Saturday, 6 May 2017

All Day And All Of The Night

Anticipation rose during the week as the weather forecast just looked better and better for the last weekend of April, a weekend booked into the calendar months ago to spend the day with good friends trying to see as many different birds in Cambridgeshire as possible.  A good day of spring passage and some reasonable weather is needed to get close to the current 135 record.  A great day of spring passage and a new record may loom.  Sunday 30th April was a great day of passage, a week earlier than our previous big days but in 2017 April's the new May - right.
Nocturnal shenanigans are central to the bird race day we had heard a Long-eared Owl hooting both nights last weekend from the same spot, a pinned down bird, a dead cert, in the the doghouse - straining our ears into the strengthening breeze. It wasn't happening.
Out to the Washes in the wee hours, we hoped a Crake or possibly two would be calling out their repetitious song.  Nothing.  Snipe juddered the air, a Bittern boomed and Godwits giggled out of the dark.  Night time on the Summerlands is a feast.  Though not yet at it's peak, there's nowhere else like it in the UK and it's a treat and secret.
The Eastern sky was lightening and further north we strode along the floodbank as the sun rose in a glorious glow.  Four Crane, subtle as you like, went about their business and, once the egrets and wild swans and harriers had made their way into the notebook, Ben called a Grey Plover.  We whizzed around to see it fly across the flood and it landed - pied, spangled and spanking in it's full summer garb.  A good bonus bird early on, little did we know how many we were going to see during the day.  A little farther on a Bar-tailed Godwit dropped in and nearby a further 3 Grey Plover were tucked into an inlet amidst the grass.  A mixed flock of waders lower from on high and continued North East without stopping.. There were Barwits, Grey Plover, Golden Plover and a Knot - it was happening, a good wader passage as hoped for on a SE wind.  The remaining time saw more of these birds arrive and a couple of Whimbrel headed westwards and then thought better of it and headed up towards the Wash.  We crossed routes with the record holding Die Hards who were evidently lured out by the prospect of a record breaking day.  Excitement tangible we headed West.

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

The Fen yielded Wheatear, Tree Sparrow and Little Owl and at the edge of the county we revelled in the aerial antics of a Raven playing on the breeze and Red Kites along the roadside.
To the woods, carpeted in Bluebells, lime greenery painting the boughs.  Nuthatch, Jay, Marsh Tit, Bullfinch, Coal Tit and Garden Warbler all present themselves and it's getting to the point where we can't dawdle.  Onwards to the water.  At Grafham there are Black Terns, Sanderling, Turnstone, a brick red Barwit flies straight through, a smart Whinchat has hung around and a drake Common Scoter flies in and drops to the water, there are no Arctic Terns.  We decide to miss out Paxton, although there is an Arctic Tern there, and keep on target with our times and move into the Ouse Valley.
We're greeted by a gorgeous flock of Black Terns picking across the lake, dipping and twisting back and forth, accumulating on islands and throwing themselves back into the air after a rest.  Grey Plover, Whimbrel, Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin share the spit and a drake Goldeneye roosts statically, unhidden.  We have seen quite a few Hobby already but now there is a bird hawking over us and giving great views.  What we haven't seen though is a Sparrowhawk. 
We headed further along the Ouse and into the Washlands.  Egyptian Geese, more Grey Plover and a fly through Turtle Dove before we get to Welches Dam and hop on the bikes.  It's a wader fest here too with Grey Plover, Greenshank, Turnstone, a gorgeous dusky Spotted Redshank, more Bar-tailed Godwit flying through and a dazzling posse of male Ruff jump around and engage in proto lekking.  A drake Garganey is always a welcome sight and this was the first of the day for us, we couldn't find Green Sandpiper, Cattle Egret or Great White Egret seen earlier in the week or the long staying White-fronted Goose (although we did find it or another amongst Greylags on the other side of the Washes later in the day.
We passed the Die Hards again as we left and we had counted up and 136 might still be possible but we still needed to see or hear Sparrowhawk, Bearded Tit, Peregrine and Grey Partridge as well as connecting with some of our stake out specials like Mandarin, Stone Curlew, Nightingale and Woodcock.  A smidgen more luck would also be needed.  The eastern side of the Washes did provide a Peregrine, White-fronted Goose, a 2CY Yellow-legged Gull and we still had enough daylight to play with.  We went to a Sparrowhawk copse where they had been noisy towards any intruder, quite this evening though.  We decided to chance Kingfishers Bridge over Wicken for Bearded Tit.  It had delivered in the past and there was a chance of a Common Gull bathing before roost or an odd wader or even a Grey Partridge calling.  We saw a Little Grebe which 2 of the team still needed to see and another Yellow-legged Gull.  It was unravelling now. 
A lovely walk through damp open woodland revealed Woodcock before we were even in the woods.  A Hobby sat in a dead tree and we willed a Sparrowhawk to make a dusk hunting foray, which it didn't.  We listened to some Stone Curlew wailing in the dark and a Nightingale glorious, if a little distant, on familiar turf at Roswell Pits.  We were on 133, a successful Long Eared Owl hunt, a night calling Grey Partridge and the Corncrake we were sure should be rasping on the Washes would get us to 136.  So standing where we had been some 22 hours earlier we strained our ears to hear Long-eared Owl.  An owl silhouetted as it flew against the sky and then hissed to tell us it was a Barn Owl.  It started to rain and we decided that would be our best effort. 
We had a great day, a really great day and the Die Hards did too.  They found 137, a new Cambs calendar day record.  Between the 2 teams over 140 species were seen or heard so it is a possibility but not one that feels accomplishable, still in the fug of tiredness.
Next day, Bank Holiday Monday gave a chance for recovery and a drive out to Welney allowed an enjoyable time watching 3 Black-winged Stilt picking across a chosen pool on Lady Fen.  A little further down the road views were considerably better and their behaviour looked very bonded, there's quite a good chance that these birds could settle if the local Coot, Black-headed Gulls and predators give them a fighting chance. 

As the week progressed the winds remained to the Easterly sector and waders hung around, I saw a Black Tern from the train over Shropshire's Reservoir (following a Cambirds tip off from a train driver).  A front of Swifts pushed through today and a fantastic flock of 6 Arctic Terns flew over my head at Roswell Pits, not even glancing at the water and powering through North tail streamers fluttering in the wind, the ultimate migration icon.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Jumping In Puddles

Do watch this Sigur Ros performance in the link above - I think it reflects the beautiful community aspects of #Earthoptimism that ran today in Cambridge.
I went out this morning hoping to see the Green-winged Orchid that Mark had found on Ely Common, fortunately he was walking across the common on his way to the Earth Optimism events in Cambridge when I arrived and pointed me in the right direction.  I loved this little flower poking it's way out of the ground amidst the Cowslips.  The site has historically held this Orchid but it is most likely that the Chettisham Meadows seed heads raked across this part of the common have helped.  Across the common an abundance of Adder's Tongue Fern showed itself too.  A pair of Jays have set up territory in a corner, Chiff-chaff were particularly prevalent and a Robin proclaimed it's territory against a shocking blue sky.

A big thanks to Shelley who made it possible for me to see the final series of lectures of #Earthoptimism this afternoon which included Ely 10 resident Tony Martin presenting the herculean achievement of ridding the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia of invasive rodents and allowing ground nesting birds to recover there.
Uncle Ben provided artistic sustenance for my girls, amongst many other appreciative onlookers
and Earth Hero Sir David Attenborough delivered to a standing ovation.


Last week we took the kids to Chippenham Park which is not often open to the public and I was heartened to hear at least 4 Nuthatches proclaiming their territory.  Hundreds of folk hunted for Easter bunnies around the grounds and I saw enough to prime the family for another trip next year. There was plenty to see around the grounds including a lone Fritillary which I photographed from below with the little snappy Lumix and some very handsome Funghi.

Sunday, 16 April 2017


A return to the Fen for Easter weekend and a few trips out to the east of the Ely10.  Chippenham Fen still has Woodcock's roding so I had a look at them just in case they deplete.  The Wicken Woodcocks have, unbelievably, thrown in the towel and vacated the site in the breeding season.  Hopefully this will be a short lived situation and they will return in time. It seems impossible to imagine an evening visit without their accompaniment.   
I continued the increasingly damp and windy evening with a listen for Stone Curlew which did whinny and cry from across the county border in Suffolk.  The weather was dismal so I called it quits and headed home.
A couple of daytime walks across the Fen and nearby Fordham Woods with the kids revealed plenty of insect activity with Holly Blue, Orange Tip, Comma and Large Red Damselfly fresh on the wing.

On Easter Sunday a dream was resurrected when I got the chance to watch (non breeding I hasten to add)  a Peregrine hanging out on the Cathedral.  I have waited a long time to see this having seen them fly around the tower and whizz over the town on occasion, I am really grateful to Andrew who let us know it was there this evening.  The day when young Peregrine fledges from Ely Cathedral gets closer and if this young bird does hang around, it may draw more Peregrine attention to the Ship of the Fen and start the process of them establishing themselves around the towers - well here's hoping.


Down By The River

The weather was predominantly gorgeous for my little trip up to Yorkshire with the girls.  We had lots of little trips out, often alongside a river.  Along the River Ouse at Naburn, where the weir marks the tidal limit of the river, the ever scarcer song of Curlew trembled across the buttercup strewn meadow.  I was taken aback when a Common Seal raised it's head for a minute or so but quickly descended into the murky water again, the excitable yelps of the children evidently too much for comfort.  In my youth I spent quite a bit of time walking this stretch of river hoping that maybe a Guillemot or scarcer Auk may make it's way upriver - I did find a Common Scoter and Red-breasted Merganser over time but had to to wait until I'd moved to Cambridgeshire to find a waif Alcid. The presence of this Seal meant that my theory was at least reasonable. Despite several searches I was unable to find the Great Grey Shrike at Acaster Malbis, another old stomping ground, despite it being reported daily.
Along a different River, the Nidd at Cattal, a morning was spent looking at the flora - in particular Wild Tulips and Snake-head Fritillaries.

I was very taken with the meadow which was full of Aconites as well as the Tulips and Fritillaries and when I got home later I had a search to find out more.  I didn't find a great deal but did find an article in the YNU journal from some years ago. 
I got quite absorbed in reading various articles including the one on Wild Tulip and was pleasantly surprised when I saw that photo credit for the Wild Tulip pictures were my Dad.  This wasn't to be the only link to this edition of the Journal.......
A potter out to Fairburn for Coffee and playpark has, in the past revealed Willow Tit, but not this time.  A Little Gull and a pair Avocet were seen over the water from the play area which isn't bad going. 

While not seeing Willow Tit I managed to take a poor picture of not 1 but 2 bird table favourites
Out of character, there was no trip to the coast, opting to look for trinkets and baubles in the boutiques of Northallerton and Helmsley instead.  The customary midday check of bird news told of 6 Waxwings in the car park of County Hall nearby - we had a look before we left.  In total there were 23 tinkling beauties nipping at buds in the car park trees in the afternoon sun, more reminiscent of encounters with Bombicilla  in the Scandanavian summer where the plush pinks and subtle greys sing against the fresh leafed greenery and summer skies.


As we enjoyed the birds several folk came over for a chat including the original finder.  As we talked about blogs a comment about Gilbert White and the parish of Ainderby Steeple rang bells from the YNU journal.  I asked if he was Nick Morgan the author of the article about birds in the parish of Ainderby Steeple I had read just the night before.  Nick's name had stuck for another reason.  As a young man I had spent many hours pouring over the Rare and Scarce Birds of Yorkshire and Nick's name was indelibly bracketed next to a Franklins Gull which briefly frequented (and I spent a cold day trying to locate) Scorton Gravel Pits many years ago.  This record giving him hero status to a young, land locked Yorshire birder.  It was good to meet him, enjoy his Waxwings and read his blog that can be found here.

Friday, 7 April 2017


Starting to ease into holiday mode after a few days on the Suffolk Coast and a few more not having to drag my sorry self into work.  Family mode around Minsmere wasn't a bad way to spend an afternoon.  There was booming and pinging in the reedbeds and the Scrape was liberally peppered with Mediterranean Gulls going about their family thing too, well at least thinking about it.


The Easter Duck Hunt at Welney was a good excuse to potter out on the Washes - a lovely duck Pochard on the settling beds and a Pintail close to the observatory set the tome nicely.  A White Wagtail showed well on the furrows and made a good comparison with a grey Pied Wagtail on the Welney bridge which, when facing away shows a fair smattering of black across the darker grey mantle - both interesting birds and worthy of further discussion over a pint.

 noculars daddy I'm looking for duckies

Hey good looking....

OK so what are your credentials??
A mixed bag it appears....

So back to simpler pleasures these are Iceland bound and glorious across the Washes at the moment and just behind them picked one of 5 Great White Egrets that are currently frequenting the Washes.
I'm heading north for a week leaving just enough time at the end of Easter to get out and hopefully catch the Arctic Tern movement, my favourite bird of the spring.