Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spur of the moment

We decided mid-morning on Friday that we'd travel to Suffolk on Friday night, stay in the Premier Inn outside Ipswich and then head on to Minsmere 'promptly' on the Saturday morning. I've been wanting to head back since our 'Spring' holiday at the end of March - 5 weeks ago already - and since our visit at the end of June 2006, as the site hosts a large number of breeding species and the opportunities for taking photographs abound.

What was immediately apparent was the progression in the season, and not because of the weather. A couple of weeks back Sedge and Willow Warblers were the most numerous singers, having supplanted the Chiffchaff, today however it was Reed Warblers and Whitethroats that were the most numerous. Wherever we went in fact we heard then saw Whitethroat after Whitethroat, sitting proud, singing then taking off to parachute to another perch and carry on singing, this one has been ringed before:

We headed first to the Island Mere Hide. En route we saw Muntjac, Green Woodpeckers, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and plenty of 'garden' birds. As we approached the hide, through the surrounding reeds the number of singing birds was amazing, it's impossible not to smile, broadly, in such circumstances. Whilst trying to spot the singers, we saw a Bittern fly briefly before landing, only the second time we've seen one. From the hide, this Reed Warbler was very audible, he was only a metre or so from the window and must have known we and another couple we were watching him, yet he barely moved:

When he started singing his song lasted for many minutes uninterrupted:

There were still a few singing 'Sedgies' (Sedge Warbler) but the Reed Warblers far outnumbered them:

Another smile making sight from the hide was a group of Mallard ducklings, following mum and mimicking her feeding. Very curious youngsters:

Finally a male Marsh Harrier, cruising over the reed beds looking for breakfast:

We headed back toward the visitor centre then on past it to the pond. In March there had been a small handful of Sand Martins, now the air was full with at least fifty individuals at any one time, some clearly nesting already, others prospecting for a good site:

We spotted this pair over by the sluice, collecting nesting materials:

On past the pond and towards the next destination, the North hide, we heard an unusual though not fluent song. The bird was initially tricky to locate but we soon picked it, though we didn't recognise it. In the end the rufous head and back, the white eye-ring and the fattish rufous tail gave it away, our first ever Nightingale :)

We watched and listened to the bird for a few minutes then went and sat in the hide. The most visible birds from the North hide were two families of Greylag Geese. One family had obviously hatched their goslings a week or so ahead of these younger birds:

who are still very young and very, very cute :)

While we were in the hide a Redshank landed on a post in front of us and posed briefly, before heading off:

On from the North hide we walked out towards the sea and the East hide. En route we passed numerous Whitethroats, some Linnets and saw a number of Common and Little Terns, high over head. From the East hide the most immediately visible birds, really very close to the hide itself, were Avocets and the majority of them on nests:

Though some were up and about, feeding or preening like this one:

It must be very tricky preening with a long and sharply curved bill. Whilst we were in the hide spotting the various waders in the distance (Knot, Ruff, Dunlin, Spotted Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit) the Common Terns were flying about, I caught this one coming in to land. It was quite distant but you can see the shape of the bird clearly:

The next spot after the East hide and the public hide is the sluice at which point you re-enter the reserve. As two years ago, the sluice area was buzzing with Barn Swallows and Sand Martins, often flying so close to us that we could have reached out and touched them. It was here that I photographed the Sand Martins collecting nesting material (above). A couple of Swallows were settling on the gate and signposts very close to where we stood. This one is perched on the gate (PLEASE click on the following pics to see the photos in detail):

Stunning plumage and colours! It's amazing what a bit of natural sunlight does for photography (you were spot on Benjy, thank you!). here the bird has settled down again, showing in profile. Again the plumage colours are absolutely stunning and you can see the 'streamer' feathers too:

You can see from this picture and the next one that the birds were singing. I know I'm still substantially ignorant of birds and their behaviour but I did not expect Swallows to sing. I just didn't associate that kind of behaviour with the bird, but sing they do. And they are very fine singers indeed, I'm surprised they don't have more of a 'reputation' for this aspect of their behaviour. This one is perched on the sign, as you can see:

He spotted me :)

Then carried on singing anyway! I'd moved round to get the whole bird in this shot:

Down the path toward the South hide, we stopped where five weeks ago we'd discovered the Bluethroat (still a fond memory) and watched some Plovers. It was nice not to be ankle deep in water and watching every step :)

We are certain we saw Ringed Plovers but this bird caused us some confusion. It has the body shape and the legs of a Little Ringed Plover but the bill colour of a Ringed Plover, I believe it is a Little Ringed Plover:

From the South Hide, the first most visible bird was this adult Yellow-legged Gull:

Also on the scrape a small group of Knot moulting into breeding plumage, a remarkable change from just 5 weeks ago:

Along from the South hide and heading towards our penultimate stop at the West hide, a female Reed Bunting popped up and started calling:

I like how striking their summer/breeding plumage is. The last stop at Minsmere was the tea room for an early lunch (jacket spud with veg chilli is our highlight) before the drive to Lakenheath Fen.

We lugged the camera and lens around Lakenheath, walking about six miles in two and half hours but it was the middle of the day. The Garganey on site had been flushed away just before we arrived by a keen birder getting too close, the Bearded Reedlings were becalmed and hiding, as was the lone male Bittern and the Cranes. We did see a few Sedge Warblers, including this one, included as it shows the dark plumage detail on the back and tail:

We did catch up with a small group of birders stood craning their necks at the top of the poplars in the furthest planting on the reserve. One chap with very keen eyesight had spotted a pair of Golden Orioles coming to and from a nest they were building. We spotted the male on the nest and saw them fly a few times, although always fleetingly. The best chance of seeing the birds clearly and taking a photograph would probably have been the previous weekend with less foliage and before they had chosen their nest site. Still a first for us and the second new bird of the day!

By the time we got back to the visitor centre just before 5pm, it had been closed for nearly half an hour so no loos and no tea! Time we headed on to our last stop of the day, Paxton Pits in Cambridgeshire.

We didn't stay long at Paxton as the day was getting late and we'd already seen the Nightingales we hoped to see at Paxton at Minsmere. Nevertheless Paxton is always worth a look. Lo and behold more Nightingales. These bird are 'very hard to spot', 'singing from deep cover', just like this one then:

There were a number of Nightingales calling from close to the path so if you want to see or hear one, then i'd pop along. All of the birds we heard today though appeared to be 'warming up' none of them really hit full song so that's a part of the experience we still hope to have in the next couple of weeks.
The last stop of the day was the Kingfisher hide to watch Common Terns swooping over the water of the lake, apparently hawking for insects rather than fishing, I caught this one in the evening light, flying close to the hide:

The noise from the Cormorant colony is amazing and the number of birds and nests has expanded considerably in the five weeks since we last visited Paxton. It was a long day but fantastic and definitely worth the trip!

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Wales Weekend - day 3

Day three in Wales, Bank Holiday Monday and we were torn between making a quick exit to beat the traffic and making the most of our time in Wales. We decided to compromise and picked a supposed four hour walk, called the 'Roman Steps' close to Cwm Bychan (walk 379 from the book '1001 Walks in Britain', published by the AA). I say supposed, as whoever described the walk in the book clearly hasn't walked it. The paths are either scree and rubble with a stream running down them or deeply boggy. That and there's no flat bits - it's either up or down, for seven miles. Overall the walk took five and a half hours and we were out of water and food and feeling very 'worn' by the time we finally got back to our car. Still the walk did offer a few brief but excellent photography opportunities, though sensibly I'd stuck with the 100-400x.

First up and immediately through the gate, before we were even on the path, Pied Flycatchers again! This male sat quiet unperturbed in the tree while I tried to get a reasonable view. The best views, with the light on the right side would have meant climbing the farmers wall, so I made do with this shot:

This female was in an adjoining tree:

You can tell by the backgrounds the day promised to be glorious so we set off in high spirits having had such a good start. The trail winds up through a woodland, which is clearly very wet, as evidenced by these moss covered rocks:

All about us the woodland was filled with birdsong. We were treated to a close view of a very mobile male Wood Warbler, seen here singing:

Here he's turned his head for, I think, an even better overall picture:

Unlike yesterday's picture, the colouration is clear to see, including the very lemon yellow supercilium and throat markings. Excellent :) I got a recording too but I think this blog only accommodates words, pictures and short films...

Immediately above the wood line I heard a bird calling, trilling, each call comprising three trills. I knew I'd heard it before (on a bird song CD) and recognised it as a Ring Ouzel. We searched the trees and located it some way off, too far for a good picture, but we'd found one!

Further along, this was the view beyond the 'green line' to the heather, though again not a grouse in sight, hence no Hen Harriers either:

Having completed the first ascent in 90 minutes we were pleased to be going downhill, though in very boggy ground. Following the walk you pass into a nature reserve and then into woodland which is part reserve, part managed forest. Sat proud on one of the conifers, this male Redstart showed its plumage really well:

Then he burst into song:

As I said above the opportunities were few and hard earned but we were very lucky. This bird was no more than ten feet away from us, and all of that distance was 'up' - and it actually flew from further away to the tree next to us to perch and then sing :)

Further along the path, this Tree Pipit (new bird!) perched briefly on a stump before flying off:

The second half of the walk, once you're through the woods and have navigated past ruined cottages, etc., is a down-and-up triangle on deeply boggy ground with no real path at all. It took another 90 minutes and was frankly pointless. Were we to do this again we'd take a map and compass and avoid this section completely just looping to the left (West) and toward the pass. You can see boggy fields below:

We only encountered two species of birds on the bog, one was Meadow Pipits, which were abundant and second Wheatears, including this female:

Strangely we flushed up to ten female Wheatears, but not a single male? By now we were very short of water and sweating prodigiously from both the heat (the car thermometer suggested 24 Celsius when we got back) and the hard walking, and we still had a major climb to go. It was made the more eerie by a pair of Ravens high on a hilltop calling to each other, we thought they might be watching us and hoping for an easy meal...

We started the second ascent towards the pass and along a river. About halfway up we heard a contact call we weren't familiar with. It was a female Ring Ouzel. In the time it took me to raise my camera however she flew down and out of slight. Thankfully the male felt obliged to have a look too and sat long enough for me to take his picture:

The last photo from Wales and a most welcome view, that was the lake next to which our car was parked. From here it took another 45 minutes to get down, and a further 20 minutes to drive to somewhere selling ice creams and water. It was a very hard walk and in parts not much fun, but we did have a real sense of achievement in having completed it:

In birding terms, Wales clearly has a lot to offer and we've only just scratched the surface, there's North Wales, South Wales, Central Wales and South-East Wales to go yet :)

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Wales Weekend - day 2

We looked out of the window on Sunday morning, having completely lost faith in the weather forecast to decide what kind of day lay ahead. Answer: Grey. We'd decided to spend the day at the RSPB reserve at Lake Vyrnwy ( so headed there after breakfast, we planned less walking so took both lenses. First up the 'brief' 3 mile blue trail, away from the lake, with the 100-400x. We were told to allow two hours as it's very hilly. Almost immediately we bumped into a group of birders on a day trip from Mansfield. They were watching this Redstart, sat proud in a tree and singing away:

Amazing colouration, with the red body, black face and white cap, quite a stunning bird. There were a few about so we got some pretty good views though the trees they were using were set back from the path. Around the walk we heard Wood Warblers but alas couldn't see any as they were deep in the woods. The walk does involve some pretty steep climbs and actually took 90 minutes to complete, including two brief showers. This is a view of the huge dam and the lake beyond:

We followed the advice of the very helpful RSPB staff in the shop and headed to the opposite end of the lake, this time seeking Pied Flycatchers and time for 600x + 1.4x. We did spot a Dipper flying to and fro from the bridge close to the Centenary hide, our second of the holiday. We walked on to the hide where we again met some of the Mansfield birders and sat ourselves down to wait and fingers crossed see our first Pied Flycatchers (by now we were calling them Flying Pie-catchers for some reason - cue conversations about the men of Wigan, home of the pie, throwing pies in the air to be caught by said birds!).

While we waited this male Bullfinch fed in a tangle of branches not far from the hide:

We don't normally spend much time in hides, preferring to walk about but today was different. Within five minutes we were watching a male and a female going in and out of a nest box. It wasn't long before a female Pied Flycatcher settled down close to the hide, in front of us:

She stayed long enough for me to get the focus spot on, very pleasing :) If you click on the picture you'll see the plumage on the chest more clearly, it looks really soft and downy and is flecked black. Whilst we were in the hide a number of showers passed over, as you can see from this shot:

I like this one as even with the poor light and the therefore slightly blurry shot you can see a little white patch just above the bill. Getting a photo of a male was proving much tougher. One sat and posed for ages but I just couldn't pick it with the lens, very frustrating. Luckily a group of three were prospecting one of the other nest boxes and one sat proud briefly:

I would have liked a better shot and had opportunities, but it wasn't to be. At one point a Dipper was dipping right in front of the hide, though mostly obscured by branches and tree trunks, again an ideal photo opportunity and again an opportunity missed, but it was great to see one so close and I confess I got a bit over-excited with all the birds around and trying to get the right snaps :)

We decided to walk from the hide up to the Eiddew Waterfalls, which meant going back through the car park to pick up the trail. Just through the gate at the rear of the car park, was this Grey Wagtail, perched on a rock on the wall, singing for a mate:

Another very pleasing photograph!

Here you can see the waterfalls at the end of the trail:

Again we heard Wood Warbler but we couldn't spot one. We were driving to park at the spot where the Mansfield group had their coach parked as they'd seen a Wood Warbler in the trees earlier. We parked up and they pointed to a specific spot where they'd seen one. Thank you to the birders of Mansfield! We stayed for around twenty minutes watching two males calling, jumping around, parachuting from branch to branch while signing, etc. Really enthralling to watch and our second new bird of the day!

Again the light wasn't great (excuses, excuses) so the distinctive colours are 'damped' but you can clearly see the yellow of the supercilium and the throat. Having really enjoyed the experience and with thunder getting closer we jumped in the car and took the road to Bala in the hope of seeing Grouse and maybe birds of prey. However the cloud was sat on the hills so we couldn't see very far, though frankly we got the impression there were few if any Grouse about in the area at all. From Bala it was back to the hotel for the evening.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Wales Weekend - day 1

I got home from my week in India at 20:45 and by 21:05 we were out of the house and driving to Wales :) We stayed close to Dolgellau.

Saturday morning saw a reasonably prompt start, all things considered, and we headed first to the RSPB centre at Penmaenpool on the A493, only to find that it is closed, permanently by the looks of it. We had decided to walk the Penmaenpool-Morfa Mawddach Walk, along the Mawddach Estuary (with the 'Where to watch birds in Britain' book as our guide), which could be anything from 12-18 miles so I opted for 100-400x lens.

The BBC had nearly put us off going to Wales as the weather forecast was for heavy rain from mid-morning on the Saturday with possibly some respite on Bank Holiday Monday but we didn't think about it for long, we both needed a break, whatever the weather.

Before encountering the estuary proper we noticed Barn Swallows flitting about, including this one collecting wet mud, no doubt nest building nearby:

Round a bend and we saw the estuary, it's a huge landscape and at this time the tide was heading out and had already drained it notably. Such tidal movements obviously made fishing easier as evidenced by this Red Breasted Merganser (you'll need to click for a better view):

Having caught a flat fish I wonder how or even if the bird ate it? Also feeding amongst the receding waters a number of Grey Herons, I caught this one as it was landing and like the way the feathers and wings are splayed:

About a third of the way along the trail there was a very Dipper looking river, and as seeing a Dipper was one of our main goals of the break we decided to detour along it. The river itself was fast flowing and clear with plenty of good dipping rocks, as you can see here:

No Dippers about though. We did spot this Great Spotted Woodpecker in the trees:

Also about for most of the walk were plenty of Willow Warblers:

In fact Blackcap and Willow Warblers were abundant here, with smaller numbers of ChiffChaff, Robins and Blackbirds, etc. One species that stood out though was the Song Thrush. We heard our first bird shortly after parking and were very rarely either unaccompanied by their song or by the birds themselves. Here you can see a mother feeding a fledgling:

We can only have been 10 yards away for the birds but they seemed quite content, with mum foraging through the leaves then returning to feed the youngster. If you think about it, for the bird to have already fledged the eggs were probably laid in late March during that really nasty spell of weather we had, so the parents have done very well already this year.

Returning to the trail we continued on towards the mouth of the estuary. We spotted some Thrift growing on the rocks used to construct the sea-wall:

This was the view about halfway down, note the grey clouds and poor light too:

We arrived at Morfa Mawddach station after around three hours walking, and by now the weather was notably improving (in place of the forecast heavy rain) and the skies were clearing. At the station we met a group of birders who were regular to the area and they pointed out where we might see some Black Redstarts and an incongruous row of Victorian terraced houses, amongst other things. We bumped into them at dinner that evening and they told us that they'd found Ring Ouzel on the 'Roman Steps', which we filed away as Ring Ouzel was another main goal of this holiday.

Whilst we chatted this Common Buzzard soared overhead, I like the way the primary wing feathers are projecting forward:

We headed around the island where they'd seen the Black Redstarts but couldn't find them and so decided to head back towards our car. We photographed this Sea Campion again clinging to the sea wall:

A Herring Gull had found lunch though I'm not sure if this meal was particularly fresh:

We'd seen a few waders in the pools close to Morfa Mawddach station but it was only when we walked very close to one, we identified the Common Sandpiper:

Once back at the car we calculated we'd walked about fifteen miles but we hadn't managed to see any of the birds we'd set-out to, so we took the other advice of the birders we'd met and headed into Dolgellau itself to park-up and search the river between the bridge and the back of the co-op. They were right!

The Dipper was in shade so you'll need to click on the pic to see the chestnut colouring to the abdomen, but we were chuffed to bits to finally see one :) It dipped about, flew across the river before diving and catching something then flew out again to consume it, then back in again. We watched it swimming and then followed it a bit as it flew up river:

The bird kept returning to this spot with food:

So having flushed it once in our enthusiasm to follow it, we decided to head back to the hotel though very pleased we'd finally seen a Dipper! As an aside I'd recommend to the council of Dolgellau they have an annual clean-up as the town itself is very picturesque but the overall impression is spoiled by the bottles, cans and fast food packaging literally everywhere.

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