Sunday, 31 May 2015

Sounds like a dozen less two with ferocious mustelids, for a short while

In preparation for the next Ely birders pub night I devised my own cryptic clue to the species I twitched down at the Cam Washes this afternoon.  I don't think it's bad for a first attempt.  The pictures below should point you in the right direction if you haven't got it yet, although they're probably just as cryptic as identification shots.  Hopefully you get the gist.


Indeed there were two stopping off at the Washes on their journey northwards which may end way beyond the Arctic circle.  A deliberate link purely to allow the use of this picture of a displaying bird we found on a frozen, roadside lake edge in far NE Norway, in June 3 years ago.

While at the Cam Washes I was pretty disappointed to see that others had chosen to leave the riverside path and make their way closer to the birds into, what appears to be, good habitat for lowland breeding waders such as Snipe, Redshank and Oystercatcher (all of which were present).  I hope it is clear from the picture that this is not a good choice of observation point and this is compounded by the observers standing a moderate distance apart.  I'm sure we've all made mistakes like this in the past unwittingly but at this time of year we all need to be mindful of the potential impact of our birding activity.

Saturday, 30 May 2015


Not a bird but very much an Ely10 story, Tansy Beetle is hopefully going to make a successful return to the Fen.
Last year I read an article about the re-introduction of Tansy Beetle to Wicken Fen and the recent re-discovery of them at Woodwalton Fen.
I'd never heard of them until then and, aside from the Fenland context, what caught my attention was that their exceptionally limited UK range is along the river banks of my youth just south of York. 

So during a visit to my parents earlier this week, armed with some excellent local info from Jono Leadley, I decided to take a stroll down the village to the river and have a look for them.  There were several patches of Tansy to look through and each held plenty of these iridescent Beetles.  The macro on the snappy Lumix proved to be up to the job and it was great fun watching these green gems go about their business.  Definitely worth looking for at Wicken if you see a patch of Tansy, I guess though that the National Trust may well have managed the re-introduction to build a population well away from the public eye which they may then use to populate other suitable areas of the site.

Dare to dream (up the Villa!)

This morning I woke up after having a birdwatching dream. I often have dreams filled with birds- sometimes they are bizarrely fanciful, with fields full of hundreds of different species that no matter how hard I try I can't keep them all, and have to pick my favourites from among the throng. They always let me catch them, and I always have to put some back as new and "better" birds are encountered.
Sometimes just one bird is dreamed, and I enter its world- a world that is unfamiliar and yet familiar at the same time; places I know suddenly take on different characteristics and geographical connections that I accept blithely as absolute truth until waking.
This morning I remembered a real place- one that exists, and one that could well hold the birds in the dream. A muddy scrape was alive with five or six Little Gulls and a crowd of Sandwich Terns. This was no exotic scene, no fantastic bird- not even a surreal adventure. Just a normal birding encounter, one that could happen in the conscious world, and one which I chance- it could not possibly....
I picked up my scope and sketch pad and drove down to the boathouse scrape hoping for the kind of occurrence that sensible people might call coincidence, and dreamers might call prescience.
Well, there were some gulls, with dark hoods- but they were Blackheads not Little Gulls, and the only sign of a sandwich was the old wrapper in the vans footwell.
It turns out I am not psychic.
3-2, Benteke scores in the 83rd minute.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Little Bit More....

I've never seen a Little Bittern in the UK so I was very tempted to take a visit to Lakenheath Fen just a Cranes stride or two out of the Ely10.  I had spoken to Ben yesterday and knew it was likely to be a long game but decided when the alarm went off at 4 this morning that it would be a chance worth pushing myself out of bed for.  I took my bike to increase my time in situ as I only had a few hours of the early morning free.  I freewheeled past booming Bitterns and reeling Grasshopper Warblers, remembering the many hours I have spent over the years amidst these rattling poplar plantations awash with memories of fluting Oriole song, alas no more I fear.  A new sound however in this corner of olde England and one that may become more familiar over the next 25 years, the bark of a Little Bittern punctuating through the fenland warbler song.  I managed to capture some on my phone.

After a pleasant 3hr vigil that I guess was more akin to fishing or possibly monastic retreat than birding, a verb which has a vibrancy that suggests action and driving purpose, I did see the diminutive Bittern fly across the small channel and even saw it for a second or three sat in the reeds before it dropped down into the foliage to continue it's territorial proclamations.  I have seen Little Bitterns better, much better in fact, this picture taken with one hand while the other held this beauty caught during a ringing session in Israel a decade ago.

Equally exciting was a re-discovery on the way home from Lakenheath and back within the Ely10.  I decided to have a look at an old farmhouse and yard where Tree Sparrows had bred.  I don't think that I'd looked there for 5 years so was expecting to be disappointed.  I was greeted by a very healthy amount of Tree Sparrow chirruping and at least 6 birds including at least 2 birds going in and out of nest holes.  My heart was cheered.


Further cheer was provided with ploverly shenanigans at the puddle along Queen Adelaide Way where a smart male Little Ringed Plover displayed heroically to the "resident" female.  A second bird appeared which I think is maybe a first year male and our male chased him off but once at the edge of the territory they started feeding around each other, a case of keeping your enemies close I guess unless the intruder is a very well marked female in which case our handsome fella is a cad.

 our handsome fella
HF on the left with the "resident" female
HF on the right with intruder - 1st yr male?? on the left

Friday, 22 May 2015

Little Bit of twitching

Lakenheath Fen is a vast network of reedbeds and pools, and in the last few years it has attracted some real european reedbed specialists. Some announce their presence with great vigour, calling loudly or flying overhead skillfully catching insects, but the latest foreign visitor is a skulker– a gruff-voiced bird that is doing its best not to be there at all. It doesn’t even cause the reeds to move as it works it’s way through the dense phragmites forest. In over two hours I saw it once– for three seconds as it flew to a new clump of cover. The only way you could tell it was there was its constant calling, like a small terrier clearing its throat ,repeatedly trying to dislodge an irritating hair. A bizarre effect of it's “song” was to make the bird seem further away than it was. When I first arrived I could have sworn it was calling from across a fairly big pool, about a hundred metres away, whereas in reality it was no more than twenty feet from where I stood. What advantage this voice throwing gives the Little Bittern is anybody’s guess.  

Meanwhile the dry straw-stems frothed with activity. Reed Warblers emerged and disappeared, confronting rivals and snapping their bills, catching small flies and churring contentedly. On the drier banks Whitethroats scattered their discordant song, leaping into the air only to float down further along in a joyful warbling arc- begging for the attention that the Bittern was ungratefully receiving.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Owl Stretching Time

I've been busy this week painting a Barn Owl that's been perched unfinished on a canvas for the last couple of years. A friend of mine saw it and said she'd like it if I ever got round to completing it, and now the weather has turned nasty and I've got space in the studio, the last few days have seen a bit of progress. It's been hard work to get the right shape, as the painting started with a simple idea that was born from imagination rather than any actual sketches or proper reference. The proportions were all wrong, but there was something about the eyes that pleased me, and I felt it was important to keep the facial expression. As I shaped the bird with successive layers of acrylic, the picture got better- then worse and - hopefully better again, as each element had an effect on it's surroundings. Even very subtle changes had drastic consequences on the form as a whole, and at times it's felt like cat- herding, once one's in place, another runs off and has to be recaptured. Hopefully all the cats are in the box now, but I'm going to have to keep my eye on it for a few days to make sure they don't escape.

Sunday, 17 May 2015


The Ely Wildspace Bird Race was blessed with some lovely bright weather and 4 teams headed out to see what they could see over the next three and a half hours.  Collectively there was over 70 species seen with highlights of a Red Kite (the first recorded on a birdrace), Grey Wagtail, Cetti's Warblers, close encounters with Marsh Harriers, Turtle Doves, Buzzards galore, Barn Owl, Little Egret and Little Ringed Plover.  Either side of the race the wader puddle produced Oystercatcher, Common Sandpiper and a preening Lapwing which all allowed me to keep working out the best combinations for the new digiscoping set up. 

Common Sandpiper have been easy to pick up this spring on the puddle
A pair of Oystercatcher frequented the river this morning
A male Reed Bunting sings his head off at the Water Meadows
A video grab of Bullfinch collecting nest material
Green Plover - Lovely

Friday, 15 May 2015

Birdrace at Roswell Pits

Our yearly birdrace around Roswell Pits is coming up on Sunday, and as usual we don't know quite what we will come across- but here's a small selection of paintings I've done over the past few years that have been inspired by the pits and watermeadows of Springs' gone by.

Everyone's welcome to join us as we stroll around for a few hours- it's about getting to know the area more than anything, so if you've never been, meet us at the top of Kiln Lane, near the EA building at 7:15am for some pleasant company and interesting birdlife.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Nice Tri

I have a vain tendency.
When it is suggested that I'd not been interested in, or quite in shape to meet, physical challenges my friends or family are putting themselves through I casually offer to join them.  As a result I have found myself cycling from Lands End to Ely, discovering a true love of  playing football, finding I can run 10K faster than my sibling - all very good and positive (save the sibling rivalry).  Now I have placed myself  "in training", with a fortnight lead up to a cross country Tri-athlon. Fool.
Or maybe not.  On Sunday I woke early and was out on a 30km bike ride across the fens to the south of Ely before 6.30, I was escorted along the river bank, wind in my hair, by 3 or more different Barn Owls.  Egrets and noisy Oystercatchers flew up and down the Great Ouse and heading across the fields Marsh Harrier beat their way to forage the ditches and headlands while Buzzards mewed territorially.  Into the old fen and reedbeds I diverted off road amidst rattles, explosions, melodic meanderings and arpeggios of birdsong.  Cetti's Warblers abounded and Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were sentinel.  Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Reed and Sedge Warbler created an aural backwash but no purr of the Dove was heard.  Later a Turtle Dove did parachute down in display into the Hawthorn snow and a Bearded Tit pinged out in the Phragmites. What blissful jungle this was and a Bittern boomed in agreement. Further out into the fen flooded pools held Gulls and Grebes, this little blighter was beautiful through the bins and a snapped shot shouldn't be too much of an identification challenge .
A Roe buck was pretty nonchalant as I rode past and along the lodeside where a pair of Whooper Swans, fully winged, unrung but seemingly feral, appeared to be on territory. 
A male Peregrine circling over farmland on the return leg continues to suggest we should be checking all towers and pylons in the vicinity, I did spend an hour at the Cathedral later in the day to no avail. So my training bike ride turned into a pretty fruitful early morning birding trip. On my return to Stuntney Heights I did manage to complete a 6K run on wobbly legs but complete it I there's just an open water swim to factor in to the mix and I'll be half way ready.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

It's spring up north

A real change of scenery this weekend- the Sheffield Ten if you like- and a more different birdwatching experience would be hard to find within a few hours drive of Ely. Subtle nuances exist of course, like the abundance of Willow Warblers and Chaffinches with northern accents, but there are a few species that thrive in the woods and dales of Yorkshire that, at home, are seen only fleetingly as they pass through. On last weekend's birdrace we found them all but impossible, but in the right place, at the right time....