Friday, 12 February 2016

Here and there on Sheppey

I'd planned to go birding with Phil (read his fab blog HERE) on Friday. The weather forecast was looking ominous and I was sure we'd take a raincheck, but it turned out that both of us could do Thursday instead, so we did. We had sunny weather most of the day, making things almost warm-ish by midday, and breezes were light. All very pleasant indeed.

We kicked off with a drive down the Elmley access track, and stopped almost immediately to admire this little charmer sitting on top of the big barn roof. The first Little Owl I've seen here.

The track produced large numbers of Lapwings, mixed in with a few Ruffs. The winter seed area was devoid of finch-life apart from three Linnets. We reached the start of the reserve proper and had a sneaky look for the Barn Owl in its box, but it wasn't at home. There was, however, a very large flock of Golden Plovers in the fields beyond.

This female Stonechat was by the track on the way back. No sign of her fella (I presume there was one, somewhere). We enjoyed close views of a couple of Skylarks dustbathing on the track ahead of us (sadly not photographable because of the windscreen!). A Marsh Harrier went over, and two Buzzards wheeled and miaowed in the distance. We found a lone Snipe crouched by one of the small pools, but our search for Brown Hares proved futile.

We went on to the raptor viewpoint at Capel Fleet after that. Scanning from the mound produced more Common Buzzards and Marsh Harriers, all very distant, and a couple of even more distant things that could have been male and female Hen Harriers, but could also have been another Buzzard and a gull. From the reedbeds Bearded Tits pinged but refused to show properly, and we had close but brief (very very brief in my case) views of a Water Rail. We met a fellow birder here, who'd seen the Richard's Pipit at Shellness earlier that day, but had failed to find the Shore Lark at Minster. We resolved to try for them both, and headed towards Minster first, aiming to be at Shellness for high tide at 3ish.

We located the right car park at Minster beach without any trouble  - you park right on top of the shingle ridge which has been frequented by a lone Shore Lark for some weeks. Gulls were around, mainly Black-headed, several of which were testily dive-bombing this poor Herring Gull.

The car park was also host to this adorable Sanderling, and it was soon evident that there were plenty more waders down at the shore, very close to hand as the tide was already a long way in.

Part of a large flock of Ringed Plovers and Dunlins, which we tried not to disturb (but they were constantly being bumped along the beach by walkers and dogs anyway).

We met a couple of people in the car park who'd seen the Shore Lark just 20 minutes before, and as we were talking to them it dropped down and landed on the beach very near us. Then it flew off again, and didn't return for a good 15 minutes.

I spent those 15 minutes photographing the little waders (here a Sanderling and a couple of Turnstones) that were going back and forth, and lamenting the fact that the sun seemed to have been consumed by a very grey cloud (pretty much the only cloud in the sky at the time).

I was also a bit peeved that I kept missing the Mediterranean Gulls overhead until it was almost too late. This was one of three seen while we were there.

Then the lark made a welcome return, and we spent a happy 15 minutes taking its photo while it fossicked among the shingle vegetation, quite unworried by our presence.

Lovely little bird. Much more confiding than the Norfolk trio I saw in December, and the light (though still clouded out a bit) was a LOT better than it had been that day. Hence my best Shore Lark pics so far.

We left Minster, just as the cloud rolled away and the sun came out (typical), and drove towards Shellness. The plan was to walk parallel to the coast along the flood defence wall, and look for a certain pipit. It was a lovely walk - tide-flooded and bird-filled saltmarsh on one side and open fields on the other. We found plenty of pipits but all were Meadows and none were Richard's.

But who can complain about that when this happened? A stunning male Hen Harrier came wafting along over the field. It was distant, and my record shots are even worse than I thought they'd be, but what the hell - what a bird.

Scanning distant gateposts produced what we're fairly sure was a pair of Peregrines. Closer at hand, Reed Buntings kept whizzing along the little reedy ditch.

There were also many Skylarks about.

Where the path suddenly gets bendy, there's a view over a shallow bit of water. Here were geese - mainly Greylags but also a few White-fronted. Shovelers dabbled on the open water, and there were a handful of Brents here.

There were, however, absolutely tons of Brents on the saltmarsh side. Their grumbly calls were a constant backdrop, and they kept coming in, in lines and clumps, joining the masses already there (alongside many Curlews, Redshanks and Shelducks).

On the walk back, we found the very fresh (virtually still steaming) remains of a Dunlin, which I'm SURE hadn't been there on our outward walk. I wonder what drama had gone on behind our backs?

Reaching the Shellness beach involved much careful stepping over and around flooded bits from the high tide.On the way we did find this lovely Kestrel. Although the waters were high on the marsh, the tide was already retreating when we reached the beach and sat down. We jumped up almost immediately after sitting down, because we heard a huge load of Brent Geese approaching us from the landward side. They flew low and directly over us and the sight and sound was quite staggering.

They arced round and gave us some stonkingly good views.

We settled down to watch the birds going along the shoreline. As ever, the gulls were most obliging - here a Common and a Great Black-back.

There were plenty of Oystercatchers - some close, some not so close.

As the tide ebbed, the waders wandered a bit closer. Here's a Grey Plover...

... and a Dunlin coming in to land. Soon there were about 100 Dunlins feeding in front of us.

This Curlew wasn't stopping though. And as the sun set slowly in the west, we made our way back over a slightly less flooded saltmarsh and homewards.

Article for The Independent

This is an exciting thing that happened recently. My trip to the Highlands last autumn with Heatherlea (blogged here), was on commission for The Independent newspaper. The piece was printed in their mini-version, i newspaper, a couple of weeks ago, and is online here. Hope you like it!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Pennington rainy day

Nick, being the brilliant person that he is, was the driving force behind us going to Pennington Flash on a Sunday that was so wet and miserable that I could easily have spent it indoors feeling glum. I decided the camera could stay in the camera-bag in between hides, and this tactic worked pretty well.

From the first hide, which overlooks the main flash itself, there were lots of Black-headed Gulls, with a few Herring and Lesser Black-backed further off. On the spit a couple of Oystercatchers wandered about and there were Teals dotted about, with a handful of distant Great Crested Grebes and a Goldeneye or two.

This Goldeneye eventually came over quite close to us. I think the darkish eye must make it a first-winter. Probably female as there's no sign of adult male plumage starting to appear.

The next hide produced - not much. A few dabbling ducks, and a far-off perched Kingfisher. The hide after that - a pair of Teals very close, though they heard us coming in and quickly paddled away.

There have been sightings of a Bittern from the next hide (the Teal hide if I remember rightly). No Bittern for us but several Goosanders snoozing on this island alongside Mallards, Gadwalls and Teals.

There was also a single female Goosander in the water. I tried some shots at slower shutter speeds (1/200th) to reduce noise, bracing the lens on the hide window to reduce shake. As you can see, this didn't work particularly brilliantly.
Two Cormorants, one of them generously filoplumed, dropped in for a short while then left again.

I held out for the Bittern for a good while but had no luck, so it was on to the Bunting hide, where the feeding stations were attracting the usual pageant of small and not-so-small avian visitors.

A selection of the many (many) shots taken here. I took off the teleconverter as it really wasn't needed (and more light really really WAS needed). From the top, Stock Dove, male Reed Bunting, Willow Tit, Nuthatch, male Chaffinch, female Bullfinch. Also present - Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Greenfinch, Robin, Dunnock, Blackbird, Moorhen, Mallard, Woodpigeon, Magpie. I really must come here on a sunny day sometime.

Yearlist update - after the weekend, I finish January on 117 species. Wonder what will be next...

Connah's Quay

I'm just back from another trip to the north-west. On Saturday, we went somewhere new - the Deeside Naturalists' reserve at Connah's Quay, on the Wales side of the Dee Estuary. This reserve is for permit-holders only but our permit-holding friends Hazel and Mike managed to get permission to bring Nick and I there before our permits have actually arrived - so thank you very much to the DNS and Hazel and Mike for that :) The day was bright and sunny, also quite windy and VERY cold. We arrived at about 9am and headed straight for the main hide.

We immediately bumped into a flock of Twites, which was nice, although they were very flighty. Then it was into the hide, and I have to say that this is one of the best hides I've ever been to. It's a tower hide and there are windows on all sides. So on one side you are looking out onto the mudflats of the Dee; on another you have an expanse of wet meadowland; on the next you have views across a pool with some reedbeds; and the fourth side looks out over... the car park. But even this proved very worthwhile in the end...

I started out looking at the mud, which was dotted with Redshanks. Now and then, they'd all fly over to one of the little creeks to bathe, before returning to the mud to feed. Among them were tiny numbers of Dunlins, also a few Teals.

Lots more Teals were opposite, on and around the little pool, and now and then they'd all take flight. This shot shows the generally industrial nature of the area - there's a power station and various other big ugly buildings right behind the reserve. Other wildfowl around included plenty of Shovelers and Wigeons, and a solo Little Grebe. Sadly the Barnacle Goose that Hazel and Mike had found among Canada Geese here two days before was not around today.

The Twites, which we'd unavoidably scared off when we arrived, came back not long after we'd settled in the hide. The flock was about 50-strong. They came down to feed in the car park...

... and gradually came a bit closer...

... and even closer. It was a real treat to watch these beautiful little finches at close-ish range.

Hazel threw out a bit of sunflower seed for them, but most of it was snaffled by this Magpie.

A female-type Marsh Harrier appeared at the back of the reedy pool, and spent a long time bobbing around here, until a Carrion Crow came along and hassled it into moving on.

The wet meadow held more geese, Curlews and the odd Shelduck, and this Rock Pipit showed up at its muddy edge.

We left the hide then and headed along the path to visit three more hides along the estuary, all of which overlook small bits of fresh water rather than the estuary itself.

From the first, a Little Egret was the only bird not to flee at our arrival, but a few Redshanks soon arrived to keep it company.

A flock of Wigeons was very active in one corner of the water, the lone female enduring enthusiastic attention from a group of males.

Flying away didn't seem to solve the problem.

A single Stock Dove was feeding on the bank, then flying off to pastures new. A few Woodpigeons also flew by.

More excitingly (though more distantly), a trio of Bewick's Swans appeared over the far horizon. There were another seven or so further off and lower down.

The next hide produced one of the day's star birds. Can you spot the Spotshank? There were at least three Spotted Redshanks among the Common Redshanks roosting at the back of the pool - you can see one of them here, third from the right.

This pool also came up trumps with three Greenshanks (the third was just out of shot to the left).

There were feeders out the front here, which attracted the usual little birds. I'm not sure about that layer of green in the feeder, but the Goldfinch didn't seem bothered.

The last hide of the three produced fewer birds, and viewing was more tricky as there was a generous stand of teasels and burdock right in front of the windows.

That wasn't all bad though, as this Wren dived into the burdocks and emerged clutching a hefty green caterpillar.

We walked back to the main hide after that, finding this Common Buzzard on the way.

Lots of Curlews flew across the path just before the main hide. We didn't see anything new from the hide and decided to head back to Knutsford, to do the Big Garden Birdwatch in Mike and Hazel's big garden. We logged good numbers and I took a few pics during the allotted hour (through glass so they're not great).

 The resident garden Grey Wagtail, known as Wilma :)
 Female Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Male and female Siskins on a HUGE feeder full of sunflower seed. These birds are spoiled rotten!
 A pretty Stock Dove.
And not quite so pretty - two Woodpigeons having a really full-on fight right in front of us. Hazel was better placed for photos of this and got some corkers - you can see the full sequence on her thread on the RSPB forum here.