Monday, 19 March 2018

The BIG freeze

Late February / early March has been insanely cold as the 'Beast from the East', a savage Siberian weather front, moved in, producing big bouts of snow and sub zero temperatures for several days.

This harsh, unforgiving weather wreaked havoc, with birds moving around, desperately looking for food.

Friday (02/03) & Saturday (03/03) were particularly bad and as such I was restricted to staying at home. I made sure though I got plenty of apples and seed out in the garden to keep the local bird population all stocked up and spent a lot of time keeping an eye on any visitors. I, like many others was treated to the presence of several Fieldfares coming into urban areas for food. One in particular spent the whole of Saturday in and around the garden, ferociously guarding the supply of apples!

I just about managed to get my camera out through the conservatory window to get some really nice shots as he sat just some 15 feet away. Magical!

The next day, the roads improved enough to allow me to venture out to the Grimsbury Res patch in Banbury, to look for some displaced birds. 

There was certainly a few things of interest, with no less than three year ticks, consisting of 3 Dunlin along the eastern shore, a pair of Gadwall and a Snipe feeding in a small dyke by the water treatment works. Other notables, included the Willow Tit in the wood, a pair of Wigeon and 4 Coot (believe it or not, a very high count for Grimbo!).

Before I left, a leucistic Cormorant headed over and there was also the sad sight of a Lapwing corpse along the Eastern shore, a stark reminder of the impact the weather was having to our bird life.

Friday, 23 February 2018

A day in the levels

Back on Sunday 11/02, myself and Dan Watson decided it was time for a day out birding and after a few ideas, Ham Wall & Shapwick Heath in Somerset were the chosen locations. The day promised much, with a nice selection of scarcities seen in recent days, plus a good range of wetland species to boot.

It was bright and sunny as we cruised our way through the Cotswolds early on. A stop at services just into Somerset however, revealed a horrible biting wind, something that blighted us throughout the day!

We started our birding a few miles from Ham Wall, just south of the village of Pedwell, to connect with 6 adult Bewick's Swans that had been in the area for some time. The first Bewick's I've seen for ages and so well worth the short diversion.

On then to Ham Wall where after a couple of short but very sharp hailstorms, we were able to enjoy the reserve in a bit of sunshine.

We were soon onto one or two Great White Egrets, while Dan picked out an immature Peregrine perched up on a dead tree some way off. We gave it a good go looking through the good numbers of Pochard and Tufted Ducks in the general vicinity of the 1st viewpoint, however there was no sign of either the reported Ferruginous & Ring Necked Ducks.

We headed to the impressive Avalon Hide greeted by an extremely showy pair of Stonechat on route.

The Avalon Hide was a wonderful opportunity to get out of that wind! It was here we got views of our only Bittern of the day, flying across the vast reedbeds, accompanied by the booming tones of a very excitable RSPB group leader. It was more reminiscent of a CIA chief directing a mission to take out a terrorist than someone calmly pointing out a Bittern in mid-air! Still I couldn't complain, it had me and Dan in fits of laughter!! The general area held some good numbers of wildfowl, particularly Teal and Gadwall and while we were not seeing anything too unusual, there was plenty to enjoy! After all, there isn't many better birds than a sunlit drake Teal!

We had a further fruitless look for the Fudge & Ring Necked Ducks, before deciding to give the adjacent Shapwick Heath a go. This meant walking face on into the wind which was very unpleasant! We didn't see a great deal different from what we had already seen on Ham Wall, although it was nice to explore more of the reserve than I had in my single previous visit. There were a few Pintail about, while the numbers of Wigeon on Noah's Lake was insane with easily several thousand. One or two cream crown Marsh Harriers were constantly flushing them, almost playing with them at times!

We had another last look back at the first viewpoint area on Ham Wall. There was nothing new, although good views of a Water Rail in flight was nice, having only heard them for much of the day.

We were kind of keen to stay for the Starling roost, however with a long drive back ahead of us and the wind possibly putting pay to any decent murmuration, we headed for home.

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Suffolk Coast

I spent last weekend with Em, my Brothers & their other halves. We stayed in Thorpeness, just a mile from North Warren RSPB reserve and around 25 minutes from Minsmere, so inevitably I squeezed in a bit of birding.

Highlights included great numbers of wildfowl at North Warren, including approximately 100 White Fronted Geese, plenty of Pintail as well as a couple of Marsh Harriers.

Offshore, there were several Red Throated Diver, a Fulmar, 5 Brent Geese and around 100 Common Scoter.

Minsmere was relatively quiet by it's own standards, however I did enjoy a family party of 5 Whooper Swans, several Bearded Tits and a few Marsh Harriers.

Before the weekend was out, there was one last little treat, with an impressive Starling murmuration around pig fields near Westleton...a stunning sight in the late afternoon sunshine!

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Slight change of scenery

I haven't had a great deal of time recently to properly get out and do some prolonged birding, however, this weekend I was a little more free to get out in the field.

I had all of Saturday (27/01) spare. Unfortunately, the forecast wasn't looking too promising, however I decided to just go for it as I hadn't had a full day's birding for ages. I decided to start local, before heading to a couple of sites over towards Northampton for a change of scenery. After a fruitless check of some floods on the edge of Brackley, I made my way down the A422 to Thenford, in an attempt to catch up with the vastly increased numbers of Hawfinch. Throughout the winter there have been up to 6 birds in the general vicinity of the church and grounds of Thenford Hall. However, towards the end of last week Mark Ribbons had a eye-opening 20 birds!

I easily connected with several birds during the half hour or so I was there. however not quite the dizzy heights of 20 unfortunately!

Next, I traveled the relatively short distance across to an area near Sulgrave, where Mike Pollard recently discovered a couple of Corn Buntings amongst good numbers of Yellowhammers. Corn Buntings are now sadly an incredibly rare species in Northants. I remember back in my early days of birding seeing good numbers - double figures in fact - at Pitsford Reservoir feeding station for example. Now I couldn't tell you a reliable site to see them.

Last week I had a quick look but failed to track any down, or any Yellowhammers for that matter, however a hunting Merlin was an excellent consolation!

Thankfully today, despite the blustery & drizzly conditions, I eventually latched onto a single Corn Bunting amongst an increased number of Yellowhammers and Chaffinches. There were also 4 Golden Plover and c120 Lapwings in the general area. Result!

With the rain beginning to increase in intensity, I drove across to Ravensthorpe & Hollowell  Reservoirs for something other than farmland and woodland birds! The weather was a bit of a hindrance but all the same I had a good scan from the Ravensthorpe causeway adding a few year ticks and after quite a while, eventually tracked down the long-staying juvenile Whooper Swan feeding fairly close to the car park with a couple of Mute Swans. I drove down to the car park and trudged up the muddy track to get some closer views of the swan which proved to be very confiding indeed!

I gave nearby Hollowell Reservoir a go afterwards. I trudged up to the point and back seeing very little of particular excitement with just 3 Stonechat (1m, 2f) & a single Snipe.

I then began my journey roughly towards home, driving over through Daventry, to Boddington Reservoir for the gull roost, knowing that there have been quite a few white-wingers cropping up in roosts recently. As it was, it was dire for big gulls, with just 3 Lesser Black Backs & 11 Herrings, together with the usual large numbers of Common & Black Headed. I did though find an Egyptian Goose (first I've seen here), plus 7 Shoveler, 4 Wigeon & c3 drake Goosanders.

On Sunday (28/01), it was back to Thenford for an hour or so around lunchtime, for another crack at tracking down the big numbers there. After a few brief flyover sightings, I realised several were feeding in the yews by the front of the church. I slowly and carefully made my round there, managing to enjoy some wicked views of initially a female and then a male sat up in the trees.

Plenty of Hawfinches continued to move around the general area, making it difficult to gauge exact numbers. That was until a stack of Hawfinches piled out of the several yews around the church and congregated mid-air. They flew away from the church towards the village, briefly alighting at the top of a large tree, before melting away as only Hawfinches can! It was hard to fathom an exact number as it all happened quite quickly, however there was certainly at least 20 birds if not more. An incredible sight and sound too with the air ringing with their 'whisp' and 'tick' calls!

Away from the monster finches, the churchyard acts as quite a sheltered suntrap. This surprised me in drawing out first a very hyperactive Brimstone and then a Red Admiral, nectaring on the snowdrops. My first butterflies of 2018!

There was still one more surprise left in the day. Before doing the weekly food shop at Tesco in Brackley, I made a small diversion up the road to Hinton-in-the-Hedges, just west of Brackley, to check on the flooded fields for anything of interest, plus just in case I could bump into the Merlin again.

There was the usual sprinkling of Black Headed & Common Gulls, but also for a change, around 20 larger gulls too, with a few Herrings & Lesser Black Backed Gulls. Amongst these, I was surprised to find a smart adult Yellow-Legged Gull before scanning further on another gull which despite the distance looked a great shout for a 2nd winter Caspian Gull, with a clean white head, noticeable shawl around the neck and a general leggy appearance.

The distance made it difficult to feel 100% that it was indeed a Caspo and so it was later on that having had a closer look at the photos and spoke with a couple others, that it appeared to indeed be a Caspian Gull. Absolutely crackling record for the Brackley area! Some heavily cropped photos below.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Short Day Count

Yesterday, (Sunday 07/01) Gareth, myself and local birder Clive, took part in the BOS Short Day Count. We birded from 08:00am - 16:00pm in grid square SP44, covering Banbury and the area to the north, traversing Oxfordshire, Warwickshire & Northants.

We did pretty well too, getting 71 species in total, with highlights being a calling Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch, Water Rail, Jack Snipe, a roosting Tawny Owl and Yellow-Legged Gull. I didn't take too many photos but here are a couple of ropey records of the Tawny Owl & the Hawfinch.

Friday, 29 December 2017

2017 highlights package

Here are a selection of my 2017 wildlife 'best bits' :

Waxwings: The first part of the year saw a continuation of the first decent Waxwing invasion year for sometime. I was lucky enough to encounter a few in Banbury, even coming across a few in trees right next to my work car park! In Northants, I got to enjoy great views of a group in Roade, however the star of the show was a showy little chap, a couple of minutes down the road from my house in Brackley (not found by me I may add!):

Blue Rock Thrush: One of the most popular rarities in recent years, the Blue Rock Thrush of Stow-on-the-Wold stayed well into 2017 before disappearing, only to turn up on it's migration back south at Beachy Head, Sussex! A very memorable bird that I had seen back in late 2016 but went back for seconds with Dan & Gareth on 28th January, getting some fab views in the late afternoon sun.

Bluethroat: I longed to see a Bluethroat ever since I first showed an interest in birds and wildlife. Last year I was finally able to enjoy my first in the Biebrza Marshes of Poland. This year though, I had the chance to see my first in the UK, with an amazingly confiding wintering bird at Willow Tree Fen in Lincolnshire. I grabbed the chance without hesitation and it was oh so perfect, with the bird wandering to a staggering 4 feet away at times and in beautiful winter sunshine too.

A memorable encounter of the LRP: I never tire of watching displaying Little Ringed Plovers in spring. This year I was lucky in that Grimsbury Reservoir in Banbury held up to 4 birds during the spring. Most of the time, they were flying around calling and displaying or keeping fairly out of the way, however one particular male showed brilliantly well one early April evening.

Exciting spring passage & Black Throated Diver! Two days from the spring particularly stood out as some of the best spring birding I've had.

Firstly 30/04 was a real Tern day with plenty of Arctic & Black Terns to enjoy. Between myself, Dan & Gareth, we managed both species at Grimsbury, Boddington & Draycote Reservoirs plus a very decent supporting cast of migrants. Seeing several big balls of Commic terns dropping out of the stormy skies over Draycote, were a particular highlight. 

Secondly, Saturday 06/05 will also live long in the memory. With already good birds in situ and the weather looking decent enough to pull in further good birds, I decided to have a day trawling around Northants to see how many species I could see. I started at Summer Leys early morning in cloudy skies and drizzle and was surprised to find no other birders there! Well as they say, 'early bird, catches the worm' as I went on to find an impressive array of passage birds, including Avocet, Wood Sandpiper, Garganey, 4 Grey Plover & several Black Terns.

Among several other places, I visited Stanford Reservoir, 'the place' this year due to the draining of the reservoir. Already there were Sanderling, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Grey Plover & a Whooper Swan, as well as plenty of Greenshank. The highlight for me though was coming across a late Jack Snipe bobbing up and down completely out in the open! 

Then there was the cherry on the cake. I nearly didn't bother to pop into Pitsford, in the fading light of the day, however totting up my day total, I was agonisingly close to 100 species. A scan from feeding station revealed very little....what was until I couldn't believe my eyes as a pristine Black-Throated Diver loomed into view, cruising about in the mouth of Scaldwell Bay!! I also managed to break the 100 species barrier for the day, ending on 103!

Black Hairstreaks: This year saw my best and most prolonged views yet of Black Hairstreaks. I headed up to the deep, dark depths of northern Northants, to Glapthorn Cow Pasture. With the sun out and surprisingly few 'lepidopterists', it was all rather spot on! See my account here.

Northumberland: In June, Dan, Gareth & I spent a fantastic few days visiting the Northumberland coast. Following a successful twitch for a Marsh Warbler on the way up, we then took a boat trip around Coquet Island, to see the big Roseate Tern colony. We also took a day trip out to the Farnes in stunning, scorching weather, as well as wandering around Holy Island enjoying the carpets of orchids. A super fun trip which has got our minds thinking about perhaps returning in the autumn...

Patch butterflies: I have a small handful of relatively local sites to Brackley with an impressive array of species including Wood White, Purple Emperor, White-Letter & Purple Hairstreaks, White Admiral, Marbled Whites & Grizzled Skipper.

Last year I was excited to discover a new site for Grizzled Skipper. Some more extensive exploring of the same site this year has revealed more surprises, with small numbers of Dingy Skipper & Small Heath, plus a few Southern Marsh Orchids too.

The Purple Emperors in Bucknell Wood put on an excellent show this year, as well as a few stonking Valezina Silver-Washed Fritillaries. I also saw my first Small Coppers there (my 29th butterfly species in Bucknell), a reflection perhaps of what appears to be a very good year for the species locally.

Breeding Bee-eaters: This year provided a golden opportunity for birders to enjoy breeding Bee-eaters in the UK (however later it transpired that they were unsuccessful), with up to 7 birds residing in a quarry on the Leicestershire / Nottingshaire border. It was a while before I could get over there, however thankfully I made it over to the temporary RSPB watchpoint on a sunny Sunday 02/07. See my account here

A bold Leveret: While having a stroll near Brackley, I was lucky enough to come across this Hare leveret that quite literally wandered up to me!

Early Autumn Phalaropes: One of THE main highlights of the year has to be my discovery of a Grey Phalarope on my local patch of Grimsbury Reservoir, Banbury.

Farmoor Reservoir, near Oxford hosted a juvenile Red Necked Phalarope for a few days in late September and was an incredible opportunity to see one up very close.

The Daventry Sab's: A fabulous county tick, on the back of the same gale that brought the Grimsbury Grey Phalarope, completing a memorable birding week!

Borneo: I'm pleased to say I got married back at the end of September and so for much of October, Em & I were away on our honeymoon in Vietnam and Borneo. Borneo had far more of a wildlife focus, spending a few days along the Kinabatangan River & the general area of Sepilok, known for it's Orangutans. Needless to say we had an amazing time, seeing some spectacular wildlife. See my blog post on the trip here

The big Hawfinch invasion: While on honeymoon, an unprecedented invasion of Hawfinches arrived from the continent, due largely to a lack of available food in their normal wintering areas. On returning to the UK I was very keen to get in on the act. Thankfully I was able to find quite a few on some exciting vis mig sessions over my Brackley garden - not the worst garden tick!

I also discovered small numbers in situ around nearby Thenford Church (which appear to be there for the winter), a regular male in Bucknell Wood & a flyover bird in Towcester. A mega treat to encounter these stunning birds locally!

Grimsbury Reservoir patching: Another decent year of patching, full of the usual peaks and troughs. Overall though, a great little haul of birds including the obvious highlight, the Grey Phalarope, as well as Kittiwake, Knot, Sanderling, Common Scoters, Little Gull, Black Tern, Arctic Terns (including a couple of tricky portlandica birds), Whinchats, Wheatears & Redstart.

The BIG freeze

Late February / early March has been insanely cold as the 'Beast from the East', a savage Siberian weather front, moved in, producin...