Saturday, 29 December 2012

Gaps in the clouds

Hope all you folks out there had a lovely Christmas, and are going to have a splendid New Year too. What a horrible few days it's been, though. Lots of potential birding time but too much rain for the idea to really appeal . I did go out to Elmley on the 23rd (grey and gloomy but no rain), and had a couple of productive hours in Susan's garden in East Sutton on Boxing Day morning when there was a freak spell of sunshine.

OK, Elmley. It was quiet. Very little but Lapwings, Starlings and distant Curlews from the access track. The traditional look over the wall next to the loos revealed many Teals on the pools below, and a few Wigeons too.

The first section of track was unflooded, though the fields beyond looked pretty damp. There were flocks of Wigeons out there, plus a large, strung-out flock of Brent Geese which I checked for anything more exotic, to no avail.

Those who've been here will recall there is a board bridge across a small ditch to get to Wellmarsh hide - the water in the ditch was about as high as the bridge which was disconcerting, but it was passable. From the hide, there was little to see at close range, but further off were huge numbers of Lapwings which all went up now and then as a Marsh Harrier went over.

The track from here to Counterwall hide was closed off because of flooding, so it was necessary to head the other way, for South Fleet hide. This is a photo from some distance away of South Fleet hide, with a ringtail Hen Harrier flying right past it. I wish I'd been in the hide!

View from South Fleet hide. What a lot of Teals. Not very close, and the light was fading fast, so it's a horrid noisy mess of a photo. But I think I can make out a drake Pintail among this lot, at about 3 o'clock.

On the way back, several parties of Brents went over, heading for the Swale.

Now on to Boxing day. Sunshine, and the East Sutton garden was a hive of activity. I saw/heard 27 species in an hour of watching, before the grey clouds rolled in once again. Some of the best I failed to photograph. A big flock of Lesser Redpolls in the tall alders. A very close-range flyby Great Spotted Woodpecker. And a Sparrowhawk that shot right past me at about knee height and bobbed neatly over the hedge into next door's garden where, judging by the awful noises that ensued, it dispatched an unlucky Starling.

A small flock of Siskins came and landed in a smaller and closer alder than those favoured by the redpolls.

I found a place to stand where I could see as much open sky (in good light) as possible and waited to see what flew by. Results included these Collared Doves and multiple Magpies.

Stand still long enough and often a little bird or two will come and check you out, in this case a Coal Tit and a Dunnock.

We went for a lovely muddy country stomp later, after the sun had gone in but before the rain arrived. I took the camera but made little use of it, though I did photograph this nice-looking plant which might be Old Man's Beard (but I'm not sure, and would welcome confirmation/correction).

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A tree in Sauternes

I'm just back from a few days with my sister and her family in Sauternes, a village near Bordeaux in south-west France. It wasn't a birding trip, more a family catch-up trip, but I did spend a little time chilling (literally) by the pool, pointing my big lens at a tree. In this landscape of flat vineyards, trees are few and far between, and a range of local birdlife called in at this one.

Cirl Buntings! These were around in small parties, though they were shy and I didn't manage any very good shots, whenever I saw one there was always a twig or leaf or far too many metres between it and me.

Tree Sparrow. Plenty of these too, along with House Sparrows, though the latter hung around near the houses (appropriately enough) and the Tree Sparrows were more out in the fields.

This was a surprise, though I've done some research since and discovered that Blackcaps do winter in southern France, though whether these are going to be British or eastern European birds, I don't know. This one was certainly as furtive and hard to photograph as your average British Blackcap in summer.

I'd have liked a (much) better look at this, the only Serin that I saw during the stay.

Lots of Starlings were congregating in the next tree along, a larger specimen with room for hundreds of Starlings (and well away from me and my camera) but a few dropped into 'my' tree as well.

When not flocking in the big tree, the Starlings sat along telegraph wires. Here they are keeping company with a few Woodlarks.

One of the local stars is Black Redstart. This one (female? first-winter male?) was hanging around by my sister's veg patch, I also saw it picking the tiny mutant grapes from the vines that cover the house.

The birdlife round here is VERY jumpy and jittery - with good reason, judging by the number of gunshots I heard. The exception to this was the garden 'rouge-gorge', which when not chasing away other birds was posing prettily for my camera.

Other birds? Not a lot, really. Blue and Great Tits and Blackbirds abounded. There were Carrion Crows out in the vineyards, and I clocked several Chaffinches and Goldfinches going over. Heard many Green Woodpeckers, but the only raptor I saw was a single Buzzard. On the last night, I heard the bugling of what sounded like a LOT of Common Cranes, but it was too dark to see anything.

Finally, we had a day in Bordeaux - it rained and I took lots of photos of architecture. The only thing seen that warrants inclusion here was a number of Coypus, around the muddy shore of the Garonne. It was the first time I've photographed (in fact the first time I've properly seen) these hefty aquatic rodents and I took many poor photos (wrong lens, no light), including these two.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Rainham at the start of winter

... or the end of autumn,  if you prefer. Anyway, it's the last day of November and it was fiercely cold at 8.30am when I set off to meet Shane at the station for our trip to RSPB Rainham Marshes. With blue skies and little breeze, we were in optimistic mood. We arrived before the reserve opened, and so went for a short jaunt along the riverside. Birds seemed to be everywhere - Greenfinches and Linnets carpeting the tops of the trees and bushes, Blackbirds moving furtively around in the thicker vegetation.

The clucking notes of Fieldfares overhead drew our attention to a small party of these lovely winter thrushes. They settled in the top of a hawthorn, but with typical jitteriness were soon off again.

One flew right over our heads, and I completely failed to get any sharp photos of it.

There was a fair bit of river foreshore exposed, and a few Skylarks lifted off from it and whirled around us. Down in the shallows, many Teals and a couple of Wigeons were feeding.

We turned back for the centre, and crossed the drawbridge to the visitor centre, where Howard Vaughan was present and greeted us with his usual big grin. So nice to see someone who really loves their job :) Then out onto the reserve. We had seen three different Reed Buntings before even reaching the Purfleet scrape hide, including this lovely female.

Entering the hide, it was pretty obvious that we were the first to go in that day as the windows were all shut (and pretty steamed up) and there were numerous Wigeons feeding very close to the windows. As anyone who knows this hide will recall, the windows are HUGE and there's no way we could avoid being seen by the ducks. They began to edge away as we sat down, but happily didn't go very far back.

This gorgeous female had more cojones than the rest and stood her ground as we settled in and wound down the windows.

As you can see, parts of the scrape were iced up, and the ice was thick enough to bear the weight of four well-nourished Wigeons. There were also a few Black-tailed Godwits here, feeding among the Wigeons, and a pair of Gadwalls.

On we went. As we got further from the visitor centre the number of flyover small birds dwindled, and in fact this stretch of the walk, up to the shooting butt, was very quiet.

Up by the shooting butts we found this showy male Reed Bunting, sharing his isolated little tree with a female Chaffinch and a Robin. As we watched him, we noticed a large flock of geese coming our way and turned to take a look. They were mostly Greylags with a few Canadas.

Among them was a barnyard refugee, attracting attention thanks to its white bits, but keeping up with the others quite comfortably.

As the flock swung about, I noticed another oddity, but this is (I think) a pukka leucistic wild Greylag (well, as wild as any south-eastern Greylag).

We carried on towards the Shooting Butts hide. Here we met a couple walking the other way, who said they'd seen a Peregrine by the railway line. They pointed it out, saying it was perched on a very distant post, but I couldn't get onto it - all I could see on any of the posts was a Kestrel. It turned out that they were talking about the Kestrel. Oh well.

As if to prove a point, the Kestrel took flight, crossed half the reserve to come fairly close to us and then began to do its Kestrel thing.

More flight-shot fun - a Meadow Pipit. There were plenty of these around, plus a couple of Rock Pipits.

There was little to see from the Shooting Butts hide. A Little Grebe among Teals on the water. Waves of Lapwings flying overhead. Our first Grey Heron of the day. We didn't stick around too long but moved on to the next hide.

A different selection of ducks were on the deeper water this side of the reserve, including Pochards, Tufties and Shovelers, plus more Gadwalls including this one.

We continued along the frost-covered boardwalk, scanning the stands of reedmace in hope of a Penduline Tit, but that was not to be. As we neared the wooded corner of the reserve, we found a pair of Stonechats. They were confiding enough, especially the female, but not so helpful in terms of where they chose to perch relative to the sun's position.

On to the 'carr' area where the reedbed starts to dry out. True to form, there was a singing Cetti's Warbler here, which adeptly dodged the cameras. The feeding station area at the edge of the reedbed where it meets the woodland has been revamped, and was busy with tits and finches, plus this not-very-busy-looking Collared Dove.

The main feeder was this sort of mesh pouch, full of black sunflower seeds and being enthusiastically utilised by several different species, including Great and Blue Tit and Dunnock.

There are several photogenic perches that serve as 'waiting rooms' for birds like this Goldfinch, coming in to look for a space on the feeder.

The woodland area was quiet, we'd hoped for a Redwing/Fieldfare fest here and did see a couple of shy and flighty Redwings but little else. Then it was back out into the open for the final stretch alongside the grazing marsh.

A large flock of Starlings went by over the fields and I took some photos, not realising til later that the flock actually included a few Dunlins.

As we neared the visitor centre, we started to see more flyover passerines. I was pleased to get a not-too-blurry flight shot of a Redwing, to go with my not-too-blurry Fieldfare flight shot from earlier. On the grazing marsh, a couple of Curlews kept company with good numbers of Wigeons.

We went back into the visitor centre and refreshed ourselves with tea, coffee and cake. As we sat there, facing the big windows, a fine show of waders was underway, the Lapwings to-ing and fro-ing and a tight ball of Dunlins flashing dark and white as they circled around, looking for a suitable place to land. We made short work of our drinks and went back out to walk another short loop on the river side of the reserve.

A nice shiny Carrion Crow flew past at close range. A few Snipes flew past at not-close range. We decided to give the Purfleet scrape hide another look.

From in here, still lots of Wigeons, and some better views of the Black-tailed Godwits.

We walked on along the path as far as the one-way gate through to the public footpath by the river, and took this gate to make the return trip along the riverside path with a great view across the sunlit reserve. Down on the river, there were still a few ducks in the water but the tide was right in so no exposed mud.

As we neared the visitor centre we noticed a small knot of people on the path ahead, aiming their scopes at something. They told us very happily that there was a Waxwing in one of the hawthorns near the centre, and kindly gave us a look through their scopes.

The lone Waxwing was sitting quietly in the bush, as placid as it was beautiful. Every minute or so it would reach for a berry, swallow it, then resume its peaceful sitting. Shane and I got a little closer, on a parallel path, and took a few (hundred) photos. In the same bush were Greenfinches, a Reed Bunting and a Redwing.

I'll end with this Greenfinch, loitering near the feeders, nicely lit on its thorny perch. A top morning at Rainham, and a treat to be out in the sun after such a miserable, rainy week.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Four days late...

I visited Sevenoaks WR on Sunday for a couple of hours mid-morning. Not sure why it's taken me so long to blog about it this time... maybe because it was one of those days when all the birds were too distant, or too quick for me, or too badly lit, and my photos just aren't that inspiring. But the birding was pretty good.

Grebe hide was busy so I didn't hang around for a go at the feeders, but headed straight for Willow hide. The trees are really starting to look pretty bare now. Little flurries of Siskins made sneezy calls as they whizzed overhead, and somewhere a Green Woodpecker chortled sardonically as it saw me coming and made sure I didn't see it. I reached Willow hide and settled in, noting straight away that the water was very high and apart from the usual swarms of Coots and a few Gadwalls there wasn't too much to see.

All was peaceful, until one Coot came clattering across from the far side of the lake to start a fight with another Coot, and soon a few others joined in. The ensuing ruck lasted about a minute and provided some welcome photo opportunities.

I was keeping an eye on the skies, and noted several Jays and Magpies plus a Stock Dove and more Siskins going over. Then a Sparrowhawk whirred low over the water, and plunged into the trees on the lefthand shore, where it had a mostly hidden altercation with a Magpie, sending the latter flapping away in alarm.

In the far corner of the lake there were a few extra ducks, including six Shovelers, five drakes and a duck, and a solitary Wigeon. No Teals - I imagine they have decamped to the East lake where there is some shallower water for them. A Kingfisher shot past at very close range and unphotographable speed.

Greylags and Canadas were feeding in the sheepfield beyond the lake. Five Egyptian Geese (probably the same five I photographed last time) pitched in among them, and had a noisy displaying session before settling down to feed.

I went on to Carter hide. Two people were already in situ, and moments later a Kingfisher flew in and landed among trees on the waterside, not particularly close but very nicely lit in full sunshine. As we watched, it moved in little darting flights along the shore, made one failed dive halfway along, and then flew across the lake and away. Nearby three Tufted Ducks were lolling and preening in the shallows.

I decided to head for the viewing mound at the corner of East Lake - I didn't feel like doing a full walk, as there were clouds building rapidly in some parts of the sky, and after getting thoroughly caught in the rain the day before I didn't fancy doing it again. On the way there I photographed this oak leaf, in its last flush of life.

From the mound I could see straight away that all the Lapwings were up, and so were the gulls. There's a couple of Commons among these Black-headeds.

This activity indicated a bird of prey was around, but I didn't spot it until it was almost too late. Pity. This is only my third Common Buzzard here, and a few moments earlier would probably have made a nice photo. Oh well. It disappeared among the trees, and gradually the birds over the lake settled down again.

I stayed on the mound for a while, photographing gulls and playing with camera settings. I noted a Jay feeding on the wooded island directly below, and two Kingfishers rushing low across the water some way off. Little groups of Teals were dabbling around the various islands' shores. Then this Carrion Crow came out of the trees, looking agitated.

All the other birds went up too. Among the Lapwings and gulls was a solitary Snipe which absolutely belted away high over the trees. I managed to get on to the raptor that had disturbed them a little quicker this time - it was a Sparrowhawk, second of the day.

I returned to the visitor centre after that, and found Grebe hide was empty. A Nuthatch was on the feeder, giving me lovely point-blank views as it scrambled about over the squirrel-proof cage, then squeezed inside to feast on sunflower hearts.

I held out for the Marsh Tit, which did finally show up and behaved beautifully, taking a single seed from the feeder then carrying it off to a branch and eating it before returning for another. Just a pity its chosen branch wasn't very well lit, but you can't have everything.

I'll finish with this Blue Tit. Someone remarked the other day that Blue Tits always look grumpy. Can't say I see it myself... :)