Thursday, 25 August 2011

Lee/Lea Valley

No-one can seem to agree how to spell it, but don't let that you put off. The Lee (OK, I'm sticking with this spelling) Valley Regional Park is a huge area of lake,canal and river, around which scrubby, meadowy and woody areas fit in like Tetris pieces. A bewildering complexity of paths winds around the park, I would have got hopelessly lost where I not accompanied by Graham, who knows the park well. Also along for the ride were Shane, Rose and Andy.

It was raining when we kicked off from Cheshunt station at 10am, though not as heavily as it had been back in Sevenoaks an hour ago, and sunshine was forecast for later on. So we zipped up our waterproofs, girded our loins and set off northwards along the canal.

Andy spotted a Mink appearing from the sidelines and racing over the footbridge we'd just crossed. Another joined it, and paused for a distant photo. There are supposed to be Otters in the park, so the Mink here may find themselves being pushed out - no bad thing from an ecological point of view, though it's hard to resist the charm of the Minks - it's not their fault they're here, after all.

As we loitered on the bridge, hoping in vain for a second glimpse of a Mink, this soggy Blackbird sulked in a bush, while Willow Warblers flitted, 'hooeeted' and even sang briefly from deep cover. A falcon sped overhead, looking slight and Hobby-like but revealing itself to be a male Peregrine (from examination of massively zoomed-in photos) when it settled on a distant pylon.

Soon we were walking alongside the river, with a large lake (Seventy Acres Lake I think) on the other side, wherein swam assorted wildfowl including this Pochard. On the river, we stopped to watch a pair of Great Crested Grebes, tending a single egg in a nest that was positioned dead-centre in the river. Apparently, this same pair had been tending small chicks around the same nest three weeks ago, so it looks like they were predated. As we watched, an odd couple of feral wildfowl hoved into view - a Barnacle Goose accompanied by a 'small' Canada Goose/Cackling Goose. The grebes set after the geese with great fury and forced them to turn back.

Further upriver, another pair of GCGs were attending three well-grown (though still apparently very clingy) chicks.

We visited the Bittern hide around this point - top spot for close views of Bitterns in winter. Today, it was more like warbler city, with Willows, Sedges, Reeds and Chiffers all zipping about in the thick reeds and sedges that lined the small channel. My photos of them were uniformly rubbish. Sadly at this point we lost Andy, as he had to rush off to deal with an emergency at home.

Finally, we reached a weir, where water surged between fat plastic barrels from Holyfield Lake down into the river. The fast water had attracted a couple of juvvy Grey Wagtails, and also a skittish Common Sandpiper.

Grebe Hide overlooks Holyfield Lake. Plenty of wildfowl were on view from here, but my first target was the Migrant Hawker which was patrolling the water's edge right in front of us. Finally managed a few sharpish pics. This was one of at least a dozen Migrant Hawkers we saw over the course of the day.

Winter's a'coming. Or maybe this Wigeon has been here all year... he was on his own anyway. Other ducks seen were Gadwall (lots), Shoveler (a few), Tuftie (lots), Pochard (a few) and Mallard (lots, including some crazy farmyard variants).

Plenty of non-breeding Mute Swans were drifting or sitting around, with just the odd hormonal moment disturbing the peace. Also around were grebes (two Great Cresteds fishing in front of the hide, and lots of Littles further away), a few Cormorants and a huge arrival of Canada and Greylag Geese.

Black-headed Gull in major moult. There were a few of these, and a few Lesser Black-backs, but otherwise things were pretty quiet gull-wise, and the breeding Common Terns have departed.

We were pretty tired by this point and the walk back was a bit brisker. But the sun was now fully out and there were some photos to be taken. Here's a nice-looking pair of Gadwalls on the river.

I think Graham spotted this Brown Hawker at rest. We all got a few shots from a distance, though as soon as we tried to edge closer it was off. Still, my first shots of this species and a good way to end the day.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A bit of this and a bit of that

It's been a bad second half of August for getting out and doing anything, what with work, rain and general Augustiness. Never mind all that though, here are some of the things I've seen lately.

Last Friday we went to the British Birdwatching Fair, where we met a few humans and had a generally sociable time of it. We also had a wander around the nearer hides, but there wasn't a great deal to see - lots of Little Egrets, the odd Common Tern, Shelducks and other common wildfowl, distant Green Sandpiper.

The feeding station by the visitor centre used to be good for Tree Sparrows, but not any more, apparently. There were Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Blue and Great Tits coming and going, but I was more interested in this arboreal Brown Rat.

This is Rob's photo (I gave him my camera to play with as he didn't bring his and was looking bored). The plant is Tansy, with a 14-spot Ladybird centre stage.

My first 2011 Ruddy Darter. We also got a Migrant Hawker here, but no photos, it was some distance away and in full zooming around mode.

And... Britain's first Fairy Tern! OK, this is a photo of a photo, taken at the Nikon stand by Rob, after he asked to have a go with the 200-400mm f4, one of his wish-list lenses. This lens was wonderfully quick and sharp, but way too heavy for me to consider - even Rob said he'd have to put in a few months at the gym before buying one (as well as becoming considerably richer).

Yesterday we called round at Sue's for a cup of tea. Her garden is gearing up for autumn, with apples and plums ripening nicely and the most gigantic leek I've ever seen awaiting culinary attention on the kitchen table. The garden was quiet, wildlife-wise, but a few butterflies around included this Speckled Wood.

I've been to Knole Park a couple of times lately. Last Wednesday morning I had a wander around with Michele, in uninspiring photographic conditions. It was good to see this juvenile Green Woodie though.

Then Rob and I had a quick walk at the other end of the park yesterday, where we saw this Fallow buck repeatedly standing up to rub his itchy antlers on tree branches.

He has removed nearly all of of his antler velvet, getting his fighting gear ready for the rut next month.

Walking back to the car we found this juvvy Kestrel relaxing in the evening sunshine, and ignoring the family of Chaffinches which were anxiously flitting around, getting perilously close at times.

We watched the Kestrel for a while as it sat, then preened and stretched, and eventually took to the air.

It didn't go far though, wheeling around and coming back to another spot in the same tree, very close to its original perch.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Brighton and Seaford

I'm just back from two weeks of cat-sitting in Brighton. It was not incident-free, as one of the cats decided to have a lie-down in a puddle of motor oil or something on Tuesday night, came home soaked and reeking, and had to be rushed to the vet to have it washed off. And she's supposed to be the intelligent one. This happened the day after Sue and I went for a lovely walk along Seaford Head to the Cuckmere Valley and back.

First, a few photos from the garden. I spent a bit of time sitting on the bench scanning the skies, or what little sky I could see.

The local gulls were cruising about as usual. All of them were in mid-moult and looking very scruffy, apart from brand new juveniles like this one.

This is as cropped as you can get but I have to include it as it's one of the local celebs - adult Peregrine from (presumably) the pair that nests on the Sussex Heights tower block.

The Peregrine wheeled lazily about and did actually come slightly lower before suddenly remembering it was supposed to be somewhere and powering away.

I've seen Black-headed Gulls catching flies before but never one of their bigger cousins. This Lesser Blackback was among a dozen or so Herring Gulls, all acrobatically snapping up a swarm of flying ants or something.

I don't suppose the Sparrowhawk was interested in flying ants, but it kept the gulls company for a while.

I had the BigMac with me too, and deployed it on the Marmalade Hoverflies that were visiting the garden flowers.

And then last Tuesday it was Seaford Head. I was interested to check the progress of the Kittiwake colony, and was pleased to see many gorgeous youngsters already on the wing, with many more still on their nests with mum and dad in close attendance. At sea a few Sandwich Terns trickled past.

The obligatory Seaford Mipit, looking a little careworn and moulty. Several of these about, plus one Rock Pipit down on the beach.

It was a sunny day, though breezy at times. A few butterflies around - these two Common Bluse were down by the Coastguards' Cottages. I also saw a solitary Marbled White right at the start of the walk. I regret not rushing after it for a photo, but I'd blithely assumed there'd be others, and there weren't.

We walked all the way over the Head and to the Cuckmere valley, where we walked a little way inland. Apologies for the bad photo but I had to show you this - ten Little Egrets. Back in 1995, I saw my first ever Little Egret in this very valley - actually 'twitched' it. How times have changed. Also bonus Rooks and Curlews in this photo.

Among these gulls is another recent UK colonist - can you spot the Mediterranean Gull? Have to admit I didn't, until I checked the photos later.

As we walked, small and large flocks of Starlings came zipping overhead, moving from field to field. Lots of juveniles among them, developing spotty tummies as they moulted into winter plumage.

On the way back - a Whitethroat. That was it for warblers. Seaford Head can be great for passage migrants, but you need to get there before the dog-walkers/golfers/everyone else, and Sue and I had taken a much more leisurely approach to our day out.

We still managed to connect with a couple of young Wheatears though, looking lovely in their pristine autumn colours. (You'll have to take my word for that, as the photo isn't the best).

By contrast, two tatty corvids, though the top one is probably the best Magpie flight photo I've managed.

As we continued on our uphill return route, along a path with steep hills either side, a steady stream of Swifts funnelled up the valley. Won't be long before there's hardly a Swift to be found - a slightly depressing thought.

We made it to the top, and then it was the final downhill to the car park. We stopped for another quick look at the Kittiwakes. This youngster looked at home among a tangle of sea thrift.

Even in moult mode, adult Kittiwakes are still fabulous-looking birds.