Sunday, December 30, 2007

2nd half of the 'twitch' weekend

We started at Titchmarsh Local Nature Reserve, close to Corby, seeking the Tundra Bean Goose. We headed clockwise on the path to get a view of the flock of geese, near the small island in the first lake. As I trained my scope on the flock, up popped the Black-necked Grebe. We watched the bird for about five minutes before it disappeared, and it didn't even occur to me to photograph it! It looks similar-ish to the (Slavonian) Horned Grebe (see below, Draycote Water in Autumn, October 2007) but with a long neck, taller profile in the water and the tell-tale darker neck band.

While watching this the flock of geese had glided away from us, so we decided to do a circuit of the reserve and try and pick them up on the other side.

We did finally pick up the right flock (there are three present) and locate the 'Tundra' Bean Goose, it's the smaller bird in front of the group on the left, with the pink mid section to the bill, in marked contrast to the brighter bills of the Greylags.

You can tell by the small size of this picture how far away the bird was. As well as the goose and the grebe, we counted four Green Woodpeckers, ten Goosander and watched a Kingfisher dazzle some ramblers.

Heading towards the exit of the reserve, a pair of Stonechats were flicking about in the plants along the riverbank, this female showing well:

From Titchmarsh we headed briefly to Kinewell Lake, where we spotted a female Brambling and a small flock of Siskin. On the lake itself was a gathering of approximately 60 Shoveller Drakes, which looked unusual.

As time was ticking by and we wanted to do a loop around the nature reserve at Pitsford we decided to head over. First stop this time was Holcot bay and the hide there, to watch these two drake Smew:

They hadn't been there long and didn't stay very long so we were lucky to see them and have the opportunity to photograph them. Smew are without doubt my favourite bird and I really look forward to seeing them each year now.

The overall numbers of wildfowl are significantly reduced from the beginning of December, I have no idea why? I snapped this Goldcrest hopping about busily looking for food:

We were just heading towards the causeway and leaving the reserve when a couple of birders pointed out the Red-crested Pochards they had been watching. We looked but we couldn't see them, but another birder who was heading out confirmed he'd seen them too. We've not spotted one yet this winter although they've been regularly reported there, we must have a Red-crested Pochard blindspot at the moment. Anyway after 23 miles of walking this weekend, in new boots, my feet need a rest...

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

a bit of a twitch

Well we finally succumbed and had a bit of a twitch today, and we're doing the same tomorrow. But first we had to finish the last two of our Timed Tetrad Visits before the end of the year, so headed back to the area we'd retreated from a couple of weeks back.

Again the shooters were out but they must have been struggling as we didn't see a single game bird in the six miles we walked through the Tetrads, which is in marked comparison to the numbers even a month ago.

The most abundant bird in this predominantly farming area, at this time of year, is the Fieldfare, seen here grabbing some berries before flying to join the flock, which was already well over 100 birds.

We spotted a number of raptors today, including ten Common Buzzards (with some significant variations in size and plumage) and this Female Kestrel:

We have to walk the tetrads again before Spring and then twice more during Spring and early Summer to complete them for the Bird Atlas.

Having completed the two tetrads, we headed over to Dracyote water for some lunch and our 'twitch'. I've been watching the photographs appear, on the Bird Guides rare bird photo page (, of the Lesser Scaup at Draycote Water in Warwickshire, for at least two weeks now. It's a very uncommon bird, the present one being the second in Warwickshire, ever.

We were told the bird was visible from the hide, so we headed directly to it, though I stopped to snap a small group of Goldeneye and was lucky enough to catch this drake taking off. I had no idea their feet were so orange!

We stopped in at the hide and I'm pretty sure I picked the bird in my scope. There was another birder there but he couldn't pick it though he'd pointed out the drake Smew on the far side of the bay. We decided to walk around and try and spot it from the other side. When we did spot it, it was on its own bobbing in roughly the same spot we'd been watching from the hide, though some distance from the shore and the path beyond. I took a series of pictures hoping for a couple to come out, to record the sighting. So here is our first Lesser Scaup, a vagrant American diving duck:

In this one I think he's wondering why we're tracking alongside him so he's checking us out:

As we continued around the very cold and windy reservoir the clouds blew in and what light there was quickly receded. By the time we got to the tower to view the Goosanders, getting a clear picture was getting tough. I like this one though the drake looks like he's getting earache for something!

So a good Saturday, tetrads done, nearly 12 miles walked, a new bird and sore feet. Tomorrow, fingers crossed a 'Tundra' Bean Goose, that has been reported in Northamptonshire, also for some time now.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Birding around a family Christmas

Christmas 2007 was planned as a short break with family, staying at the Aviary Court Hotel (, which we'd recommend as warm, comfortable and excellent value, and we were very keen to try and fit some birding in.

Having driven down on the Friday evening, we met up on Saturday and decided to take a short walk to Portreath. We were following a fresh water stream down to Portreath when we disturbed a pair of Kingfishers, one took off and headed upstream passing us at about a metre distance, the flash of blue was unmistakable and seen by all, which led to much time spent looking up and down river to catch sight of them again.

This picture is of 'Gull Rock' out in Portreath bay:

It was quite a windy day with a large number of gulls out to sea and flying over the waves but very few birds along or close to shore. On the way back we did spot a male Blackcap over-wintering, but it's not so surprising, Cornwall to this point has yet to have a frost and it's the end of December...

The next day, Sunday, we'd set aside the whole morning to get out and about. We started at Hayle Estuary and the RSPB reserve there. Unfortunately the reserve has a lot of human litter on it, plastics, etc. which somewhat spoils the view and there were few birds around. We did see a flock of Golden Plover wheeling in the distance together with a flock of Lapwing. Also a Kingfisher appears to have made it his home as he was perched on an electricity cable making occasional darts and dives. From here it's a very short walk to the estuary and a gathering point for a lot of the wildfowl. Hayle has had a resident Green-winged Teal (from the USA) for some time now, it's possibly the same bird we saw a couple of years ago when we were last here? It was showing very well in the nearest group of Teal to our viewing point:

You can tell it's him as the other Teal have white 'bars' going across their sides whereas the American bird has a vertical white bar.

Sat on the side of the bridge, so that you had to lean right out to see it, was this juvenile Shag:

It later took to the water briefly:

Also close to us was this Redshank, wading in the shallows:

and this Curlew:

In fact there are a number of Curlew's around on the Estuary, we snapped this one a little later at the top end of the Estuary:

Click on the picture to see the plumage details better. One of the other less common birds visible directly from the viewing point was this 1st Winter Mediterranean Gull:

All of the birds in the vicinity were awake and it soon became apparent why. There's a tree to the left and sat atop it was a Peregrine Falcon, snapped here on a flypast trying to flush up one of the birds (you'll see it better if you click on the pic):

and here landing again in said tree:

It was making these flypasts regularly but we didn't see it catch anything. A bird that is very uncommon on our home patch in Northamptonshire but is abundant on the Cornwall coastline is the Greater Black-backed Gull, shown here with some Teal and Wigeon in the foreground for comparison:

They truly are huge gulls, the biggest in fact. While we were taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the viewing point, a local birder told us of a field about 4miles away with a reported 10 Cattle Egrets in it. I wanted to find the flock of Golden Plover we'd see earlier but we decided to go see the Cattle Egrets while we had a chance. The directions he'd given us were spot on and we arrived 15 minutes later. In the small lay-by was a parked police car. We assumed he'd been moving birders along to keep the road safe, so we parked up a little further down the road. We only saw his bins and camera when we approached the field itself :)

Sure enough there were indeed Cattle Egrets, in a field of Fresian Cows. We could see four of them including these two:

They have short yellow bills and are a rounder bird than the Little Egret (a few of which we'd seen in the morning at Hayle). This our first sighting of Cattle Egrets in the UK, though we did see some in the Camargue in March (see France Holiday - Day 4, in April 2007, below):

You'd imagine with 9 or 10 individuals it won't be long before they're breeding in the UK.

Next we headed to Carbis Bay, again following the advice of the local birder we'd met at Hayle Estuary.

We did indeed spot Red- and Black-necked Divers in the bay but at quite a distance and only with the telescope at near maximum magnification. Much closer in was a Guillemot, unfortunately quite distressed as you'll see:

The bird has oil on it's belly and was furiously trying to clean itself, getting oil around its face in the process. I don't know if it will have survived.

We saw other evidence of the impact of man on the marine environment, encountering the carcass of a seal with a propeller sized hole on one flank.

With the sun behind us, the light at Carbis Bay, very close to St Ives, was dramatic, I tried to capture a sense of it here:

You can see the sun picking out part of the wave and a 'stairway to heaven' in the distance, with another perspective here:

From Carbis Bay we decided to head back to Hayle again before getting back into the family Christmas proceedings. We spotted one more wader, this Knot:

On Christmas Eve, we drove to Gwithian for a walk along the dunes and the beach there. The only 'new' bird to the holiday was this Rock Pipit, which we watched fly up the cliff-face, grab a snail of some sort then fly down to the beach to eat it:

On our last morning in Cornwall, before our drive back home we decided to nip back to Hayle again. We met another couple of birders who pointed out a Greenshank to us, but I'm pretty sure it's a Golden Plover, in winter plumage, as the bill is distinctively short:

The behaviour of the Plover was amusing as once it had picked out a worm (it grabbed five in as many minutes) it would then wash it in the water before eating it, unlike the Curlew which just wolfs them down.

In addition to this bird we spotted some Dunlin in the distance but it was much quieter although there were now two shags by the viewing point! Next time we're in Cornwall for winter we're going to try the (river) Camel Trail as I gather there are thousands of Golden Plover there every year...

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Garden list update

A garden update is long overdue. The rains of autumn have given way to the cold days and nights of winter, which means the garden is now packed with birds from dawn to dusk and they are consuming prodigious quantities of food. I estimate 3-5kilos of various foods per day.

You can tell the weather is getting harsher and the food scarcer when the Blackbirds show up again. The chap looks like a juvenile male Blackbird:

Even though the chest and wing colours suggest female, the posture and holding of the wings and tail suggest juvenile male to me...?

Anyway within a fortnight of the first blackbird showing up we've counted a record 14 in the garden, which is uncomfortable for the birds, who spend the whole day feeding, fighting and alarming all the other birds, as you can see from this shot there's a number of birds feeding in a relatively small space:

Still it's good to see so many birds, evidence of a successful breeding season, which is good news (we found 2 Sparrow bird-boxes in the garden had been used too!). The Goldfinch are the messiest eaters in the garden, as you can see from the picture below, each sunflower seed is bitten down to half, with half dropped, which is good news for the other birds when they are very hungry but normally it's left to congeal into a soup like goo before it grows it's own special kind of mould, so now we have 6 feeder poles set so we can rotate the feeders and keep the ground (relatively) fresh.

The garden list continues to grow with three new species in the last couple of weeks, including this Pied Wagtail:

This hen (Common) Pheasant:

and finally, to my mind the best new addition recently, this Siskin:

This time the bird is looking at the camera, but I was behind a window and hadn't disabled the flash so the colour is washed out, which is a shame as otherwise this would have been a very good snap (I was on the phone at the same time, which explains the lapse!).

In addition to the new birds we've recently seen both a Brambling (though fleetingly) and Reed Buntings returning to the garden, together with a Great Spotted Woodpecker. We'd like to see the Green Woodpecker again and apparently, the lime trees sometimes house Tree Creepers, fingers crossed :)

Last Saturday we did our second Timed Tetrad Visit, we've now done six out of our eight so must squeeze the last two in before the end of the month. We would have completed all eight but we'd have had to walk past a group of shooters and frankly that would have got messy, no doubt about it. We decided that rather than get involved in a direct confrontation with them we'd head home, as the light was poor and the continual gunfire was again very depressing (why on earth do they need to do it?).

In the two tetrads we did manage to complete we counted many Redwings and Fieldfares, including this one:

And a Greater Black-backed Gull, who did count as he was low and looked to us like he'd been ground feeding amongst other gulls:

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Pitsford Nature Reserve

After three weeks off for flu we made it back out today. We originally planned to do the second group of four tetrads for the BTO Bird Atlas survey but the forecast showed miserable weather in the afternoon so we switched to Pitsford. As soon as we entered the reserve we started seeing Fieldfares, we counted over 250 on the way round. Lots of wildfowl including Wigeon, Pochards, Shovellers, Great Crested Grebes, Gadwall, though the number of Pintails has reduced since our last visit. In one spot we counted 40 Ruddy Ducks. We stopped in the first hide, heading toward Scaldwell Bay as a large flock of Greylag Geese flew past:

In terms of raptors there were numerous Kestrels, this pair of juvenile Sparrowhawks fought for a bit, just clearing the covering trees:

And we encountered four Common Buzzards, disturbing one with a kill, which took off with breakfast and one being mobbed, shown here in flight and being harassed:

There were numerous Grey Heron’s, we counted at least twelve including a number airborne:

This gull was in the water as the path turns from to the Walgrave Arm from Scaldwell, it has been identified as a 2nd-year Greater Black-backed Gull, though we couldn’t ID it at the time, as in the differing light it also looks quite similar to a Lesser Black-backed Gull (thanks Neil):

The winter sun was very low and made it hard to get the photography right. You have to wait until the bird turns with the light on it, this Shoveller was about the fifth attempt but the only one with the light right:

We stopped for tea again in West Hide, overlook Walgrave Bay. We heard it before we saw it. I had to think - the sound was identical to the Raven we’d heard ‘clacking’ its bill in Yellowstone, and sure enough a big black bird was sat about 50 yards away on top of this tree, with a curious Rook perched lower (still some debate as to whether this bird is a Carrion Crow or a Raven):

From the hide we watched a group of Wigeon chasing each other in front of the hide, including these:

The Holcot Arm is the most enclosed and overlooked of the three arms of Pitsford, but this drake Scaup was showing relatively clearly, only the second time we’ve seen Scaup in the UK:

Pitsford was fantastic today. In addition to the above, we saw a Redshank, a Little Egret, Willow Tits, Goldcrests, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a pair of Goldeneye, 50 Redwings, Tree Sparrows at the feeding station and a Great Northern Diver that flew over to Scaldwell from the open part of Holcot.

Mammals included a Muntjac Deer and a Red Fox, the latter a particularly rust red, and much taller than the fox that's been popping in to our garden of a night...

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