Saturday, 6 May 2017

All Day And All Of The Night

Anticipation rose during the week as the weather forecast just looked better and better for the last weekend of April, a weekend booked into the calendar months ago to spend the day with good friends trying to see as many different birds in Cambridgeshire as possible.  A good day of spring passage and some reasonable weather is needed to get close to the current 135 record.  A great day of spring passage and a new record may loom.  Sunday 30th April was a great day of passage, a week earlier than our previous big days but in 2017 April's the new May - right.
Nocturnal shenanigans are central to the bird race day we had heard a Long-eared Owl hooting both nights last weekend from the same spot, a pinned down bird, a dead cert, in the the doghouse - straining our ears into the strengthening breeze. It wasn't happening.
Out to the Washes in the wee hours, we hoped a Crake or possibly two would be calling out their repetitious song.  Nothing.  Snipe juddered the air, a Bittern boomed and Godwits giggled out of the dark.  Night time on the Summerlands is a feast.  Though not yet at it's peak, there's nowhere else like it in the UK and it's a treat and secret.
The Eastern sky was lightening and further north we strode along the floodbank as the sun rose in a glorious glow.  Four Crane, subtle as you like, went about their business and, once the egrets and wild swans and harriers had made their way into the notebook, Ben called a Grey Plover.  We whizzed around to see it fly across the flood and it landed - pied, spangled and spanking in it's full summer garb.  A good bonus bird early on, little did we know how many we were going to see during the day.  A little farther on a Bar-tailed Godwit dropped in and nearby a further 3 Grey Plover were tucked into an inlet amidst the grass.  A mixed flock of waders lower from on high and continued North East without stopping.. There were Barwits, Grey Plover, Golden Plover and a Knot - it was happening, a good wader passage as hoped for on a SE wind.  The remaining time saw more of these birds arrive and a couple of Whimbrel headed westwards and then thought better of it and headed up towards the Wash.  We crossed routes with the record holding Die Hards who were evidently lured out by the prospect of a record breaking day.  Excitement tangible we headed West.

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

The Fen yielded Wheatear, Tree Sparrow and Little Owl and at the edge of the county we revelled in the aerial antics of a Raven playing on the breeze and Red Kites along the roadside.
To the woods, carpeted in Bluebells, lime greenery painting the boughs.  Nuthatch, Jay, Marsh Tit, Bullfinch, Coal Tit and Garden Warbler all present themselves and it's getting to the point where we can't dawdle.  Onwards to the water.  At Grafham there are Black Terns, Sanderling, Turnstone, a brick red Barwit flies straight through, a smart Whinchat has hung around and a drake Common Scoter flies in and drops to the water, there are no Arctic Terns.  We decide to miss out Paxton, although there is an Arctic Tern there, and keep on target with our times and move into the Ouse Valley.
We're greeted by a gorgeous flock of Black Terns picking across the lake, dipping and twisting back and forth, accumulating on islands and throwing themselves back into the air after a rest.  Grey Plover, Whimbrel, Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin share the spit and a drake Goldeneye roosts statically, unhidden.  We have seen quite a few Hobby already but now there is a bird hawking over us and giving great views.  What we haven't seen though is a Sparrowhawk. 
We headed further along the Ouse and into the Washlands.  Egyptian Geese, more Grey Plover and a fly through Turtle Dove before we get to Welches Dam and hop on the bikes.  It's a wader fest here too with Grey Plover, Greenshank, Turnstone, a gorgeous dusky Spotted Redshank, more Bar-tailed Godwit flying through and a dazzling posse of male Ruff jump around and engage in proto lekking.  A drake Garganey is always a welcome sight and this was the first of the day for us, we couldn't find Green Sandpiper, Cattle Egret or Great White Egret seen earlier in the week or the long staying White-fronted Goose (although we did find it or another amongst Greylags on the other side of the Washes later in the day.
We passed the Die Hards again as we left and we had counted up and 136 might still be possible but we still needed to see or hear Sparrowhawk, Bearded Tit, Peregrine and Grey Partridge as well as connecting with some of our stake out specials like Mandarin, Stone Curlew, Nightingale and Woodcock.  A smidgen more luck would also be needed.  The eastern side of the Washes did provide a Peregrine, White-fronted Goose, a 2CY Yellow-legged Gull and we still had enough daylight to play with.  We went to a Sparrowhawk copse where they had been noisy towards any intruder, quite this evening though.  We decided to chance Kingfishers Bridge over Wicken for Bearded Tit.  It had delivered in the past and there was a chance of a Common Gull bathing before roost or an odd wader or even a Grey Partridge calling.  We saw a Little Grebe which 2 of the team still needed to see and another Yellow-legged Gull.  It was unravelling now. 
A lovely walk through damp open woodland revealed Woodcock before we were even in the woods.  A Hobby sat in a dead tree and we willed a Sparrowhawk to make a dusk hunting foray, which it didn't.  We listened to some Stone Curlew wailing in the dark and a Nightingale glorious, if a little distant, on familiar turf at Roswell Pits.  We were on 133, a successful Long Eared Owl hunt, a night calling Grey Partridge and the Corncrake we were sure should be rasping on the Washes would get us to 136.  So standing where we had been some 22 hours earlier we strained our ears to hear Long-eared Owl.  An owl silhouetted as it flew against the sky and then hissed to tell us it was a Barn Owl.  It started to rain and we decided that would be our best effort. 
We had a great day, a really great day and the Die Hards did too.  They found 137, a new Cambs calendar day record.  Between the 2 teams over 140 species were seen or heard so it is a possibility but not one that feels accomplishable, still in the fug of tiredness.
Next day, Bank Holiday Monday gave a chance for recovery and a drive out to Welney allowed an enjoyable time watching 3 Black-winged Stilt picking across a chosen pool on Lady Fen.  A little further down the road views were considerably better and their behaviour looked very bonded, there's quite a good chance that these birds could settle if the local Coot, Black-headed Gulls and predators give them a fighting chance. 

As the week progressed the winds remained to the Easterly sector and waders hung around, I saw a Black Tern from the train over Shropshire's Reservoir (following a Cambirds tip off from a train driver).  A front of Swifts pushed through today and a fantastic flock of 6 Arctic Terns flew over my head at Roswell Pits, not even glancing at the water and powering through North tail streamers fluttering in the wind, the ultimate migration icon.

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