Wednesday, 2 December 2015

hawk the slayer

The feeders are a hive of activity first thing in the morning, and its no wonder that the scene is noticed by the sharp eyes of a Sparrowhawk. The tits and finches suddenly vanish, and the doves clap their wings as they lumber away. All that is left is the hawk, alert and standing at the base of the tree trunk. She has something. Lifting off, she glides across to the back of the garden, alighting on the grass heap still in shadow. Green and yellow feathers blow away on the breeze- its a Greenfinch, a male. Up in the tall birch a magpie chatters- nervously watched through burnt orange eyes. The magpie chooses not to challenge the hawk, and she returns to her meal.
She's found a good hunting ground, and later on tries again- rushing at the fruit tree with the feeders in it- but this time without success. She perches among the cherry crabs, ignoring the scolding and taunting of the Blue Tits that hop around in front of her. They are defenceless if surprised, but once alerted to danger the small birds can use the dense cover as protection, and the hawk won't waste her energy.

Eventually she moves on, and with three or four quick flaps she reaches a pile of dead wood. The sun shines on her pale,barred breast, and, cover blown, she's off over the hedge.

Monday, 23 November 2015

first shiver of winter

Now comes the cold. We at last awake to a frost in the chill air, and set the nets in the winter darkness. Redwings gradually appear, floating down into the scrub in small groups of five or six. In fact all the thrushes are active in the first hours of the cold day; Blackbird, Fieldfare, Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush all seem frantic in their search for food. But it is the Redwing that is most evident at the moment and we catch three, allowing us to see up close the terracotta underwing that is usually hidden from view. The bold facial pattern gives them the look of one used to bracing weather- creased by facing the north wind, with lowered brow and puckered cheeks. 

The sun shines over the black fen and in the distance a young Tiercel is hunting. The horizon fills with swirling and turning flocks of Lapwing ,Golden Plover, Rooks and Jackdaws, but it is the ball of Starlings that are most in danger. They contract and pulse as the Peregrine jack-knives, then straightens into a low sprint across the fields.
Out on Burwell Fen the waders and ducks stay close to the tussocks of sedge and rushes. Godwits and Ruff mingle in a group, and four Dunlin trudge past a gathering of male Shovelers. The open water is empty save for a pair of Whooper Swans with their cygnet. Two more swans drop in- Bewick's this time, but they don't stay long, and when they take off they are soon followed by the Whoopers. The sun is still bright, but is sinking fast when the Phantom appears over the bank in front of us.
Ermine vest and black velvet gloves.
Using the following wind the Hen Harrier glides across towards the reserve, the epitome of simple beauty and perfect hunter-over Harrison's Drove, where a flock of fieldfare have been blowing through the willows, and onto the roost. In the fading light at least two males and a Ringtail circle low, quartering the area before disappearing in the winter darkness.

Thursday, 19 November 2015


It seems that the leaves have only just dropped, but already they are being blown away by the winter wind. The water is rising on the wash and the swans have arrived- not in huge numbers yet, but their voices carry on the breeze across the fen. On Tuesday morning I stood on the bank at Welney as the first light of a grey dawn penetrated the mist, and for a few minutes I was able to count them waiting for the air to clear. The mist returned quickly, and it wasn't until a few hours later that the swans made their way out into the fields. Nearly two thousand Whoopers and two hundred Bewicks, spread out between Pymoor and Southery, with the biggest flock just west of Littleport. On the edge of one group, ten Cranes, bustles flapping in the wind, and Lapwing and Golden plover shining in the sunlight.
Yesterday the weather worsened, and as darkness crept across the sky the swans struggled into the oncoming stormwall. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Pretty Polly

I saw a striking photo on a colleagues filing cabinet in the finance office at work.  It turns out that the photo of a Ring-necked Parakeet was taken in a Fordham garden and the bird has been visiting morning and afternoon for a couple of months.  Thanks to Wendy Vigrass for sending the pictures and especially to her daughter, Amy who took such cracking shots.


Sunday, 1 November 2015

november shroud

 A veil that dissolves form, leaving only shadows of what was. The mist has turned the world into a ghost of itself, and beyond the bank the lonely cries of Lapwing are the only clue to the presence of something within the great nothingness. Swans bugle as the wash becomes real, the sun is now a weak lemon disc, the green appears, and the pond in front of us is a pearl within that green. With form comes life, the shapes of wildfowl drift on the water, and on the fringes there is a restless fidget of Snipe. They scurry about, hopping, probing and fanning their raised tails. Other waders appear, Ruff and Lapwing dropping in and preening at the water's edge. Out of the lush vegetation a pipit creeps, winding through the thick reed stems- there, then gone. The play is over and the curtain comes down, and all is nothing again.


The afternoon sun has blazed away, and as the clear evening turns pink the waders are back at the pool. The Ruff arrive first with a single Redshank, but soon there is a whirling flock of Lapwing, stirring up the mist as they circle. Further down, a gang of Rooks maraud out onto the flat-finding fence posts  protruding from the vapour like an old wreck grounded on a reef.
The mist laps around the bushes and banks as the winter swans, blue in the cooling sky, head up the wash and the Sun sinks slowly. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

home and away

Monday's stroll around Roswell Pits revealed Autumn in action. The leaves are turning and with the changing season the birds are changing too. Out on the water, the grebes have attained frosty winter plumage, while on the hawthorn covered banks the resident tits glean insects hidden in the foliage. For some time now the wood has been alive with the sharp calls of Song thrushes and Redwings, and they are harried by the more bullish Blackbirds at every turn. Down by Cuckoo Bridge the reeds stirred, and a Bittern crept into deeper cover. Redpolls and Siskins blew in but soon carried on.
Tuesday began with an all pervading mist, one that on the coast often brings flocks of thrushes crashing into buckthorn thickets and seaside hedgerows. There were signs of movement at home, with a small gang of Fieldfare restlessly flying up and down Thistle Corner Drove. They eventually found a good supply of hawthorn berries, and chattered as the sky cleared.
Duncan has been on the coast this week and had a good fall of thrushes, and this morning I joined him to see what would come of the last two days of easterly winds. After a misty pink dawn broke the weather unfortunately turned pretty miserable, and we resorted to sitting in the van, overlooking the saltmarsh at Burnham Overy. A Rock Pipit perched up on one of the boats- its colour ring revealing its Norwegian origin.
I left Dunc at Wells and headed west, arriving at Titchwell as the weather began to brighten. As always the freshmarsh was alive with birds, but it wasn't until I reached the beach that the sun began to shine with golden fervour, a fiery gold to greet the passing of the day. The sand suddenly seemed to be made of tempered bronze, and the waders on the shore glowed as they retreated from the oncoming tide. The freshmarsh was filling with roosting gulls and waders as I made my way back along the path. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Raptor rapture

A day off and a reasonable forecast. The original plan had been to head to Norfolk, to see if Duncan and Ben et al had left any exciting birds for anyone else (well, to visit Holme Dunes, actually). However, with the Coasthopper bus being messed up for the next few weeks we plumped for Wicken Fen instead. After the customary start at the Brickpits - Greenfinch the dominant theme today - we headed over to the other side of Wicken Lode. As we emerged beyond the Visitor Centre a buzzard was being mobbed by a crow. A quick check through the bins and as it banked round it revealed the white tail-band of a Rough-Legged! It sailed off behind trees and couldn't be relocated, despite our rushing off to Baker's Fen. Instead onwards to the West Mere hide where a Great Egret once again stood sentinel, this time behind clamourous crowds of Greylag and Canada geese.

Eventually over to Burwell Fen and up onto the bank to survey the pools. Masses of birds about, with large groups of Lapwing and Golden Plover, Wigeon whistling away and Snipe seemingly occupying any spare patch of mud. A few Dunlin picked through the shallows, whilst Black-Tailed Godwits preened themselves before settling down for a siesta. A male Pintail drifted regally. Every so often the plovers would shoot up in clouds and wheel about over the pools, flickering black and white or gold and white in the afternoon sun. Then the Rough-Legged Buzzard re-appeared, once again attended by a crow. As we watched it repeatedly hovered, sometimes for at least a minute. To the naked eye it could have been a Kestrel in the middle distance - through the 'scope somewhat like an Osprey before a dive and it did indeed drop down to the ground several times. The crow became two and the Buzzard drifted away. A Common cousin headed over the Fen later on.

Heading back up Harrison's Drove a flock of Fieldfare - my first of the season. Winter not so far away, despite the late afternoon sunshine and golden leaves. This meeting of the seasons was further hinted at later when a ringtail Hen Harrier flew over us, picked out by the setting sun. However, lest we rush too soon into the colder months, bats were still out hawking about in the gloaming.

capture rapture

There’s always a desire to see more. Fleeting glimpses are not enough. The hunter within us all wants the trophy, wants confirmation of his skill - wants to capture the prey and keep the moment for posterity. The rarer the prey - the more beautiful, the higher the reward.
And so you go back and you continue the hunt until you can claim to have won. In the net, in the hand, in the camera, on the page, in the memory.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sharp eyes, all weekend

The last few posts have looked east, to the coast and beyond, towards the homelands of rare and scarce vagrants.  With winds assisting migrants moving across the North Sea the coastal woods of North Norfolk have accumulated a smorgasbord of top notch migrants, more than enough to lure us out of the 10 and to the coast again.  A relaxed but focused walk from Wells to the western end of Holkham produced the finest quality days birding, in terms of rarities, I've had on the east coast.  Spryte's with stripes completed a flush with 2 Pallas's Warblers, Humes Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaff and 2 Firecrest all being found within the canopy foliage along the 3 miles of sheltered woodland edge.  A Red-Flanked Bluetail added to the wow factor, perching motionless within an Oak by the Drinking Pool but not for long enough to get the camera and scope working together.  This picture from the compact camera alone.

Between Sprytes we enjoyed a beautiful, peach scalloped Isabelline Shrike moving between favoured perches.  Bramblings wheezed overhead, Redwings poured through, Jays screamed and freshly arrived Goldcrests fed from the floor by our feet, unconcerned about anything but immediate calorie intake. 
A Great Grey Shrike arrived once a shower had passed through and took up brief sentinel.
We walked back through the woods and spent the last hour of the day locating and finally enjoying good views of a skulking and occasionally vocal Blyth's Reed Warbler.  This finished a dreamlike day of great birds, enigmatic views, sharp eyes and heightened senses.  Unforgettable.
Back on home turf I took the little one to get up close to bird or two at a ringing session this morning.  She was excited by seeing Goldcrests up close but not as excited as Rich was when he saw a male Sparrowhawk had propelled itself into the net.  Up close a magnificent beast, eyes of a killer, talons sharp as razors except upon the hind claw where an extended growth had formed.
Beneath the gold, the flame - Goldcrest crown


10 go East

At the start of the month 7 from the 10 went East.  8 Yellow-browed Warblers and 3 Firecrests were ample reward from a bird finding perspective and the beautiful light and proximity of birds at Titchwell ended a great day out on the Norfolk coast.  Ben has been persistent in requesting some photos of the Hedgehog that proved very friendly at Holkham and I'm going to nod to the fly folk who were sharing their passion freely in between the Sprytes.

Mike the spike

Noon Fly, all over the Ivy flowers

Robber Fly

Many thanks to Mark Welch who has updated with the following

Just checked the robberfly out. Fantastic pic given that it was your compact. Very impressed. I think that I have it as a Machimus sp., probably Machimus atricapillus (Kite-tailed Robberfly), although further in-the-hand examination is needed to confirm this identification… including looking at the 8th sternite ! Stubbs and Drake (2015) have it on Plate 1, (page 478) and comment that it is a widespread species in southern England (including East Anglia) and, along with other Machimus ssp, favours dry light or sandy soils and frequents woodland edges and clearings. A nice find for us.

Proper Autumnwatch  fodder - Goldies rest in the afternoon sun

Tableau of a Norfolkshire marsh

Highly adapted to the search for mudworm

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

I still haven't found what I'm looking for ..........either

I didn't have the time to put in daily searches for Siberian Sprytes during the week although I did use the tape lure plenty enough around my garden and immediate hedgerows.  It was nice, with Goldcrests, Long-tailed Tits and a smattering of Chiffchaff in the sallows, Siskins flew over now and again and a single Redpoll also.  But no spryte here either.

With an autumnal spring in my step I headed out early Sunday morning to Fordham Woods, a site I love.  There were crests and tits in profusion along the beech arched path and at the entrance to the wood a sneezy pair of Marsh Tits responded to the Yellow-brow tape.  Further into the wood little flocks of Siskin buzzed around and Skylark rippled over head almost constantly.  A Water Rail screamed with all the gusto of a barking Muntjac and here a Redpoll also bounced and rattled south.  A couple of Swallows barely glanced down amidst their exit and Goldcrests flicked and tumbled through the tangles.  Where the path joined the River Snail, aptly named - almost sessile, the vista widened and spruces and sycamore punctuate amidst tall stumps and jungle.   This is where the Firecrest will sing some spring.

Today though it was the excitable notes of a Nuthatch that filled me with glee.  I have heard a single once before in the Ely10, a status shared with the spryte.  The calls were soon joined by another and another, in total there were 4 Nuthatches along this stretch of wood and I was able to watch as they picked their way through the leaf tangle, extracting spiders and mites as they went.  I did the loop of the wood again, it is a great place to lose yourself, metaphorically, and the hours slipped by gorgeously. I'd advise a visit.

Friday, 9 October 2015

In search of something more?

Every day this week I have been searching for one thing. After last weekend in Norfolk I was determined to find a yellow-browed jewel in my home patch. Two have turned up this week in the county, so why not a third, and why not along the droves and commons of the Ely parish. All the ingredients are there, hawthorns laden with clusters of ruby red berries, sheltered greenways for birds to forage along; quiet spaces of mixed woodland and scrub.
Find the flocks I thought, and one must hold something precious. At first, the flocks were not apparently there - the path down the road from my house was quiet save for the ticking of Robins, and the more insistent chucking of Blackbirds feeding on the sloes.
A Chiffchaff called, and soon a trail of Long-tailed Tits enveloped the hedgerow, and Blue Tits, and Great Tits, and soon the bushes were alive with chatter and a flurry of wings. With movement everywhere it was hard to see everything, but everything I did see lacked the sleek shape I was looking for.
Searching further afield, there were clear signs that migration was happening. More Chiffchaffs, often singing in the warm sunshine, and the first Redwings of the autumn blew past. A Redpoll called as it bounced overhead.
Almost every clump of bushes held Goldcrests, the result of a good Summer. Each one was studied- find the one without the crest- find the one with the yellow streak . It was not to be. The promise of something special was not fulfilled- at least not in the way I had hoped. As a Buzzard mewed in the bright blue, I mused on the weeks' birding and realised that by searching for one thing, I had seen so much more. 

 Come off it - who am I kidding!! I can see Long-tailed Tits anytime- I want a Yellow-Browed Warbler.