Monday, 28 September 2015

Birds on Film

Two fantastic pictures of birds in the Ely10 have been posted on the Cambridge Bird Club photo's page.

The first is of the recent Grey Phalarope at Burwell Fen by Neil Bramwell.

The second is of a Crane at the Ouse Washes by Garth Peacock.

Both are stunning and I hope I've caused no offence by snipping them to share here.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Grey havens

If Tolkien had populated the Elven kingdoms of Middle Earth with ducks, he would have used Pintail. Every year, after the Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler have joined the Mallard and Gadwall on the washes, I wait for the arrival of these graceful birds, who seem to rise above the frantic dabbling and bussling of the massed flocks, and instead cruise among the hoi polloi with all the aloofness of visiting royalty.

They are seen at their best in late winter, and the earliest arrivals appear incognito among the loafing crowds, eclipse plumage hiding the Art Deco patterns of chocolate and white. At Welney yesterday I was able to fully digest the sepia and grey barring and speckling of one confiding male as it basked in the warm sun. His head was straw coloured, but fine dark marks ghosted his breeding finery, subtly describing the tongue of white that laps up the side of the neck behind the ears. A few vermiculated feathers broke the scalloped pattern on his flanks, but there was no sign of the gold-edged lanceolate scapulars that will mirror the curve of the slender neck in a few weeks time.

Further down the reserve, the same grey, white and black colour scheme was to be found sported by some wagtails. They minced among the straw covered islets in the company of Meadow Pipits, while Swallows breezed overhead. Two of them had pale grey backs, inviting the thought of White Wagtail.

At the top end, all was quiet, until a flock of gulls drifted across from the fields and dropped in for a bathe. One starkly impressive Lesser Black-backed Gull stood proud, pale eye staring harshly as the Blackheaded Gulls bickered nearby.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Weekend in hand

My weekend was perhaps less poetic than Dunc's, but no less bird-filled. As the weak calls of Siskin and Meadow Pipit punctuated the warm sky, I joined Gary, Lou and Rich for some up-close ornithology, ringing birds at a couple of local sites. 
On Saturday morning we had nets up in Queen Adelaide, and caught a good haul of warblers- Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Whitethroats, and one Goldcrest. The site is a small area of scrub, and it's obviously a great place for birds to stock up on food as they make their way southward. It is easy to become so engrossed with what's in your hands that you miss what's happening further afield, but luckily I looked up in time to spot a Bittern flying across to Roswell Pits in the distance. I nearly didn't give the sight of a largish bird beyond the trees a second look, but somehow, my subconscious told me to raise my binoculars. The reward was a rare glimpse of the brown heron in unusual circumstance- fairly high up, it was moving between feeding sites, from the Beet factory across to Turbotsey pond, where it wiffled slightly as it dropped in.

In the afternoon we stopped in at Welney, and first off another unusual sight, three downy Barn owl chicks. It won't be long before they're quartering the drain banks, but even so, September is pretty late considering this is a first brood. Barn owls can be on eggs at the end of February, so why the delay for this family is a mystery.

After ringing the owls, we slipped onto the reserve itself for the main event, Swallow ringing. The nets were put up and before long they were full of hirundines. Fortunately there were enough hands on deck to process them quickly, and about eighty Swallows and one House Martin had their weights and measurements taken, and will hopefully one day be back at Welney, or turn up in a net in some exotic African location.
As if to extend the wandering theme, one bycatch of the Swallow nets was a Migrant Hawker. It became briefly tangled as it, and many others of its species zipped along the bank.

 Sunday morning, and another early start, and quick rewards. Siskins again passed overhead in ones and twos, but at ground level the nets revealed the "Shouter Invisible" - Cetti's Warbler. Three in total, plus more Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, proof that they do sometimes leave cover and fly across the open. They are usually as skulky as the average Bittern, so it was very nice to see them up close for once in all their glory.
As the morning wore on, the temperature rose and more Migrant Hawkers flurried along the rides.
The weather didn't last of course, and Monday was dull and wet. Siskins were still moving however, and a couple landed in the birch tree in the corner of the garden. As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, there is still the odd "sweeoo" as the movement of these forest finches continues. How many have flown across the country over the past few days will never be known- not everything can be answered with a net and a set of scales.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Autumn Stone

A glorious weekend, autumnal sun, a glimpse of the Indian summer.  I would have loved it if Welney's Wryneck of Friday had been forthcoming or that Burwell's Grey Phalarope had stayed another day however their absence took little from the simple pleasures of early autumn at its best. 

Out on the Summerlands duck numbers are building on the few wet pools.  Ruff pick between cryptically plumaged Teal and sleepy Greylag.  A young Hobby shoots through and Kestrels, Sparrowhawks, Buzzards and Marsh Harriers dot the skies in every direction lifting on columns of spiralling air. 

A Tree Sparrow visited the feeders as I searched for the Wryneck, the first I've seen at this end of the Washes for many months and a raspberry dappled Redpoll rested in an Alder. 

It was in the garden though that I was able to get as heady as a wasp bingeing on fermenting apples.

The Blackcaps that have frequented the berry laden hawthorns have become bold and their numbers swollen. Six bathed together in the pond, balancing on lily pads and three more looked on.  Chiffchaffs abound throughout the hedgerows and bramble tangles with the air above alive with Starlings hawking flying ants, in all ways akin to a flock of Beeaters high in Mediterranean skies.  A freshly emerged Comma, incandescent, unfurls in the sun but flies before I can pin it with pixels.  A Red Admiral allows close approach along the roadside, fine art in macro.

As hirundines flock southwards Migrant Hawkers are amassing on their northward journey, patrolling field edge and wayside, twisting along every interface where branch presses sky, resting occasionally above the warming buzz of crickets.
To enjoy these moments now, before the cold breeze burns the vermillion, claret, lime and custard from the Sycamores, that will be my aim.  I know my mind will drift and the coast will call, to the tune of Siberian vagrants. The wetlands will host some trans-Atlantic wanderer and I will follow almost blindly. To remember to indulge myself in a morning walk across my closest homelands that will be the best way to feel the season ebb it's way towards the inevitability of winter.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Return from Paradise.

I’ve been away for a month in West Papua, a country whose birds, insects, plants, people, weather and landscapes defy description. The place is difficult to convey in words- metaphors are as ineffectual as an overused cliché, and similes flee in a tremble of weakness. It is a fantasy.
Now I have awoken from the dream and returned to normality; the familiar sights and sounds of a British autumn surround me like a warm blanket. A flash of coppery brown is a Whitethroat disappearing into the black juiciness of a bramble tangle. Two Chiffchaffs sing- “Come-on, Feed-up, Lets-go, hurry-up”, while a third bird calls from cover “Soon, Soon”. They chase the Migrant hawkers. Swallows stream southward under the cerulean sky, sunshine sylph-like, swerving, spread-tailed and silken winged.Two Reed Warblers fiddle among the rosehips, then up into the hawthorn, red berries gleaming ripely, to preen their plain plumage, demanding the attention that is rarely given to the dun, the tan, the buff- The ordinary.