Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Certhia less than familiar

Glorious! Treecreepers are breeding at Roswell Pits. I've seen a couple in past winters, but never in the breeding season. Having had two sightings recently down between the railway and the small pit, I thought there must be a good chance of it- or more appropriately, them- nesting nearby. I picked up the needle thin call and turned round just in time to see the tiny thing dart into a line of shrubs. Through my binoculars I could see that it's bill was stuffed with small insects- and the chase was on. It flew across the open space and past a heavily coppiced willow, diving into the ivy clad tangle of leaning trunks that stand at the beginning of the spit at the entrance the pit. Having lost it to view, I had to listen to make sure it was still in the vicinity. It was, and it soon emerged, only to disappear almost immediately. Moving round the tree, I noticed a long fissure, about ten feet up, and everything fell into place.

Monday, 27 April 2015

On Spring.

Rise from your slumber, Prince of Reverie
'Tis not the house-cat but the Turtle Dove that purrs.
'Tis not the schoolyard but the gibbering of the Blackcap in his hedge.
It is the Willow warbler descending Lethe-wards from the catkin,
Where once fell the autumn leaf.
It is not the Robin but the Start, 
His stay all too brief.

Now lets do birding! that Pied fly's not going to find himself, no matter how much therapy he's had!

wouldn't it be nice

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Of nostalgia.........

I won't be making any apologies for the rambling nature of this post as nostalgia, incorporating the key components of my birding experience - romance and existentialism, is emotionally rooted and therefore tends towards the non linear and in my case the nonsensical. 
This weeks birding has been good. I spent last weekend on the Suffolk coast and during the week managed to top and tail my working days and family time with the Ring Ouzels, a Black Redstart, the Garganey and a Spoonbill amongst the excitement of continual migration and breeding bird activity within the Ely10. 
I was at Minsmere before dawn last Sunday and had the reserve to myself for an hour or so.  Drinking in the sights and sounds I left the moment and found myself reminiscing about each of my visits and walks around this fabulous, and bird rich, mosaic of habitats.  I realised that it was 30 years (give or take a week) since my very first visit here as a 10 year old lad.  I can't begin to describe the totality of overwhelming excitement I experienced during those first visits.  Looking back with greater knowledge I now understand that it is the effects of dopamine, which was released copiously when I saw each new and long imagined bird back in the day, to which I have become addicted.  How fortunate that the simple act of walking around outdoors experiencing the world around me and bumping into birds, which to me have some meaning and context, can release this highly addictive biochemical reward. For this birding compulsion is now neurologically wired within me and continues now, setting my pulse a quickened and heightening all senses and experience of the moment when an Avocet simply gets on with it's business just metres in front of me. 

A couple of years after that first visit to Minsmere I won, with childhood birding buddy Jono Leadley (check out his blog at ), a signed..... thank you very much, copy of The Big Bird Race at the RSPB/YOC Conference's bird quiz.  I fell in love with it and I have read it at least once a year ever since. If you haven't read it, birder or not, then you should because it takes you into the field and into that race to see as many species in a day as possible. Jono and I felt for this book so dearly that we read long extracts from it for our GCSE English speaking grades.  Meeting up with our Cambs Bird Race team earlier this week we mused on this book and how great and significant it is to us to be bird racing around the Ely Wildspace with Tim Inskipp, one of the birding heroes from the TBBR. 
A fortnight ago and my wife turned 40.  She had a sizeable gathering of friends old and new.  Good times were had over the weekend festivities, particularly impressive considering that she had a four week old clamped to her for most of the time and a four year old biting at her heels.  The ale flowed and a graphic illustrator friend, who had travelled an admiral distance from Northumbria, gave me a belated birthday card with a Robert Gillmor linocut of a Heron standing proud on the front.  I don't need much excuse to dust off my bird books and I jumped at the chance to share "Cutting Away", a fantastic anthology of Gillmor's prints with someone who would really appreciate the stylisation, graphic confidence and technical craft of the work.  I think for many British birders Robert's images are an intrinsic part of their wider birding experience and are as iconic and memorable as those first visits to reserves such as Minsmere and Titchwell. 
Earlier this week I was dropping into classes at school and went into a Year 9 Art class where they were doing their first linocuts.  I couldn't help myself and, through the wonder of t'internet, was able to show the class a range of Robert Gillmors work and some pictures of him working in his studio.  I focused upon the 2 pieces below with the kids as I think, although they are of the Norfolk countryside, they have a resonance for anyone who has spent time in the Fens and has ventured a little way of the beaten track. 

I have spent too many hours in airports and to while away those hours there is a great game to play spotting look alikes, the more subjective the better.  A fair few years ago now,  a birding holiday to Spain with Ben unfortunately incorporated the pan-European mother of all disruptions caused by the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud and we found ourselves playing a very long game.  We did find the real deal over the holiday and Heather Mills-McCartney on her way to a skiing trip, and Kerry Catona with attendant reaity TV camera crew were duly ticked.  One fella with an uncanny resemblance to a young Robert De Niro (and didn't he know it) was a highlight but after 24 hours looking through the same stranded folk in Madrid terminal 1, we ended up resorting to the dubious but hilarious stereotypes game of locating "men who look like old lesbians" - ...Bear with please, bear with....
So serendipity prevailed.  Having pottered out in the Camper today, via the garden centre, to Mepal Airfield and not seen a Ring Ouzel (although there is at least one still there per Mr Green) or a long gone Black Redstart (a find that really deserves to have it's picture or even a painting on the blog) I pulled in to the BP garage on Witcham Road for Diesel. 
Gazing across the A10 and daydreaming of Ospreys, I saw a look-a likey for Robert Gillmor walking across the forecourt.  The downside of playing this game, with the subjectivity rules intact, is that many complete strangers can become very familiar looking.  I went in to pay and was more than 80% convinced that the man just behind me in the queue was indeed the artist himself. In the past a certain shyness and apprehension would have curtailed me from speaking up but I guess I'm more than pretending to be a grown up now and decided to strike up a conversation on the basis that he looked familiar and, when I enquired, was met with a positive response from Mr Gillmor.  He was really very lovely and I was able to share the classroom story and my enjoyment of his work.  He asked about the Arctic Terns on my arm so I was able to big up Ben's artistry and he invited me to drop into his studio if I was passing Cley in the future.   Needless to say I was buzzing.  I have been prone, like most, to flirt with the notion that random chance, given meaning and significance by our prior experiences or knowledge, belies something more than co-incidence.  Today however I'm happy to just sit back and enjoy the nostalgia, serendipity and meaningful reflections and connections with the birding child within.  

A lovely print by Northumbrian artist LJ Le Rolland

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Dapper dabbler

Half an hour down the settling beds almost involved queuing up for parking as Ben, Rich and Neal had all had the same notion, with some Tern and Little Gull movement going on elsewhere in the county it was always worth a look.  Although there were no surface dippers there were some dashing duck in the form of the Garganey which have taken up a secretive residence.

A posse of Yellow Wagtails came in of the fields to roost and further up river a pair of Comnmon Sandpiper bobbed and giggled maniacally.  With migration in full flow it really is the most wonderful time of the year. 

Biarmy morning Acro-noon

It's been a long time since I last visited Ouse Fen, the part reedbed, part aggregate extraction plant just south of Earith. It's not quite in the Ely Ten, but it does have many of the species that we normally find close to the Cathedral, and in good numbers. Bitterns, Marsh harriers, various ducks, all in a relatively small area, have attained unparallelled densities of population. There were three booming Bitterns within a few hundred metres of each other, and the harriers filled the sky like spring Buzzards in a kettle.
It was the smaller, closer world of reed margin and drain bank that caught my eye though. Everywhere, it seemed, acrocephalus warblers scuttled through the dry stems, bragging and whistling loudly from cover, then darting across a gap, chasing the neighbours in early season boundary disputes. Every now and then I came across a pair of Reedlings, pinging and ricocheting amongst last years seed heads. These bearded wonders are so unlike any other British bird, and it's often a struggle to see them well, but when you do they tend put on a good show. Of all the reedbed birds it's the Bearded Tits that act as weather vanes, coming out in the open on hot sunny days- shy and retiring as the temperature drops.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Citrinella morning

Isn't it funny how a short walk can turn into a three hour stroll when the weather is nice. Thistle Corner Drove was full of birdlife this morning, from the very start, where a Whitethroat has moved in to the bank of brambles that the Linnets are nesting in, to the bank of the river where the track eventually stops, where, in another bramble a Sedge Warbler was singing while a pair of Reed Buntings twitched around the rank vegetation. A pair of Bullfinches busily nipping the buds by the railway were startled by an oncoming train packed with commuters, and I felt lucky. Blackcaps sung in every piece of available habitat. For a short period after their arrival, the Blackcap males are too caught up in their singing contests to notice anything that doesn't make a noise. they will shout at anything that makes a sound vaguely similar to their own chatter and aren't afraid to step into the open. One male I'm sure was taking on a whole flock of Linnets, and his volume certainly matched that of the wittering from across the way. The females stay for the most part in cover, but every now and again they can be glimpsed as they forage through the gappy hawthorns. A lone Willow Warbler was evidence of a slow and gradual return- numbers do seem to be down when compared to the other usual migrants. Out across the fields the Barn owl was hunting again, and a few Skylarks twinkled in the blue. 
A couple of weeks ago I had gone out to try and record the Yellowhammers, and had failed, only to get the consolation of some close views of the Owl. Today I was lucky, and saw four or five birds. They are another species that, like the Willow Warbler and many others, have fallen on hard times. There is nothing that embodies a warm country lane like a singing Yellowhammer. Cowslip-coloured head and maple bark streaked back, it's soporific tune spreads along the hedge like a shaft of sunlight. You can't help but stand and stare.


Monday, 20 April 2015

mist and migrants

A very misty morning forced us to use our ears more than our eyes, as we picked out a singing Lesser Whitethroat, and Reed and Sedge Warblers at Turbotsey Pond. Rich went off to work and, when the sky cleared, I drove down to Mepal to see if the Ouzels were still about.
They were- and I managed to edge closer and closer to them. After a while I left them and walked across the field to investigate the pipits that were flying about. The Sun caused a slight haze, and the scene before me was almost reminiscent of an African plain, with small thorn bushes creeping across the dried grassland. I could almost sense a Lion sleeping in the thicker scrub.
What I saw, however, was more like a Cheetah. A sudden start and a scatter of birds pre-empted the quick dash of Sparrowhawk. An impossibly tight turn as it overshot it's target was not quite tight enough, and the Blackbird now had just enough lead and open air to avoid capture.
It wasn't long before the thrushes emerged from cover, the Ouzels hopping languidly over the turf alongside a few Blackbirds and a Song Thrush, each one every so often glancing upwards, danger still fresh in their minds. Two Buzzards drifted over and the thrushes hid again, and this time they stayed closer to the brambles.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Isleham evening

The wind dropped, finally. The water at Isleham became suffused with warm cobalt, and olive reflected tussocks shimmered against the steely mud. The same peachy glow that hinted what was to come this morning, now shone from the opposite quarter, picking out the flanks of Little Ringed Plovers and Avocets. The unmistakeable silhouette of a Greenshank tracked across the far end, while a pair of Garganey slept. 
The drake Garganey is surely one of the most finely sculpted of all ducks. The flow of the scapulars across the back, echoed by the white flank crescent and broad eyestripe- the ripe plum tones of the head- all bathed in high definition light. My digiscope couldn't quite do them justice.

quinque torquatos in agro

There was a narrow band of peach light separating the hedgeline from the waves of turgid cloud rolling in from the east. Mepal airfield looked more or less the same as it had done the last time I was there in the winter, but it has dried out and now the hawthorn boundary was freshly green. My plan was to show Rich some of the good patches in the Ely area, since he has now moved here, and we had started at dawn down at Sutton Gault. Apart from a few Common Terns flying up the wash it was fairly quiet there, so we moved on to Mepal. We both decided that it was a perfect spot for Ring Ouzels, and even before we could finish considering the idea, we were conscious that five Ring Ouzels were ahead of us, hopping among the dried tussocks. Four were males, and one of them was particularly striking, and while we kept our distance they seemed perfectly content. The black and white magic continued with a splendid male Pied Wagtail, whose greater coverts were almost entirely white.
Further across the field, the scrubby corner was alive with Blackcap and Willow Warbler song, and a Common Whitethroat briefly hung above us chuckling to itself, happy, as we were to be there.


Friday, 17 April 2015

It's not unrouseral 2

But when I see you hanging around with anyone

I was very keen to see the Ring Ouzels at Witcham again if I could so I was out at first light checking some likely spots on the way to no avail.  The sun had just pushed past the horizon when the first upland thrush hopped out into the paddock near the top of Hive Lane.  After a while a second bird joined it but they were quite flighty and kept returning to the bramble cover.  While 2 males preened in the top of the tangle a 3rd was out in the paddock but I wasn't able to capture an image of them all together, still using my phone as the new Lumix is still to arrive..........

Thursday, 16 April 2015

It's not unrouseral

to have fun with anyone.......

I didn't manage to see the full complement of 6 Ring Ouzels that David Hopkins found in Witcham this afternoon but an evening diversion this evening did result in 3 males in the horse paddocks along with a Wheatear.  What a memorable spring this has become for this gorgeted beauty, I hope to see a few more before this movement is through.

New Kids On the Block

Several visits to the Wildspace in the last 2 days.  The migration window remains well and truly open and earl morning and afternoon trips have revealed migrants cascading in and very vocal. The hirundines are well and truly back and Chiff and Blackcap song syncopate and ramble mellifluously from most scrub and tangle.  Yellow Wagtail, Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler are staking their claim while White Wagtail, Common Sandpiper and Willow Warbler have popped in on their way North.  The pair of Garganey are still present on the settling beds tucked up and almost invisible in the back corner, spending most of their time roosting as they are habitually night feeders.  Marsh Harriers are getting on with it and there's plenty of activity within the reedbed with Herons nest building still, and Cetti's Warbler bursting forth.  There's still time for a Bittern to start hoofing out a thump or two but for the near future it seems that Bearded Tit has failed to sustain itself as a breeder.

So with all this going on what should we hope for?  

The back fields look great for Plover and Wagtails so a Dotterel or continental Flava would certainly make someone's day, Osprey are undoubtedly passing through unnoticed so one of them would be very nice too.  Pied Flycatchers and Redstart also move through unobtrusively in very small numbers and it would be one of these that would be most realistic contenders to really brighten a birding session this week.  

All good fun in the most wonderful time of the year.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Communing with communis

Another look at Pymoor this morning and through the streaming Linnet chorus I heard an even scratchier phrase. Perched up on the hedge-line a Common Whitethroat struggled to be heard above the busy Linnets and Dunnocks. Three Song Thrushes hopped about in a loose group and I wondered if they were migrants too. They did seem a touch greyer than I would have expected from British birds but the light was harsh and the birds were fairly distant so I left the thought behind- soon more interested in a couple of Tree Sparrows and a Grey Partridge.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Here and There.

The clear, bright still morning revealed the April freshness at Roswell Pits. Blackcaps sang in the open- not yet the skulkers of Summer, and the Harriers swung high overhead. there were no new arrivals as far as I could tell- and no sign of the Treecreeper seen the other day. A Cetti's Warbler busily patrolled up and down the length of his territory, and in nearby bushes, three Great tits squabbled, chasing each other like out of control electrons in orbit around a nucleus.

Out on the fen, one field in particular seemed to attract more activity than elsewhere. Yellowhammers, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks were dotted over the bare soil, and with them were six Wheatears and a Yellow Wagtail.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Owls and ouzels

With the sudden influx of Ring Ouzels in the country, I thought it a good time to explore a little country lane just outside Ely that I've been meaning to have a look at for ages. It runs north from the vets, parallel to the bypass and passes by a small golf course, a fishing pit and a smallish meadow- all linked by mature hedges. A Barn Owl hunted- as per usual it seems these days, and the now ubiquitous Linnets sang in brambles, but the only signs of fresh migration were a couple of Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap.
I didn't want to go home without having seen an ouzel, so I drove further out to Pymoor to see if the bird that Dunc had found yesterday was still about. At first the only thrushes I saw were a couple of Fieldfare, a Song Thrush and three or four Blackbirds- but just as my eye was wandering towards a pair of Grey Partridge in the adjacent field, the ouzel- white blaze shining- appeared on top of the dividing hedge about two hundred metres away. A few brief and distant views were all I could get, but Ring Ouzels seem to be designed to be easily enjoyed at any range, with their simple but eye-catching outfit and alert posturing.
Having to go into town this afternoon I took the opportunity to drop into Roswell Pits to see if the Treecreeper had stayed. No luck, but there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes building their nest raft in full view, and seven Snipe and a Little Egret on the watermeadow.

Ring Ouzel

Brilliant name, brilliant bird.  There's been a fair few Rouzels in the Ely10 this weekend with 5 found before I added a sixth following a lazy car bound hunt when the children conveniently fell asleep in the back of the car and gave me a precious hour to pootle about.  I was chuffed to bits when this beauty popped out from the brambles in the very likely looking paddock at Pymoor bridge.  I'm awaiting a new camera so had to use the phone instead to get a grab shot, which I feel has a charm and captures the bird well as it hopped about beneath the tangled brambles and disappeared for some spells within the thorny protection.  Hopefully more to come....

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Spring rising

Before the rain came, this morning was fairly calm in the garden, and a Willow Warbler briefly sang in the corner before flitting across to the copse. At last the migrants are arriving- for the last week or so I've heard Chiffchaffs everywhere, but yesterday there were four or five Blackcaps around Roswell Pits adding their cheery song to the Dawn Chorus. An unexpected pleasure was the quiet thrilling voice of a Treecreeper down near the smallest pit. I have never seen or heard one of these woodland sprites at Roswell in spring or summer before, and I hope that it may hang around for a while.
Later on as the sun warmed the day, Isleham watermeadows was the site of our first Common Tern of the year. There were a few Redshank, Avocet, Snipe and one summer plumaged Black-tailed Godwit, and while one of the feral duck pairs escorted a brood of new ducklings across the water, a distant straggle of twenty-six Fieldfare was a distant reminder that winter is now behind us. Three Redwings back at Queen Adelaide and a couple of Sand Martins added to the feeling of seasonal flux- the short period where one set of birds is leaving and another set is arriving.
The rain held off long enough this morning for a short visit to the settling beds where the harriers were more active than usual. A male that I have not seen before drifted across the reedbed, causing the resident birds to take flight. The two males tangled and tumbled while the females swung around behind. Having seen off the intruder, a brief shower stopped all activity, but the male was up soon afterwards sky dancing and mewing high up over the village.