Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A very short post

Firstly, apologies in advance for future quietness on my blog - have just discovered that my camera's busted so there'll be no pics for a while. Not sure how long these things take but it's going back to Nikon this week for repair.

So to be going on with, here are some pics from Rainham. I was there on Sunday but was mainly occupied doing a book signing and only managed a very short look at the riverbank. Plus it was a very wet and gloomy day so the few photos I took were mostly horrible.

A male Teal heading up the Thames. There were a few Wigeons on the water too. Waders scooting about included Curlews, Golden Plovers and Dunlins. Also saw two Peregrines, a female pursuing a male in a rather ominous manner, given that possibly the same female had a few days previously killed a male on the reserve.

The day was saved by Nelson, the one-eyed young male Kestrel who can be seen regularly on the riverbank and near the visitor centre. He is as fearless as the other well-known Rainham Kestrel, the female called Kes, who I haven't seen for ages but maybe he is a relation of hers. I found him sitting in a small tree by the river and he seemed unconcerned by my presence (though I noticed he kept his good eye turned to me at all times!) so I took lots of pics from various angles. I'd have probably burned up the whole memory card if it hadn't been really raining at the time.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Sheppey day

Hello, and apologies to all for the long gap betwixt this post and the last one. Work, life, you know the score. I had a trip to Elmley Marshes with Phil (of Sharp by Nature) today and it was fab, despite very murky grey skies all day that made for very murky grey photographs, some of which I present below for your viewing pleasure.

I met Phil at West Malling station and we were at the start of the access track by about 10am. This is my first visit to the site since it ceased to be an RSPB reserve (new management's website is here). Not a lot seemed to have changed at first glance. We began the traditional slow pootle down the long driveway, soon stopping to admire Curlews aplenty and lots of bathing Starlings, while the first of many Marsh Harriers cruised around in the distance.

This Common Gull flew towards us as I was trying and failing to get nice shots of some of the Curlews.

Finally a Curlew did strike a clear pose for me, on the edge of a largish scrape which I think might be newly dug. Also new was what looks like some anti-predator fencing, and a broad strip by the track that was planted with big seeding stuff, including many sunflowers. This area was stuffed with hungrily feeding finches, but was on Phil's side of the car - I hoped to get some photos on the return journey.

I was eagerly scanning the fields for hares but found none. This Pheasant was sprinting across the sloping field close to the car park.

We parked up, and I went over to check the Barn Owl box, noticing as I went that the car park was full of fine-looking chickens, one of which gave me a casual peck in passing.

Aw. Barn Owl was at home, and doing a charming head-tilt in our direction. On the grass below, a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding, while Teals were in the water and Wigeons grazing on the far bank.

We went on into the reserve, noting on the right of the trail a great big pile of earth which we theorised could be a new raptor viewing mound. We even climbed up it to check but could see no raptors from up there, though it did supply terrific views.

A little further along the first of the day's many Kestrels came flapping along, and obligingly hovered quite close by for an impressively long time.

As we walked hide-wards, there were huge numbers of birds in view much of the time, though at a great distance away. Out on the fields, a big flock of Canada Geese was accompanied by a few Brents, while swirling masses of Lapwings were on the horizon and little gangs of ducks (Mallards, Wigeons and Shelducks) were constantly going overhead.

Things looked pretty quiet from the Wellmarsh hide, but a closer look revealed a tightly packed crowd of waders on one of the many little islands. They were mainly Dunlins but with a fair few Knots, Grey Plovers and Turnstones. The only other island to hold any birds had a lone Avocet and a few Snipes, but it did later collect some overspill from the most popular island. A few Shovelers were out on the water, and two Marsh Harriers patrolled the far shore.

On we went to the Counterwall hide, which overlooked a completely deserted scrape. However, there was some pleasing 'little bird' action here in the shape of a pair of Stonechats.

They both came pretty close and posed nicely. It is interesting how these birds pair up when on their winter territory. I just pulled my copy of Stonechats - a guide to the genus Saxicola off the shelf and learned that these winter pair bonds don't necessarily persist when the birds return to the breeding grounds - they may have a territorial function only.

We had a debate at this point about whether to continue to the other hides or to go to Shellness instead, and Shellness won that one quite easily. So we packed up and headed back.

Another confiding Kestrel gave us some close views on the walk back. We also heard Bearded Tits calling from a reedbed halfway along the return trail but they weren't showing themselves.

It may not be a Beardie but it's still a very cute reedbed denizen. This Reed Bunting was one of a group of four, and bravely sat around distracting us while the other three made their getaway.

On the driveway back, we stopped again by the weedy strip to check out the finches. The flock, made up of Linnets, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, seemed to have shrunk a bit since we first encountered it, but there were still a few birds busily demolishing the sunflower heads.

There were lots of Lapwings alongside the track. Among them we spotted a couple of Ruffs - this one, and another with an almost completely white head.

The drive to Shellness produced a flock of (probably Red-legged) partridges and another close-up Kestrel. We arrived just as a party of birders was packing up to leave, and they told us that the high-tide roost was pretty epic, so we took the path behind the 'Shellness estate' to the beach. We were about 30 minutes after high tide, but the path was still fairly inundated with sea water, suggesting it had been a REALLY high tide. As soon as we got out onto the beach it became obvious that there were birds aplenty on the shores, probably some tens of thousands of them. I suggested we sit quietly by one of the breakwaters and see if any of the waders would come close to us after a while, and to my great gratification they did. Even some of the many Brent Geese chilled out enough to swim right past us. It was a most wonderful experience and my only wish is that we could have had some sunlight... maybe next time.

From the top, here we have Brent Geese, Dunlin, Sanderling, Grey Plover, Redshank (with bonus blurry Dunlin), a bunch more Dunlins, and a Turnstone.

Just as we were thinking about packing up, as the light was getting ridiculous, a smallish-but-not-that-smallish falcon came bombing along the shoreline and revealed itself to be a very lovely male Peregrine. It chased but couldn't catch one of the little waders, and then carried on to wreak havoc among the huge cluster of Oystercatchers on a distant spit.

The traumatised Oyks came around and landed quite near to where we were sitting, though by this point the tide had gone out far enough that they were not all that close to us. I'm pleased to report that we were able to get up and sneak away without disturbing any of them.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Quiet times and bad photographs

It's the usual refrain - I've been too busy to get out much, and when I have I've managed to make a bit of a Horlicks of most of the (few) photo opportunities that have come my way. Still, I do have a couple of reports, the first from Thursday 24th October. I went to Rainham for a long-overdue meet-up with my friend and former colleague Simon, who lives quite near there. He is an ace birder and also a scope-carrier, so I got a closer look than usual at some of what we saw, which was nice. It was a sunny day at first, and then a cloudy one.

I arrived early, before the drawbridge went down in fact. Howard let us in, first pointing out the three Common Seals hauled up on the far side of the Thames. Then I spent 20 minutes or so in the Purfleet hide, photographing flyover birds - Blue Tit, Greenfinch and Grey Heron here, but there were also drifts of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and of course tons of Starlings.

Action at ground level was more limited. The wildfowl was all on the far side of the scrape. I couldn't extract any Snipes from the shoreline vegetation. I was diverted by the antics of a small posse of Carrion Crows.

When Si arrived we decided to walk anticlockwise, and headed woodward, noting a Jay going over but no winter thrushes, to my disappointment.

A Cetti's Warbler sang from within a tangle of bramble. As we waited to try to catch a glimpse, a Blackcap dived into the brambles from the other side, and this evidently upset the Cetti's, as it came out into full view (though sadly terrible light) and danced about a bit before flying off.

We stopped at the edge of the wood for Si to scope the Barn Owl box, but no-one was home. From here you can see (clearly but distantly) the nest box and below it the roosting box, the latter the one likely to be in use at this time of year.

There wasn't much doing from the Ken Barratt hide. Carrying on, we looked out across Aveley Flash, which was busy with wildfowl including plenty of Pintails. Then something put up the Lapwings, and also a fair-sized Snipe flock.

The 'something' was this burly Sparrowhawk. We also clocked a Marsh Harrier from here, and a Peregrine on a distant pylon which then took off and flew towards us (but changed course before it got into decent-photograph range).

A couple of Gadwalls making their graceful descent. The rest of the walk around was rather uneventful - we went along the sea wall and tried to nail down the few pipits we saw there, hoping to find a Water, but the couple that showed well were all Rocks. After tea and cake and the visitor centre, we drove towards Rainham and visited a stretch of foreshore noted for the concrete barges that are lined up by the shore. Here we looked for waders and found a few Redshanks. The barges themselves were rather interesting but unfortunately my long lens was wholly unsuited to taking photos of them, so instead here's an image I found online.

Then last week I was cat-sitting in Brighton, and I didn't even take birding lens or binoculars as I knew I wouldn't have time for anything much. I did have the company of my sister and her family for some of the time, which was very nice. I borrowed Rob's 50mm lens for family portraits, which I won't bore you with, but here's a photo of one of the cats.

And on to this weekend just gone. I had a short visit to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve on Sunday morning. It was bright and breezy, and rather cold.

The feeders were more or less devoid of action, though I did hear some Siskins wheezing overhead as I crossed the car park. I walked to the Willow hide via West Lake, on which were several Tufted Ducks including these dusky-flanked fellows.

There was a camera-toting birder looking at something alongside North Lake. It turned out to be four Little Egrets perched in the trees on the far side. Unfortunately they were too spaced out for me to fit more than one in the frame at a time.

I settled down in Willow hide and began Wigeon-hunting. I located only two, a male and a female. Here's the male, with a Gadwall pair. The water level has gone right up - the exposed mud in front of the hide has gone completely and with it the Teal flock.

All in all, bird numbers were disappointingly low. I saw just one Shoveler, plus a few Mallards and Tufties. No geese of any description. The Mute Swans were there, with their two well-grown cygnets, and two Kingfishers came chasing across the water but didn't stop.

Jays were going to and fro, their gullets stuffed with acorns. It seems to be a bumper autumn for not only acorns but also beechmast, sweet chestnuts and conkers, and probably lots of other natural foods as well. Hopefully this will make for good overwinter survival rates for the birds.

I walked on towards Long Lake. Looking out over West Lake I could see that the gull flock in front of Tyler hide had grown to an impressive size. A few gulls were wafting about closer to hand, including this Black-headed and Common.

Near Long Lake I found a lively flock of mostly Long-tailed Tits, but with a few Blue Tits, a Goldcrest and a Treecreeper thrown in. I couldn't get a clear photo of any of them, but it was nice to see some little-bird action. There were more Siskins overhead here too, a flock of about 30.

Long Lake itself held a cluster of Tufties. This Great Spotted Woodpecker paused briefly in a tree on the far side.

When I got to the little meadow patch, I noticed a Green Woodpecker discreetly flying into a tangly low tree, and got a few shots when the leaves blew out of the way.

I didn't notice at the time, but checking my photos at home I was surprised to discover that the woodpecker's eye was very dark, rather than the glacially pale blue-white that's typical of adult Greenies.

And stranger still... when it flew down to the grass and showed me its other side, the right eye is normal-coloured. Heterochromia in a woodpecker? I should probably show these pics to British Birds mag, they seem to like weird things like this.

On the way back, I did manage a few shots of Long-tailed Tits, albeit in shocking light.