Saturday 15 July 2023

Fenland Nature

The long gap between my posts on Ely10 birding is due to an exciting project that I have been working on.  Simon Stirrup has been gathering stunning images and I have been writing text for a book, to be published by natural history specialists Pelagic, provisionally titled Fenland Nature.  

I have been having lots of memorable adventures over the past year seeking out the flagship species of the fens with local experts, all of which will feature in the book but as a result there will continue to be little from me on Ely10 for now.

An unexpected highlight of this fenland summer has been the re-discovery, like a six legged Lazarus, of Dusky Clearwing. Initially recorded in Fordham, but now more widely across the fens over the last few weeks, after a hundred year absence.  

Using a pheromone lure in our Stuntney garden a male was attracted the very first time I put it out.  It is likely the species has been hiding in plain sight for sometime but it is an exciting addition to the fenland lepidoptera and a very smart moth to observe.

Sunday 11 December 2022


A hard frost and crystal clear skies always draws me out to enjoy the light.  Birds just look stunning with the frost helping reflect light to sharpen every feather tone and detail.  A single young Whooper Swan joined the Teal on the frozen beet pits. 

An amble around Roswell Pits produced little out of the ordinary and a hopeful check around the sewage works revealed just 5 Chiffchaff, all collybita.  

A return to the Beet Pits for the harrier roost revealed around 20 Marsh Harrier and a bonus  Bittern.  The evening sky was stunning but despite seeing a Woodcock flying from the fields to the water meadows during the day I didn't see any in my dusk search along the bank, although Snipe were flying around in some numbers.

Sunday 4 December 2022

Grey Skies

A truly grey morning dawned and it was still half light at 8 when I took the short trip to Isleham Water Meadows.  It's always looked great for a Phalarope here and the news of one of the Grey variety frequenting the flood had been shared last night.  On view straight away it was no great surprise when it turned out to be a confiding and very smart bird.  Constantly on the move the little masked bandit spun around and worked it's way along the nearest waters edge before taking flight and repeating the foray.

Across the site there were several hundreds of Teal, a handful of Black-tailed Godwit and a couple of Redshank.  A Kingfisher took to a high viewpoint from telephone wires over the river and there was plenty of noise from the local Egyptian Geese.  

Having enjoyed the little wader I took in an amble at Fordham Woods, I was searching for Woodcock with the thermal imaging camera but most of the woodland floor was flooded.  Marsh Tit were however in vocal form and there were at least 4 birds around the wood.  

Later in the day I checked out the Harrier roost at the Beet Pits.  There were at least 5 Marsh Harriers popping up and down.  Mark and Jasper Grooms were already in situ and had seen a Bittern too.  

Thursday 1 December 2022

One Day Like This a Year Will See Me Right.

A few local trips out to the Washes, where Short-eared Owls had been notable highlights, preceeded a weekend away on the Norfolk coast.  

A dawn walk down the embankment at Titchwell is a favourite treat.  I arrived in the dark and used the thermal imaging camera to investigate the gloaming.  Muntjac and then Robins and Blackbirds burned bright white in the viewfinder but I didn't succeed in locating a feeding Woodcock.  As the sky lightened activity accelerated with birds all over the place.  Thousands of Geese headed inland from their roosts, Starlings swirled and Marsh Harriers began to leave the reed bed.  Always difficult to count 30 or so left and a male Hen Harrier slipped, almost unseen, out of the back corner.  A Great Egret loafed across to a hidden pool and a Spoonbill hacked over head and out towards Thornham.  The saltmarsh was filling up with the rising tide and I was surprised at how rapidly and to what extent it occurred, it appeared a particularly high tide and on reaching the beach there was only a thin sliver of sand between the dunes and the foaming tide line.  

The swell was small and birds were relatively easy to pick up on the sea but the feeding was active so many birds were not picked up on first, second or third sweep.  Even in good viewing conditions it takes a lot of time to see most of what's out there.  A dusky Red-necked Grebe was the first goodie amongst many Merganser, Goldeneye and Great-crested Grebes. A Great Northern Diver was next, alongside a Slavonian Grebe.  The next birds were a real surprise - small skein of geese appeared over the sea heading towards the coast, they were quite high and I almost forgot to look at them as get got closer presuming they were Pinks.  I took a look with the scope once they were just offshore and they immediately appeared darker than expected - I worked through the features, alerted fellow birders and quickly confirmed they were a flock of 22 Tundra Bean Geese, even confirming that the feet and legs were tangerine orange.  Pretty special.  More work on the falling tide produced a Goosander in the surf which flew onto the saltmarsh pool and a second Slav.  Two speeding pied bullets, Little Auks, raced each other in direct flight across the horizon and out into the mouth of the Wash - after 2.5 hrs I had worked the sea hard and it had delivered well with little left to offer.

On the freshmarsh I trawled through the assembled wildfowl and waders before taking a slow potter through the sallows on the fen trail.  A few Chiffchaff all appeared to be collybitta but on arrival at my favoured interface the first bird I saw was a bright Yellow-browed Warbler, some predator caused all the finches to unsettle and the air became alive with Chaffinch and Goldfinch with Brambling and Redpoll drawing attention with their distinctive calls.

In total the 4.5 hrs on the reserve produced 104 species, an incredible winter total for one site.  I returned to sunny Hunny for a late breakfast and then headed with the girls back down the coast.

A quick check of the freshmarsh at Holkham revealed the young White-tailed Eagle, from the south coast re-introduction programme, sat a top it's preffered treetop lookout.   

We continued to CleySpy where I treated myself to my first new binoculars in 25 years.  My trusty Trinovids 8x32 have been semi-retired, increasing neck ache from any heavy bins has led me to downsize and prioritise weight over most other factors - this has led me to the Swarovski CL 8x30's - I absolutely love them.

A potter around Cley, treating myself further to the New Naturalist - Ecology and Natural History in softback and then a thoroughly enjoyable hour at the harrier roost on the saltmarsh from Wells.  A stunning male Hen Harrier ghosted across the samphire and sueda before the juvenile female Pallid Harrier drifted from the east and performed alongside a ringtail Hen Harrier before both settled to roost towards East Hills.  It was a great comparison with the lighter structure, narrower wings and sharper wingtip of the Pallid notable alongside the gingery underside, agile flight and frequent switchbacks in pseudo hunting moves.  Cracking bird.  To finish the day tens of thousands of Pink-footed Geese flew over us creating a cacophony as we pulled over to enjoy the spectacle - it always takes my breath away to experience this daily flight of winter wild geese.

Next day dawned grey, blustery and wet.  We retraced our steps along the coast and cafes.  Before heading home we spent an hour or so with 7 Waxwings that had taken up residence in Sheringham.  Eve, 7, taking her first digiscoping pics of the Waxwings, a new and exciting bird for her.

Wednesday 12 October 2022


Ben picked me up early as the dawn just brushed the horizon but within 20 minutes it was light as we walked out onto Chippenham Fen.  Heading West to the ringing site the exotica of Yellow-browed Warbler song pierced the subdued autumnal chorus - Rich evidently had sprytefever and hoped to attract a 6 striper with the tape loop.  I'd not been to this ringing site before - a step up in scale and potential from the scrubland at Queen Adelaide that had been a ringing focus for some years.

Long rides between the scrub, fen and woodland allowed for long chains of nets and Rich had already got a round of catches to process.  A Redwing was in one bag, to be pipped to the post as my woefully late first of the autumn by a bird seeping overhead.  There were definitely birds on the move with Song Thrush, Skylark and Meadow Pipits vocal overhead.  I settled into the rhythmn of a ringing session enjoying seeing the birds up close, learning and revisiting the process of feather and moult analysis, species by species, allowing us to age and sex most of them. 
A later trap round revealed my only Spotted Flycatcher of the year, and a late one at that, sitting a top a dead tree.  The bags filled with Warblers and buntings and things got very busy for Rich after a large Tit flock moved through and lots ended up in the nets alongside a couple of Treecreepers. 

From the restful recline of the patio chairs both Marsh Tit and Nuthatch were vocal in bursts over the delicious song of Redstart from the tapes. Towards the end of the session I glanced behind and across the clearing and called the Sparrowhawk that was gliding across the back.  Rich raised his bins and declared "male Gos" and thankfully the bird glided back across in front of us before dropping vertically into the western woodland, scattering the Woodpigeons like snooker balls after a powerful break.  Really nice views of a Cambridgeshire and Ely10 mega, my first in over a decade.  Doing a little Google map work I reckon the nearest territory is in the Brecks just over 6 miles away, so perhaps we should expect more, it was Richard's second of the year at the site.  Ben's rule of thumb still works "Jesus on the cross - not a Gos" and the bird was good to that alongside more conventional ID features.  The silhouettes below, from photos, show this subtle but consistent structural/jizz feature nicely.  You can't always judge size readily but below it's clear to my eye - the Sprawk is Jesus on the cross, the Gos is at the Crossroads.  

Andy Butler's flight ID info is very good and worth a regular retread, no matter your experience with these enigmatic raptors.

Saturday 3 September 2022


 Everything But The Girl - Corcovado - YouTube

I'd planned a visit to Madeira, to fall before the tubenose altar, prior to the global pandemic but it's taken a few years to get back to doing something about it.  In the meantime the many hours of UK seawatches and pelagics have been exhilarating and delivered far beyond my hopes with Fea's and Wilson's Petrels in the South West and an Albatross and White-billed Diver in the North Sea amongst all the shearwaters, terns, incoming passerines and the odd Sabine's Gull.  

Our seabirding on Maderia fell into 3 types - Seawatches, pelagics and nocturnal breeding site visits.  We went out on 3 long pelagic trips with Windbirds which allowed for fantastic views of seabirds both in transit to our chumming points and when working the oily slicks.  Seawatching gave us fantastic and repeated experience with seeing petrels and shearwaters in a different context - we seawatched daily from just after dawn and we only encountered Barolo's Shearwater through this approach, trawling through large feeding flocks of shearwaters drawn to pods of Dolphin's.  A highlight, amongst many highlights, of the trip was being guided to the Zino's Petrel breeding cliffs high in the mountains.  The experience was magical but taking the plunge to buy a thermal imaging camera for this made for something exceptional.  Using the camera we could not only hear the haunting wails of the petrels, we could look down the sheer cliff face and see Zino's Petrels emerging from the cloud below us and hang and dance upon the ferocious updraft of the cliff.  We used our ears and the camera at Ponta do Garajau to enjoy Cory's Shearwaters flying around their small colony, the air filled with crazy loon calls.  Braving the rocky outcrop at the end of the path we were overjoyed to hear the finger rubbing on glass squeeks of Madieran Storm Petrel hopefully returning to breeding spots.  A video will follow in time but here are some pics to whet the appetite.

The Stage

Madeira is rugged and dramatic in it's scenery, we bumped into some great vista's and coastline and sunsets during our birding.

The Stars

Desertas Petrel

This chunky bird with a beast of a bill is very likely to be a Deserta's Petrel.  Every Pterodroma experience is an adrenaline laced tingle fest.  We had many visits from birds on the boat and seawatching produced many birds from land - reliving that UK find over and over again was delicious.

Fea's/Deserta's Petrel

Zino's Petrel

We saw 3 (possibly 4) birds at sea, and a bird from a seawatch that we were as sure as we could be was a Zino's and several birds at the breeding cliffs.  I hadn't even got my camera out of the bag for the exceptionally close views of our first which took off from a small flock of Bulwer's Petrel at the bough of the boat as we headed out on our first pelagic, the photographs of our next zipping around the boat, in evening light still show the lighter structure, bill size and white underwing markings of this enigma.  Word's can't convey the experience of watching this bird whip headlong towards us, banking feet from the boat and returning over our heads their mountainous breeding sites etching the horizon below.

Supporting Cast

White-faced Storm Petrel

We hadn't any realistic hope that we'd bump into one of these - hugely enjoyable bird to watch and it returned a couple of times as it bounced along the slick.  A cracker.

Maderian Storm-Petrel

I won't wade into the taxonomy of Band-rumped Storm Petrels.  We saw a couple of these at sea and enjoyed them immensely.

Bulwers Petrel

Abundant at sea but fantastic value throughout

Great Shearwater

Just the one, it got a bit sidelined as both a Zino's and Fea's type joined the slick almost as soon as it appeared.

Cory's Shearwater

Abundant and fantastic birds.  Close views and huge flocks were spectacular.

Land Birds

Madeira has a limited but interesting avifauna with island races verging on the edge of bona-fide endemics.  Trocaz Pigeon took a while to show itself really well and the Maderian Firecrest frequently heard but harder to see, although some birds performed including a bird feeding young.  Plain Swift, Berthelots Pipit and Canary were new to me as was the Maderian race of Chaffinch and the endemic island Lizard.