Champions of the Flyway!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dungeness, Kent - 29th January 2009

Adult Glaucous Gull

A mid-winter day's birding with Laurence (Pitcher), on a clear, sunny day with blue skies and a fresh, gusty and biting easterly wind. Despite the light being difficult, we spent a good while at The Patch (the bubbling whirlpool of outflow from the nuclear power station), a magnet for thousands of gulls.

As well as all the common species (Black-headed, Lesser and Great Black-backed, Common, Herring and Kittiwake), a couple of Mediterannean Gulls were present, as were four Little Gulls, paddling delicately on the surface of the water like Storm-petrels.

redhead Smew

A scan of the shingle beach, practically bereft of people (but for a few fishermen) and birds, immediately revealed a ghostly, immaculate and very accomodating adult Glaucous Gull. Offshore, good numbers of auks were on the sea and moving, as well as about a dozen Red-throated Divers, many more Great Crested Grebes, as well as Gannets, Common Scoters, and a variety of gulls.

Slavonian Grebe

male Stonechat

The RSPB reserve was surprisingly quiet re: quantity, with the commoner wildfowl species present in relatively small numbers. There was, however, a Slavonian Grebe, a Black-necked Grebe, three Red-crested Pochards, several Cetti's Warblers, a couple of redhead Smew, a Goldeneye and an abberantly-plumaged Lapwing in with hundreds of more typical birds on the ARC pit.

abberant Lapwing

Little Gulls

The last half-hour or so of light was spent on the marsh, where mixed flocks of Corn Buntings, Tree Sparrows and Yellowhammers were in the hedgerows, and a close-up Barn Owl drifted past us before quartering the field nearby.

Harbour Porpoise, on the beach

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Walthamstow Reservoirs, east London - 24th January 2009

This Great Northern Diver was photographed on West Warwick, the south-westernmost of the WR complex, feeding happily at the southerly end this afternoon. Thanks to Lol Bodini, who found it around midday, I was able to cycle down and make elaborate excuses en route as to why I wasn't somewhere else I was supposed to be.....

Hence it was a frantic, against the clock visit, cycling through the park, across the marshes, speed-walking round East Warwick, almost-crawling through the tunnel over to the West, and (bumping into Paul Whiteman en route), rounding the reservoir to get the light behind us.

With a few minutes at most to spend, thankfully the bird came up pretty close in front of us giving excellent views, and often diving for extended periods.

Unbeknown to us at the time, another familiar local face was also getting good views from the bank opposite - running through the photos a few minutes ago, a certain Clapton Common-dwelling, bagel-stealing Mediterranean Gull (assuming it's the same one, which is more than likely) is peering over innocently in the background. The phrase "thank **** it wasn't a Franklin's" springs immediately to mind.....

Friday, January 23, 2009

Lea Valley, Essex / Greater London - 14th January 2009

A day's birding with Tony (Butler) further up our beloved valley, to the cluster of wetland sites in the Fisher's Green / Seventy Acres Lake area. A short session at the Bittern watchpoint produced a single Bittern, conveniently wandering across a channel just as we entered, and several Water Rails pottering around just beneath the hide.

Good numbers of Lesser Redpolls and Siskins were feeding nearby as we walked around the area, a Muntjac ran across the path in front of us en route to Holyfield Lake, where we got lucky with sawbills - three Goosander hung around just long enough, and a fine drake Smew came in from the north before proceeding to swim to and fro just metres from the hide.

Drake Smew, Holyfield Lake

Back to the watchpoint for the last half hour of light, and no less than three Bitterns were present, at one point side by side, in the reedbed. But after a couple of minutes watching one of the birds, partially obscured by reeds at the back of the central channel, I realised all was not well.

The bird was struggling to right itself, with its wings and lower body in the (ice-cold) water, flapping weakly as if its legs were trapped beneath the surface. Despite another seven or eight people in the hide having watched the bird in this predicament for more than 20 minutes, nobody thought to act (perhaps thinking the bird was feeding in a strange way, or perhaps not registering the gravity of the situation, or both); after three mobile calls to the LVRPA switchboard - the last and most 'firm' of which finally getting put through to the rangers - the situation was eventually taken seriously, and with the light almost gone, action was thankfully swift.

With the bird now barely moving, partially submerged and with its head drooping in the water behind the reeds, it was a matter of minutes at most before it drowned or perished through hypothermia; thankfully, with rangers decked out in dry-suits and the bird retrieved in torchlight, the possibilities of it being tangled in fishing line, having hit a power line, or having a broken wing were ruled out.

Retrieved from the water....

It was however very weak, waterlogged, and extremely emaciated; a victim of the sustained freezing conditions of late. After a quick examination it was dispatched to the local animal rescue centre, where it gradually made a full recovery over the course of a week - and was happily released successfully in the same area this morning.

....and back in the game, having gained a lot of weight

Thanks to Simon and Cath for acting so swiftly and organising rehab!

Norfolk - 3rd & 4th January 2009

Windmill and Little Egret

3rd January

48 precious hours to spare outside of the city at the beginning of the year, and so to Norfolk with Paul (Cook) behind the wheel of his newly-acquired, made-for-birding second-hand camper van; leaving not-so-sleepy north London well before sunrise, our first port of call was Lynford Arboretum, effectively the unkempt grounds of a stately home in the middle of nowhere, well known as a good site for Hawfinch.

Arriving shortly after sunrise with clear blue skies and a deep, white frost, we were lucky enough to catch up with a couple of birds allowing great views in the treetops; before leaving, we had the pleasure of a very confiding Water Rail crunching just beyond our feet in a frozen ditch, as well as Bullfinch, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Siskins.

Heading west towards the north-east coast of the county, we decided to try our luck with several Waxwings, which had been reported in a typically godforsaken suburb of Norwich called Thorpe St. Andrew; in the midst of a legoland housing estate and with local chavs taking the air with their unfortunate staffs straining at their chains, we got out of the van and immediately connected with a single bird, perched nervously in the top of a tree.

Golden Plovers and Pink-footed Geese

A quick wander round produced no sign of any more, and so we headed east, to the Yare Valley and Cantley Marshes. A traditonal hot-spot for grey geese, a short walk from the van (a recurring theme developing here) and we were scoping a flock of several hundred; the majority Pink-feet, with around 40 albifrons White-fronts and, our target species for the site, 60+ Taiga Bean Geese.

Having greatly increased (personally very rusty and limited) grey-goose ID skills in the shadow of the local sugar beet factory ploughing out its column of smoke, we entered the classic north-east Norfolk landscape of evocative, endless, creek-ridden and windmill-dotted grazing marsh.

B-roads snaking through Halvergate Marshes provided great views of the area, with multiple Common Snipe flushed at every stop, a Merlin speeding past, several hundred Golden Plovers, Redshanks, a few Little Egrets and our quarry, a Ross's Goose attempting somewhat pathetically to blend in with thousands upon thousands of Pink-feet.

Ross's Goose with Pink-feet (honest)

With daylight at a premium (and extremeties almost frost-bitten) our final stop of the day was Stubb Mill (Hickling Broad NWT reserve), where a couple of kilometres walk east ends at the Raptor watchpoint. Marsh Harriers were already everywhere, perched like crows on almost every available bush and post, with at least 35 present by dusk; a single ring-tail Hen Harrier eventually joined them, as well as a Barn Owl and the ubuiquitous hundreds of Pink-feet.

However, one of the highlights of the day was the unmistakable sound of Common Cranes coming in to roost, with 16 birds drifting into view in the failing winter light. Refreshment in a local backwater pub (American Werewolf in Norfolk) and then on to Great Yarmouth, a cheap and comfortable B&B (£16 single en suite - the seventies are back), a indian restaurant to ourselves, a few nightcaps in a seafront bar and an early night.

4th January

Up and out early and onto the deserted sea-front, armed with leftover mince pies to intice the Mediterranean Gulls over from the beach; this took a matter of seconds to pay off, the only drawback being the closeness of the birds for photography (hand-feeding and big lenses not mixing too well). At least 35 Meds of all ages graced us with their presence before we headed a few hundred metres down the seafront towards the harbour.

Med Gulls of all three age groups, Great Yarmouth beach.

After sending in the details to the BTO, we now know from the Med Gull ringing group in Germany that the adult bird pictured (centre) was colour-ringed as a chick on the tiny island of Pionierinsel in the Elbe estuary (40 kilometers NW of Hamburg), on June 17th, 2006. Coincidentally, it's from the same colony as the bird which winters on our birding friend Des Mackenzie's local patch, Kensington Gardens (central London).

A five-second scan from the van of a few loafing gulls on the beach immediately produced a cracking first-winter Glaucous Gull, picking cautiously at a discarded rubber glove as if it were alive (a possibility considering the proximity to Sizewell down the coast).

First-winter Glaucous Gull, Great Yarmouth beach

To the Broads next, and an extended session in quintessentially bleak and beautiful local environs, at Martham Ferry / Heigham Marshes. Another 12 or more Marsh Harriers in all directions, joined by another ring-tail Hen Harrier and an especially large and feisty Peregrine, which spent most of its time deliberately crashing into a flock of crows in a solitary bush, apparently just for the fun of it, and the rest fighting harriers.

Accompanying two Pink-feet and then a flock of grazing Greylags (both species dwarfing the bird), what for all the world resembled a Lesser White-fronted Goose was watched for a long while, and despite our best efforts to dismiss the little chap, fitted the majority of characteristics attributable to the species. Knowing the minefield of establishing origin, the possiblity of hybridisation and our lack of local knowledge, we'd stop short of giving the bird unblemished credentials, but it kept us on our toes at the very least...

Lesser White-fronted (type) Goose

Dozens of Common Snipe, Curlew, White-fronts, a covey of aroud 15 Grey Partridge, a pair of Egyptian Geese, a few Water Rails, and the omnipresent flocks of Lapwings and Fieldfares were also recorded. Lastly, a drive west (clipping Suffolk and Cambridgeshire en route) across the county to Welney WWT Reserve on the Ouse Washes, for a final fling with classic winter wildfowl.

An impressive, inclusive reserve with all mod-cons (heated, glass-fronted viewing centre, joystick-operated CCTV on the pools), it admirably and justifiably attracts a lot of visitors, and there are worse ways to spend a cold January day than looking out across the part-frozen floodlands accomodating innumerable Common Pochard, Pintail, Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon and Mallard, and the added bonus of eight Tundra Bean Geese implausibly completed our full set of Grey Geese for the trip.

All very well, but for personally appreciating the spectacle of hundreds of Whooper and Bewick's Swans coming in to roost, stepping outside and standing alone along the path, away from the crowds, is the only way. The birds came in against a watery, peach-coloured evening light, fantastically low and directly overhead, with every call and wingbeat audible in the silence.

Whooper Swans, Welney WWT

KGV Res, Essex / Greater London - 31st December 2008

A cold, frosty and overcast new year's eve with Paul C and Tony B at this large, somewhat featureless reservoir in the northern fringes of London; a frequent and favoured haunt of Paul's in the past, and the first time at the site for me.

Our hopes were raised by the extended cold snap which has already provided more than I'd dare hope for back on patch in Hackney - a scarce duck or an odd wader would do just fine. As it transpired, we connected with both - one of the first birds we came across was a single Dunlin, feeding along the few inches of exposed 'shore' around the eastern edge.


A Walk up the perimeter path, amongst probably the most urban sheep in London outside of the city farms towards the northern edge of the southern basin, hosting many ducks sheltering from the cold north-westerly. A red-head Red-breasted Merganser was just the kind of scarcity we'd hoped for in these bleak, apocalyptic surrounds, showing well beyond flocks of wildfowl which in total numbered 25 Goldeneye, 27 Teal, four Wigeon, three Shelduck, and a fly-by female Goosander, straight past us and up the canal.

Red-breasted Merganser


Single Redwing, Fieldfare and Meadow Pipit were found on the walk back, where a Common Sandpiper was now sharing the bank with the Dunlin; and then final scan of the scattered aythyas revealed another star bird for the day, a female Greater Scaup, with several Tufted Ducks.

Scaup with Tufted Ducks

A scan of the distant (and private) William Girling Reservoir revealed at least 15 Black-necked Grebes and 148 Teal.