Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Back to the Dell of Broken Dreams

The period of easterlies appears to be drawing to a close, so I headed off to Norfolk once more to try and get a rare siberian vagrant. A quick check of birdguides, and I found myself back at the Dell of Broken Dreams.

About thirty of us scoured the area, peering under every hollybush in the vicinity of the beach huts for the Olive-Backed Pipit that had been seen earlier that morning, but only one person saw it, the extremely capable Howard who did his level best to get everyone onto it but the bird just wouldn't co-operate.

I gave up after two hours with nothing to show for it but some Goldcrests and Robins and went to Burnham Overy Staithe intending to walk out to Gun Hill and search for migrants. I met a birder coming back who'd had just four Redwings. At this point, dear reader, I had something of an epiphany. I thought "sod it. I'm not going to spend five hours in the car and several hours bashing round dunes with nothing to show for it. I'm off to Titchwell." I think something in my birding psych died there and then. It was as though I'd decided to stop cooking my own food and simply order takeaways from now on.

So I joined the queue of fellow geriatrics at Titchwell and marvelled at the exhibits. Yellow-Browed Warbler by the feeders. And there it is! flitting around a nearby bush. Jack Snipes (plural!) in the marsh by your feet. And there they were, bobbing away. Little Stint on the scrape! Two sparkly birds whizzing around being chased by Golden Plover, their juvenile plumage interspersed with new grey feathers. the bonanza continued with a Curlew Sandpiper going into dark brown/white plumage but just a hint of buff on the breast. From the beach two female Velvet Scoter with their twin face spots just visible. And on the return trip two Spoonbill in the far corner, not asleep, although there may have been more. And lots of Ruff.

Perhaps its a question of balance. If you spend all your time hunting Siberian vagrants you won't see much. It you go to well-marked out reserves you will see more but they won't be your personal achievements. Its up to the individual to find the balance that suits them best. I think I just about managed that today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Dell. Where birding dreams go to die.

Easterly wind, Norfolk rammed with rarities, Holkham pines, stretching about 4km from Burnham Overy dunes in the west to Wells in the east is probably the pre-eminent woodland in the UK for rare birds in Autumn. Lady Ann Drive is smack in the middle and its here I pitch up at around 10 am.

For the morning I head west to look for a Radde's Warbler. It appears to have gone, but never mind I see four Yellow Browed Warblers, a cracking Firecrest, and out on the dunes a distant but clearly visible Great Grey Shrike, a Redstart, a Great White Egret in an adjacent ditch, and oodles of Thrushes and Starlings including my first Fieldfare of the winter and sufficient Song Thrush and Blackbird to mean they are clearly migrants.

The Road to the Dell is paved with good intentions.
But rarity-central is The Dell, at the other end of the pines. Yesterday it held Arctic Warbler, Radde's Warbler, and Olive Backed Pipit. the OBP has been seen today so off I yomp, ignoring calling YBWs on the way. I arrive to find a lot of morose and downcast birders standing gloomily around, and a huddle of people staring forlornly at a small grassy thicket. The pipit was seen just here, briefly, hours ago. And so it continues, with masses of Robins and Goldcrests, some Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs and a constant stream of thrushes overhead, but compared to the morning there is nothing.

This is not the first time I've struggled in the Dell. I wonder seriously what the ratio of birds reported to birds seen is, i.e. of the fifty or so birders who pass through the Dell on a day in October, how many actually see whatever the star bird is? Its a Bermuda triangle for rarities. It was so much easier in my student days bashing the Yorkshire coast. Far fewer bushes to bash for about the same number of rarities.

The Olive-Backed Pipit was here. And may still be here. Who knows?
Perhaps I'll just do the reserves next time. Clearly signposted easy-to-see birds. Or stick to the dunes.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Canvey Point - be careful what you wish for.

An easterly wind following a northerly gale; a rising tide; surely Canvey has to deliver seabirds galore today.

I was the only one who thought so. I arrived at 10 am with the tide rapidly rising from the recent low to a blank set of benches and that's the way it was for the next two hours. What did I see? well ...

The definite. the usual waders, Curlew, Grey Plover, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Redshank, lots of Little Egret, some Teal and Brent Goose, and about 7 Mediterranean Gulls over my head including a sparkling 1st winter. Out on the river a likely max of 6 Gannets, mainly juveniles going out of the estuary but a party of 3 upriver. a Great-Crested Grebe, and at least 1 Kittiwake, though probably more.

the probables. I saw a tern flying down river. Darkish, probably a Black Tern, but hang on! Something wasn't right, it was deeper winged, possibly by-coloured on the wing, in all likelihood a juvenile Sabine's Gull. I watched it for about 5 minutes, but couldn't get a decent zoom on it to see key features. It was easy to pick out amongst the other gulls as smaller, thinner-winged, more tern-like.  Who knows ...

the possibles. I would have liked a skua. All the gulls were doing their best to look like skuas, with looking into the sun not helping. I think a number of them were kittiwakes due to the grace of their flight. There was one small bird that was all brown; a juv long-tailed? and another high up circling round like an Arctic Skua, but no white wing flashes. Oh well.

I'm not sure what I like most, setting with experts putting names to everything or being left to my own devices. I would have preferred some company but the challenge of trying to identify seabirds in a gale half a mile out is quite exhilarating!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Fingringhoe Wick - intertidal area.

The Colne estuary is well known for attracting large numbers of waders and other water birds. The problem is that its quite large, difficult to watch, and for a visitor with little knowledge of the habitats and tides, its a bit hit and miss.

What would be really useful is a specially excavated wetland that can take large numbers of birds as the tide rises and falls, ideally with a suitable hide with large windows and arm chairs where you can sit in comfort and calmly search through flocks of waders. And, as if by magic, here it is, the newly opened intertidal area at Fingringhoe Wick.

Taken from the EWT twitter feed
A visit on Wednesday on arising tide had spectacular numbers of waders. Rough numbers only but many hundreds of Black-Tailed Godwit, low hundreds of Avocet,  many tens of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Knot, Redshank, add in some Bar-Tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, then at least 10 Greenshank, a Common Sandpiper, and well picked out by another birder 2 Curlew Sandpiper, and that's quite a wader list. About 20 Wigeon, some Little Egret, and an obliging Kingfisher made for a cracking list.

The fields by the hide had Meadow Pipit and some common finches, and there were some willow Chiffs hoetting in the bushes. The reserve had lots of hornets around too, so a good visit.

An excellent addition to the list Essex birding sites. I think a return visit may happen in the near future.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Canvey and East Tilbury

So, a scorching September day with a SE wind. Migration mayhem or Summer birding doldrums? I headed to the Thames Estuary to find out, first stop Canvey Point.

A row of empty benches meant I had clearly got this wrong, as at even slightly productive times there are a few locals set up here. I sat and admired the expanse of calm estuary that high-tide had brought. Slowly some birds appeared - a small party of Teal upstream, a few Swallows from over my shoulder, some adult Mediterranean Gulls flying around easily picked out by their plump appearance and translucent primaries. Then a distant Black Tern, juvenile presumably from the darkness of the plumage, flying strongly out then back up the estuary. Most intriguing was a bird the size of a very small skua flying rapidly but gracefully low over the river. Uniform brown, I realised I had no idea what family it belonged to. Eventually it rose up and I could see an extended neck and head so I guess a wader of some description but honestly I have no idea. Moments like that make sea-watching fun.

There were 4 cetaceans mid stream, the curved backs and fins breaking the surface. Eventually one came far enough out to reveal a bullet head - Porpoise. Very nice too. Then a Clouded Yellow over the memorial lawn.

And so on to East Tilbury. It is over a decade since I last went so this was a trip of rediscovery. What a place! Titchwell on my doorstep! Masses of birds round Coalhouse Fort, mainly Starling and House Sparrow but a Blackcap and Willow Warbler, then Stonechat and Linnet on the way to across there grassy area along the sea wall to the estuary. The estuary is hard to watch as the grass hides the near mud, but the tide was falling so soon the mud became exposed a long way out. Some belting Grey Plover made the trip worthwhile just for their sparkling plumage alone. There were Bar-Tailed Godwit, some Knot, and Turnstone with them. A Hobby was hunting behind the sea wall then over the estuary, and a Marsh Harrier came over from Cliffe., and Kestrel and Sparrowhawk gave four raptors in as many minute. An adult Yellow-Legged Gull was feeding on the foreshore. A weasel ran out of the grass then back between my feet.

I walked back and round Coalhouse Fort to the structure due south of the fort. On the way there was juvenile Whinchat, and on the estuary upwards of 800 Avocet that all took off and flew further upstream. Just an awesome sight, the stuff of TV documentaries. A flock of 20 Commic Terns and 2 Sandwich Terns appeared and sat on the mud. Better birders than I would surely have picked up some Arctics but distance, heaths, blah blah. 3 Seals were hauled up on the mud - Common Seals? - Finally as I sat by the estuary I found 2 juvenile Curlew Sandpiper amongst the Dunlin and Ringed Plover and a late Common Swift barrelled over going E down the river.

The whole area was full of insect life too. There was what I am calling "Thames Bee" as I have seen this elsewhere in the estuary - blackish with a narrow white band top and bottom of thorax and a whitish tail. Possibly Shrill Carder but I need to see more of this one to have any idea. There were lots of Wall Butterflies, some Small Heath and a couple of Small Copper, and lots of odanata. I could spend all day here and still be seeing stuff. Expect more!

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Blue House Farm and Canvey Point revisited

The Pec was back. An hour away, nice reserve, easy decision. When I got there it was clear a number of others had thought similarly and folks turned up all morning, consequently the hide was well populated but good natured throughout.

The Pec was not visible at first. A wader about 100 yards out looked promising; it was asleep and stood facing away, but a brief lift of the head gave encouragement - not a Snipe. An hour later and it had rotated slightly to show white on the flanks and underneath, and then about thirty minutes later it completed the rotation et Voila! An unbroken neat breast band. Pectoral Sandpiper on the year list.

As is often the case when going see rarities, the star of the show was something different. In this case, a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. It was consorting with two Ruff and came close under the hide. The three of them stood on a small island and the reflection of them in water as they stood bathed in direct sunlight from behind was something to behold. Needless to say my photo does not do justice.

The chap next to me had some top gear - a prime 500mm lens with a 1.4x converter. He very kindly offered to let me put my camera base on his lens and soon I was clicking away. What a lens! Auto focussing, the lot. There's a couple of cropped photos below. the poor composition is my fault but the crispness of the birds is something to behold. A very generous offer to put thousands of pounds of gear in my hands, the kind of encounter that gives you a warm glow all day.

Hobby hunting over the marsh, adult Yellow Wagtail in front of the hide and 2 Lesser Whitethroat in the car park completed the list.

I had intended to go to East Tilbury on the rising afternoon tide to get waders plus maybe some sea birds on the SE wind, but with the Curlew Sand in the bag I was off to Canvey Point instead. There had been some action in the morning but there was nothing to be seen when I got there. We managed 20 Commic Terns upstream, a Hobby from across the river ended up flying right over our heads, and towards the end of the watch a distant Manx Shearwater was drifting out of the estuary. That just left the local birds to admire; several Mediterranean Gulls, hundreds of Oystercatchers, a small flock of sparkling Grey Plovers, and a few Sandwich Terns. With some excellent company and warm sunshine it was a cracking second part to the day's watching.

BirdGuides has WWBT, Pom Skua, sooty shearwater and several Black Terns in the estuary today, but these birds are generally the reward to locals for many hours watching, and its an achievement to see any of these if you just turn up for a couple of hours on the off chance. Today was just nice to sit in the sun and see what drifted past.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Blue House Farm EWT.

In search of a Pectoral Sandpiper. Needless to say it had gone. Despite this, or perhaps even because of this, a chance to enjoy the current glut of waders and other associated birdlife.

A juvenile Spotted Redshank was the star of the show, with a few Ruff, some Ringed Plover and Little Ringed Plover, Black-Tailed Godwit, 3 Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Snipe, and Dunlin. Just about all giving good views (see some uncommonly non-rubbish photos by me below!) Otherwise there were several Yellow Wagtails, 4 separate Marsh Harriers, and a few other bits and pieces. Some excellent chat with a couple of reserve managers in the hide too as they discussed the challenges both bureaucratic and environmental of running the reserve. the current crop of waders is partly due to a brief flooding of sea water to help eradicate an invasive Tasmanian plant, so is unlikely to be repeated next year. All the money has historically come from the EU, so there are some challenges in the years ahead to persuade the UK government to continue this work.

A really nice reserve. And what a pleasure to be able to set my scope up in a hide and look through it without having to get into a back-crippling half-squat.