February 28, 2006

Wonders will never cease

Wow! This year-list is coming on a treat! Today we nipped out at lunchtime to Broom gravel pits. It was spectacularly free of birds, with the exceptions being:
  • a small number of Tufted Ducks
  • two Little Grebes
  • two Mallards
  • two Coot
  • two Mute Swans
Just as well a Green Sandpiper called to save the day, getting itself onto the year-list at last.

We saw the Barn Owl on the way home, too.

Species added today:
113. Green Sandpiper

February 27, 2006

More Y-fronts

White-fronts at Hatley St George

White-fronted Geese are everywhere at the moment. The beauties above are in Cambridgeshire, at Hatley St George, but it's well within reach for a lunchtime twitch from Beds.

The small lake at Hatley doesn't really look like it should be the haunt of wild geese, but they were there anyway - 35 White-fronted Geese grazing, bathing, preening, dozing, wing-flapping and generally doing the things that geese do. Very enjoyable.

As we pulled up at the roadside, Darren said 'This looks just like the kind of place you'd expect to find Little Owls'. As we got out of the car, two yelped from across the road in Hatley Park. I missed the one Darren saw in Norfolk in January, so it's a bit of a belated addition to the year-list. Better late than never...

Oh, and on the way home, we were fortunate to come across a Barn Owl hunting the roadside. By slowing down (nobody else about), we watched it floating along like a big, pale butterfly only ten feet away from the car. After a couple of minutes, it dived headlong into the grass and looked around for the vole it thought it had jumped on. No joy, though, so it got up again and headed off on its evening's hunting.

Fabulous.

Species added today:
112. Little Owl

February 25, 2006

Sandblasted

Ringed Plover on the beach at Hunstanton

It was my idea, I admit it. We ended up getting sandblasted on the beach at Titchwell today because of me. Windspeed was about 20mph coming straight off the North Sea and seeing anything was out of the question. It was just very unpleasant indeed, so we left.

The seawatching session at Hunstanton earlier was a bit more productive. A Rock Pipit flew over calling and there was an adult Mediterranean Gull on the beach - both year-ticks - so it wasn't a dead loss. A Carrion Crow repeatedly dropped a cockle from a great height onto the shingle, the Fulmars provided good entertainment, as usual, and we bumped into the Michals and Daniel.

There were the usual waders trotting about on the beach - Grey and Ringed Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Oystercatcher - and a handful of Red-breasted Mergansers on the sea.

Later, we stopped between Great Massingham and Grimston to try to see the Rough-legged Buzzard. We didn't, of course, but a distant battle between a Merlin and Skylark was undoubtedly the most entertaining thing I saw all day.

Species added today:
110. Rock Pipit
111. Mediterranean Gull

February 22, 2006

Tramp!

For the last few days an adult male Blackbird has been frequenting our compost heap.

Oddly, it has been flying off with random bits of vegetables; yesterday it was Broccoli, today it was carrot shavings.

That observation has nothing to do with anything but thought I'd mention it anyway.

February 21, 2006

Coming of age?

I keep saying to Katie that I am a rubbish birder. Basically because I have birded with some damn fine birders and also because I have no confidence. But today, I realised I'm not as bad as I think I am.

A Hen Harrier had been reported not far away and just over the border but despite best efforts and checking suitable habitat, we couldn't find it. Three or four Red Kites enlivened proceedings and a Yellowhammer tried to sing- it was a bit half-hearted but with snow lashing almost horizontally, I wouldn't be in the mood for singing either.

Only other birds were a covey of Red-legged Partridges, 14 Skylarks, 87 Golden Plover and a partial albino Blackbird eating ivy berries. Best sight however was a herd of eight Fallow Deer at close range. There's something almost primaeval and melancholy about deer, their nervous demeanour makes me think of the age when wildwood covered half the country, how we've raped the countryside for centuries and how this mindless destruction continues. I'm depressing myself now so I'll shut up.

After lunch, I dragged Katie kicking and screaming to Woodwalton Fen. ''We won't see anything in this weather,'' she said.

No, we saw nothing apart from Marsh Harrier, a superb ringtail Hen Harrier, Woodcock, Siskin, Marsh Tit, hundreds of winter thrushes, a Sparrowhawk and a Great-spotted Woodpecker excavating a nest hole.

Great stuff. And for locating the Hen Harrier, Katie has agreed that I can have a birding proficiency badge, although she very nearly didn't see it because I am rubbish at giving directions-

Me: ''Ringtail! In front of the barn! Going right!''

Katie: ''Which f*cking barn? There are four of them!''

She bought me a roadmap for my birthday. But what good is that if I don't know where I am?

Today's marks:

Birding: B+
Directions: D-

Species added today:
108. Woodcock
109. Hen Harrier

February 15, 2006

Wild Goose Chase

Right, let me make this clear - I am not proud of chasing around the minor roads of Bedfordshire looking for geese. But I had to, you understand don't you? If you are reading this, Father McKinney, I seek your forgiveness. I promise never to be an eco-terrorist again... until the next time a county tick turns up or I win a 4x4 in a prize draw.

Greater White-fronted Geese have been seen in my home county for the last week or so, two flocks no less; one at Roxton and one at some bourgeois old git's place at Southill Park.

I don't live in my home county now, and have been unable to get there until today. Katie had seen both flocks and after hearing of her adventures during her lunch hours I had to go. Today was the day.

So this morning, after dropping her off at work with some Cheestrings, a can of Tizer and an apple, I nicked her car from The Lodge carpark and headed north up the A1 to Roxton where there was f'all but a pair of Shelduck and a couple of those really annoying flyover zhu-zhu-ing redpolls that just won't sit down nearby for you to examine closely.

Bugger it, off to Southill. F'all again during three visits apart from a grumpy old sod of a gamekeeper who looked at me, standing on the roadside with bins and scope as if I was a terrorist planning to assasinate the occupants of the aforementioned stately spread.


Bollocks to this.

After a haircut (superfluous information), I called back into Roxton on my way to Paxton Pits. Amongst the hundred or so Greylags were 27 W-F's. Dainty little things compared to the humungous, noisy, aggressive, hissing shit-beasts they have as cousins. One had the good grace to preen and flap for me, showing its attractive belly markings.

I've changed my mind about wildfowl - the real ones are really quite cool. A day well-spent, and an hour well-spent reacquainting myself with a species I haven't seen for nearly three years. I even checked them for
erythropus.

February 11, 2006

Yankee Wigeon doodle dandy

The American Wigeon evaded us last weekend at the Ouse Washes, but we finally caught up with him today, at Needingworth gravel pits (photo left).

Boy, was it worth it.

Today's twitch wasn't straightforward. We arrived at the site, parked by the road and bumped into some fellow twitchers on their way out. They'd seen the American Wigeon 'but there ent no Smew or 'owt'. And the wigeon had flown off towards the river (Great Ouse) 15 minutes earlier.

Bugger.

Undaunted, we carried on. We walked right round to the far side of the lake and viewed the river. A flock of Wigeon was visible (distantly) on the water, with some more on the meadows, but picking out the American at that range wasn't going to be possible.

As we went back to view the lake again, the flock got up and landed in front of us. A few seconds later, we were watching a gorgeous drake American Wigeon. Got to be the most beautiful bird I've seen this year... pinky body, iridescent green behind the eye, cream reaching from above the bill towards the back of his head.

A bird worth getting excited about.

Not like the two Pink-footed Geese hanging around with the Greylags, which must surely be of dubious origin (similar to the Bar-headed Goose and Canada x Greylag hybrid also there).

February 10, 2006

A reason to go birding?

Darren: "We've got to get some year-ticks or we'll drop off the first page of the Surfbirds year-list rankings."

February 07, 2006

Y-fronts?

NO! not the rather out-moded style of mens' undergarment, but White-fronts.

You know, White-fronted Geese.

There's been an influx into the south-east (Bedfordshire, at least) and I twitched some at lunchtime. Here they are, pottering around in what was a game cover strip at Roxton. Aren't they smashing?

February 05, 2006

Fenland birding

There are good birds over at the Ouse Washes at the moment, so today we decided to pay that particular locale a visit.

Getting there would have been considerably quicker were it not for Darren's lamentable map-reading skills. How hard can it be to keep track of where you are on a big road atlas?

Me: Are we going the right way?
DOM: I suppose so
Me: Does that mean 'no, not really'?
DOM: Er, maybe
Me: I can't map-read and drive, you know!

Anyway, on with the birding. First stop, Welches Dam and the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve. It's like the Nene Washes but with hides, more water and more people.

On arriving in the car-park, the good numbers of Tree Sparrows were noticeable, as they hung out in a guelder rose bush (still laden with berries just begging for a flock of hungry Waxwings to come along and eat them). They're always nice birds to see.

The presence of a first-winter male Lesser Scaup was what really attracted most people to the Ouse Washes today. Everyone in the first hide seemed to be looking for it but nobody had seen it all day. It looked like we were probably going to 'dip out' (that's silly birders' slang for failing to see a bird).

We decided to press on and try our luck in the second hide along, Rickwood. This proved to be a good move as the bird had just flown in and was actually awake! However, it wasted little time in getting back to sleep again - fortunately, it left just enough time to allow the assembled birders to check out its important features.

Peering through the viewing screen by the visitor centre, I managed a quick glimpse of a female Brambling, but failed to get Darren onto it...

Though it was tempting to spend all day there and check out all the hides (there are ten!), we opted to head off to Woodwalton Fen to try our luck with the redpolls once more. The weedy field by the entrance is really coming into its own now - it was littered with birds. Redpolls, Chaffinches, Reed Buntings, Starlings and Fieldfares were augmented by Linnets and a single female Brambling. I didn't manage to see the latter but Darren did, so it's even-stevens for Bramblings now.

The 40-odd redpolls were quite flighty but scopable, and we managed to pick out at least two Mealies (Common Redpolls, if you prefer the BOU's rather unsuitable name). Comparison with the many Lessers on show made them look grey and... well... rather pasty.

After that, we walked right around the reserve, which was pretty fruitless apart from a nice, close encounter with a Marsh Tit by the hide. They're vastly underrated.

It's been ages since we actually added anything to our special year-list, and we only managed a couple today. Still, it's better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick...

Species added today:
106. Ruff
Lesser Scaup
107. Brambling
Common [Mealy] Redpoll

February 01, 2006

Pain in the neck



Yes, a Firecrest at The Lodge and so I went off to look for it today. Well, in honesty I was going there anyway to see some old friends.

I love The Lodge- a magical place- so spent a happy six hours in the field sifting through more than 100 'crests in several flocks, darting about maniacally and hovering like overgrown hummingbird hawkmoths amongst the pines- but not a sniff of anything vaguely calling ''zuuu-zu-zi-zi!!''

I couldn't kick up a Woodcock amongst the leaf litter (another target bird) but scores of Redwings were evidently finding something edible
amongst the leaf litter before flying off to cover, giving their sibilant contact calls. The finch flock which had yielded Redpolls and Yellowhammers in recent days contained 130 birds- all Chaffinches it transpired after an hour's close scrutiny.

The muscles in my neck are begging for mercy but I don't mind, I don't think I've ever enjoyed looking through single-species flocks more in my life. The Lodge really is a magical place.

I did manage to get Katie and her colleague Mark a Lodge tick- a handsome Barnacle Goose amongst the Greylags at Warren Villas (which can be viewed from the Plateau at The Lodge). This bird almost certainly came from the nearby feral Willington/ Roxton flock- so is now tickable according to the BOU.

Days like today make me appreciate the worth of just being out there......observing and reacquainting myself at close quarters with familiar species. Every night after a day in the field I think I have a few more answers to our bird mysteries, but upon reflection I actually have far more questions.........

Roll on tomorrow................