Monday, 30 May 2011

Chick factor

Bad weather this bank holiday weekend meant we didn't do a lot. We did make a quick trip to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, where baby birds were the theme of the day.

From Grebe hide, this sleepy puffball of a fledgling Blue Tit was just about visible through the willow leaves.

It was briefly joined (not that it noticed) by a more lively baby Great Tit, calling for its parents, which were not listening.

From the viewing mound we could see that the Mute Swans on the big lake had a cygnet - surely they must have started off with more than one? There are two other Mute females on eggs around the reserve that I know of, hopefully they will have more luck.

I spent a few moments here pointing my camera at one of the three or so Sand Martins hawking over the water. Was pleasantly surprised to get a few sharpish shots. It looks to me like it has a billful of food here.

A pair of Red-eyed Damsels in tandem. There was not that much Odonata activity today, probably because it was a bit chilly and breezy.

I thought at the time I took this shot that the Pond Skater had too many legs. Closer examination revealed that it's actually an amorous couple. Well, the male is amorous, the female seems more interested in the prey she's caught.

Our walk around the reserve was curtailed at this point when we met a very friendly grey cat, who seemed like he might be lost - this was a good distance from any houses. After resolving to take him to the nearest vets' to be scanned for a chip, we carried him to the visitor centre, where he suddenly freaked out and I had to let him go. The visitor centre staff said that he is not a stray but lives locally and visits a lot, and when they see him they throw water at him (hence his anxiety at being near the visitor centre, I suppose).

The day before this, I went to Tonbridge to see Michele, on her last weekend at her mum's place before she moves into her shiny new house in Southborough. I'm always surprised by how many birds visit this small garden. Today I saw this fine male Chaffinch, and more excitingly a Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling from a tree in the garden opposite.

The baby House Sparrows of the other week have grown up and wised up a bit. New babies on the block were a family of Starlings. The youngsters are very different to their parents, and spark a rash of identification queries on the various birding forums every year.

This brood were happily feeding themselves, but still didn't miss the chance to beg for a handout from a parent.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Books and blogs

A quickie post - I've just done a guest blog for A & C Black Publishers, to mark the publication of my new book RSPB Nature Watch. The ACBWildlife Blog has contributions from lots of A & C Black and Christopher Helm authors, well worth a look through. I was particularly gobsmacked by this post by Martin Goodey, which features wonderful photos of a fledgling Cuckoo with its Rock Pipit foster parent.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

May birdrace - part 2

Packing up at Oare, we added this Sedge Warbler, plus Cetti's and a distant Hobby.

A second-summer Mediterranean Gull flew over. It turned out that the Elmley ones were Jim's first, and he had learned the easy way to separate the species from Black-headed Gull in flight - Med has pure white wings. Unless it's a second-summer. We said that maybe with gulls it's best to stick to the adults and ignore all the juveniles and subadults completely. Nigel remarked that when on tour in Africa he blanks out all the female weavers and only identifies the males - sounds very sensible to me.

On to Stodmarsh. In fact Grove Ferry, which we figured would be the best bit of the huge Stour Valley NNR to visit. We paused for a nice lunch at the Grove Ferry Inn, then took the trail out to the big viewpoint, and onwards to the hides.

There were maybe half a dozen Hobbies around, and this one came obligingly close, enabling us to take a shed-load of photos. We took photos of all the others too, just to make sure they weren't Red-footed Falcons (they weren't).

The reedbeds yielded a couple of glimpses of Bearded Tits, while from the Feast hide came our only wader (apart from Lapwings). It was a good one though, a fine Greenshank wading about among dozy Mallards.

On the way back, I noticed what appeared to be a load of scattered scraps of black leathery stuff on some nettles. I identified them as the cast skins of Peacock caterpillars. I explained to Rob that caterpillars moult their skins several times as they grow bigger. He said, 'Is that what they look like when they grow bigger?' and pointed out a boiling mass of well-grown caterpillars on another nearby nettle clump. Impressive spines on these wee beasties.

Nearby was one of the very few Odonata we saw all day but I thought immediately that it looked different to the Common Blues and Azures I've been seeing everywhere (though not today). Looking at the photos, I think it is a male Variable. That's going on the shape of the mark on the first abdominal segment, plus the incomplete antehumeral stripes. Get me with the damselfly anatomical jargon.

Marsh Frog. We heard whole choirs of these but only got a good view of this one.

On to Dungeness, our last stop. On the Lydd road I saw a Little Owl on a dilapidated barn roof so we stopped and turned around for a better look. I managed three shots before it flew, and only the last one was in focus. Damn, damn. Still, a good bird for the list.

There had been a Golden Oriole seen earlier behind the ARC viewscreen, so that's where we went first. No sign. The wind had picked up a bit and there was a steady stream of Swifts flying into it. This slowed them down a bit and provided a rare opportunity to get some relatively sharp Swift photos.

From the viewscreen, Nigel picked up a beautiful first-summer Little Gull bobbing along over the water. It, or another one, later flew away from the lake past where I was standing looking at the Swifts, and I got some distant photos.

We went to the beach next, and stood beside the locked beach hide to watch the terns feeding offshore and to look for other things. I went down to the water's edge and took photos, including this Sandwich Tern in pre-dive mode.

Walking back to the car, we enjoyed nice close views of this Whitethroat, then Jim found a female Black Redstart a little further down. We casually strolled (slightly) closer and watched her sitting on the power station fence with a mouthful of food, before flitting towards the great ugly edifice and her nest, somewhere on or in it.

Jim left us at this point (it was about 5.30pm I think). The rest of us went for a quick look at the visitor centre. Nigel then also left, and Rob and I spent a very pleasant half-hour in the Firth hide, having been tipped off about a pair of Garganeys there.

There were several birds close to the hide, including Coots which were angrily chasing the Mallards around.

Mallard drakes, notorious for their randiness, don't have it all their own way. This female Shelduck was certainly not taking any nonsense from this one.

The Shelducks were fighting among themselves too. These two drakes were having a fierce displaying contest, even though it looks as though they're laughing their heads off.

A pair of Common Gulls were making a nest on a nearby island, and in between collecting material were flying about and calling a lot.

Oh, and the Garganeys? Well, a Coot chased them off soon after we arrived, and they went out of view for a bit, but then the same or another Coot chased them back again, and they settled down near the hide, beautifully lit in the late sun. We stayed til they fell asleep, then very quietly closed the windows and left.

May birdrace - part 1

We didn't manage it last year, but after about a month of furious emailing some of the Helm gang got together for a May Kent birding day yesterday - Nigel, Jim, Rob and I. We met at Bough Beech at 6am - only Jim didn't, perhaps because he'd got very lost last time we'd tried to meet here, and he opted to join us later, when we reached Elmley. Nigel was already scoping the reservoir when Rob and I arrived, but without success ('success' here defined as finding a Mandarin duck). Our other Bough Beech target, however, did oblige - there was a quick blast of Nightingale song from behind a gate as we headed for the visitor centre.

A Bough Beech Swallow in first (well, OK, second) light. It was quite cloudy at this point but no sign of rain.

Next stop was Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. Rob nipped home to pick up his monopod - he was very sleepy and thought it would help him to stay standing up. Nigel and I collected Egyptian Goose from the access track, Garden Warbler in the car park, and Little Ringed Plover from the viewing mound. Very efficient. We were also entertained by a family of recently fledged Long-tailed Tits, and a showy Blackcap.

On to Elmley, and when we got to the start of the track, Nigel noticed a flock of Mediterranean Gulls on the track ahead of us. We drove slowly along the track in the time-honoured fashion, to meet Jim who was waiting at the other end.

The usual suspects were all present. From the top, Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Meadow Pipit and Redshank. We met Jim halfway along and he turned around and followed us to the reserve entrance end, where Nigel and Jim had a Whinchat. Rob and I missed this treat by going on too far ahead, a double blow for me as I'd dipped one at my own local patch yesterday.

 The good news was that the sun was out properly now, and was shining attractively on the many Goldfinches that were around Kingshill Farm at the reserve entrance.

There were also plenty of Swallows around. My lens decided to play up while I was photographing them, and ruined most of my shots.

The sparrow terrace box here is in use, with much cheeping coming from within, though I'm not sure if they are using more than one of the compartments. Here's the proud dad.

Looking over the wall next to the loos, we saw Avocets around the pool at the bottom of the hill, and Nigel spotted a drake Garganey picking its way along among the Mallards.

The return trip along the track brought more of the same, plus our first Marsh Harriers and one extremely tatty and distant Common Buzzard. More attractive to us camera-wielders were the hares - lots of them.

Next stop was Oare Marshes. We were hoping to get lucky and find Spoonbills - some have been around the Swale for a while now. We didn't. However, there was a very charming Avocet family right by the viewpoint, which provided a great moment of drama when a Little Egret came along.

Hope I got these in the right order. Basically, the egret flew over to the Avocet family, and the male Avocet chased it and kicked it in the head hard enough to knock it into the water. Then both Avocets escorted the egret from the premises, amid much angry shouting.

Part 2 coming up...

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Welcome to my patch

Today, I met up with GrahamC and Shane from the RSPB forums, for a look around Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. Shane's been here before, but it was Graham's first time. We had a good day for it, mostly sunny, warm, still. Shane picked Graham and I up from the station and we set off around the Willow Hide side of the reserve at 10amish.

 While we were trying to get a look at the Garden Warbler that's still singing next to the wildlife garden, this Broad-bodied Chaser rattled past and chose a nice stump on which to pose. This is the first 'coloured-up' male BBC I've seen this year.

There were plenty of Chiffchaffs singing, and this one, in the Buddleia clump where the main routes diverge, even let us grab a few photos.

We went round the East Lake side towards Willow hide, and on the way to Carter hide stopped to look at this dragon which settled on the path in front of us. I am pretty sure it is a teneral Black-tailed Skimmer. Handsome beast, though if it is, as I suspect, a male, it will get more handsome than this when it develops its blue coloration.

We didn't see any Kingfishers from Carter hide, or much else in fact - but there was at least one Downy Emerald here, zooming low over the water among many 'blue' damselflies. It looked as though the damselflies were mobbing it as it went.

It would probably have been a good butterfly day today, but SWR is not really a good butterfly place. Still, I wasn't about to turn down the chance to photograph a sunlit Speckled Wood, hanging out in the nettles along the river between Carter and Willow hides, along with many Banded Demoiselles.

Willow hide was quiet. Duck diversity was down to two species - Tuftie (seen here in a marital spat) and Mallard. Add to this a pretty lame supporting cast of Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Moorhen and Coot.

The Coots were doing their best to entertain us, with lots of fights and flights. For anyone who ever wondered whether Coots can fly properly, here is the blurry proof.

We carried on towards Long Lake, noting numerous damsels including this obliging female Banded Demoiselle on the way. Also heard but did not see a couple of Reed Warblers.

Long Lake was a frenzied morass of damselfly sex and egg-laying. These four pairs are all Azures. The grassland was full of shiny-winged tenerals, and I unhooked two damsels from spiders' webs. Both were ungrateful sods that flew off immediately. We were also lucky enough to get quick (unphotographable) views of a couple of small Grass Snakes here.

On the way back, we found a singing Reed Bunting, who was pretty relaxed about us standing close to his tree and taking lots of photos of him.

We had a short quasi-lunchbreak then, which was in the Harvester down the road as the reserve visitor centre/refreshments hatch thingy was shut. Fortified by tea, shandy, Pepsi and crisps, we returned to the reserve and walked around the rest of it.

Tyler hide was quietish, but there were two families of Canadas on the Serengeti. One of these groups decided to go for a swim, which caused an extraordinary panic among the many big carp which had been loafing around in the warm shallows nearby. The water erupted in a whirlpool of frantic fish, and the poor Canadas exited the water straight away and dashed back to the safety of dry land, from where some shouted abuse at the fish, while others tried to hide in a hole.

A lone Shelduck landed nearby. Unafraid of fish, it had a very energetic bathe and flap, showing off its T-shaped belly pattern.

There were maybe half a dozen Little Ringed Plovers about, but their regular chase-circuits didn't take them very near to us. This one landed on the Serengeti, but was still a long way off, hence the very heavily cropped photo.

We went on to the further hides, without seeing much more of note on the way, except a pair of Blackcaps carrying food and looking shifty, close to the Sutton hide.

From Sutton hide, we saw several Great Crested Grebes, two of which did a head-shaking display. Because they're worth it.

We had hoped to see more of the famous grebe dance, but the pair had other ideas and swam off, albeit photogenically together.

Meanwhile, a Lapwing was doing what Lapwings do, loudly and enthusiastically. Here's one of the few non-blurry photos I managed in increasingly dull and cloudy conditions.

We called it a day there and went back to the car park. Not a stellar day for the reserve, and I was more than a little dismayed to note in the visitor book that some lucky get had seen a Whinchat from Slingsby hide that very day. But you can't win them all, and company-wise I had a great time - thank you chaps!