a little straggle of pines where they would snip off a pine cone with that big pair of secateurs and return to the bare branches to work their way in to obtain the seeds. 

Once they had gorged they moved closer and into some riverside Alders and then tentatively down into a willow tangle overhanging the shallows that allowed them to drink from the Little Ouse.


We left the Crossbills after half an hour and continued our perambulation,  Bramblings, a Merlin and tit flocks kept us amused.  We pottered along to Lynford Arboretum where we enjoyed a couple of Hawfinches in the paddock trees and tangle  and I duded out completely on Marsh Tits and Nuthatches coming down to feed on the seeded bridge.


A return to Santon, hoping for seconds on the Crossbills was unsuccessful but we found ourselves joining a small gathering watching a confiding Otter fishing and  running around on the banks. A very pleasant way to finish a very pleasant day, although the sun didn't break the monochrome sky even once.


Monday, 22 January 2018

Under The Pressure


Admittedly under our own pressure, I nudged Ben into joining me on a full day's winter listing around the Ely10.  It's a great excuse to mooch around and check in on what's about locally. 
Heading out across Wicken Fen in the dark starts to tune you in to everything you can't see.  Little micro-climates of  warmer air, pockets of dampness, smells from the vegetation and ground all become more "visible" in absence of meaningful light.  Jackdaws are already leaving their roost and varied wildfowl keep nervous contact by quack and whistle.  A Tawny Owl "keevicks", a Water Rail gives a piglet squeal and the first of several Woodcock return from nocturnal feeding to hunker down invisible in the shrubby under storey.  A bundle of Redpoll are vocal but hard to see and a couple of Marsh Harriers lumber out of their roost.  Late to rise, we finally see a ringtail Hen Harrier while Bearded Tits ping in the phragmites.  A loop out across the Fen on our way to Fordham Woods failed to find Corn Buntings or Grey Partridge but a Stonechat did perform on cue.
In the woods Marsh Tits accompanied us and a flurry of Nuthatch activity provided further evidence that these birds are doing well in the area currently.  A Treecreeper wound it's way around a trunk but no Siskin could be found on this visit.
We headed across to the research park lake to look at the gulls.  We saw a couple of Caspian Gulls and spent most of our time enjoying a confiding adult.

A trip to Ely Wildspace revealed wintering Chiffchaff and an immature drake Goldeneye on Roswell Pits which qualifies as surprise of the day as they are very unusual at the site, the Shelduck on the Beet Pits was also noteworthy.
And on to the Washes.....
A surprise was in store as we peaked over the cradge bank at Pymore to be greeted by the flood shrouded in a localised mist, hanging low over the water.  Wild swans bugled through the murk and drew in others flying between feeding fields.  It wasn't going to be easy picking out anything but a very enigmatic stop.

Along the Washes to Welney where we enjoyed the spectacle of thousands of waders and wildfowl going about their business.  A little posse of Tree Sparrows entertained at the visitor centre and a couple of Curlew sadly cause a bit of excitement these days.  A Great White Egret lazily winged past just about finishing off the day.  Over 95 species seen both a respectable total and a great day out.