Sunday, 21 February 2010

Stormy Saturday skies

It was a gorgeous morning yesterday (20th Feb). I spent most of it being thrown about in the dojo in Tonbridge. When I got home it was still sunny, though clouds were building fast, so I encouraged Rob to get dressed and get out while the sky was all interesting.

We went to Bough Beech first. Both the small lake and the main reservoir were mostly frozen. The feeding station yielded only common birds - where are the Redpolls and Bramblings of last winter? A Great Crested Grebe sat photogenically but distantly in the unfrozen channel connecting the reservoir to the 'wader scrape'. A Great Spotted Woodpecker bounded across the fields, impossibly far away. We decided to go on to Sevenoaks.

By now the sky was really stormy-looking to the east, but miraculously still sunny, creating some fantastically intense colours. We went over to where there was supposed to be a roosting Barn Owl, opposite one of the narrow lakes behind the main water. The owl was in, crouching under the eaves of a large nestbox in a small tree, almost completely obscured by criss-crossing branches but if you stood in exactly the right spot you could make out its sleepy, heart-shaped face. Lovely.

A Mute Swan stood guard by the lake, and as we stopped to look at it, it waddled over. Thinking it was hungry I offered it a handful of grass but it just bit me. Ungrateful wildlife. I suppose I should be glad to escape with unbroken arms (but note the wings are not raised above the back in the dramatic Mute Swan threat posture - if they had been, I wouldn't have gone near it). Rob had to switch to a shorter lens to get any photos, but I'm glad he did because the pics included a slice of that impressive sky.

Over at Willow Hide, most of the water was frozen, with Coots doing their ice-skating thing across the surface. The unfrozen bits were mostly rather far away, but held the usual Gadwalls, Shovelers and Tufties, plus a solitary Great Crested Grebe. Hopefully its mate was just hiding. A pair bred on this lake last year and provided much entertaining viewing as they fetched fish for their squealing little stripy babies. There was a Grey Heron lurking at the back, and a bunch of Long-tailed Tits dangling from low twigs opposite us. Among the Gadwalls were a trio that included a smart male, a smart female, and a third which looked a bit intersex - non-solid black bum, some mottled brown feathers mixed with the smooth grey ones on its back and flanks. It was getting a lot of stick from the male of the pair, who chased it away before flying off with the female. 

As we sat in Willow Hide, an elderly lady entered and asked in curiously urgent tones whether we had seen any Shelducks. The answer was no, but we pointed out the Gadwalls and Shovelers. On the main lake as we returned, we saw a pair of Great Crested Grebes shaking their heads at each other, but when they saw us they got all shy and swam off behind the island to continue their courtship there. We detoured down to Tyler hide and watched spectacular numbers of Snipes (at least 30) feeding on the nearby islands, though none were near enough for good photos. There are still loads of Lapwings here, looking very colourful and attractive in the low sun  - also a few Teals and large helpings of Black-headed and Common Gulls. 

Back at the car park we went into Grebe hide to see what was on the feeders. Shelduck Lady was just leaving as we arrived and said there were some Long-tailed Tits about. We could hear them calling, but at first the only visible birds were Great and Blue Tits, including the scabby-faced Great Tit we photographed back in January, looking even scabbier, and this poor Blue Tit who had only one functional leg (and no, he's not just resting the other one - I watched him carefully and he only ever used the one).

After a little while, the Long-tails started to come closer, giving heart-meltingly gorgeous views. There was STILL sunshine, though only just, and finally Rob got some really decent photos of these restless little blighters. A perfect end to the day.

Firecrest failure, Turnstone triumph

Friday 19th Feb, a day off for Rob and an opportunity to go down to Nigel's house and collect a big heap of books that I need for my next project. When we were about 10 minutes from Nigel's (at about 1.30pm) I called him and found he was out, he advised us to try again mid-afternoon. So we decided to spend the interim searching Collington Woods in Bexhill for the Firecrests that are wintering there.

This wood is a tiny square, you could traverse it in a brisk five minutes. Not much room for Firecrests to hide, you'd think. So we searched, listening for Goldcrests and tits but initially finding only a big and very flightly flock of Redwings. The slowest-witted of them paused just long enough for a distant photo.

We carried on to the north edge of the wood, and here we did bump into a feeding flock of little stuff. There were Coal Tits, one of them singing in an uncharacteristic very rapid monotone trill which had me completely baffled for a while, also Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits and a number of Goldcrests, but old stripy-features eluded us. If there were any Firecrests among this little party they really didn't want to be seen. In any case, the conditions here were a bit rubbish for photography - we were looking into the light (such as it was) and the photos Rob did get were mainly silhouettes. Which is OK, I guess, if you like that kind of thing (and I do like this one).

We continued to search every corner of the wood. Near the children's play area was a little field bordered by shrubs, which I thought looked ideal for Firecrests. The Firecrests, sadly, didn't agree, though we did add Mistle and Song Thrushes here and got a couple of pics of a Jay. In another corner of the wood we received a very stern telling-off from a territorial pair of Great Tits. The sun was out by now, but time was running out. We decided to head to the (very nearby) beach, in the hope of saving the photographic day with a shot of a gull or something.

Driving along the front, we noticed that one of the small oblongs of grass between the beach path and the road was amply stocked with Turnstones, about 20 of them, all busily probing the muddy ground like a bunch of mutoid Starlings. (Also there was one Starling with them, perhaps believing itself to be a mutoid Turnstone). We parked nearby and Rob was soon busying himself photographing the wonderfully obliging waders.

What were they looking for? Worms, apparently. Their strike rate was not brilliant though, and when one of them did manage to haul up a worm, the others nearby would rush over and try to appropriate it from its rightful owner, often successfully.

Not long after this pic was taken, Rob's memory card died, and it wasn't until we got home (via Nigel's) that he was able to check it. Laptop would not read card, in either of our card readers. Rob stayed up til 3am doing technical clever things involving his hardly used pocket Zaurus PC, and managed to recover all but one of the photos from the corrupt card. Phew. He also got a preview image of the one photo that was lost, and it was almost identical to the photo taken before it (a Turnstone face down, nostril-deep in the grass), so it was no great loss.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Big day, winter 2010

Sorry for the lateness of this blog. Rob was going to write it but changed his mind. I'll be on his case to write the next one though...

Anyway. Thursday 4th Feb and we (the Helm team) finally got together for what's usually the New Year bird race. Snow, work and other hazards got in the way throughout January but dawn (OK, 8am) saw four of the five of us birding through the windows of Nigel's conservatory. Jim was absent, having been unable to start his car (because he'd lost the keys).

Nige's garden had already yielded some good stuff including Goldcrest and Jay, and the trusty Marsh Tit showed up soon after Mike, Rob and I arrived. We set off for Fairlight under menacing rainclouds, making a couple of fruitless stops en route in the hope of Redwings and Fieldfares. The rain was really coming down by the time we reached the seawatching stop, a situation for which Nige expected me to shoulder the blame just because I'd said the forecast was for a nice day. Damnit. We set up on the edge (behind a new fence) and quickly found the usual large gangs of Great Crested Grebes on the sea. The first diver found caused much debate - we expected Red-throats but this was a dark-crowned, straight-billed Black-throated. A couple of Red-throats flew by. Then a large corvid rounded the cliff edge and said 'kronk' - an almost-in-Hastings Raven!

I was going to lighten up this photo but decided not to so you can see just what a miserable day it was. But what a brilliant bird.

What else? Gulls, Fulmars, Oystercatchers, Curlews. And then on to the Pannell Valley, not one of our usual stops but this year there is a Great Grey Shrike there which Nige had seen a few days before and which, he assured us, would be 'easy'.

So we parked up, negotiated the cattle grid and headed into the boggy, soggy fields, scanning tree-tops as we went for Shrikey. Without success. And it was still raining. A Redwing was a consolation prize. Nigel, as the only welly-wearer among us, went on ahead to an even soggier field and flushed a couple of Snipes, both of which resisted my efforts to turn them into Jack Snipes. Then, on the way back and with the rain finally stopping, Nige had a last scan of the trees and on one distant shrub there sat a little pale blob - Shrikey! Views through the scope were good, though I haven't bothered to post any of R's 'record shots', ahem. We watched the shrike fly to another tree, stopping for a bit of a hover on the way, then it was on to Pett Level.

The fields around Pett Pools were full of Curlews, Lapwings and Dunlins. We went up to the sea wall and from there saw Turnstones and Grey Plovers on the beach, plus a few Common Scoters on the sea. While we scanned, Rob trundled off to try to get closer to the waders on the beach, eventually making this Turnstone cry.

 We drove on a little bit, finding Wigeons and a nice little flock of White-fronted Geese. We also found a Jim, who had found his car keys. Then Mike found a Merlin, which was in hot pursuit of a Dunlin. We watched the chase for ages - the birds never got very close to us but it was a thrill to see - the Merlin gaining fast on the Dunlin on the straights then losing it all as the wader did a dazzling hairpin turn. Cue much oohing and ahhing from us spectators. They finally disappeared from view and we never saw whether the Merlin caught its prey or not. I'd have thought it must have been close to giving up though, as the chase had already lasted several minutes.

Scotney yielded the first Smews of the day - a couple of redheads and one boy. We had great views of a male Marsh Harrier here (one of about eight seen over the day), and lousy views of a very distant Black-necked Grebe. Nigel wisely phoned our food order in to the Pilot at this point, and we headed to Dunge, with a very quick detour to Dengemarsh to collect Red-legged Partridge and Kestrel.

Giant helpings of fish and chips consumed, we hit the RSPB reserve. By now, the sun was out which made me feel vindicated and everyone else feel a bit more cheerful. The reeds and the Wigeons glowed most photogenically.

Burrowes Pit yielded Goosander and Goldeneye. We didn't linger here too long but headed onwards to where there were rumoured to be both small rare grebe species. We had better views of another female Smew on the way, though 'better' is a relative term. Almost all the birds around today were far, far away, disappointing for Rob though it was great to be able to bring them closer courtesy of Nige and his Swarovski scope.

This was the best pic Rob got of Mrs Smew, from Christmas Dell hide, she just wasn't coming close enough.

 We found the Slavonian Grebe soon after, it was about the only bird on one of the small lakes and was skulking right at the back, out of the reach of the camera though showing its lovely red eyes through the scope. Then into the Dengemarsh hide, where a Black-necked Grebe was very obligingly feeding right in front of us, although the light was pants from this direction.

It gradually drifted off, and a showboating juvvie Marsh Harrier held our attention for while but the light was obviously going so we carried on, soon finding the other side of the Slav Grebe's lake and much closer views of the bird itself.

They might not be the best-lit photos in the world but hey, that's a good thing as it enables you to compare the jizz of these two oft-confused species without getting all distracted by plumage detail. The differences are pretty clear here - tip-tilty bill in BN versus straight in Slav, steep forehead and crown peaking near the middle in BN, flatter and peaking near the back in Slav, puffy Little Grebe-style bum in BN but tidy, big-grebe style in Slav. 

And that was about it for the day. We went on to the sandy beach at Littlestone and added a Knot, but no Sanderlings nor any Barwits. The full list was, according to Nige, 92 species. Which is good, but not our best. And the elusive ton still eludes us, even though the 15-year cumulative list is 145. Raven and Great Grey Shrike were new for this overall list, with Ruff and Common Buzzard making only their second appearance. I can't actually remember when/where we saw a Common Buzzard this year, which serves me right for taking ages to write this blog.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Feeder fun

It's been years since I last visited Weir Wood Reservoir. Last Sunday, after aikido, we decided to go and see what was there. The reservoir is just west of some of the nicest parts of Ashdown Forest, and took a surprisingly long time to reach from Bromley despite my stunningly good navigation. When we got there we found a view out onto a corner of the long, thin reservoir (numerous distant Pochards and Tufties), and a hide which gave great views of a well-attended feeding station. It therefore became a day of feeder photography, with more than a dozen species to-ing and fro-ing, but we concentrated on the tits. Fnarrr.

 How nice to see some Marsh Tits. And it was my first chance to really put the new ID criteria (which distinguish it from Willow Tit) to the test - the two-tone white and buff cheek and the white blob on the cutting edge of the bill. Both features show up well in the photos, and I was surprised how easy it was to pick up the cheek feature while watching a frantically active bird.

Coal Tits, ever furtive, darted in when the bullying Great and Blue Tits weren't paying attention. This photo doesn't show the diagnostic wingbars or white neck patch (though you can see its whacking great bib) but it's still my favourite.

Stroppy goings-on. When either a Great or Blue Tit felt challenged by another, there was much fanning of tails, spreading of wings and irked 'chrrrr chrrr' scolding. The Blue Tit won this particular confrontation.

Two Goldfinches showed up and took their time filling up on the mixed seed mixture. There were also a few visits from Chaffinches, though these mainly foraged on the ground.

A bad photo of a Long-tailed Tit, just to prove they were there. We heard the 'prrps' and 'pings' of a flock in the nearby bushes, but only one came to the feeders and he didn't stay very long.

And finally, a special visit from the vanishingly rare 'Nuthatch-headed Peanut Snake'. Well, Rob insists that it was just a Nuthatch but I was looking at something else at the time so I can't be sure.

There were a duck and drake Mallard hoovering up spilled seed under the feeders, and every so often the two of them would crane their heads upwards, as if begging the little birds to drop them some more crumbs. I took photos of them doing this on the little camera (Rob didn't because he was using the tripod), and I'll add one to this post if/when I get round to uploading the pics (maybe). ETA - I just got round to it. The feeders are attached to this pole - I had a shot showing the whole feeding station but I prefer this close-up of the hungry ducks. Look at their yearning little faces, the poor loves.