Monday, 31 May 2021

When You Sleep #2

Birding the candle at both ends is a continuing theme through the spring and following last years brief Nightjar residency at Chippenham Fen it was always going to be worth a couple of dusk strolls.   I met Mark H and took a saunter into the damp, open woodland.  A Woodcock grunted a welcome as it ploughed it's aerial furrow and the evening chorus was underpinned with the reeling of Grasshopper Warblers.  A flyover Curlew was notable but tonight there was no mechanical churring or visit from a Nightjar.  

We headed over to Wicken Fen and enjoyed trying to work out the physics of Grasshopper Warbler song, particularly more distant birds.  Two conundrums present themselves - firstly reeling Grasshopper Warblers are easier to hear when walking but the song often then disappears when you stop to listen, secondly reeling can often be heard with one ear but ear cupping with both ears can effectively eliminate the sound from hearing.   Something to do with Doppler I think and then Schroedinger I imagine.

And to imagination it all then went.......

Nearing the end of the Bakers Fen bank, well past midnight, we dawdled, reminiscing about the Marsh Warbler we'd found there singing it's heart out last spring.  We'd also been talking about upcoming pelagics and seawatching in the south west - all booked for the summer.  I had definitely zoned out and was thinking about Pteradroma's when I heard, clearly but absent mindedly, the very call I had been listening to on Xeno Canto with frequency, over the past month.  Like some mad head I asked Mark if he'd heard the bonkers giggle of Little Crake.  He hadn't and I immediately questioned if I had actually daydreamed the sound, a silent minute or two. I decided it must have been a short phrase of Sedge Warbler but then it called again and it still sounded exactly as a female Little Crake should.  Mark hadn't heard it but now I knew I wasn't in fanciful territory, well there was a thing out there making a noise - the idea that it was a Little Crake still admittedly on the fanciful side.  Another silent vigil and there again - Mark heard it this time and a little shocked we both agreed that it did sound exactly like a Little Crake.  It was late and we knew that into the night these particular Crakes become very quiet so we were not surprised, after another half hour of listening, that we didn't hear the bird again.  What to do........

Following the nocturnal Broad Billed Sandpiper that got away, I am now experimenting with continuously recording audio when out birding.  The Crake was a subtle call  not easy to pick up so I didn't expect that the recording would be much use.  I was heading to Yorkshire with the family early next morning but I did grab some time to check the recording on Audacity.  Once I'd located the dialogue I listened for the Crake, nothing first time but when I cranked up the volume - boom - there was the giggle.   I sent the Birdo brethren the audio and we rang just a couple of people who could verify the record if it were to call again that night - which indeed it did and all seemed happy with the identification so the news has gone out.  All a bit crazy really but very, very rewarding.


Unlike the Swifts that hurtled past me at great speed as I walked the lode besides Smithy Fen, I was twice too slow over the weekend to catch up with any of the many Sanderling passing through the inland counties at the moment.  A smart 2 CY Caspian Gull was some recompense and any day where Swifts are in abundance and sharing their airspace with you has to be red letter.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

When You Sleep

Me and Mark H went out prospecting for Crakes on a beautiful still evening out on the Nene Washes.  Over the winter Ade Long had been talking to me quite a bit about continuous recording when out birding.  I had an WAV recorder and mic with me and had been recording Godwit "song" only half an hour prior to the events that Mark reported to Cambirds below.

I have just returned from a few hours birding on the Washes with Duncan Poyser.

Birds included;

Wood Sandpiper one over low wash calling at dusk
Garganey 3 drks
Greenshank 3+
Cattle Egret 
Barn Owl
Barnacle Goose 2

However, the highlight came at c.10.15pm when we both independently heard a distant wader call once (we both thought Dunlin), but then it called again much closer, and almost directly overhead, and which point we realised it wasn't a Dunlin! There then followed 3 more clear calls (spaced 1-2 seconds apart) as the bird headed east down the low wash. The call was structured like a Dunlin, but deeper toned (not so dry or shrill) and more vibrant. A drawn-out and buzzing 'bree-et' call, slightly rising at the end (and unlike any call that either of us have heard before). I went to record the call on my telephone, but by the time it called again it was to far away.

We suspected a wader immediately, and checked Curlew Sandpiper and the then Broad-billed Sandpiper recordings. This call on Xeno-canto is a near perfect match for what we heard.

The same type of calls can be heard here too (although these birds are calling more frequently, perhaps because of the weather conditions).

Of course we will never know for sure, but we thought it best to report it, just in-case. How I wish we had got a sound-recording! An exciting nocturnal experience for both Duncan and I, and another reminder that there is magic in birding even after the sun has set.




Saturday, 22 May 2021

Under the Pressure

Cambridgeshire Big Day 2021

We had a pootle around the county to see what we could see

Time Machine

I'm going to do my best to cover all the great birding of the last 4 months where, with far too much work to do,  getting out birding has taken priority over writing about it afterwards.   I'm going to do a whistle stop tour of the highlights in a roughly chronological order.

At the tail end of January amidst a strict lockdown, I found what, on the face off it, still appears to be a female Ferruginous Duck at Pymoor.  Quite a few folk saw it and agreed, in fact many hours were spent checking this birds features as hybrids are so frequent.  During the spring I have seen 6 hybrids with the Pochard flock and unfortunately several of these were photographed and reported as the Ferruginous Duck, clouding the waters of identification somewhat for the Twitterati.  I don't think the videos I took help much either as in adjusting the brightness to get some features of a very dark bird I have overexposed features which do not reflect the bird as it appeared.  We shall have to see what the committees make of it but I think I'm going to have to hold out for a classy looking, unringed male.  Shortly after its departure a very similar looking bird appeared in Worcestershire.  Ben took some nice sketches and notes on the first day of it's stay.

The lower reaches of the Washes were productive during February with 3 Glossy Ibis, a showy Shag and plenty of Water Pipits around Earith.


I checked the gull roost at Witcham Gravel a few times hoping for the locally wintering Kumlien's Gull to appear - it didn't for me but a good run of Caspian Gulls did.

March started really well when Ian Barton photographed an immature White Tailed Eagle over Stretham.  Fortunately the news went out quickly and I was able to get from work to a nearby vantage point with a huge vista across Wicken Fen, Burwell and across to Newmarket.  After 10 minutes or so I picked the bird up being mobbed by an fury of corvids as it headed SE out into Suffolk.  I, like many, presumed this would be a wandering bird from the Isle of Wight re-introduction but it transpired not to be a tagged bird and considered "wild".  The following weeks saw a fascinating back and forth of a tagged and untagged bird in the Ely 10 with the tagged bird staying for several days along the Washes. 

Photo - back of camera Ian Barton from WhatsApp

A drake Smew was found at Pymoor, but an early morning search proved fruitful, although I didn't see the white nun. However it did reveal a summer plumage Black-necked Grebe and a little further up the Washes at Four Balls Farm I said a big hello to a drake Ring-necked Duck as it weaved it's way through the willow tangle of the far bank.  This was a long overdue find and a bird, despite seeing many over the years, I'd been actively looking trying to find for well over 30 years.  I managed to get the phone on the scope and get some brief and grainy footage.

A few days later I caught up with the Smew which stayed through Easter and showed well.  To confuse matters further a bulkier Ferruginous hybrid appeared for a day, as all the diving duck departed, and looked just like the bird present at Stanwick, Northamptonshire last year. A Dark Bellied Brent Goose was hanging out with the Greylags too.

Spring was slow to get rolling with a drip drip drip but the quality of inland migration was high.  Early in April a Black Redstart was a delight, flicking around manure heaps at Tubney Fen.

I took a trip to the Brecks to look at the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers which were in company of over 100 Crossbills and a very confiding Otter. I took some time to check out the woods where we'd found an old Goshawk nest.  This spot proved very productive with 3 pairs of Goshawks up and displaying at one point.  Some incredible views of my favourite bird of prey.

A very smart Little Tern spent a few hours at Isleham Washes, I have held out little faith of connecting with a Little Tern in the Ely10 so this was a very exciting twitch, just 10 minutes from work.  The punk Avocets there were also very showy.

Photo - Paul Wiseman from WhatsApp

As the month progressed migration stepped up and initially some favourable easterly elements delivered multiple Whimbrel, Bar Tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Little Gulls and Arctic Terns.  A lovely afterwork visit to Kingfishers Bridge produced all these and a trio of Black Terns twisting between the Little Gulls.  A couple of Ring Ouzel had a prolonged stay here too.

Feeding ducks with the kids I stumbled on a Kingfishers nest by Soham Duck pond, it was lovely to watch these birds at close quarters.


The Washes drained pretty quickly with only a few pools concentrating the remaining wildfowl and newly arrived Garganey.

Almost up to date, although the spring has been protracted and full of inclement weather we have seen the welcome return of some local scarcities around Ely, in addition to the Peregrines and Marsh Harriers doing their thing we have had a Bittern booming at the Beet Pits, Nightingales at Roswell, squeeking young Long-eared Owls here in Stuntney and Chinese Water Deer finally showing a little better.

Photo - Bruce Liggit

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Open Season

A gang of Tufted Ducks dropped onto the big pond in front of the main hide at Welney. One female, seemingly already paired up, and a few rival suitors determined to make their presence felt. Their pootling calls and general sidling were not appreciated, and every minute or so, a sudden rush by the possessive male kept them at arms length.

Out on one of the prongs of land at the back of the pool, one of the Godwits has so far withstood the attentions of the Crows, Gulls and other Harriers, and kept her nest safe. She's an unringed bird, but quite recogniseable with a mix of summer and winter tertials, and some summer coverts forming a patch on the rear of the wing area to compliment the mostly summer patterned scapulars. 


Tuesday, 13 April 2021


While I was attempting to establish if my new Starling box was being used, the resident male was consistently perched in a tall tree in the front hedge every time I went out to restart recording (the camera shuts down after ten minutes automatically). So attached to his slender branch was he, that I decided to potentially waste nine and a half minutes of footage of tree, and point the camera at him, press record and leave it running while I went back indoors on whatwas an annoyingly cold morning.
As it turns out, he stayed for the duration, but after a few minutes, shuffled upwards slightly and so ruined the shot completely. I might not have bothered posting any of the footage here, but while reviewing it, my attention wassuddenly drawn to a perfect Blackbird call. At first, since there are plenty of other birds around, I thought it might have been a coincidence that the Starlings' bill moved slightly at the exact moment the call was heard - it was so much louder than any of the other vocalisations the bird emitted - but soon realised that it was indeed a beautiful example of the Starling's ability for reproducing the noises of the surrounding environment. 
Ruined somewhat by the occasional car (and apparently a low flying Spitfire from the sound of it??), and the usual breeze that for some reason turns to arctic blizzard when it hits the microphone, I nevertheless thought it worth sharing.

Speaking of sharing, the Blue Tits have decided that the pantry is theirs now. They refuse to use the door like hte rest of us, but instead have insisted in chipping away some of the old wood that was once part ofthe roof structure. Blue Tits have used the corner of the pantry for the last few years, but this winter the facure boards were replaced, removing their old entrance way. Undaunted by this problem, when it comes to resolve, the Tits are not wobbling. And why would they. The site is only about five yards from the bird feeders.


Tension and the Art of Timing.




Thursday, 25 March 2021

Here comes the Green

On Monday morning three little sparks of green arrived at the feeders. Siskins are moving through after spending the winter months down at sea level in damp woodlands, flocking with Redpolls and Goldfinch.
The regular seedeaters - the Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Reed Bunting are still busily bouncing across the garden to feed, and then returning to the hedge, where they chatter and buzz while the Tits, Wrens, Dunnocks and Robins stake their own claims for the coming season. Half a dozen Woodpigeons have taken to gathering by the pond for a communal bathe before waddling across to pick over the spillage left by the messy finches. They've grown so fat that they struggle to take flight when disturbed. In the denser shrubbery, Blackbirds squawk noisily, and on hte roof, the Jackdaws are gathering wood for their chimney.
The Cherry tree is a blizzard of white blossom and the first Hawthorn leaves are beginning to emerge.


Saturday, 20 March 2021


Under the huge arc of the sky we often feel gloriously pressed up against the heavens in the Fens.  Pushing even harder against the vapours are the towers and lantern of our medieval skyscraper, Ely Cathedral, the eye of the Ely10.  Lockdown#1 favoured the pair of Peregrines that settled late winter 2020 and proceeded, surely aided by a lack of human activity on the tower, to nest and rear young.  It was a hard secret to keep as the adults and subsequently the very showy and vocal youngstars demanded attention over the town - giving frequently tremendous displays as they honed their skills of pursuit on the hapless local pigeons.

They've been territorial again for some time now and a webcam is due to go live on the nest soon.  In the meantime Simon Stirrup has continued to patiently log their activities and has produced more striking images.  The prey item here being a Snipe.  

Me and Ben had a discussion about the potential predator that had left a Snipe for dead on Springhead Meadow a few weeks ago - Ben thought Sparrowhawk but neither of us considered that it might have been a Peregrine.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

wood working be easy fam

With the guttering and facure boards getting a massive overhaul, the Starlings were going to feel pretty aggrieved at their nestholes suddenly disappearing. So I figured the best thing to do would be to rescue some of the old wood and see if I could cobble together some sort of container - a box, if you will - that could stand in as a suitable replacement area in which they could build a new nest. This rugged "nesting box", as I shall call it, didn't take much effort to bang together, but I must admit, the task of affixing it to the wall, at a considerable height, was one that I didn't particularly relish. Fortunately I have a man to do things up ladders. I managed to pry him away from his other duties and sent him up, drill in hand, to complete the task. Like some sort of arboreal legend, he was done in a matter of seconds. Good work Stu.


Saturday, 6 March 2021

When telling people his surname, many people asked Saul - "Why Tarsus?"

I recently bought a pad of watercolour paper I hadn't used before. I wasn't sure what kind of marks I could make with it. It's quite evenly textured, but the texture isn't too rough, and by dragging a fairly dry brush flat across it, I was able to scumble some interesting patterns that reminded me of the sort of sandstone we came across in Morocco. With that in mind, I thought it would be a waste of paper if I didn't try to turn the random marks into some kind of picture, and I immediately thought of a Black- eared Wheatear as a suitable subject. As such, the painting was more of an experiment in texture and colour, than any conscious attempt at getting the details right. You can see that the shadow supposedly cast by the bird is not exactly coherent, and the structure of the rock wall too, is a bit too much like an Escher drawing - but I really was more interested in the colour palette of greys and oranges that typify the desert regions of the Maghreb.

Wheatears have always drawn my attention. They are proud birds, never afraid to perch out in the open for all to admire. of the dozen or so species in the western palearctic, I've been lucky enough to see most of them. All have their subtle idiosyncracies - variations in tail pattern, face mask and colour, and some can be tricky to tell apart. The Isabelline Wheatear is one that eluded me for a long time, but when I finally saw my first, up on the Norfolk coast, the second appeared only a few days later near Wardy Hill. I had always assumed they would be hard to tell from our far more common European Wheatear - but as it turns out, I think Desert Wheatear is a far more likely confusion species.

The European Wheatear is a regular sight on the Norfolk coast in Spring and Autumn, as well as a somewhat harder to find bird inland at the same time of year. Birds headed to Greenland are bigger and brighter than those that breed in this country, and boldly patrol the short sandy coastal turf or black fen fields for a day or two, before heading on. Now March has come back around, the Wheatears will soon be popping up again.


Thursday, 25 February 2021

Breck Fast

It's the verge of Spring, just before the green closes up the woodland. The remnants of snow lay in the hollows, and the river bank is still flooded. Santon Downham is a great place to guage the beginning of another breeding season. Marsh Tits, Treecreepers and Nuthatches stand out as their songs fill the bare branches, but the special bird here is the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. This diminuitive bird does its best to stay obscured in the treetops, even when drumming its weak tremor. Its slight build is reflected in its power. Unlike the Greater Spotted Woodpecker, the lesser pecker cannot seem to maintain a robust clatter. The drumming often trails off halfway through, before renewed efforts increase the pace. Every now and then, it calls like a distant Kestrel.

On the open ground - a narrow strip of Breckland heather and fine grasses, a pair of Woodlarks doodle discreetly as the woodland finches bounce overhead, making their way between blocks of trees. They can be quite confiding, trusting in their muted streaks to hide themas they forage. The cream band running back from their eyes meets on their hindneck, and when seen, the dark primary coverts give its wing a bold contrast, unlike that of the Skylark.

Over in the King's Forest, larger areas of grassland and newly lumbered compartments provide enough habitat for both Lark species, as well as the smaller Meadow Pipit. The air is filled with their twinkling song - descending scales and abstract melodies mingle, A pair of Stonechats dart from gorse to gorse. The Birch trees along the eastern edge of the clearing attract Redpolls briefly. Stopping for a few seconds and then moving on.

A tall stand of conifers makes for hard viewing, but in the uppermost sprays of needles and cones, a group of Crossbills mingle with Siskins as they noisily feed. 

At the end of the path, another stretch of trees - mixed Larch and Pine aligns with the north. In one long since wounded and regrown tree, a large nest sits cradled by the split trunk. Further along, another nest hugs the trunk more precariously. Both nests are pretty flat but pretty deep. Neither looks to be in use...yet.

Returning to the main clearing, to get the widest view of the sky, it's not long before the nestbuilders show themselves. Two large Hawks, one adult and one younger bird briefly appear above the treeline. The adult circles. The young bird moves off slowly but with purpose. She is not wanted here.