Monday, 31 October 2016


(Yes, I know it's not really twitching before anyone starts)...

Hallowe’en and a day off – but where to go on this spookiest of days? Wicken Fen seemed a suitable choice. Wicken is another name for Rowan, or Mountain Ash, as is Witch Tree, though this is apparently because Rowan is supposed to guard against witchcraft rather than aid it. Well, not a very fenny tree your Rowan, so perhaps in its absence witchcraft abounds on the Fen and, after all, Wicken sounds like Wiccan, so it’s bound to be something to do with witches (actually, according to The University of Nottingham’s ‘Key to English Place-names’ Wicken means ‘At the specialised farms’, but let’s not allow that to spoil things. Probably Toad farms in any case)…

The Fen was approprately fog-shrouded upon my arrival and would remain so for much of the day. Just about my first sighting was of a Fox, who sat and watched me from a gateway. More thief than phantom in English folklore, though there was apparently a belief that witches could turn themselves into Foxes.  A cracking start, regardless. A couple of hours at the Roger Clarke hide followed. Water Rail and Jay did their best to offer blood-curdling screams and a lone Magpie flew over, portending sorrow. It was far too pleasant to worry about that however, with a steady stream of small birds visiting the feeders, Bullfinches picking through the last of the Blackberries and a Kingfisher dropping in for an early morning bathe.

Moving on, the Fen was a study in sepia and grey, with occasional splashes of colour in the form of vermillion Bramble leaves, scarlet Guelder Rose berries and shocking-pink Spindle. 

Everywhere was still and quiet, apart from the faint rustle and patter of falling leaves and water droplets. Birds made sudden appearances from out of the fog and were just as quickly swallowed back up – Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Kestrel, Snipe… Redwing and Song Thrush skulked within the berry-laden Hawthorns.

What this day needed to get it back on theme was owls, so I eventually headed down Harrison’s Drove and, failing to find either Little or Barn at Priory Farm, crossed over onto Burwell Fen. Almost immediately two Short-Eared Owls appeared and I was to be treated to up to four of these magnificent birds over the next hour. The sun had even burnt through a little by this stage, helping to pick up their beautiful markings. Burwell Fen is awash with Kestrels at the moment, and more than once owl and falcon had a brief set-to. An owl also decided to harass a Buzzard. 

I decided to finish the day over on the boardwalk, hoping for ghostly Barn Owl or ghosting Hen Harrier. However, within minutes of my arrival the fog rolled back in, obscuring sun, sky and much else and bringing premature darkness to The Fen.

Before it did so however I spotted this - 

It is, I believe, a Witches Broom. Not, as it happens, part of a hag’s supernatural transport but a gall caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina, which affects Birch trees. With darkness upon me I beat a retreat, before Black Shuck, Jenny Greenteeth and all could claim me. 

Not much evidence of witches today admittedly, but Wicken Fen remains bewitching.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

I can't believe dunc didnt put "this bird isa bella". or is that racist now. no dunc, it isnae. actually i think it might be a male, if the lores are anything to go by, so the pun doesn't really work. it's not racist though.

I've only just seen Isabelline Wheatear for the first time up on the Norfolk coast, so to have another one turn up so soon, and so locally is a rare treat indeed. The subtle plumage of greys and buffs and peach tones make for a real challenge when it comes to painting them, and when viewing them the light turns them from faded straw to bright sunset-gold and hazy lilac. Pearlescent and ever on the move, the bird at Wardy Hill hopped and flitted around the edge of a freshly dug scrape, catching flies with darting lunges and bolting for the next vantage point on the black fen soil piled up around the excavation.

Saturday, 29 October 2016


A week in the Northlands were very productive.  I saw 4 confiding Sprytes with stripes - 2 Hume's Warblers and single Pallas's Warbler and Firecrest.  A Little Bunting was the prize for some focused birding across the Great White Cape (Flamborough Head) more of that day here:

The Hume's Warbler at Thornwick was particularly confiding at times showing a good variety of the key features and calling a great deal to boot. 

Plenty of commoner migrants filtered through the hedge, fields and passed overhead.  Twite, Lapland Bunting, Woodcock, Thrushes galore, Siskin, Brambling and Redstart all pitched in and Goldcrests were peppered throughout.

I had a look at the Western Swamphen (Purple Gallinule in old money) at Alkborough Flats which as a potential first for Britain is a top quality bird and rude to ignore only an hour or so from my folks in York, however it did feel like a dirty twitch, despite enigmatic views (read distant and skulking). 
Returning to the Fen I was not expecting to be twitching the Ely 10 today.....

and not to see my second Isabelline Wheatear of the week, the first inland UK record and a most unexpected first for Cambridgeshire.  It was a great bird showing well at the soon to be rewetted fields at Wardy Hill/Witcham Gravel, all features present and correct, a real showy bird that delighted all observers.  This pic from Cambirds sent by Richard Jackson shows all you need to get your pulse racing when confronted with a pale Wheatear in late Autumn.
It was a mellow and merry gathering of county birders all very chuffed to be enjoying this very rare visitor.  In days gone by a few more hours celebratory birding would have been in order, but with my kids in tow, we left the field and celebrated with good feed and a catch up on our autumn birding in an Ely restaurant. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Tail of Two Wheatears

A quick look in at the Settling Beds yesterday revealed the largest congregation of duck I have seen there. Hundreds of wildfowl, mostly Teal with fair numbers of Shoveller, Gadwall and Wigeon dotted across the water.  Lots of Greylags were accompanied by the small Canada Goose which I had seen for the first time in a about a year at Roswell Pits last week.  The highlights were a 1st winter male Scaup, just moulting the odd bit of grey into the mantle, accompanying a flock of 65 Tufted Duck and on the adjacent arable a micro herd of 10 Whooper Swans that later roosted on the pool.

An early start this morning as a quick dash to the Norfolk Coast was planned with a return to the Fen required before noon.  I'd not seen an Isabelline Wheatear in the UK, although well acquainted with them from trip abroad, today gave an opportunity to see one at Burnham Overy and the bird was still rooting in the half light when I first saw it. Half a dozen folk had taken the walk out in the dark and were there at dawn.  The other observers did discuss the birds identity, but the striking T shaped tail pattern with a very thick black sub-terminal band, along with the pallid tones alone convinced me quickly that this was the Izzy.  The reason for the additional scrutiny was whispered talk that a photograph of a Wheatear doing the rounds on the internet, from the previous day appeared to be a Desert.  I love the 2 bird theory and decided to walk the shingle beach a part of my circuit as this would be the very best place for any sensible, or indeed existent, Desert Wheatear to hang out.  I left the "crowd" and hacked over the dunes checking all scrub and foliage and dropped onto the beach.  A large Pipit flew quite low overhead, I needed it to call, expecting it to schreep as a Richard's should, it didn't and seemed to give two indistinct wagtail like calls.  It kept going and I won't lose any sleep over it, perhaps it was a wagtail?  Half a mile around the point and I had virtually 30 meters of shingle left to check when a little bobbing movement drew my eye to the right and there in classic pose amidst shingle and Suaeda was a slightly bedraggled female Desert Wheatear.

The distinctive all black tail and primaries of this species clearly visible, I spent a bit of time getting some footage and stayed with it until I'd got some other birders onto it.  Pootling across the dunes towards Holkham I had a quick look at the beached Fin Whale, now royally carved through autopsy, and was struck by the numbers of Wren and Dunnock across the site.  Cracking little birds, particularly in the morning light not, unfortunately, the Accentor I was looking for.
Siskin, Brambling and numerous Reed Bunting headed over vocally and Redwing seeped across the skies unseen.  At the Holkham end a Firecrest proclaimed itself in agitated fashion and a couple of Chiffchaff went about their business.  I returned for seconds on the Isabelline Wheatear which was in much better light before heading back about 10 for Tea and Medals.

I had a good look for the Scaup in the afternoon but most of the Tuftie had gone.  However the Whooper's had become a herd swelling to a heady 28.  Now we do see hundreds of Wild Swans flocking distantly beyond the pits and out to Prickwillow but thi is the largest gathering around the ponds for some years.  All good stuff.  There is a reservoir, tucked away, not far from my home in Stuntney, that I should really try and get access to because the fluctuating number of wildfowl on the settling beds isn't just the interchange with Roswell Pits and potentially this reservoir is providing a good spot for our local duck.

Monday, 17 October 2016

there's .....something out there..... it's a bird?. of.. prey..

Do you remember when nature documentaries had to improvise somewhat when it came to the foley, as we in the film industry call it- the actual sound of the animals in their environment. Sometimes the camera is just too far away for a traditional microphone to work. Nowadays though, the craziest ways of recording close up sound have pricked up our ears, capturing not just the remote ambient noise, but replicating the way our very brains detect the aural waves lapping at our consciousness. So if you see a disembodied head with transparent ears, looking like Leiutenant |Ilia from Star Trek the Motion Picture, peering out of a bush- don't expect to be beamed up to see the Kirk Unit- it's just Tony's bizarre new method of obtaining accurate birdsong. I have not got access to that.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Spurn spurned.

So often autumn migrants make things difficult- hiding in thick vegetation and only giving brief views that make identification hard.

Every now and then a clue to the bird's identity can be grasped, if you're quick enough.....

But even when you do finally work out what you're looking at, it can be hard to get clear views of the whole bird, and you're left with the feeling that you've left the table before dessert, or been struggling to drink through a blocked straw.....

Then again sometimes you're served up chocolate pudding in a bigger than expected bowl, you've got a clean straw that reaches the bottom of the glass and you can drink in the whole lot.

The Radde's Warbler spent some time moving between a big leaved sycamore and a more open hawthorn half way down Garden Drove at Warham Greens yesterday, and wasn't afraid to perch occasionally out in the hazy morning sun. Over at Burnham the Dusky Warbler proved to be much more elusive, flying off before we arrived while the small crowd was apparently looking the other way. After searching all the bushes up to the pines we had to admit defeat, and instead sat down to watch a pair of newly arrived Siskins feeding on the bramble-covered slope of a large dune slack, lulled by the unseasonal warmth and distant caterwaul of unsettled geese flocks rising from the fields inland.