Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spellbound In Wales

Until last Saturday I could count the number of Woodcocks I had seen on one hand and still have two fingers left over. My first was at Titchwell in February 2007, where I had crippling views of one just off the path by the visitor centre. My second was also in Norfolk, in April this year, and my third was on Cannock Chase in June, when I went looking for Nightjars with Kay, Max, Pete and Richard 'The Producer' Powell.

I was back in Wales last weekend and although the main reason for the trip was to help my Dad with some work in the garden, there were, unsurprisingly, a few birding matters to take care of. First up, as daylight fell on Saturday we drove up to the Glasfryn Estate, whose Pheasants have found their way into my Dad's casserole pot on a number of occasions over the years. Earlier this year, my Dad found out that this is a prime spot to watch Woodcocks coming in to roost and it promised to be a spectacle not to be missed.

With the kind permission of the resident gamekeeper, we parked up as it was getting dusk and waited. Before too long our first Woodcock flew over. In a short space of time we counted about seven, but it quickly got too dark to see properly so we called it a night.

Sunday saw us completing most of the jobs in the garden, which meant that on Monday afternoon my Dad and I were able to get down to Porthmadog for a spot of seawatching. We positioned ourselves on the headland not too far from where I had my Great Skua sighting in July.

There was an enormous flock of Common Scoter on the sea. There must have been something better amongst them, but they were a tad distant to sort out easily and it was frightfully cold, so we weren't too keen to spend any longer than we had to exposed to the Welsh elements. We clocked a few Great-Crested Grebes and Red-Breasted Mergansers on the water, plus a Red-Throated Diver, then headed back to the car.

My Dad had seen Water Pipits off Porthmadog Cob in March and we were keen to see if we could find any. Sadly we were unsuccessful. A Little Egret, a Grey Heron, some Ravens and a few Redshank were the best we could manage. Finally, I bagged a guaranteed year tick when we popped down to Prenteg to see the Whooper Swans [year tick 217!] that arrive like clockwork each winter.

Tuesday had always been pencilled in as our birding day proper. A comprehensive itinerary had been prepared and shortly after 8:00am we were on our way to Rhos-On-Sea, quite simply one of the best places to see Purple Sandpiper at this time of year. These scarce waders didn't disappoint us - there they were, on the rocks with many Turnstones, Redshanks, Ringed Plovers and a few Dunlin [year tick 218!].

You can get really close to the birds at high tide here. So much so, that my attempts at digiscoping were hindered only by the fact that I needed to be further away from them! A few shots follow.

Schlurple the purple ..


Ringed Plover

Turnstones and Redshank

More Turnstones and Redshank

Next stop, Pensarn. This is reported to be a veritable mecca for Snow Bunting. Indeed, I thought it was another lifer in the bag, but maybe it's still just a bit too early for them to be around in any great numbers? We had a lengthy walk up and down Pensarn beach, but couldn't manage anything better than a Redshank or a Turnstone.

Pensarn .. devoid of Snow Bunting

Aber Ogwen was our next port of call. We scanned the estuary and noted some nice birds, namely Goldeneye, Goosander and Little Egret, then found our way to the hide overlooking a small pool. Another Little Egret was poking around in the shallows and there were a good variety of common birds on the feeders. Shortly before we left, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Marsh Tit both showed up. The latter was a very pleasing day tick.

The Spinnies

We spent the last few hours on Anglesey. Firstly, we checked out Llyn Coron. This is a lovely little spot. We didn't worry too much about the lake itself, concentrating on the wonderful habitat that borders the road. Scrubland and dunes to the left of us, and stubble fields to the right. Here we were able to tick Goldfinch and Chaffinch in good numbers, and Stonechat and Reed Bunting too. The relentless cronking of many Ravens served to remind us that we were on the outskirts of Newborough Warren.

Llyn Coron


As the sun dropped in the sky, we relocated at Maltraeth. This is a prime spot to see raptors coming in to roost, and we were optimistic of bagging an owl or two, plus a Hen Harrier if we were lucky. We had not long found a decent place to view from when my Dad spotted something perched on a post out on the estuary. We both had a good look at it through the scopes and quickly identified it as a female or juvenile Merlin [lifer 230!] [year tick 219!]. Magical!



Merlin .. magic!

The Merlin was flushed by a Raven within a few minutes, but reappeared on another post a little bit later. This time, a Carrion Crow saw it off and stole its perch, but once again it returned and showed well for a few minutes. I'm glad we saw the Merlin. We hadn't had that much luck during the trip, but this made it all worthwhile.

Only a few weeks to go to now until the end of the year and I think I'm just about birded out! I remember feeling like this when I went to Slimbridge last December and I had been fortunate enough to see the American Golden Plover. It just sort of felt like the birding year had drawn to a fitting end. I have, however, a couple more things pencilled in before I can hang the binoculars up until the New Year.

More about that in the next instalment of Eye To The Telescope ...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Little Beauty

Inspired by last week's outing around my local patch, I decided that more of the same was in order this weekend. I was keen, however, to walk a bit further this time, taking in some of the excellent farmland habitat around Hopwood.

Initially, I took a similar route to last week and was pleased to see that the gulls had once again taken up residence in the flooded field along Station Road. A quick scan revealed them all to be Black-Headed Gulls, with no sign of a Mediterranean Gull amongst the throng.

The woodland that connects Tanners Green Lane to Barkers Lane was full of activity last week, but as dead as a doornail this time round. I guess a week is a long time in birding! The fine, but persistent drizzle probably wasn't helping matters as Barkers Lane was also quiet. I did note three Fieldfares, however - a bird that I didn't see last week.

When I reached the magic field along Hill Lane the weather was beginning to improve, so I considered it worth the excursion to Weatheroak Hill and into Watery Lane, which contains the excellent habitat that I mentioned earlier. Just for fun, I had hit the record button on my camera as I made my way towards the tree that is known to contain a pair of Little Owls. Sometimes one of the birds will perch obligingly on one of the prominent lower branches, but I was disappointed to see that it wasn't there.

Suddenly, I caught a bit of movement and saw the owl land on a branch higher up the tree. I reached for the binnies, but the bird had disappeared. The camera was still recording, however, so I made a mental note to check the video carefully when I got home. I managed to analyse the film for the first time today and was pleased to see that I had caught the owl on camera. The picture isn't brilliant, but I have ringed the little fellow for your benefit.

Little Owl

Also in this area I saw a couple of Yellowhammers, two Sparrowhawks, a small flock of Chaffinches and a flock of over a dozen Pied Wagtails. Good numbers of Fieldfare were also about and a single Redwing was spotted high in a tree.

On the way back up Weatheroak Hill, I stopped to take a picture of this old windmill, which is up for sale.

Wythall bird observatory

I reckon it would make a cracking bird observatory, though you wouldn't get much change out of £600,000 if you were thinking of buying the place.

I've really enjoyed birding my patch these last few weeks and I think it's time to reveal one of my goals for 2009. I aim to get out and bird the lanes and fields of Wythall at least once a month, occasionally taking in Hopwood, where the Little Owls reside, and Earlswood Lakes, which are about two and a half miles from where I live. All of this birding will be done on foot, and any birds that I see will be added to a specific patch list. I've set myself a target of getting 75 different species on this list. Also, I'll be doing my bit for the environment by using the car less.

I'm also pulling together some other plans, which I will reveal in the New Year, but there is definitely going to be a shift away from getting lifers and year ticks and more emphasis on specific goals, not all of them birding related I hasten to add.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, there are still six and a bit weeks left before 31 December 2008 and I'm off to Wales on Saturday where I hope to be ticking Purple Sandpipers, Snow Buntings, Water Pipits, Whooper Swans and more. As ever, a trip report will follow upon my return.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back To Basics

What is your local patch? Is it the reserve that's nearest to you? Maybe it's a local reservoir? I live very close to Earlswood Lakes and Bittell Reservoirs, but as good as they are and as much as I enjoy birding them, I can't describe them as my patch. Upton Warren is only about 20 minutes drive down the motorway and is a truly magnificent place to watch birds, but it too doesn't fit the description.

I started birding properly about five years ago now. I used to go out on a Sunday morning and walk down to the Texaco garage on the A435 to pick up the Sunday Times, making a few detours here and there to see what I could see in the lanes and fields around Wythall.

Looking back, I now realise that this was an excellent way to prepare for more intensive birding later on, as I became really familiar with the calls and songs of our more common species. That's why I think of Wythall as my patch, specifically anywhere that I can get to without having to jump in the car.

If I include garden birds, I reckon I must have seen in excess of 60 species in the last few years. No, I'm probably not going to see any mega rarities whilst I'm out and about, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. What I like is the familiarity of the place and knowing what's worth looking out for based on past experiences.

This weekend I spent a couple of hours walking my patch. It made a pleasant change from the recent glut of twitching that has been going on, and it was a chance to begin focusing on my goals for 2009. More of that in a later post, but until then here are a few pictures and notes from my walk.

The flooded field

I don't normally go this way, but the flooded field along Station Road has held a few gulls lately, so I considered it worth a look. Turns out there was nothing there, but I had already added Woodpigeon and Blackbird to my list, and Jay and Magpie soon followed in the fields behind me. The woods that lead onto Tanners Green Lane yielded nothing.

Tanners Green Lane

In view of my diversion, I joined Tanners Green Lane further down than normal. A lone gull was spotted in the adjoining field. A short walk back towards the A435 revealed it as a Black-Headed Gull.

The pond

Always worth a look in this pond. I had one of my first ever Great Spotted Woodpeckers here and the odd Mallard and Moorhen have been seen in the past. Nothing today, however.

The woods

These woods link Tanners Green Lane to Barkers Lane. They were particularly fruitful today, yielding Blue Tit, Goldcrest, Great Tit, Goldfinch, Treecreeper and Long-Tailed Tit. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Dunnock turned up further down the path. A Common Buzzard was heard, but not seen.

Barkers Lane

This lane borders more good woodland. Something caught my eye from with a holly bush laden with berries. After a short wait, a Redwing eventually gave good views. I'd been hoping for that one. A Sparrowhawk drifted over the adjacent fields shortly afterwards and a Mistle Thrush and a pair of Carrion Crow were spotted in the fields further along. A Lesser Black-Backed Gull also flew overhead.

The hedgerows along the A435 often hold Bullfinch in winter, but there were none today. A few years ago I think I had a Waxwing along here too, but I was an inexperienced birder at the time and never certain enough to tick it. I'll be looking a bit more closely this winter!

The magic field

There's a field in Wales that I call the magic field. Well, guess what? I have one in Wythall too. It holds Lapwing in the breeding season and sometimes Skylark and Yellowhammer. Today it failed to live up to its reputation and produced a single Chaffinch.

Chapel Lane is normally abundant with House Sparrows, but I didn't see a single one today. I wonder where they all went to? A dozen Black-Headed Gulls were seen in the fields near Beckett's Farm.

Pearl Group plc

This is where I work. In the grounds I could probably have added Nuthatch to the list. It does throw up some good stuff from time to time, most notably a Red Kite earlier this year.

Wilmore Lane

A Pied Wagtail was seen in Wilmore Lane, then more Redwing and some Bullfinches in Brick Kiln Lane. The woods further down were unusually quiet. At the right time of year, these can hold Chiffchaff and Siskin. I think this is where the local Muntjacs reside too.

Back home

Out of Brick Kiln Lane and back onto the Alcester Road. Home is just a few hundred yards further on. A really enjoyable morning's birding and I've walked just over three miles, which is about the only exercise I get.

I really must do this more often ...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Here Come The Gulls

Some people don't like gulls. Come to think of it, some birders don't like gulls, which tells its own story really. The winter months, however, bring a few scarcer species into our country, so if you're prepared to brave the cold, now is a good time to consider becoming a larus lover.

It's inevitable that at some point I will pluck up the courage to immerse myself in the dubious pleasure of a gull roost at one of our reservoirs. As a kind of preparation for this daunting task, my Dad and I headed to Stubbers Green yesterday morning to see if we were ready for the challenge. This site is pretty reliable for Caspian Gull and Yellow-Legged Gull and both seemed a distinct possibility according to recent news.

As you may recall, I've had a bit of experience with Yellow-Legged Gulls. The first time I thought I had one was in Wales last year, but unsatisfactory views denied me a life tick. When I went to Slimbridge in September, I photographed what I believed to be a Yellow-Legged Gull and confidently upped my life list accordingly, but then somebody threw doubt upon the bird. Whilst I remained pretty sure about its identification, I was keen to see another one, perhaps when more well-versed gull fans were present.

As it turns out, this is exactly what happened yesterday. For starters, Kay and Max had joined us for the morning and Steve Jones, one of the guys who went to Islay with us in 2006 also came along. Also present was a chap called Martin, who is responsible for the enjoyable blog Blurred Birding. Martin's knowledge of gulls was very impressive and it was he who eventually spotted a third-winter Yellow-Legged Gull amongst the more usual species.

Yellow-Legged Gull

It was nice to get this confirmation tick under my belt and my Dad was doubly excited as it was a lifer for him. I saw him reach into his bag and expected him to produce the famous hip flask, but was a little taken aback when he produced a small yoghurt pot. For a moment I thought he'd given up the drink and resolved to get some good bacteria inside him instead, but lo and behold the bottle contained a mixture of whisky and ginger wine. The smell of Christmas filled the air as we toasted the sighting.

Unfortunately, the Caspian Gulls never showed, but it was an enjoyable morning nonetheless. There was plenty to laugh about when the birding got a bit quiet - Kay treading on my Dad's pork pie, Max's all too brief impression of Richie Benaud and an impassioned discussion regarding kebabs spring to mind. Okay, so there was no pork pie in my Dad's bag, but we had Kay going for a few enjoyable minutes.

With feet that felt like blocks of ice, we headed home around midday. I'm sure we'll be back at some point to look for those Caspian Gulls again. I certainly felt like I learnt something from the experience and I can now think about that gull roost with a bit less trepidation. I must get some warmer underwear though.