Wednesday, 5 June 2019

One Day

Having struggled to find our peak form in Cambridgeshire big days, we needed a break from trying to crack that particular egg.  I had been hoping to have a go at the Yorkshire big day record with a team of mates.  The plan came together over a year and at midnight on 11th May I was joined by Mark Hawkes, Jono Leadley and Rich Baines heading out on an epic days birding around Yorkshire.  We were planned with great precision around times to ensure that we could get all the dead certs without running out of light and maximise our chances of scoring as many of the trickier species as possible.  A write up of the day can be found on Birdguides here

Personal highlights were many but being up on the Moors at dawn within the wild soundscape of wader and Red Grouse song will take some beating.

The well rehearsed hour of strategic teamwork on Filey Brigg pulling great birds out of the bag every five minutes was thrilling and the bonus of connecting with a top class rarity, Collared Flycatcher, en-route at Easington certainly ticked the box.

We finished the day on 156, a new Yorkshire Big Day record. Certainly 160 is an achievable target for this huge county and perhaps now we've laid down the gauntlet some young turks will steam through our total, or perhaps not.  There are hard learnt lessons that come in to play in planning a Big Day and we'll certainly give 160 a go in the next couple of years.

I fear that in the Big Days of the next decade there will be very few of these beauties to be seen.  I enjoy everyone as if it's the last.

Sammy's Point deserving of more than a flying visit.

Last orders - Jono's Little Owl was our last new bird of the day.

Mark and Rich celebrate 

Huge Thanks to my team mates for great skill, positivity and friendship (and photos)

Monday, 27 May 2019


Along, no doubt, with many other folk, the Bank Holiday weekend saw me busy in the garden. As I stepped out of the back door on Saturday morning, two small, almost transparent, damselflies fluttered away and, almost simultaneously, a much larger dragonfly zipped by. I was briefly annoyed not to get a better look, but didn't think much more about it. Later, however, I happened to glance into our small pond and spotted several more damselflies. Kneeling down for a closer look, I discovered that virtually every emergent plant had a number of spent damselfly cases (exuvia) on them and that newly emerged adults were climbing up the stems, whilst some were still in the act of 'breaking out'.

Some time was spent trying to get to grips with their identification and, even armed with a decent field guide, I was not successful. I had not hitherto appreciated that when they first emerge our Odonata are not yet fully the finished article and may not have acquired their final colours.  Unforgivably, I failed to get a decent photo, with this about the best of a poor bunch -

I think that they are either Common Blue or Azure damselflies, with both species apparently to be found in garden ponds.

Things then got more interesting. A dragonfly was spotted in the water, not looking at all happy. I rescued it, but sadly it succumbed shortly after. This did afford me the chance of identifying it, however, and I was more confident in stating that here was a female Broad-bodied Chaser. Three or four other exuvia were found around the pond, with around ten larvae in view in the shallows, or up on the top of the Hornwort which grows throughout the pond. I'd spotted the rather imposing larvae in the pond before, so it was nice to be able to put a species to them.

Damselflies continued to emerge, albeit in smaller numbers, throughout the morning and early afternoon. It wasn't until around 4pm that I spotted a dragonfly larva crawling out of the water. It fell back in several times, so eventually I helped it out and placed it on some nearby Verbena. It soon crawled up the stem and fastened itself around a leaf. Checking back a little later, I was thrilled to see that the adult was breaking out.

Over the next hour or so, with several rest periods, the dragonfly pulled itself free...

... before eventually pumping up its wings and taking on the recognisable colouration of a female Broad-bodied Chaser...

She stayed put on the stem as darkness fell.

I was out early next morning and she was still in position when I left, and when I returned around 9am, but departed at some point later in the morning. More damselflies were emerging by then, but a more gruesome discovery was four Broad-bodied chaser larvae all caught in spider webs amid the trellis near the pond. One had managed to split out despite the web, but three had died. All were found in a spot which catches the early morning sun, prompting the thought that they must have made their way there overnight, ready to make the most of the brief window before the sun moved further round. I was consoled by spotting another freshly-emerged dragonfly on some Purple Loosestrife. By now it was fairly cloudy and the dragonfly stayed put for some time. I happened to be outside when it eventually took off and watched as it lifted away and flew from the garden... and was immediately intercepted by a male House Sparrow, who took it off up into nextdoor's guttering. Ah, the harsh face of Mother Nature! Ever there to remind us that it's a jungle out there. Kill or be killed and survival of the fittest and all that.

Unsurprisingly, the sparrows have been quick to cotton-on to the food source on their doorstep. Many times today I've looked out to see one searching diligently through the pond-side vegetation and, on one occasion, a male whose beak contained several damselflies. Those dragonfly larvae who met a literal sticky end in the spiderwebs have all been removed. I'm very fond of the resident House Sparrows. Indeed, we've put up some nest boxes specifically for them (as yet unused). They are, of course, ensuring that I will have more House Sparrows to enjoy and I wish them every success. However, a part of me can't help wishing that they'd left the damselflies and dragonflies alone, to fulfil their own destiny and, perhaps, to allow me another look at these remarkable and beautiful creatures next year and to witness, here in our small garden, one of nature's miracles unfold. Fingers crossed that some got through!

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Washed Out


There was a flurry of twitchery interest raised last month when a drake Baikal Teal was snapped at Welney one afternoon.  It was not relocated and served to raise speculation as to the likelihood of the bird of 2014 repeating a migration route through the Washes.  As always with such large tracts of suitable habitat along the 20 miles of the Washes there were hopes it was hiding away somewhere and this proved to be the case.  A brief sighting on Sunday afternoon prompted keen eyes to find the bird taking up a one day residency in front of Stockdales Hide.  A very arresting and boldy marked bird but fast losing it's mythical status in british birding.  All the accepted records still, to my mind, have the hints of the fencejumper, an unpopular viewpoint but still worth considering. None the less the chance to enjoy so striking a rarity close to home would be churlish to let pass.  There were relatively few pilgrims parked up at the reserve and not a lot of interest from Cambridgeshire locals and when we did get to Stockdales we were able to get seats to enjoy a wonderful vista.  Firstly the Baikal Teal, gaudy - a tad plastic looking but fully winged, unrung and pristine was keeping company with a small posse of Wigeon, a superb drake Garganey drifted out of the vegetation as the Baikal drifted in.


A Great White Egret and then another patrolled the shallows, venturing up to belly height while shifting their perpendicular necks from side to snakey side.  Alert, the wildfowl settled as a 2CY male Hen Harrier drifted over the flood and out across the fenland to quarter the fields behind the hide.  The Great White Egrets came together and suddenly took flight, one with a Pike in it's beak.  Some less than agile bickering took place and both birds eventually lost their meal.

Avocets, Greenshank, Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit were in parts raucous and in others skulking and later we enjoyed watching the limosa and as ever I learnt plenty from Ben aboult moult in both the sub-species and likewise with Ruff.  The light was sublime although the stench from a Pike carcass on our return was far from pleasant.

The weekend had been pretty poor weatherwise but cleared quickly on Sunday afternoon in time for us to get out onto a deserted Titchwell beach following a cold morning in Hunstanton.  Some very handsome Med Gulls were the clear highlights

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Brecks Co-op

Driving home from Maldon, Mark commented that he'd planned a Brecks trip this spring that had probobaly passed us by.  We decided to wake early and if the weather looked good head out for a morning in the Breckland spring.  Our first stop at Santon Downham, in the gorgeous first warmth of the day was full of singing Redpoll, Brambling and Siskin.  Nuthatch and Marsh Tit called all over and the walk along the river was full of birds.  It wasn't a long wait for the first of a pair of Lesser-Spotted Woodpeckers to be found.  They showed well, if a little high, in the boughs and always a challenging to locate and keep up with.  Mark got some video of the female.

Walking back a Grey Wagtail settled on the flotsam and jetsom picking at encased larvae and thwacking the bejesus out of them.  Slow motion video catching the subtlety of the process.

We headed to the least best kept secret in the woods to look for Goshawks, everything was pretty well perfect and 3 birds gave prolonged views at varying distances and much of the time as close as you could hope for.  Not quite Berliner style but the best views I've had in the UK, really enjoyable.

With Woodlarks cascading and Kites joining the thermals we filled our eyes with cobalt blue and headed back to the woods.  A few weeks earlier I'd had a damp visit with the family to Lynford where we'd been treated to some very close views of Siskin and a flock of Brambling before we aborted the walk sodden to the skin.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and in blazing sunshine Siskins displayed and 5 Firecrest zipped around amidst their needling cascade of song,  a flashing crown ablaze in the shadows of the boughs.  A lone male Brambling, a morsel of memory of the winters' flock.  Crossbills chipped away overhead.  

Our last stop, on what was proving to be a very successful clean up, was Weeting Heath.  Although we heard the wailing of Stone Curlew it was the long, curved billed Eurasian Curlews on the grassland of note.  We reflected that the habitat management may well be targeted at Curlew now, such is the demise of the species as a breeding bird in the lowlands.  Four Woodlark flew past, tails shunted into their bodies.  Exciting as these were, it was not these treasures of the warrens that we sought and we scanned the skies for raptors.  Buzzards and single Kite and Goshawk appeared and then, very close by, the striking plumage, almost pied, of a young Rough-legged Buzzard flashed in the sky.  It really was a very well marked bird and repeatedly soared and hovered overhead, returning to a dead tree for a while to preen.

Home for tea and medals then,  a great morning of birding enjoyed, a fanfare to the joy of spring. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Blackwater Side

A lovely, mellow Saturday spent with birding travel buddies Ben and Mark H on Simon Patient's stag do in Maldon, Essex.  We arrived at the quayside mid-morning and joined Swallow Birding on board an impressive sail barge to take a cruise out on to the high tide.  We took a stroll along the prom taking in flocks of vocal Brent, giggling Godwits and tight feeding lines of Teal.  Sharp eyes on Simon picked a Med Gull way up high and Buzzards, whether local or migrants were in the skies throughout.

Onto the barge as the tide rose and we cut through the briney waters of the River Blackwater.  Flocks of waders swirled.  Avocets, striking in binary tones, just black and white.  Grey Plover, Godwits, Knot and odds and sods of Curlew, Greenshank, Pintail and a lone Short-eared Owl pushed off on the rising tide and seeking a dry spot to rest, for now.

Cruising out towards the mouth of the river the engine was cut and the sails raised just enough to catch the breeze, bringing the scopes proved to be a good idea as we enjoyed a very leisurely drift back up river.  A Great White Egret snaked it's neck above the crowns of the hunched and feeding Little Egrets and the Short-eared Owl found it's way over and above the barge heading North.

Suitably relaxed by a day out birding on the water we headed to the pub where lively and enjoyable birding chat ensued as Essex stalwarts Simon Wood and Steve Grimwade, our guides on the boat, joined the celebrations at the pub and curry house.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Hot spell

A return to Titchwell in far more pleasant weather saw the place in completely different light. The Freshmarsh abounded with life- gulls returned to the islands, courting noisily and setting boundaries for the breeding season. We counted a dozen or so Mediterranean Gulls strutting with more muscular frame amongst the usual throng of Black-headed Gulls. Avocets grouped together in a sleeping party and other waders and wildfowl explored every niche, from beach to scrub. Across the saltmarsh a male Hen Harrier floated between sunlit patches of Sea Buckthorn, and was joined briefly by a Ringtail. A Merlin caught on the high blue sky did not trouble the pipits, and one Rock Pipit preened before us as the sun cast a jagged shadow from the bank. Against the sun a Curlew gracefully posed as it blended into the burnished  tones of last year's Sea Aster and brackish grasses. 
The temperature fell once the Sun sank, and we walked through the carr. Sitting in a mossy clearing, surrounded by fallen branches and new nettle growth sat a Woodcock. Alert, but comfortable, the whole world captured in its deep eyes. 

Monday, 4 March 2019

Neu Hawks

I have been very lucky to have spent time , through birding, with fantastic folk who I may have never normally got to know well.  Back in the early noughties I lived, between travels, in the far North of Scotland and surveyed Eagles and wild Geese.  A month was spent walking the coastline of the Uists.  I joined a young man who had been based up there for more than long enough already, Dan Haywood.  Following a 10 hour drive I arrived at the rental house, the sea audible, to be greeted by a tall man topped by a huge fur hat obscuring most of his head, quite an impression. Over the next 6 months our lives were entwined as we lived and worked together across the flows, moors, mountains and beaches of Caithness, Sutherland and the Outer Hebrides. Fantastical company, Dan took the ordinary and made it extra-ordinary through his psychedelic narrative of our adventures, fully populated by a suite of hysterically well observed characters. Appropriately the core of our soundtrack to this time was Neil Young's Greendale, a concept album based around the lives of family and folk in an imagined rural american farmstead.  I was pleased, rather than surprised, when several years later Dan released a sprawling and critically acclaimed, 32 tracks of lush, angular and abstracted psych-folk rock over 3 slabs of vinyl - a project inspired and dedicated to the people of Caithness and Sutherland.  The records cover features a Hebridean snow bleached beach and distant mountains.  The lone figure in the icy wilderness, bins raised hopeful for the wintering Snowy Owl to appear - that's me that is.

Thus far then my favourite Newhawks have belonged to Dan Haywood but a space will have to be made in my heart now for Berlin's Neuhawks.  This was my fourth trip to Berlin but my first with the specific aim of seeing birds.  I knew that Berlin was known as a good place to see Goshawks but I wasn't aware how confiding these could be until seeing Rich Baines photos following his visit last February.  Thoroughly inspired by his tales of encounters with Habicht, I was more than amiable to the better halfs suggestion of a visit to our friends in the city.

I knew that the wooded Tiergarten, central to the city was THE spot but in, some may say typically, renegade style I spent my first early morning really local, pacing the streets of Nuekolln, checking the cemetries around the district.  I did find an active nest and had brief but close views of a male Goshawk cruising through the canopy to the alarm of every Jay and Pigeon in the vicinity.  A hulking young female who sat a top a tree but dissappeared as the Hooded Crows mobbed her to distraction, afforded by far my best ever views of a ghost of the woods.  Northern Long-tailed Tit, Hawfinch, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper and bouncing Red Squirrels were enjoyable diversions but I only felt partially fulfilled - I still wanted eye to eye contact and my elation was subdued, still yearning.

A late breakfast and into the city with the family.  An opportunity for the kids to have a run around on the edge of Tiergarten gave me an excuse to explore further and recce for next morning.  It didn't take long until I heard the characteristic agitated call of a Gos nearby.  Alert all over I scanned through the beams of Beech and with a shimmy sidewards the bulk of a perched raptor was found.  A check with the bins confirmed a male Goshawk.  Naively I stalked my way towards it, using cover to approach without spooking it.  Within 5 minutes it was clear the bird was nonchalant as I stood beneath it enjoying exactly the eye to eye views I had dreamt about.  I spent at least half an hour with this fantastic bird and at points the clouds broke and blueness and sunlight pierced through the Berlin  grey of the skies.

I was back next morning with a plan and four hours until I was due to meet the family at the Natural History Museum.  Setting out from the far west of the park I walked the paths as centrally between the busy roads as possible. Tuned in to the dawn chorus a sudden switch to silent for most and alarm calls for the Blackbirds and Blue Tits, alerted me to a raptor and a male Goshawk swung past me along the path and up into the canopy where he perched openly and started a cacophony of calls like rounds out of a machine gun.  They were replied by deeper barking and jittering deeper into the park.  The male jinked through the tangle of branches and closer towards the calling female.  I followed and as with the previous days bird he was nonchalant to my presence. This was exceeding my expectations and with another ear splitting volley of calls he took flight and landed a short distance away swiftly joined by the huge and glaring female.  She dropped her wings, puffballs of white coverts whipping around her tail and the male took position, jumped and balanced on her back.  Their congress was loud, really loud but in seconds it was over.  The female lunging aggresively to clear him of her before she took to the sky, shortly to be joined by the male.  They displayed above the nest which I had now located in a Larch directly above the path.  I watched the display and the birds drifted towards the church, eventually alighting on the cross a top the house of the son of god,  where another copulation took place.

Both birds returned and I watched 2 more cycles of pre-copulation chatter, copulation and display.  Truly drunk on my views I had quite a few kilometres of park to traverse and I had a suspicion I would find more Goshawks, I left this pair and sidetracked to enjoy Firecrests, Short-toed Treecreepers and Hawfinches along the paths, by the time I left the park at 10.30 I had located 3 nests and a further active pair.  High above arrows of Cranes and wild geese passed over, the occasional bugle penetrating the traffic and city rumble.

Our experiences with Goshawks in the UK, unless lucky enough to have licenses and a need to visit Goshawk nests on a professional or research basis are almost always at a distance, their presence confirmed by tempremental soirees over a homeland wood.  Ephemeral ghosts, vapours above the boughs, unknown and unfathomable within.  To watch these enigmatic predators eyeball to eyeball,  complete entities in their preffered space was just exhilirating, as life affirming as a skydive and as fulfilling as any twitched life tick I can remember.  A great, great trip. Vicariously, I enjoyed an extension to my trip as pram to grave birding pal, Jono Leadley was visiting the following week and kept us well fed with mouth watering pics by WhatsApp.