Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Springwatch : Ely Cathedral


01 June 2014
On Sunday 1 June the Ely Cathedral Tower Tours will be extra-special. All day the tower will be the focus of a spring time bird watching event. Local birdwatchers, promoting the Elywildspace, will be at the top of the tower with telescopes to help you enjoy bird eye views of Ely's wildlife.
Expect thrilling flypasts by Swifts which have been recorded reaching speeds of almost 70mph. Birds of Prey such as Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Kestrels, Buzzards and Hobby will be seen on hunting forays and commoner garden birds will be foraging and feeding young in the tree canopy beneath us.
Birdwatchers special tower tour price £6.50/person with binoculars, £9 without.
The tours will take place at 7.30am, 8.30am, 9.30am, 12noon, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm.
Spaces are limited so please book in advance to avoid disappointment 01353 660349 or

Sunday, 25 May 2014

nightjar anyone?

nightjar anyone, and I don't mean a pint down the pub after work...

Now I'd say this is pushing it a little for Ely10, but seems to me the line of radius falls right on where we were (depending on how much you zoom the map!!). Anyway Mark, Bruce and I went to Thetford Forrest looking for nightjars. Did we see one, well, eh, not exactly...

We set off from Ely at 5.45pm with a ominous thick grey sky which shortly after opened up to what seemed like the type of rain that lasts for days... The weather had been appauling all day. The brief respite from the rain in the early afternoon was just that: brief. Our hopes were not high. In fact if we hadn't been meeting someone we quite likely would have stayed home.

We arrived though in good time and the rain had stopped and the sky cleared with a little sun poking though. Was our luck changing? We got out of the car and walked along one of the tracks. There were yellowhammer everywhere. A garden warbler sang in the scrub. We continued walking along a denser area whilst being serenaded by gold crest. Mark had intimated that he hoped to see wood lark and tree pipit. Well our luck must have changed as there were both in an area recently cleared and replanted with douglas fir. Most conspicuous was a yellowhammer resplendant on an old tree stump with a shaft on sunlight highlighting it beautiful lemony tones.

We continued with our tour (moving to the next area in the car!) and then the heavens opened, hail, thunder and torrential rain. Well we imagined we had no chance whatsoever of seeing anything else. Finally the storm passed overhead and  around 9 we returned to the recently cleared area. The sun had gone down, the storm clouds passed by, this left us in a cold, misty pasture. A woodcock flew over giving us great views. Then as the light faded a raptor, big, bulky winged, with a long tail (goshawk?) flew over.

Well we pretty much gave up on the hopes of seeing or even hearing a nightjar so we decided we'd walk a couple hundred meters to an area with 5yr old trees instead of the open pasture, then go home. The air was cold and misty, no insects were out flying and no bats could be seen. We commented on how likely the earlier hail and rain would keep everything down.

We waited a few minutes then decided to get the car. I went for the car and on my way saw 3 moths flying, hmm maybe things were stirring. I brought up the car and stopped where I'd left the others. I switched of the engine and in that moment heard the most wonderful sound. Not 50m away in the top of a tree we heard a nightjar's churring song. Unfortunately this was only 1 minute long with a pause, but definitely unmistakable. Bruce who had wondered off quickly returned to the spot having heard it from couple hundred meters away.

We got into the car happy and decided to return home. On the way we decided to take a quick diversion to Queen Adelaide to see if we could hear the gropper. Hey presto. We stopped facing the factory bridge and walked down the banks of the pits. We could hear one stright away and stayed for a few minutes listening (between the rush of cars).

time, tick, tock...

Time, there just never ever seems to be enough of it. For some reason finding half an hour to watch some birds seemed impossible. I had a lot to do and not enough time to fit that in let alone anything else. One of my jobs was to get the plants in the ground in the garden, weather permitting. Eventually there was a nice evening when I arrived home from work. With my little one helping, I started the gardening.

Within seconds I seemed to have gained an eagre companion, then another and another... First was a blackbird, following me everywhere and (as long as I wasn't looking) picking at worms in my wake. Then the dunnocks, a pair, flitting in and out of the cover of whatever plant they happened to be hiding behind. Goldfinch arrived in pairs taking sunflower hearts from the feeders, until the housesparrows showed up in force and bullied their way in. A collared dove took whatever pickings the others dropped on the floor. Starlings frolicked in the viburnum. A greenfinch was at the top of the neighbours tree. Rook and jackdaws we flying around. Somewhere nearby a gold crest sang. A wren breifly popped up on the garden fence, but wasn't brave enough to stick around with all the activity.

The highlight though was a robin. He came straight up to me and was foraging under my feet as I knelt on the floor digging holes for some petunias. He even didn't flinch when my little one ran over for a cuddle and to see "what you doing papa'?". Now none of this is particularly new to any of us and our garden visitors can be as familiar as pets. The thing that struck me most was seeing my little one watch the "birdies" with fascination. This reminded me that this was exactly how my passion and interest in birds and wildlife began. In my own back garden!

The first memory I have was cracking nuts at Chistmas as a small boy in the garden with my grandmother. She told me to be quiet and hold still. I froze and didn't realise why. Then between my legs arrived a robin. He was eating the nuts seemingly oblivious of me. Sometimes it easy to forget just how amazing nature is and that we don't need to go anywhere to see it, it surrounds us everywhere.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Burwell Bonanza

The early part of the week saw Burwell Fen spring up as the site to be.  On Sunday afternoon Neil Gates found 3 Black-winged Stilts there which have fed into a complexity of Stilt sightings.  A Little Tern and Sanderling were also excellent Ely10 finds for Richard Johnson and just less than annual species in the area.

Paul Mason posted on Cambirds about a lovely morning he had out on the fen...........

A great morning just standing on Aldreth High Bridge over the Old West River this morning. Letting the birds come to us

Watched Swallows collecting mud to build nest under the bridge. Listening to Sedge Warblers singing and Reed Warblers rattling away in the reeds along the rivers edge and then hearing a Cuckoo get nearer and nearer.

A female Marsh Harrier flew round us and carried on quartering the wheat and rape fields followed quickly by a Hobby hunting. Then another male Cuckoo approached and the two of them flew round with each other cuckooing away all the time from tops of tall trees. One (or two, we don't really know) Kingfishers streaked blue along the water while Scarce Chaser dragonflies chased off 4 spot Chasers and the other way round. Red-eyed Damselflies settled on the lily pads.  Blackcap fluted from a tall willow and Green Woodpeckers found ants on the levies.To cap it all out came a Barn Owl and sat on a series of posts along the river bank.

Peace perfect peace.


Friday, 16 May 2014

There is magic woven into the fabric of the night.

Last night saw the first warm and still evening of the past week or maybe more.  Carpe diem and all that, I headed out into a bright light, full moon night, sometime after 10. First stop a garden listen which produced a Little Owl calling down the field, a Barn Owl ghosted across the causeway and nothing sang, grunted, hooted or called from the Queen Adelaide Way bank.  Before arriving at the Beet Pits I'd heard a roadside Grasshopper Warbler and at the reed bed Little Grebe giggled and a brief burst of Cetti's Warbler burst out while Reed and Sedge Warbler sang.  A flyover Whimbrel over Bens house lived up to it's folky name of seven whistler and was one of three I was to hear during the night.  There were no Nightingales to be heard at Roswell, more's the pity, and it appears we have lost them for this year.

Out to the Washes where Tawny Owl and assorted wildfowl made a soft din.  Lapwing song peewitted up and down, rolling and bouncing just like the flight actions of their tumbling display.  Away across the summerlands a Black-tailed Godwit wittered away amidst the drumming Snipe and agitated Redshank.  I checked likely Spotted Crake spots to no avail, including a prolonged spell at Oxlode where I had heard one earlier in the month. The Bittern that had been booming last week didn't man up and thump the air either.

A little disappointed after a good start I decided to leave the Washes and check some other sites.  I was over the moon when, at my first stop, the persistent whip of Spotted Crake song could be heard across the now chilly air.  Grasshopper Warblers were also evident amidst the chatter of Sedge Warblers and a Bittern hoofed out a cracked boom a couple of times.  A walk closer to the Crake allowed some low-fi voice recording on the phone.

A wonderful hypnosis washed over as layers of monotonous reeling drones and metronomic whips were laced with drumming Snipe and the scratches and chunterings of Acrocephalus melody.  With the full moon risen and the mist hanging just above the damp fen grass sward there was intoxicating magic woven into the fabric of the night.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Space Race

6am, May 11th, 2014, Kiln Lane, Ely.  18 pairs of binoculars, 32 sharp eyes and 136 fingers starting to chill in an unseasonably hostile westerly wind.  Four years ago, in the very first Elywildspace spring bird race, 88 species were seen in total by the debutante teams. With strong winds and showers hindering both bird migration and observation the odds were stacked against this being the day for a similarly high tally.  However, with 4 hours bird finding ahead of them, the 4 teams headed out with the aim of seeing and hearing as many species as they possibly could.

Cutting swiftly to the re-grouping at the end of the race, a total of 71 species were seen.  Species that eluded all teams but were certainly present "out there" included Grey Wagtail, Grasshopper Warbler, Water Rail, Buzzard, Garden Warbler and Little Grebe.  There were several species, usually readily found, that were not seen by all groups. Amongst these Kingfisher, Yellow Wagtail, Red-legged Partridge, Turtle Dove, Cormorant and Herring Gull were most notable.  There were highlights, and Cetti's Warblers sang loudly from a variety of spots around the site, Marsh Harriers  showed themselves well, a smart and dashing Hobby streaked past the assembled teams at the Sailing Club and a fly-over Oystercatcher proved to be the only bonus bird of the day.  

Our team had a magical experience with a swarm of Swallow and Martins hunting low along the tree line of Pocket Park.  The insects, forced low and into the shelter afforded by the trees from the wind and drizzle, lured the birds down to eye level making it possible to stand facing them as they flew headlong towards us banking and veering just metres from our faces.  Birding, so frequently a slightly detached observational activity, can also bring us into very direct and immersed experiences with birds.  As these hirundines whizzed around like embers cracked from a bonfire night pyre, I drank it all in. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Still ecstatic

To celebrate the 7 day anniversary of the Wood Warbler along Deacons Lane, Ely here a couple more images, from Ben, of the ecstatic trembler.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

on the difficulties of terns

there's been a fair bit of tern activity in the last week or so , and i thought i'd have a go at a simple id plate to illustrate the key differences between the two tricky "commic" terns. every year I find myself scanning the terns at roswell pits, eagerly trying to find an arctic, and every year there is at least one common tern that gets me trying to spin it into being its rarer cousin. Then a real bone fide arctic tern flies through and i think to myself  "that's what an arctic tern looks like- of course- ".
This year i got to view a group for a prolonged period fly around the pits, and I was struck immediately by their pristine appearance and swallow-like outline. their wings lacked the slightly dingy smudge present in the outer wing of the common tern, instead being a beautiful clean grey, with a crisp dark trailing edge to the outer primaries that appeared blacker on the underside, and which contrasted to the pale edged secondaries. The common tern can show a reduced smudge in the wing in certain lights, only the dark trailing edge being apparent, and at this time confusion with arctic is more understandable- but look for the slight seam between the inner and outer primaries in the form of a slightly darker wedge.
Arctic terns are always illustrated in the books as being darker than commons underneath, but i have found this to be an unreliable feature in the field, as lighting conditions,and the background tones in front of which the bird is seen, can drastically alter the perception of this underside shading. I have seen common terns on a dull day that look much darker than the arctics I saw the other day, whose undersides appeared washed out as light from the water bounced up at them.
Small details can be used as part of a holistic appraisal of the bird in front of you, but they should be considered carefully - bill shape and colour being another obvious feature that can sometimes muddy the water. Common terns can show little or no black on the bill tip, and the black can seem to disappear if the bird flies past a dark background. the bill should be shorter and straighter on an arctic, and the head should show a steeper forehead. I found that the profile of the black caps on birds I watched the other could offer a possible way of categorising the two species- steep angled forehead on the arctic, steeper upturn at the back of the head on common. The difference is subtle i admit, and leads to the common showing a flatter crown when compared with the arctic's more domed appearance.
To me though, the easiest method of telling the two species apart  in flight is the position and shape of the wings. the arctic seems to have less of a neck, making the wings look as though they are placed in a more forward position than on common. the tail, as a result appears longer as well on arctic.the commons' longer head and bill should look sleek and extended. The arctics' wings are subtly narrower, and added with their generally paler trailing edge, their "hand" looks relatively longer in comparison to that of the common. This feature also adds to the "front heaviness" of the arctic. I think a lot of literature on the subject makes too big a deal over the comparative elegance of the two species, which in turn leads to more confusion, as our own definition of elegance is purely subjective, and it is actually pretty hard to think that there is anything more elegant than a common tern, in my book. Its slender features seem to fit the description pretty well perfectly, so its not surprising that on a sunny evening, when one skims past looking more lovely and serene than the usual busy and noisy fish-diver of a blustery late April out on the main pits, we can be deceived into thinking that this must be a different  species of higher worth. Of course there's always the roseate tern.

Monday, 5 May 2014


a couple of hours in the evening. I parked up on Queen Adelaide and walked along the path at the back of Queen Adelaide Pit. Not much showing, could hear a sedge warbler, but not see him. Then on my way back to the bridge across the river I heard a cuckoo calling from the trees on the road side of the river, but again I didn't see it.

Across to cuckoo bridge and there was a reed bunting sat in the reeds standing out like beacon. The was also white throat in the tree. I took a walk along to the fishing pond and could hear a turtle dove cooing on the opposite side, clearly visible in the top of a tree.

A walk towards the path next to the car park and a blackcap male was flushed into the undergrowth. A white throat has a singing post in the trees after the gate at the back of Cookes on the right hand side. He's a bit flighty though. He seems to like the stinging nettles behind the gate (corner of Cookes) as he was back and forth between his post and there.

A pied wagtail was in the pasture together with a pair of song thrushes. they voiced their objection to me poking my head over the bramble and the wagtail flew to Cookes and along the corrugated walls, then disappeared at the drain pipe!! There were goldfinch all over the roof.

Back to the fishing pond and a couple (could have been 2 couples) of Artic terns (definitely this time, no black tips to bill) came and went and returned again. Around the back where the fishing peg is there was a green woodpecker sat in the upper branches for 5 minutes or more, which distracted from the fact a GS woodpecker was in the adjacent tree just as visible.I only saw this as it flew away toward the river.

Time to leave. Walking back along the path after cuckoo bridge and the cuckoo is calling again. Then I hear one, no wait 2 gold crest calling in the trees. I even got a glimpse and I mean a glimpse as the flitted around.


A quick look (30 mins) at the herons showed 2 each in the larger left hand nests and one in the right hand nest.


Well I got up, took the little one to nursery and found myself in a loose spot. I had the day off work as we were flying to Italy in the afternoon. I logged on and looked at the blog. Ben and Duncan had written about the wood warbler, so I decided to go and see if it was still around... no joy. I spent about an hour up and down the street and up and down the edge playing field. I didn't see or hear anything except a wren in every garden, or was it one following me? Anyway I decided a walk down by the river might wash away my disappointment.

Well I wasn't wrong. I park by the environment agency and walk down the road with white throat singing just out of view. Then as I approached the lookout on the right a couple of terns flew past. Now I'll go out on a limb (after Ben, Duncan and Mark highlighted this) and suggest Artic because they were making a right racket, but they whizzed past and I couldn't tell for sure.

Anyway it was a miserable morning with clouds and a little light rain. Our trip to Italy wasn't going to be a pleasant one so I decided to just enjoy the sights and the sounds; enjoy the simple things and just reflect on the wonders around me.

Ruthless Gluttons at Roswell

An enjoyable few hours down at Roswell Pits today. Listened to, and later watched, a Cuckoo from Cuckoo Bridge (where else?). Personally, I find it hard to tire of his wonderful call, despite it being, I suppose, somewhat monotonous. An equally lovely sound, to me at least, and another evocative harbinger of summer, is the purr of the Turtle Dove, and there was one in song behind the 'lily-pad pit' (by Cooke's). Despite both birds being heralds of warmer days to come they seem to have been viewed in rather different lights in times past. The Turtle Dove, like doves in general, was a symbol of constant love, with Chaucer mentioning in his 'The Parliament of Fowles', "The wedded turtel with hir herte trewe". The Cuckoo, of course, gets a rather poorer press, what with its hoodwinking of the proxy-parent birds, 'murder' of its nest-mates and being caught up with ideas of cuckoldry. According to Mark Cocker in 'Birds Britannica', there was once a suggestion that the young Cuckoo would eventually eat the birds which had raised it and Chaucer, again in his 'Parliament of Fowles', has the Merlin call the Cuckoo "Thou mordrer of the heysugge (Hedge Sparrow) on the braunche that broghte thee forth, thou rewtheless glotoun"... Nonetheless, hearing one always brightens up my day, but no doubt the Reed Warblers down at Roswell Pits are less keen!

As a child I spent hour after hour poring over the four volumes (one for each season) of the Ladybird book series 'What to Look For in....', with text by E.L. Grant-Watson and wonderful illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe. The picture featuring a Turtle Dove was one of my favourites, probably because the Turtle Dove held somewhat mythic status for me as a child (I can't ever recall seeing or hearing a Turtle Dove when growing up, although I'm sure they must have been present in the Northamptonshire countryside). I was therefore heartened to discover recently that it's now possible to buy prints of the Tunnicliffe illustrations. That of the Turtle Dove is still a cracker in my opinion -  Turtle Dove pic and that of the Cuckoo isn't bad either - Cuckoo pic This could be a costly discovery!

Dragging myself back to the present and Roswell Pits... There were 2 Kingfishers at Cuckoo Bridge and a male Marsh Harrier lifted up from the reedbed and carried off some food. 2 Common Tern noisily occupying the tern-raft on the lily-pad pit (with one on the other raft). Further on some Sand Martins were investigating the pipes and cracks in the concrete wall beneath Potters.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

One good Tern .....

I made an early start to a safari to the north of Ely.  The Beet pits and Roswell area made for an enjoyable dawn(ish) chorus with lots of songbirds giving their all.  Disappointingly there was no sound from any Nightingales and hopefully this is not indicative of a no show at Roswell this year. 

I checked every bare field on the way to the Washes with the hope of finding a Dotterel.  Although there were no rarer plovers to be found it was great to see plenty of  Lapwing chicks during the morning.  From the bank at Oxlode a bogthumper boomed and a Spotted Crake made a few half hearted whips from across the Washes.  After a spell of searching I picked up the Cattle Egret at some distance in flight.  As hoped it made a beeline for it's favoured field and showed well until I left. I worked the south bank at various points all the way down to Welney where a Black Tern and a flock of 9 Greenshank were the highlight.

Last night I was looking through some old pics and found this shot from a few years ago of a Stock Dove at Purls Bridge that is truly showing it's iridescence. During my nightly wander in the garden, listening out for anything other than traffic, I was surprised to hear a Lesser Whitethroat giving it's rattle twice at a good volume.  A new one for my nocturnal songsters list. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Arctic breeze

A whirl of slender-winged arctic terns dropped down to water level at the sailing club this morning. i had had a tip-off from duncan, who had just seen four leave from there earlier, and arrived at Roswell pits just as fifteen started to wheel about in a tight flock. Unlike the four common terns that were busy fishing, it seemed like they were regrouping for a last push to the north, and after about ten minutes they spiralled up and were gone, leaving their less elegant cousins in their wake.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Ecstatic Tremblings

Andy's casual drop of a singing Wood Warbler into the mix on his Duke of Edinburgh walk had left me daydreaming of shivering lemon and persil white phylloscs.  These are scarce birds in the county and an early morning post on cambirds about one singing in old Ely led me swiftly to leafy Deacons Lane, straight from the nursery drop off.

I had a 10 minute window to hopefully see and hear the Wood Warbler found by Neal Gates who lives on the road.  Within a minute I heard the evocative accelerating song notes finished with an excitable flourish and I was ecstatic.  Shortly after I was able to enjoy very good views of this vocal visitor in the lower canopy.  I have always loved watching the physicality and gusto Wood Warblers give in their delivery and this bird trembled and shook it's song free from it's lungs. 

It was a great, great pleasure to spend time with this bird who's presence meant that for the day Deacons Lane became spangled with a sprinkle of avian magic.  Ben dropped off some photos this evening  and a big thanks to him for getting some shots although who need photo's when a beautiful watercolour can deliver so so  much more......