Friday, 12 February 2016

Article for The Independent

This is an exciting thing that happened recently. My trip to the Highlands last autumn with Heatherlea (blogged here), was on commission for The Independent newspaper. The piece was printed in their mini-version, i newspaper, a couple of weeks ago, and is online here. Hope you like it!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Pennington rainy day

Nick, being the brilliant person that he is, was the driving force behind us going to Pennington Flash on a Sunday that was so wet and miserable that I could easily have spent it indoors feeling glum. I decided the camera could stay in the camera-bag in between hides, and this tactic worked pretty well.

From the first hide, which overlooks the main flash itself, there were lots of Black-headed Gulls, with a few Herring and Lesser Black-backed further off. On the spit a couple of Oystercatchers wandered about and there were Teals dotted about, with a handful of distant Great Crested Grebes and a Goldeneye or two.

This Goldeneye eventually came over quite close to us. I think the darkish eye must make it a first-winter. Probably female as there's no sign of adult male plumage starting to appear.

The next hide produced - not much. A few dabbling ducks, and a far-off perched Kingfisher. The hide after that - a pair of Teals very close, though they heard us coming in and quickly paddled away.

There have been sightings of a Bittern from the next hide (the Teal hide if I remember rightly). No Bittern for us but several Goosanders snoozing on this island alongside Mallards, Gadwalls and Teals.

There was also a single female Goosander in the water. I tried some shots at slower shutter speeds (1/200th) to reduce noise, bracing the lens on the hide window to reduce shake. As you can see, this didn't work particularly brilliantly.
Two Cormorants, one of them generously filoplumed, dropped in for a short while then left again.

I held out for the Bittern for a good while but had no luck, so it was on to the Bunting hide, where the feeding stations were attracting the usual pageant of small and not-so-small avian visitors.

A selection of the many (many) shots taken here. I took off the teleconverter as it really wasn't needed (and more light really really WAS needed). From the top, Stock Dove, male Reed Bunting, Willow Tit, Nuthatch, male Chaffinch, female Bullfinch. Also present - Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Greenfinch, Robin, Dunnock, Blackbird, Moorhen, Mallard, Woodpigeon, Magpie. I really must come here on a sunny day sometime.

Yearlist update - after the weekend, I finish January on 117 species. Wonder what will be next...

Connah's Quay

I'm just back from another trip to the north-west. On Saturday, we went somewhere new - the Deeside Naturalists' reserve at Connah's Quay, on the Wales side of the Dee Estuary. This reserve is for permit-holders only but our permit-holding friends Hazel and Mike managed to get permission to bring Nick and I there before our permits have actually arrived - so thank you very much to the DNS and Hazel and Mike for that :) The day was bright and sunny, also quite windy and VERY cold. We arrived at about 9am and headed straight for the main hide.

We immediately bumped into a flock of Twites, which was nice, although they were very flighty. Then it was into the hide, and I have to say that this is one of the best hides I've ever been to. It's a tower hide and there are windows on all sides. So on one side you are looking out onto the mudflats of the Dee; on another you have an expanse of wet meadowland; on the next you have views across a pool with some reedbeds; and the fourth side looks out over... the car park. But even this proved very worthwhile in the end...

I started out looking at the mud, which was dotted with Redshanks. Now and then, they'd all fly over to one of the little creeks to bathe, before returning to the mud to feed. Among them were tiny numbers of Dunlins, also a few Teals.

Lots more Teals were opposite, on and around the little pool, and now and then they'd all take flight. This shot shows the generally industrial nature of the area - there's a power station and various other big ugly buildings right behind the reserve. Other wildfowl around included plenty of Shovelers and Wigeons, and a solo Little Grebe. Sadly the Barnacle Goose that Hazel and Mike had found among Canada Geese here two days before was not around today.

The Twites, which we'd unavoidably scared off when we arrived, came back not long after we'd settled in the hide. The flock was about 50-strong. They came down to feed in the car park...

... and gradually came a bit closer...

... and even closer. It was a real treat to watch these beautiful little finches at close-ish range.

Hazel threw out a bit of sunflower seed for them, but most of it was snaffled by this Magpie.

A female-type Marsh Harrier appeared at the back of the reedy pool, and spent a long time bobbing around here, until a Carrion Crow came along and hassled it into moving on.

The wet meadow held more geese, Curlews and the odd Shelduck, and this Rock Pipit showed up at its muddy edge.

We left the hide then and headed along the path to visit three more hides along the estuary, all of which overlook small bits of fresh water rather than the estuary itself.

From the first, a Little Egret was the only bird not to flee at our arrival, but a few Redshanks soon arrived to keep it company.

A flock of Wigeons was very active in one corner of the water, the lone female enduring enthusiastic attention from a group of males.

Flying away didn't seem to solve the problem.

A single Stock Dove was feeding on the bank, then flying off to pastures new. A few Woodpigeons also flew by.

More excitingly (though more distantly), a trio of Bewick's Swans appeared over the far horizon. There were another seven or so further off and lower down.

The next hide produced one of the day's star birds. Can you spot the Spotshank? There were at least three Spotted Redshanks among the Common Redshanks roosting at the back of the pool - you can see one of them here, third from the right.

This pool also came up trumps with three Greenshanks (the third was just out of shot to the left).

There were feeders out the front here, which attracted the usual little birds. I'm not sure about that layer of green in the feeder, but the Goldfinch didn't seem bothered.

The last hide of the three produced fewer birds, and viewing was more tricky as there was a generous stand of teasels and burdock right in front of the windows.

That wasn't all bad though, as this Wren dived into the burdocks and emerged clutching a hefty green caterpillar.

We walked back to the main hide after that, finding this Common Buzzard on the way.

Lots of Curlews flew across the path just before the main hide. We didn't see anything new from the hide and decided to head back to Knutsford, to do the Big Garden Birdwatch in Mike and Hazel's big garden. We logged good numbers and I took a few pics during the allotted hour (through glass so they're not great).

 The resident garden Grey Wagtail, known as Wilma :)
 Female Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Male and female Siskins on a HUGE feeder full of sunflower seed. These birds are spoiled rotten!
 A pretty Stock Dove.
And not quite so pretty - two Woodpigeons having a really full-on fight right in front of us. Hazel was better placed for photos of this and got some corkers - you can see the full sequence on her thread on the RSPB forum here.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Rainham double-date

I ended up going to Rainham Marshes twice this week - on Wednesday with Shane and on Thursday with Ian. I am STILL without Dartford Warbler on my yearlist despite spending much time staring into what I think is the correct bramble clump... oh well. Wednesday brought nice views of Short-eared Owls and there were a few other things worth enthusing about. Both days were very cold and mostly cloudy.

OK, Wednesday. A very still day, stillest I've ever known at Rainham. All the waters were frozen and wildfowl-free. The Cetti's are beginning to sing properly and this one even let me take a terrible photo of it.

There are quite a few Stonechat pairs around the reserve.

We went through the gate out to the river wall, and turned towards the tip, hoping for Short-eared Owls. We took the low path but then a Shortie bobbed up and down again over the high path. So we hurried up the slope and soon located the owl, which had landed on a post.

There it is :)

A closer crop to show off that wonderful frowny face. It took off soon after and crossed the rough field behind the firing range numbers, eventually going out of view.

We followed the river path along towards the stone barges. The river was flat calm and busy with wildfowl. Here some Teals in difficult... I mean atmospheric... light.

Having noticed a Shortie or two over the top of the tip, we left the river path to cross the road and head up there. A big flock of Linnets was  moving over the slope, and among them were a couple of Skylarks.

Then a Shortie appeared from our left and flew directly overhead. The light was completely wrong but it was amazing to have such a close fly-by.

After it went over us, this owl had a brief contre-temps with a Carrion Crow before heading away.

We climbed up the path to the top, and here had further views of a couple of Shorties hunting low over the rough vegetation up here. Then we headed back down to return to the visitor centre.

Returning along the riverside, we met a pretty large flock of Dunlins (guesstimated at 50 birds), feeding on the shore as the tide ebbed. There were plenty of Redwings and Fieldfares zipping about near the visitor centre.

Wigeons in the murk. Sounds like a film.

The last pics are from the car park - a camera-shy female Greenfinch, a more confident female House Sparrow, and a meditative Collared Dove.

Puffed up and blue-tinged in the cold. Lots of food out for all the birds here though.

And so to Thursday. I took the train and arrived before 8am, just as the sun was rising.

Some pretty intense colours going on there. The actual sun appeared briefly behind the Dartford bridge, then slipped under a wall of cloud, where it stayed for most of the rest of the day.

Along the river wall I found this Weasel...

... and this female Stonechat who seems to have mislaid part of her anatomy. Still very early and dark so some serious noise levels in these pics.

I was due to meet Ian on the Serin mound at 9am. But there was an accident on the A13 and he was delayed until gone 10am. I spent most of that time on the mound, enjoying a mixed flock of Goldfinches and Linnets, a passing Goldcrest, distant Marsh Harriers but no Short-eared Owls.

 I did go for a short walk at one point when it was getting too cold standing still, and photographed this Kestrel.

Once Ian arrived, we spent a while longer on the mound and failed to find any Shorties. Then we moved on to the stone barges to look for Black-tailed Godwits (some of which I'd seen on my way to the Serin mound). Again, no joy. Here is a bunch of Common and Black-headed Gulls against a gritty industrial backdrop. Wader-wise there were several Redshanks and a lone Snipe.

We drove on down to the reserve then, had some warming tea, and then walked an uneventful lap around. Ian found a Peregrine pair on a pylon.

Two Pintails near the Ken Barratt hide.

Yet another Stonechat, this one from the Tower Butts hide. There wasn't too much else from here, except a ton of Wigeons with a few Shovelers, Teals, Gadwalls and Pochards on the tiny bit of unfrozen water.

A Kestrel and its lucky number.

We walked back on the riverside, and here Ian finally found a far-off Shortie to add to his yearlist. He also found a Rock Pipit for me to add to mine.

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