Friday, 8 February 2019

A day in Cider country

On Sunday 03/02, Gareth and I headed down to the Somerset Levels, to catch up with our good old mate Dan Watson, who would show us around for the day.

It was an early, flipping freezing start to the day, with the car reading -8 as I drove out of Brackley! Having met up with Gareth at his house in Banbury, we departed westwards at about 06:20am.

Having met up with Dan, we began our birding at his patch of Cheddar Reservoir in crisp, still and sunny conditions. We soon were watching the long-staying juvenile Great Northern Diver at a bit of a distance, while the 1w Scaup was out in front of us, eventually coming pretty close, allowing some fab views. Also seen were a drake Red-Crested Pochard, good numbers of Pochard, a drake Mandarin & two very distant Peregrines perched on a radio mast, up on the nearby hills.

Having had our fill of Cheddar (yes pun intended), we hopped back in the car and a shortish drive to the levels, to Allermore Drove. Our first two Cattle Egrets were seen here, together with a flock of 6 Great White Egrets, a few Stonechat and good numbers of Snipe

Nearby Tadham had at least 1 further Great White Egret, plus a few more Stonechat and a small flock of 8 Golden Plover. This area has some really nice habitat, with the vast expanses of wet meadows and dykes and it'd be nice to come back in the spring, with the sounds of breeding waders ringing in the air.

We moved on, noting a male Marsh Harrier and a further 3 Cattle Egret on the way to Ham Wall & Shapwick Heath. Before exploring the reserves, we drove out to the area SE of the Ham Wall reserve, where we got to see around 30 Cattle Egret littering the roadside fields.

We carried on to the far end of the Ham Wall Reserve, where Dan promised us Water Pipit on a smallish area of new workings. A short walk along the old railway line and in no time at all, we were enjoying a couple of Water Pipit, albeit looking right into bright sunshine, hampering our view. A Green Sandpiper was also feeding in the same area. These were the first Water Pipits I'd seen for years and years and it was good to re-familiarise myself with some!

On then to Shapwick Heath for a wander down to Noah Hide. 2-3 Great White Egrets showed well on the walk down. There were lots of passerines feeding close to Noah Hide, including a handful of Lesser Redpoll & Siskin, as well as 1-2 Chiffchaff.

From the hide we got lovely views of a male Kingfisher, contently sat on nearby twigs, occasionally drop down to the water in an attempt to catch a fish.

There was also a distant pair of Whooper Swan, stacks and stacks of Wigeon, c40 Pintail, a couple more Great White Egret and 2 Marsh Harrier.

We did think about going back to Tadham to look for raptors, but instead decided to walk across the road, onto the Ham Wall reserve to watch the Starling roost, renowned for the 100s of thousands of Starling that come in for dusk.

There was tonnes of people about to see the spectacle and the path was more like walking up Oxford Street in London on a busy Xmas shopping day, than a tranquil nature reserve. BUT, having said that, it was great to see so many people getting interested in wildlife.

On the walk up to the view points, numerous Water Rails could be heard squealing from the reedbeds, as well as the odd loud burst from a Cetti's Warbler or two. The Starlings slowly began appearing over our heads, in several vast groups and in fact, we were quite lucky not to get pooed on with the sound of quite a few splats around us as they went over.

The majority had gone over by the time we reached the 2nd viewpoint and had gone straight down into the reedbed, but it was still pretty cool seeing such enormous flocks of them overhead. 

The spectacle inevitably lured in a few raptors with a male(?) Peregrine making a couple of stoops, as well as a Sparrowhawk and a couple of Marsh Harriers.

It was then pretty much dark and so got back to the car, got Dan back home in Axebridge and then hit the road back to Banbury. Heck of a good day's birding with of course an excellent guide and company as per!

Friday, 25 January 2019

A Northants Hen Harrier!

Through a combination of several dips and a bit of laziness, Hen Harrier had still yet to join my Northants county list by the beginning of 2019. It was time I got my act together and did something about this!

A 2CY male Hen Harrier had been showing erratically around the N end of the Stanwick Lakes complex in recent weeks, however it seemed to be beginning to settle into a bit of a routine, coming into roost somewhere between 14:30pm & 16:00pm.

I had a full day to go birding so I firstly did a small tour of a few sites again. I began at Clifford Hill GP which was disappointingly short of any decent wildfowl numbers. So I understand it, this is perhaps due to the apparent recent increase in wildfowl shooting activity around the adjacent pits unfortunately.

The most 'notable' birds here were a handful of Goosander on the river by the boat club and a single Golden Plover flying around with c100 Lapwings. A far cry from the several thousand Golden Plover that used to grace the site...lean times!

Pitsford was next, looking to add the drake Ring-Necked Duck to the 2019 yearlist. Despite lots of thorough searching, I failed to find it. There were 3-4 Great White Egret, a pair of Stonechat, a single drake Pintail and several Red-Crested Pochard in the Scaldwell Bay, including a striking leucistic bird.

The Ravenshorpe / Hollowell Res combo next. Ravensthorpe held an impressive number of Teal on the small side of the road, as well as a couple of Green Sands. I was chuffed to pick out the presumed Gadwall x Wigeon hybrid, which I'd forgotten was there to be honest. It may well just indeed, be a Gadwall x Wigeon, however the head colour does elude perhaps towards American Wigeon (?) Who knows, but a cool bird to scrutinize!

Hollowell had the usual 1-2 Stonechat in situ at the inflow end, while up at the point, a cracking 2w Caspian Gull was settled, albeit for about 10 seconds before it annoyingly decided to bugger off before I could fully appreciate it!

A bit of a drive along the A14 & then A45 and I arrived at Stanwick at about 2pm. Straight away, on the lay-by pit, I found the Pink-footed Goose amongst the local Greylags, feeding on one of the islands.

I then took the track up to the far north end and after some 15-20 minutes, found a suitable spot to view the Harrier's favoured area, a rough grassy slope up towards some farm buildings. I waited quite a while, however it wasn't particularly cold and the sun even put in a brief appearance behind me as it began to set.

At about 15:15, I caught sight of a bird in the corner of my eye, flying in from the north and into the favoured field. YES it was the Hen Harrier!! It began flying around the field several times, allowing me to take it in, as well as grab a bit of video too. It then dropped into the long grass. The long wait for a county Hen Harrier was over...and a male too! 

Surprisingly, the bird never actually came up again and instead appeared to have hunkered down for an early night! It was a little disappointing, but I saw it, plus the views I did have were really good. I could count myself lucky too, as several other birders had tried as many as SIX times before they saw it!

The day was capped off by fab views of a Barn Owl in what little light there was left as I walked back to the car. It seemed to almost give me a bit of a fly past, peering over it's shoulder to check me out!

I went home smiling...the Hen Harrier hoodoo was over!

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Some 2018 highlights

2018 was not necessarily a year stuffed with rarities, but was still a year full of interest and many memorable highlights. Here are some of my favourites, in addition to co-finding an October Dusky Warbler, great views of Adder, Purple Emperors, Stilt Sandpiper, Clouded Yellow etc etc:

Hawfinches: The beginning of 2018, saw the continuation of the unprecedented Hawfinch invasion. Having found a handful around the village of Thenford back in October 2017, numbers slowly increased and an amazing c20 birds were then present in the latter part of the winter. One particularly memorable day there stood out when a single male showed brilliantly in trees close to the church in gorgeous sunshine. 

Fieldfare: The 'Beast from the East' arctic weather front of early March resulted in seeing quite a few species becoming displaced, in a desperate search for food. Fieldfares were one particular species that seemed to be turning up in every single birders' garden. My twitter feed was full of them as a result! My garden (and Twitter!) was no exception, with one ferociously guarding the pile of apples I'd put out in the snow!

Morocco: A fantastic 8-day birding trip to Morocco with Dan & Gareth, in search of desert & mountainous specialities in the Atlas Mountains and Desert beyond.

We saw pretty much all the main targets, with the exception of Pharaoh Eagle Owl, while Egyptian Nightjar was heard only very briefly. There were countless highlights, however for me, the main ones included point blank views of male Moussier's Redstart, the mission to connect with Desert Sparrow, sat in a wadi watching migrant Nightingales & Bluethroats, Hoopoe Larks and great views of the quirky Streaked Scrub Warbler. A trip I would fully recommend, in fact one I'd be very keen to do again!

Grimsbury patching: 2018 was my best year yet birding Grimsbury Reservoir (Banbury), in terms of number of species (124), but also for the number of scarcities too. It was astounding to find a gale-blown Grey Phalarope for the second year in a row, however the number one highlight for me, had to be the discovery of a singing male Pied Flycatcher on the 1st June! Other great finds included a very popular summer plumaged Black-Necked Grebe, both spring and autumn Wood Warblers, a couple of White-Fronted Geese, a flock of 3 Whimbrel, the site's 1st Cetti's Warbler, Common Scoter, Kittiwake, 3 Rock Pipit, Arctic & Black Tern & a good run of spring Sanderling. If 2019 comes even close to all that, I'll be a very happy man!

Hairstreaks: The scorching summer of 2018 meant on the whole, a really bumper year for butterflies.

It was also an absolutely outrageously good one for Black Hairstreaks, with record numbers at most sites. Thankfully, I managed to experience it for myself on what was a gloomy but humid morning at Glapthorn Cow Pasture, near Oundle on 16th June. What's more, I had the place to myself...almost unheard of during Black Hairstreak season!

On 19th May, I really enjoyed encountering several really fresh Green Hairstreaks at Ardley Quarry, 15 minutes from home and just into Oxfordshire. I had never seen as many there, as I did on this visit and nearly all of them were super fresh. 

It was definitely my best year for White Letter Hairstreaks & Purple Hairstreaks in Bucknell Wood, in terms of encounters and numbers, with more pristine butterflies coming down to nectar on the Brambles or to the ground for moisture. Presumably a reflection of the dryer weather.

Thrapston Nightingale: What has now become a bit of a tradition for me in the first week of May, I spent a day around Northants with the aim of hitting 100 species. In 2017, it was an incredible day's birding notching 103 species, including a few great finds. This year it was a boiling hot day, not very conducive for pulling migrants out of the sky. The day did not though pass by without it's highlights. The most memorable being this very confiding Nightingale by the river at Thrapston. Sat singing on top of a hawthorn, it allowed me to creep to within around 10-15 feet to give some crippling views as it rattled off it's full repertoire!

New butterflies: I grabbed a couple of opportunities to see two new lifers.

Going to a wedding in Canterbury, towards the end of June gave me a chance to see my first Heath Fritillaries in nearby East Blean Woods. Thankfully, it was a gorgeous sunny day and they were simply EVERYWHERE, seeing my first ones before I'd even got out of the car! It was quite a spectacle and a good remedy for my hangover!

The second was a case of turning a crap situation into a good one! On Sunday 1st July, I was on my way down to see my mate Dan Watson in Somerset, however I was suffering with a bit of a stomach bug. By the time I got to Cirencester I decided it was best not to carry on. I happened to be very close to Daneway Banks, one of the premier Large Blue sites in the UK. With the flight period still in progress, I decided to take a short walk there for half an hour, in order to not make it a completely wasted journey. This worked out beautifully, seeing two Large Blues, with one particularly fresh one out egg-laying on wild thyme. Perfecto!

Rough Leg: This autumn produced a good influx of Rough-Legged Buzzards into the UK. On Saturday 17th November I had a good look for one in the rolling North Northants countryside, an area that certainly has potential to hold onto one. After a fruitless search, I decided to nip over the border into nearby Cambridgeshire and enjoy of one of the two Holme Fen birds that had been around a while. Having got good scope views for about 40 mins, I decided to leave. Turning the car around, I noticed the bird approaching the road a little further down. I shot off along the road and using the car as a hide, I was able to watch it hovering right next to the best ever Rough-Leg views by far!

Monday, 14 January 2019

New Years by the Exe

I spent a couple of nights over new Years with the Mrs in Topsham, Devon, on the Exe Estuary.

Staying literally right on the estuary, a bit of birding was inevitable, making it a solid start to the 2019 year list!

I didn't see anything outrageous, however there were good numbers, of a variety of waders and wildfowl including a few Red-Breasted Mergansers, 100+ Avocet, Dark-Bellied Brent Geese, Grey Plover, Knot, Greenshank and quite a few Pintail.

Bowling Green Marsh was holding some an impressive amount of Black-Tailed Godwit. They were regularly spooked, making for quite a spectacle as they wheeled around.

It's often possible to get really good views of wildfowl from along the lane at Bowling Green Marsh, peering through the several gaps in the hedge. On this occasion, it allowed for particularly close views of Teal & Wigeon feeding away contently relatively unbothered.

A day in Cider country

On Sunday 03/02, Gareth and I headed down to the Somerset Levels, to catch up with our good old mate Dan Watson, who would show us around fo...