Sunday, 1 June 2014

Ely Cathedral Birding

Today felt like the last day of Spring, the humidity was up and the sun was warm, undoubtedly a summers day.  We spent 6 hours birding from the top of Ely Cathedral's West Tower and showing visitors the birds of Ely from a different angle.  The day was split into a morning session from 7.30 - 10.30 and an afternoon session from 12.30 - 3.30 and during this time an hourly turnover of visitors span upwards and downwards through the tiny gothic turret.  We had done a morning session, in overcast conditions, the previous day and got a handle on how to get the best out of the big sit approach at this stunning location.  Down on the ground today the early morning was bright and we were looking forward to extensive views across the Fens, however once we were higher up it was far from clear and although in bright sunlight the visibility was very poor limited to less than two miles for much of the time.

We enjoyed plenty of Little Egret action and during the morning our count pushed into double figures with a surprising number flying over the city itself.  Jays screeched below and birdsong drifted up from the leafy parks and gardens.  A Barn Owl was seen hunting off and on over the water meadows along Queen Adelaide Way and Sparrowhawk and Kestrel were also seen in this area. The visibility did make it very difficult to pick up soaring raptors, although Buzzards were seen.  The local Marsh Harriers that had shown reasonably the day before were hunkered down or hunting beyond our visibility range and it wasn't until the afternoon session that the potential for raptor watching from the Tower was realized.

Swifts were a continual focal point throughout the day and during the early morning birds could be seen slamming the slats on St Mary's Church tower and entering and leaving nest sites.  Lots of close flypasts were thrilling as birds whizzed across the top of the tower just meters away.  The peak estimate occurred during the early afternoon with around 90 birds visible with binoculars.

On ascending the tower in the afternoon it was great to see that mist had burnt off and the visibility was now tremendous with features within the panorama allowing us to locate Cambridge to the south, Bury St Edmunds to the east, Wisbech to the north and Huntingdon to the west.  Buzzards became evident with as many as 20 sightings during the afternoon, Marsh Harriers could often be seen but required some searching as they were often lower and below the horizon, a few though did allow lengthy views moving across the whole panorama as well as the more sedentary local birds.

A Peregrine was seen over towards Haddenham and in a flurry of activity a Red Kite drifted north distantly in the same area, it or another was seen later offering prolonged views as it headed eastwards.  Hobbies were seen ripping across the skyline now and again and towards the end of the watch a bird drifted across and towards us giving great views as it flew over the tower carving between nervous packs of Swifts.

The 3 sessions of birding from the tower over the weekend were great fun.  From a birding perspective it was most akin to seawatching and I feel excited about the prospect of trying watches at different times of the year and in different conditions.  A squally NW blow in September may produce some Skua movement and visible migration counts in the autumn could be intriguing.  It was great meeting and chatting with lots of interesting folk throughout the two days who were keen to see the birds and enjoy the novel setting.

I would like to thank John, the tower guide for getting up early and looking out for our safety so well on both days. Andrew Balmford and Sallyann Ford helped greatly in getting the idea of birding from the Tower into a feasible event very quickly and big bad Ben Green continued to be great company and help in all sorts of ways throughout.  Hearty thanks to all.

It wasn't all blue skies and Buzzards....