A celebration of birding, generally within a 10 mile radius of Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, UK.
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Look- this almost looks like a gateway into a field.
Its got animals in it.
It is a farm- honestly. There are proper farm animals too,
at the Knepp Estate.It's just that the livestock prefer things to look a certain way, and do most of the land management themselves. And in turn, they provide top quality beef,
And the best bacon I have ever tasted.
All of which has the added by-product of some of the best country birdery to be had anywhere in England. Nightingales sing from thick tangled scrub, Cuckoos and Turtle Doves perch up on the wizened limbs of mature oak trees, and sylvia warblers gabble from every bramble. It is a rural idyll.- a farming ideal.
Another jaunt to the north. This time with Ben to celebrate honorary Ely10er, Rich Baine's 50th birthday at Barden in the Yorkshire Dales. They had the foresight to book a bunk barn with breeding Redstarts in the garden, Swallows in the gables and the beautiful upland woods of Bolton Abbey within strolling distance.
Gorgeous sights and sounds with Pied and Spotted Flycatchers peppered through the woods, Redstarts abounding and Wood Warblers shaking their songs out in a few choice spots. On the River Wharfe, the liquor for some of my favourite ales, a family of fledged Dippers were being fed on the bankside and Goosander, Mandarin and Common Sandpiper were all doing their thing. We admired it all in it's fresh, green glory.
I've never really rated Wicken Fen for a bit of quick and dirty birding; I know there's plenty of you have the time to look for it but there never seems to be very much just there. I went tonight to pick my daughter up from a brownie thing and got there a little bit early. I was glad I did. What a quarter of an hour. Great spotter woodpecker, green woodpecker, swallows at close quarters, really good reed warbler, wren, various finches and tits, grasshopper warbler singing and just as I was about to wander off, a barn owl on a fence post, having a little early evening preen. Marvellous.
It's debatable whether there's such a thing as a truly bad day's birding, but undoubtedly some days are better than others. This one was nigh-on perfect.
For a decade myself and two friends have paid twice-yearly visits to Wicken Fen, once just before Christmas and then again in May. Both days are, loosely, an attempt to find as many species as possible, but understandably they vary greatly in character. December's trip is defined by limited daylight, a faint air of clock-watching and a rush to visit all areas of the Fen, though we always end the day sitting quietly amid the gloaming, waiting for Hen Harriers to ghost in and toasting their arrival with Sloe gin and mince pies. Despite the potential for many more species, May's trips are more relaxed affairs, the longer days allowing time to soak in the seasonal highlights. Nothing much beats sitting back on a grassy, sun-drenched bank, Hobbies hawking all around, Skylarks singing up above and the call of Cuckoo drifting over on the breeze (and a pork pie inevitably on the go - food seems to feature heavily on our trips, whatever the time of year). The last few years have suffered slightly from below-par weather, but no such concerns this past Monday. Having already postponed the trip once it was with relief that we awoke to sunshine and indeed the day completely out performed the forecast.
Carrying our own body-weights in food, but already full with optimism, we kicked off proceedings just after 7am. The overnight chill was already being tempered by the morning sun, which soon justified the decision to jettison any coats. One of the first birds we encountered was a Cuckoo, a suitable harbinger for the day ahead. One of our many rituals is to start off from the Brick Pit hide - a chance to nab some woodland species that may elude us further out in the Fen, but also an opportunity to start the more aquatic theme. Birds such as Blue Tit, Great Tit and Robin shared the stage with my first Reed Warblers of the year and a stunning Little Grebe swam around almost within touching distance. Further on a Bittern boomed and a Grasshopper Warbler reeled. A Garden Warbler allowed us superb views as it sat singing atop a blossom-laden Hawthorn and we tracked down a Yellowhammer calling out by the fields, a song so redolent of sunny Summer days.
Crossing the reed beds we strolled along beside Wicken Lode. An intriguing but somewhat gruesome sight arrested our progress. A decently-sized Pike lay dead within the water, but closer inspection revealed it had another sizeable fish, a Chub perhaps, dead head-first within its jaws. Had the Pike literally bitten off more than it could chew, it's backward-facing teeth for once not the evolutionary masterpiece but instead a trap from which neither fish could escape, locking them into a shared doom? The diagnosis became more complicated with the realisation that a reed stem also entered the Pike's mouth and emerged through its gills. Had it impaled itself at the moment of ambush? The Pike's postmortem was cut short as a cry of "Cranes!" went up and there above us were 2 of these superb birds. Moments later a Buzzard glided rapidly into view and beyond this another raptor turned, revealing itself to be a Red Kite (my first at Wicken). After this burst of activity we calmed down in the tower hide, looking out over Hobbies and Cuckoos and nesting Herons (and getting stuck into a pork pie, naturally).
The afternoon found us heading onto Baker's Fen, which was in perfect condition. It immediately fulfilled this potential, with a gorgeous pair of Garganey amid the tussocks. Ringed Plover picked about on the mud. On to Burwell Fen, 7 or 8 Hobbies up in the air above the Lode and a Cuckoo seemingly causing great distress to the local Dunnocks. Pleasingly, the familiar Whooper Swan (an escapee or injured wild bird?) had apparently found acceptance from some Mute Swans, forming a contented-looking trio. Plenty of activity on the pools.The usual suspects joined by more Ringed Plover and some Dunlin. Pintail, Pochard and Wigeon may have been somewhat unseasonal, but added valuable 'ticks' to the day list. A pair of Grey Partridge ran ahead of us along the bank and my first Painted Lady of the year fluttered around us.
Crossing back over Burwell Fen we experienced another frantic burst of activity. A Greenshank was in one of the path-side pools. Ahead, a Barn Owl quartered a ditch and moments later a Short-Eared Owl came into view. A Meadow Pipit landed on a post, then a Pied Wagtail, then a stunning Yellow Wagtail. Watching the owls, we observed the Barn Owl flying ever closer to the SEO, now also sat a-top a post. As the Barn Owl passed over the perching SEO it chose that moment to empty its bowels! Most, if not all, missed, but it seemed a close call. A deliberate act or just very bad timing? More owl action at Priory Farm. Another Barn Owl, this one looking rather more serene as it sat in the evening sun. We then realised that a Little Owl was sat tucked into a pile of concrete posts. At one stage it scuttled under overhanging corrugated iron (perhaps it knew what that Barn Owl might be capable of), but then hopped down onto the grass, taking up its position in the sun and, naturally, glaring at us and everything else.
Our day was finished on Baker's Fen. The Ringed Plover had built up to 7 or more, accompanied now by some Dunlin. A Greenshank strode about and the Garganey were still feeding. To round the day off a Snipe began to drum, shooting about above us in a cloudless blue sky, producing that astonishing and wonderful sound.
In terms of our listing activities, the day had yielded 85 species (78 seen and a further 7 'only' heard). This is, for us, a record for this site - and by some margin. These figures and species lists will be entered into notebooks, offering future interest and setting us a future challenge but, as ever with birding, it's the accompanying memories which are surely of greater value, the notebooks' greater purpose being to help unlock them. Hopefully we'll be pounding the Fen, summer and winter, for many years to come and, each time, adding more to our already rich store.
A day spent around the homelands, the annual spring ElyWildspace Bird Race as a starting point. The early morning saw lovely weather with blue skies and barely a breath of breeze across the greening canopy, it was great to be out and the air warmed nicely through to the finish at 11. Nothing outrageous to be seen be a healthy 75 aggregate by a healthy dozen observers included Grey Wagtail, Corn Bunting, Little Ringed Plover, Bearded Tit, Cetti's Warbler, some stunning Kingfisher action and a great deal of Marsh Harrier and Buzzard activity. The fine day gave us a great chance to enjoy the simpler stuff of birding and take in the subtlety of tones and contrast of a Lesser Whitethroat's head, the chintzy charisma of Goldfinch in its glory and lots of opportunity to navigate through the myriad birdsong layered through each of the habitats, the chunter of Sedge Warbler audible from almost every spot.
Goldfinch were much in evidence on the stroll I took down the Devil's Dyke between Reach and Burwell this afternoon. With the sun dipping in and out from between gathering clouds I decided to look for butterflies. Brimstone and Orange Tip were pretty evident with the odd Peacock dancing around too. A Holly Blue drew my attention and a Dingy Skipper whizzed past, I followed it in flight for a bit but didn't see it on the ground unfortunately. My target though did give itself up readily and a pristine Green Hairstreak allowed close and prolonged observation. The one year old strapped to my chest in a baby carrier was more patient than could be expected as I tried to photograph the green gem. Her head had to find a comfortable position beneath mine and all the optical gubbins held steady against her, vocal protestations were falling on deaf ears so she quickly found that banging the lens would get my attention, we eventually came to some kind of compromise as I got quite a few photos.
My recent trip to Yorkshire with it's healthy and expanding population of Red Kites had led me to speculate that it only be a matter of time until they start to proliferate within the Fens. I have seen a few in this area, in the south of the Ely10, over the past year and today I saw a bird following the tractor and this bird alighted in the freshly tilled field a few times before cruising up and down the Dyke at the Reach end. A welcome sight on any day out.
With the wind in the East for over a week I have tried my best to get out checking spots across the Ely10. There's not been a stand out site or day but an steady accumulation of good birds which is hinting that a biggie may just be around the next corner. Some evening jaunts have revealed Long-eared and Short-eared Owl, a few Bittern, Grasshopper Warbler, Bearded Tits but fewer waders than hoped for as most spots still have high water. Avocets have been ubiquitous but finding Dunlin, Common and Wood Sandpiper, Ringed, Little Ringed, Golden and Grey Plovers has been a harder prospect although all have shown themselves as have Crane and Great White Egret.
Indeed the Great White Egret at Welney seemed to only decide at the last second to not join us in the hide and afforded excellent views.
A 2nd Calendar year Caspian Gull was a pleasant diversion at Burwell Fen but didn't hang around for very long.
Roswell Pits did as it should and in warm SE airflow held the Black Tern shown so well in Ben's photo's, Arctic Terns have continued to move through in one or two's with 10 in the 10 being my cumulative total thus far.
This morning I took a bike ride at dawn up the western edge of the Ouse Washes and managed to persuade Mark Hawkes that it might be a worthwhile proposition. We had a productive time and having enjoyed some Garganey and lekking Ruff, along with a close encounter with a Short-eared Owl we were feeling our expectations only partially fulfilled.
Looking across the damp grassland of the pilot project behind Stevens Hide I saw a brown lump which I thought looked like the Owl hunkered against a sedge tuft. As soon as I had a look through my scope I chuckled - it was a Stone Curlew, not the scarce wader that I had envisaged but definitely a cracker.
Hopefully tomorrows ElyWildspace bird race will be a good one and add migratory excitement to the weekend but looking closer to home the garden is alive with breeding birds. Amidst the rattles and scratches and melodic rambles of the recently arrived Sylvias the occasional purr of Turtle Dove is reassuring but sightings have been sporadic. The House Sparrows and Great Tits have young in the nestbox and the Jackdaws have noisy young in the outhouse chimney, House Martins are flirting with the roof spaces and singing from the cornice tiles. All bodes well for an increasingly interesting spring migration, fingers crossed for another belter or two in the next week.
On wednesday I went in search of Nightingales. Lakenheath is just outside the Ely Ten- but it may well be the best place I know to see them. Along a stretch of road that leads down to the airbase the warm still air was filled with their lilting song, which seemed to rise above the accompanying babble of garden Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes tried valiantly to compete, and Willow Warblers and Chiffchaff added their own sibilance. I watched as one male strutted about his territory, rushing to face nearby rivals- singing at them and then chasing them through the scrub.
A couple of days ago I stopped in at Welney. A good collection of waders probed and scattered across the muddy scrape, but my attention was drawn to a movement behind the reeds. Slowly, the Great Egret emerged, and started fishing in front of the hide. The giraffe of the marsh. These birds are visiting us regularly, and Welney has hosted a pair for the last couple of years at least, but I have never seen one this close before.
Warm weather all week. Migrants have turned up, and while some have already settled in, there are still some wanderers to be found. Dunc found one this morning, a Black Tern, quietly feeding while the Common Terns went raucously about their business, and the grebes sailed across the Pits.