Saturday, 28 February 2015

Gullden shower

On my way back from a woodland bird meeting at Santon Downham today, and I caught some activity over the Settling beds out of the corner of my eye as I approached Queen Adelaide. I only had a few minutes to spare as I had to go to what turned out to be a laughable evening in the cathedral, but I thought I would pull in to see what was going on. The scene I was met with was a real surprise- over 1000 Black-Headed Gulls forming a noisy blanket across the back of the water, studded with a few Commons, and one Lesser Black-Back. It must have been a pre-roost gathering of birds that had been out on the fen, and were perhaps ridding themselves of the cloying mud before making their way across to the Washes. Either that , or the Settling Beds were just trying to remind me of their avian pleasures so I didn't get sucked into the world of woodland birding forever.
They may not have the grace and beauty of a hunting Barn Owl, but I still wished I had more time to take in this fairly unusual scene. It's been a long time since the Settling Beds were home to a reasonable gull colony, and these days it's rare to see such numbers using the site. How long they'll use the place is anyone's guess, but you never know, something good might turn up among the throng.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Garden Barney

A few years ago it was usual to see Barn Owls hunting the fields behind our house.  Some cold winters and the wind fall of an ancient Ash favoured as a breeding spot seemed to have reduced our sightings to occasional.  It was a lovely surprise to come home today to find that Angie had not only seen but also digi-binned a Barn Owl that had perched up on the fence line opposite the kitchen window.  I hope that they start using the area again for hunting, it was magical watching them going back and forth of a summer evening taking a short cut over the near field, glass of wine in hand (mine of course, talons are useless for holding glasses and Owls don't drink wine).

snappy camera from the kitchen window

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Barney and Me

Now it's getting colder, the wind chills to the bone and it's hard to believe, with a gale bending branches angrily against grey and sodden skies, that the morning started pristine blue with a hint of warmth in the sun.  Earlier in the week I had taken a friend and her Owl obsessed 3 year old on an Owl hunt.  Barn Owls continue to be prolific and showy along favoured stretches of the Washes and we had plenty of WOW moments driving alongside hunting Owls.  I made an early start hoping to find the small flock of Cranes that have been frequenting the Manea area, I popped my SLR on the front seat and at the settling beds a Barn Owl flew past my parked car within a 5 metre range. I decided that I'd give the Welney Owls a few minutes before searching for the Cranes.  By the time I got to the visitor centre I had seen 10 Owls en-route, I stopped frequently and the birds, engrossed in hunting, flew past unperturbed.

A Peregrine hunted the open fields as I scanned for Cranes, the favoured fields were great for watching the herds of Bewick's Swans feeding up before an imminent eastward hop to the Baltic before journeying to their tundra breeding grounds. They were a bit distant for pictures but I had a go anyway, Whoopers were also evident closer to the road but I couldn't find the Cranes this visit.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

One last sunset

Given that the weather was set to change for the worse, I took my chance to watch  the wash as evening built one last bright sunset before the dull rain set in. Despite a bristling wind, the scene was calm enough, with more and more gulls dropping in to bathe and settle in for the night. The water level had risen since the other day, and the Lapwing were once again confined to the slight ridges that cross the levels. Godwits came past, half silhouetted, half lit up in the peachy light, heading to roost. Small parties of Whooper Swans noisily announced their departure for the surrounding fields, or the larger communal gatherings further up the wash. Almost without notice the swans have started back to the summerlands- the wheat fields are suddenly empty where only a few days ago it seems they hosted thousands. Just a bare minimum hold on as if to distract from the main exodus.
The Glaucous Gull is there again, tugging at a clump of weed. Plunging his head under the water with wings spread for balance, he seems to struggle with his own bouyancy. The gull numbers have built up just as the light burns away, grey embers floating into the night.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Gull wash

As I haven't had my paints out for a while I thought I would take the opportunity to make a quick watercolour of the two gulls of note seen at the wash roost yesterday evening. The massive glaucous Gull and the pleasingly patterned Caspian, both birds really stood out of the growing crowd and made the dull day that little bit more beautiful.

Off Fen

I was out before the sun broke the horizon and the day promised sparkle.  I was keen to drink in the  Shrike again and the bird showed reasonably well in fantastic light, a Red Kite drifted over mocking how difficult it seemed to see my first in the Ely10.  I fancied I heard a Crane a couple of times in the distance but couldn't do anything but strain my ears to no conclusive ends.  I decided that a day of fantastic weather could not be wasted, wrapped up the youngster and headed, a bit off Fen, to the woodland edge.  The I-Pad has become a fantastic birding enabler for me, the ability for a Disney movie to be watched by a 4 year old at any given location, say for instance a nice spot overlooking prime Goshawk territory, has brought a new flexibility to Daddy Daycare and I was able to spend a peaceful half hour skywatching. 

It was never going to be a difficult proposition picking up a mighty Accipter on a perfect day like today and in due course a male powered it's way up and across the sky, soaring, partial display flight and tussling with Buzzards and corvids alike.  Woodlarks were evident tunefully toodle-looing and spiralling jerkily upwards, bouncing on invisible elastic.  A couple of Larks flew right towards me and pitched in pretty close, enough to get a grabbed shot and then they were gone.


Cold comfort sewage farm

The brightness of this morning's sun belied just how cold it was at the sewage farm, and it was no wonder that the chiffchaffs were late to work. I contented myself by watching the Grey Wagtail as it poked around the puddles, lemon undertail piercing the gloom as it must do in the shadowy gullied streams and cateracts that they are more typically found in. At last the Goldcrests trembled into action- three birds chasing through the cypress belt in front of me. Finally a Chiffchaff appeared near the central filter bed, one of ours, a collybita. Seconds later the bird emerged, white underparts dazzling and overexposing in the camera. Twice it flew over my head into the trees by the railway, but twice I failed to pick it up at close range. It just seemed to disappear, only to magically reappear back at the bush in the middle of the sewage farm.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Monochrome moments

A theme of the past week has definitely been limits in colour.  I received some enigmatic shots of Godwits on the Washes from Helen Calver, fantastic in almost greyscale.

The Beet Pits took on similar tones and shimmered in the morning light yesterday.

A successful trip to the Washes caught up with the 2nd calendar year Glacous Gull on Saturday although, in being too clever by half, we went around to the western bank beyond Fortreys Hall as gulls had appeared to be closer to this bank on previous visits.  As Murphy's law dictates as we popped our heads over the bank the receding flood had lured the gulls to congregate on the bund appearing right in front of the southern bank at Witcham Gravel, where we normally perform our Larid vigil.  Returning again this evening, in the persistent rain, better views of the Glaucous Gull were on offer and a bonus smart 2CY Caspian Gull showed well for good measure.

The next monochrome moment was perhaps the most satisfying.  The Sewage Works at Ely are a little treasure.  I cut my birding teeth as a teenager at Naburn Sewage Works near York, highlights here, after many hours of coverage totalled Water Pipit, Wheatear and Little-ringed Plover, all which I was ecstatic in finding.  The whiff and whizz of the sweeping mechanics, peeking through diamond woven wire still stirs memories of that youthful optimism and joy of birding discovery.   I have not given Ely SW the coverage it perhaps deserves but have enjoyed lots of Wagtails - Pied, White, Grey and Yellow here and a very memorable and confiding singing Firecrest one early April morn.
Chiffchaffs winter around the filter beds and we have commented before that a Siberian Chiffchaff could well find it's way there.  I have a look through the Chiffs a couple of times through the winter months.  Sunday's bright start and bit of lukewarmth gave me a hunch the hardy little warblers might be active and indeed they were.  At least 2 Chiffs were singing and there was plenty of movement from upto 8 birds.  One of these drew immediate attention due to it's pallid tones and clean underparts.  It wasn't far back to the car to get the scope and as the bird was feeding fairly routinely from an elder at the edge of the beds I was able to do a quick dash.  Through the scope the bird continued to look like a very convincing Siberian Chiffchaff, I gave Ben a ring and sent out a quick e-mail.  I was due in London later in the morning and had to tag team Ben and leave, he saw the bird pretty quickly.  Ben has done some follow up work today and got some closer views of the bird but some time, effort and luck will be needed to hear this bird and confirm it's identity however it looks pretty spot on for a tristis and I'd be surprised if we are not rewarded with some diagnostic peeping or possibly some song from this bird in the future.

The final monochrome moment came in the form of a Great Grey Shrike beside the Road from Upware to Swaffham Prior.  A cracking bird, the charismatic pied sentinel swaying atop the many prime perches on offer across the rough ground near Sunnywood Farm.

Anyone for a White Nun next??

Tristish warbler

Last night I leafed through all the available literature on Siberian chiffchaff in order to be more prepared this morning. I wanted to get a close up of the bird Duncan had found yesterday, so at about 8am I strolled over to the sewage works, camera and scope at the ready. There was a lorry in the gateway on the sainsbury's side and some human activity, and i rightly deduced that any birds would be pushed over to the railway side. As I reached the end of the tall conifer strip a pale phyllosc immediately drew my attention. Before i could react, it flew from the bushy fenceline, over the railway and into a willow just the other side. I quickly walked under the bridge and soon found myself just a few metres from a delightfully showy chiffchaff that displayed all the physical features that i have been led to expect from a Tristis. It didn't call, but i was happy with the pale raw umber upperparts, the buffy white supercilium and underparts, black bill and legs , and the overall lack of yellow. Being a dull morning, I had to shoot at a fairly slow speed, but at least, I thought, I was seeing the bird in neutral conditions.


Before long, the chiffer flew back to the sewage farm and hopped among the shrubbery while I chatted to a bloke who had come to see the bird too. then came a surprise. Another chiffchaff flew into the same bush, and the two birds chased each other briefly before settling down. I looked at both in turn- and couldn't separate them. Certainly not on the brief views I had of the second bird, in dull conditions, looking through branches and against the sky. Both birds seemed to share the same bold pale supercilium and grey-brown and buffy-white bodies. This can't be right surely? Both birds disappeared, and eager to look at what photos I had taken, I made my way back to the van. On the way back I saw another Chiffchaff, one that was singing, and I took the opportunity to compare this obvious collybita with what I had already seen. This bird was darker, dull olive on top and a warmer ochreish underneath, and it's supercilium barely stood out at all. The two birds I had just left were clearly different from this one, and I have to conclude that they were both tristis.
But this is where things get a little frustrating. Yesterday, having had the call from Dunc, I rushed over, completely failed to notice Dunc hidden in the bushes, stood exactly where I was this morning, saw an interesting chiff in the bushes and got a few photos of it before it flew off towards the centre of the sewage farm. As I walked back, Dunc stepped out of the trees and I showed him one of the pics I had just taken. "that's not the bird I've been looking at" came the reply. Dunc had to go unfortunately, but I stood where he had been and after a few minutes a chiffchaff appeared that really stood out. At about 40 metres away, and against the bright if slightly diffuse sunshine, this bird showed exactly why Dunc had noticed it. I struggled to get decent pictures of it due to the distance, but you can see how different it looked compared to a normal collybita........

But, I had a nagging doubt-cloud at the back of my mind. The bird I had seen first was in bright light. My first thought upon seeing it was that it looked different to the average collybita- but when I watched from Dunc's position- this bird was properly different. Colder, whiter, sore-thumbish. But light can do tricky things, especially to subtly plumaged birds, and I started wondering if in fact I had luckily caught the bird after all. This image below is what I showed Dunc.

 And this next one is an admittedly poor shot taken in this morning's gloom at the same location, give or take a few feet. This bird is the same bird that appears at the top of this piece. The question is, has the sun brought out the yellowish tinge that is invisible in dull light, or has the camera been affected by the sun and resolved a yellow tone that doesn't actually exist. Are they the same bird at all, or is the bright image from yesterday actually today's second bird.I was alerted to the presence of yesterday's bird by tentative singing. At the time I thought it's unstructured phrasing was down to "early season lack of practice"- but having now listened to tristis singing on Xeno canto- could it have been tristis song? I didn't hear it call at all, which was frustrating- but then again, classic tristis are supposed to be pretty quiet anyway so is this a good thing?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Ely Ten goes mad in Norfolk

Sunday, and the Ely Ten posse took the chance to enjoy the weather on the coast. Our main aim was to see some geese, but on the way we had close encounters with a flock of Twite, watched Grey Partridge strut amongst probing Curlew and Godwits, and compared Rough-legged Buzzard with the local Commons. Hen Harriers, Peregrine, Red Kite all made an appearance, but it was the eight species of goose that really made it a great day out in the February sunshine. Greenland Whitefront, Barnacle and hundreds of Pinks and Brents were good- but finding three Bean geese in the Pinkfoot flock and picking out a Brant/hybrid at Burnham Ovary were real highlights. If only I had brought my camera.
Only one thing to do- go back and see if I could recapture Sundays' bag......