Monday, 24 November 2014

Titter ye not....

Earlier in the year Andy had a drive by sighting of a Marsh Tit at Witcham, since then there have been a couple of reports of Marsh Tit in that parish.  It's a scarce species within the Ely10 but I had high hopes of seeing one when we decided to take a family walk on Saturday afternoon in Fordham Woods.  First bird I heard was calling a sneezing "pitchoo" and a handsome Marsh Tit bounced and dropped through the thickety hedge on the entrance track, I was over the moon before I stepped foot on the boardwalks that cross the boggy woodland floor. This was my first visit to these small woods and I was beguiled by the wet Alder wood with open under canopy of sedge and mire.  I heard another Marsh Tit, admired a corner where I imagined a spring Firecrest singing and pondered the decline of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers which would have been a reasonable proposition in this habitat in decades past.  A great alternative to Wicken for a toddler friendly walk, I look forward to watching the seasons change here over the next year.

Sunday dawned grey and wet and the day continued in that vein.  After lunch we took the campervan out to keep the engine ticking over and headed for Welney.  Despite the rain I decided to have a look for Buzzards out the back of Lady Fen, I was surprised on first scan to find a hovering buteo and quickly got the scope out.  It was the Rough-legged Buzzard, I took some care checking the bird which was at some distance but felt happy with the extent of dark belly patches, tail pattern, wing structure and size of carpal patches.  It dropped into the hedgerow where I had last seen it and  I took a dampening as I walked out across the field to get a better view.  Better being a subjective term, definitely closer but unfortunately more obscured by branch and hampered by lens drizzle.  Nonetheless a very nice surprise under the dismal conditions.  On the reserve there were coach loads of avian admirers and lots of birds to look through, a flock of 30 or so Pink-feet flew down along the washland and were likely to have been the birds that were reported over Witcham earlier in the afternoon. The rising water levels and heavy drizzle made it ideal for ducks but not so great for birding, the lure of a cuppa and cake won out.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


Yesterday was altogether more pleasant weatherwise than either Friday (which was freezing and windy), and today, a wet gloom of a day. I was therefore very fortunate to spend Saturday with Lou and Gary, and some of Lou's bridesmaids, on a Swan safari to Southery, looking for colour-ringed birds out on the fen.
I must admit my main reason for going was not to record swan data. I can't help it, but I find swan counting dull at the best of times, and I am easily distracted. I really wanted to luck into that bloody rough-leg, which everybody who has been to Welney in the last two weeks seems to have seen, but which still eludes me. 
It was therefore something of a relief to discover- or should that be not discover, very limited numbers of the flying sheep that make the washes and surrounding farmland their winter home. We only found one significant flock, of about 350 swans, and only 25 of these were Bewick's. It seems that it's not just our neck of the woods that is experiencing "the Great Mild". The Bewick's are apparently still languishing in the lakeland of Estonia, in no particular hurry to get here. Well, having been somewhat duped into becoming an official swan recorder, I thought i'd better start counting, firstly the number of individuals, then a species breakdown, then the number of young, and how many in each family party... then just as I was nodding of into a swan induced hypnotic state- five geese!
This is a bit more interesting I thought- who cares how many swans there are and why they're declining, when there's some geese to identify from quite a long way away in the haze. Pinks or Beans - both good inland birds - were the obvious candidates, and despite none of them displaying the grey scapular sheen, a wing stretch then a short flight revealed enough detail to rule out Bean geese. With so many on the Norfolk coast it seems absurd that we don't get more of these geese in fens, but there you go- birds eh. And why stop there? when just 400 metres to the south was the beginning of the Ely 10. Yep-I measured it on google earth when I got back. I may have to start a Queen Adelaide 10 to get them on any spurious and ultimately pointless list I want to create to constrain my peregrinations.

Monday, 17 November 2014


No shade, No shine, No butterflies, No bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

I’m rather fond of Thomas Hood’s ‘November’ but the final verse has always seemed a bit much – especially about the birds! Plenty of shine (and consequent shade) when I surfaced this morning and a bumblebee on a flower of our winter honeysuckle. Over to Wicken Fen. Many leaves still evident on the trees, arguably even more impressive in their golds and yellows than their summer hues. Fruits still abundant too; the black berries of Privet and the tempting glossy red berries of Guelder Rose. Some Hawthorns visibly sagging under the weight of all their haws.

A quiet half hour by the Brick Pit watching the comings-and-goings on the bird-feeders. Lovely close-up views of Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Robin, Wren and Great Spotted Woodpecker. A solitary Redwing briefly perched in the sunshine. Walking towards Baker’s Fen lots of Fieldfare passing over. To the West Mere hide and the first bird I set eyes on as I open the flap is a Great Egret! Remarkably, my 3rd of the year, but by far the best views I’ve yet obtained – quite stunning in the sun, though this individual seems to have a penchant for catching twigs.

Over to Burwell Fen. Kestrels are absolutely everywhere and manage to replace Wood Pigeon as my ‘Ooh, what’s that?!’ bird for the afternoon. 3 Stonechat flicking about and perching on the tops of Burdock. The water level has risen in the pools by Reach Lode and the mud seems to have been covered for now. Fewer waders in consequence, though decent flocks of Lapwing and some Golden Plover wheeling about. A mystery warbler scolds me from a ditch. A noticeable white eye ring and the hint of an eye stripe. Quite a stiff tail, or is it just holding it like that to balance? A continual ‘chit, chit, chit’ call, a little like a sharper version of a Blackbird. Crossed with a Stonechat. Or something… Cetti’s or a late Reed? I give up.

Threatening black clouds thankfully skirt the Fen, making the sunlight seem even more intense as I head back. Instead it rains owls… 2 Short-Eareds appear and quarter the rough ground, occasionally flying up together in some sort of spat. A Barn Owl joins them and for one brief moment all 3 are together in my 'scope. I briefly wonder which is the more beautiful but give this impossible-to-answer question up and concentrate on enjoying the moment. A 3rd, then a 4th Short-Eared Owl joins in, then a 2nd Barn Owl. I need a neck like a…well, owl, to keep track of what’s going on. No sooner does one bird go to ground than another pops up. And every so often one flies straight towards me and I get to look right into that perfect face. As if that wasn’t quite enough a ringtail Hen Harrier joins the party and I'm spoilt yet more as it briefly shares the ‘scope with a Short-Eared Owl...

Things quieten down and I move on, but there are 2 more Barn Owls waiting for me on Harrison’s Drove, one sitting close-by on a post and allowing me to ‘scope him (or her) as he (or she) stares back. A Snipe hurtles overhead and as I skirt Baker’s Fen a Water Rail squeals. As the light fails I take the path along by St. Edmund’s Fen. There’s a decent corvid roost forming and as I pass I disturb the occupants of those trees closest to the path, the clamour rising in volume, no doubt in protest at having to  re-establish sleeping arrangements.

No birds? Hood should have got out more. Although I didn’t see a butterfly. I’ll give him that.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

November spawned a .......Garganey

Foggy November mornings are not ideal for searching out birds across the Washes and even as the gloom cleared we were unable to find the Green-winged Teal that had been found at Witcham Gravel the day before.  We checked through a flock of presumed Wigeon in the murk looking for little duck and Ben commented on the Trumpeter like features of the Swan with the group.  Scopes at full zoom through the gloom it was still showing bill patterning in line with a Trumpeter and we began to discuss the bird a little more.  A couple of dogs swam into the wildfowl, how strange they don't spook the assembled duck and why... there's a bloke there, thigh high in the water picking up the swan.  Call it a trick of the mist or more likely birding ineptitude but we had been duped, all the birds were decoys.   At least this explained the Nearctic origins of the Swan, and we can take some ironic pleasure in knowing that we had successfully identified the decoy swan to species, how we laughed across the dewy cradge bank.

Heading to Welney to have a look for Buzzards the fog thickened and a walk across the fields was at best enigmatic but it was inevitably impossible conditions for raptor watching.  A return look through the video footage of last week's Rough-Leg revealed this freeze frame which by no means conclusively identifies the bird as a Rough-Leg but does, I think, eliminate Ben's pale Buzzard on tail pattern.

Returning to the uplands of Ely the fog cleared again and a quick look on the settling beds produced a Bittern that flew a short distance appearing to have been spooked by a low flying Cormorant. This is the first Bittern I've seen here for many, many months and a Cetti's Warbler burst forth in song to celebrate.  Later in the day an unseasonal Garganey was a found with the Teal flock,  and it was still present this morning when I was able to excel again in the esoteric art of blurry bird video.



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

On approaching Welney.

Kestrels seem to be having a good winter so far- I counted seven between Welney and Pymoor, and there were a few more hunting over the fields on my journey from Ely. I took this sequence from the balcony at Welney's reserve centre as it hovered above the hedge along the road. In contrast, a female Hen harrier flew low along the ditches beyond Lady Fen, and a young Marsh harrier harrassed the waders on the reserve itself, sending them crying into the air ballooning into great flocks.
On the way to Welney this morning a host of Starlings straddled the road, drinking from a puddle, then flowing down onto the black field and glittered. At one point they surrounded my van as I drove slowly along, camera poking out of the window hoping for a lucky shot..

Monday, 10 November 2014


When I read Duncs stream of  euphoric conciousness I got the urge to go and see fro myself the bird that had got him in such a state of bliss that not even the midland biders curse could bring him too far down from his high.
Well, I saw a buzzard- but not The buzzard. It was a wonderfully pale thing that seemed to be aping a Gyr Falcon when perched, and worryingly looked like a Rough-leg when in flight. Now, I'm not saying Dunc has contracted a dose of "Holkham fever", but.....

While the Rough-leg failed to show up on Sunday, my reward for venturing out to enjoy the still afternoon was a lovely fly past Hen harrier, and a male Stonechat, all the while having the sound of wild swans drifting across the wheatfields. As the light faded I stood on the bank to look over the wash as the water turned peachy in the sunset. Three adult Bewick's swans swam passed a family of preening Whooper's, and hundreds of lapwings and Golden Plover were strewn out around the water's edge.
Further down the bank, just south of the Pymoor railway bridge, a Little Owl and a Barn Owl provided a fitting end to my evening.
I tried again this morning, with the same rough-luck, but I soon found myself under the flight-path of the swans as they made their way out onto the farmland for their lunchtime loaf.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Not so Rough

A morning safari around the fens east of the Washes with Andy was full of birds.  We enjoyed several large flocks of Whooper Swans twinkling against the black soils and Golden Plover and Lapwing were on the wing all over.  Where the washes have flooded wildfowl was crammed in with large gatherings of Shoveller, Wigeon and Teal peppered with an occasional drake Pintail.  Lapwing and Golden Plover flocked in increasingly large and impressive numbers. 

We headed down to Welney and hopeful that we may get lucky and see the Rough-legged Buzzard that has been seen intermittently during the week.  Having looked over the reserve from several vantage points awaiting the terribly well mannered 10am opening of the reserve we continued to enjoy swathes of duck, plover and godwit.  From the observatory we noted an odd looking female Aythya hybrid looked exactly how you'd imagine the offspring of a Tufted Duck and Pochard should.  A huddle of 6 wild swan that flew across the back of the washland looked short necked and goosey enough to be likely Bewick's Swan but were the only candidates seen.  On leaving the reserve we were told that the Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported earlier in a field along the approach from the A10. 

As we drove slowly along this road we saw a straw headed Marsh Harrier sat out in the stubble, the cynic in me allowed my heart to sink and I suspected a misidentification.  However, glory be, 20 metres along the road we had to stop as, within spitting distance, the Rough-legged Buzzard sat along the ditchside.  The views were cracking and after watching it for a minute or two the prospect of scoping it and perhaps getting a frame filling photo became to much to resist.  Our position meant that I could slip out of the door unseen and set the scope up without flushing it.  No sooner had I set the scope up and had seconds to drink in the brilliant Buteo then some bad luck struck. 

My view was obscured by a carload of birders, well.... folk with bins, who had just driven past the Rough-leg and wound down their window to ask if I was stalking the distant swan flock.  I told them, to no hint of recognition, that there was a Rough-legged Buzzard just outside their window. They were so pleased they pulled up behind me, got straight out of the car and flushed the bird.  It didn't move too far but didn't settle for any period until it went out of sight at a turn of the ditch .  Once the birders had moved on to get a good view of the Marsh Harrier, Andy and I walked the ditch edge and saw the buzzard well a couple more times.  I did manage to get some footage of the bird as it characteristically hovered along a wispy hedge row.  Despite the frustration an absolutely magical encounter with one of my favourite birds.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Dicking around

What's the likelihood of finding the following in a field in Cambridgeshire - Richard's Pipit, Snow Bunting, inept digiscopers.  10,000 to 1? 100,000 to 1? Statisticians out there will find that the odds, using the records from 1928 to present are, erm....., much lower.   

However it has happened, within the Ely10 and here's the evidence.

The Pipit
The inept digiscoper
The Bunting

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Richard's Pipit trip trumps Bunting Hunting - on the sea-shore?- I think that's the rhyme isn't it?

This morning Duncan and I made a quick visit to Fordham for the Richard's Pipit that had eluded us on Monday. I saw it briefly yesterday but it's always nice to get better views, so we both were very pleased when the thing leapt up from the tall grass and eventually, after a lot of hovering, came down on the path about 30 metres away. It didn't stay for long, but I managed to get a bit of v low quality footage in the dull light (having just viewed on the blog I see that the low resolution available is so poor its not worth looking at- in fact if I could work out how to remove it I would- it looks better on my computer, honest!), and managed to look at it long enough to take in the relevant features to produce this sketch when I got home. I noticed that it had a full set of adult type median coverts in particular, with wide cinnamon edging and slightly pointed blackish centres-  First winter or adult?-either way it was a great bird to have in the Ely 10, and very easily identified when in flight despite not being very vocal. It was obviously bigger than a meadow pipit, with a long tail and strong bouncy flight. It often hovered , tail drooping limply before dropping to the ground.
We nearly trod on the Snow Bunting again on the way back to our cars, and as it was preening I spied a chance to get some better shots of it's wings and tail. Finally it stretched........

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Confronting Bunting hunting

I couldn't resist another trip to Fordham, having been constrained by the disappointing weather yesterday morning with Dunc. The light was perfect today- almost too bright for photography, but i thought i would add these snaps after reading Dunc's assessment of the bunting. I completely agree with the ageing- my first pic clearly shows the central tail feather markings- sharp lanceolate dark centres......

 but- i reckon it's a male, not a female. On these next two pictures you can clearly see that the lesser and median coverts are white- on a female they would be blackish with white edging.

 The trouble with looking at the closed wing on these things is that it is really hard to see the complete pattern on the coverts- some of them seem dark and some seem white, but when the wing is spread.....

What a shockingly bad picture i know, but it was hard to get the bugger in flight as it did not care to fly and on the two occasions when it wingstretched it was facing me and i didn't have my camera on the scope anyway. However, you can see that the primary coverts are in fact mostly white, with just black tips.

Ive dug out a photo I took at Holkham a while ago- these are mostly female types, and you can see how little white there is. Of course, then comes the question of race. I have always been under the impression that birds that turn up on the Norfolk coast must be nivalis from scandinavia, and this Fordham bird, I assume is the same, but having just had a glance at Martin Garner's site- he reckons that insulae, from Iceland (and the Scottish mountains) is more common. There may be a geographical shift from insulae in the north and west, to nivalis in the east and south- that would sound logical- all I will say is that it's not a vlasowae from siberia.
BWP is, incidentally quite vague about plumage descriptions of these things, and most of the conclusions i've made have stemmed from looking at Swennson and Birding Frontiers.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Bunting Hunting

Not a great deal of hunting needed to see this this Snow Bunting as it popped up under our feet on the path it has been frequenting just outside of Fordham for some days now.  There are lots of nice pictures of it on the Cambridgeshire Bird Club website, still in anticipation of a call from the Beeb in Bristol I present some video footage to add to the record of this charming little bird. 
I think, having read up on them when I realised that I knew nothing about how to confidently age or sex these birds, that it's a 1st year female on the basis of all dark primary coverts (fm) and pointed tail feathers (1st year), which are particularly evident on the Bird Club pics. 
The Richard's Pipit that has been frequenting the rough grassland nearby did a very good job of avoiding detection and as this was an early morning venture I had to turn on my heel after an hour and a half and get to work. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Autumn Glimpsed

I feel I have glimpsed the autumn this year.  Not in an unappreciative way, as I have been making sure I noticed each shade change in the hedgerow opposite the kitchen window, I listened each night for Redwing passage and each morning I have taken five minutes in the garden and noted the peaks and troughs in migrant Blackbirds and Song Thrushes and overhead movement of finches, pipits, larks, buntings, pigeons and even Jays. 
When the wind turned East and the mizzle descended an eight strong flock of trilling Goldcrests took up a short residency within my garden hedges and hoards of Redwing fell from the greyness, befuddled and excitable.  Brambling wheezed, unseen, overhead and Fieldfare chuckled their way westwards and that felt like my glimpse. With only one free day in my autumn to observe the annual flux of migrants along the east coast I managed to see some good quality scarcities but I missed that coastal dawn magic, when the air is full of wet mist and bird call, where the trees and bushes feel alive with freshly arrived migrants from Scandinavia and beyond. 
I did get out for a dawn raid at Burwell Fen a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed Little, Tawny and Barn Owl on my drive.  These pools constitute a 30 mile round trip from home so I don't frequent them as much as would possibly like.  The wadery habitat was certainly attractive and had held a couple of Pectoral Sandpipers for weeks.  Having captured these trans-Atlantic migrants (or are they coming from somewhere closer and to the east??)  on "film" I wait, expectantly, for a call from the BBC's Natural History unit. 
Winged but not feathered, I went back to some photo's from my summers moth trapping in the garden and identified this as a White Spotted Pinion and found that they are a scarce and localised species, as they are associated with Elm they are no doubt hanging out in the same trees that hold the White-letter Hairstreak, opposite the house. 
Butterfly Conservation have a factsheet here:
White Spotted Pinion

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Rare as hens

Another car window spot - driving down the road from Witcham to Haddenham, I saw something perched on a wire at the side of the road, too big for a kestrel and uniform pale grey.  A quick flick through the mental card index failed to turn up anything other than a male hen harrier, and you just don't see those at the side of the road; I've spent a long time both in Derbyshire and on Exmoor looking for them, to no avail.  It was dusk and I was moving, so the chances of a good ID were slim anyway. I forgot about it and drove home.

And then, at quarter past seven the next morning, there it was, quartering the field adjacent to where I'd seen it. For once there was nothing on the road next to me so I slowed down and got a good look. Pale gray but for the wingtips, it glided on raised wings effortlessly across the stubble. In the half light and the slight mist it looked quite beautiful.

hallowed e'en

 Finally got back to Welney yesterday- and the transformation that the recent rains has brought was quite surprising. Gone are the dragonfly and butterfly covered meadows, replaced by growing stretches of water. The drains have spilled onto the land and the wildfowl teem. Waders gather in vast phalanx's or spread out across the diminishing islands, Lapwing and Snipe almost sprouting from grassy tussocks and muddy clods like new shoots; Golden Plovers suddenly spring up and wheel in a glittering veil against the deep blue sky. The air is filled with the clonking and cronking and whistling and croaking of newly arrived Whooper Swans, Wigeon, Teal, Shovelers, Pochard and Pintail. As evening drew on the water turned peach and a huge raft of Black-headed gulls settled in for the sunset. Eight Curlew appeared and quietly stood among the peewits. I found a little group of Wigeon close to one of the hides- there are still males in eclipse, though most have acquired the grey backs and golden blazes of breeding plumage. I have forgotten my sketchbook. No choice but to relax and take it all in. There's so much going on anyway- I hardly notice a Barn Owl perched on a post below me, so taken am I by the watery scene that appears in a constant state of flux. One minute a pair of swans is preening - then my attention is grabbed as three Shovelers drop in from the open wash. a tight group of snipe ferret over a patch of wet ground, fanning their tails up over their backs at the first sign of anything coming too close before hopping away. Water Rails shreak from along the bank and i fail to spot them. A Marsh Harrier floats by and hundreds of ducks, plovers and godwits take off and slowly come down to earth.

Eventually I turn to the owl- and start wishing my scope was mounted on something a little more professional