Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Time To Get Away

It was 4:20am, Sunday 22 February. The dawn chorus was already in full flow, but I certainly wasn't. The alarm clock on my phone had just gone off, signalling the start of a two-day excursion to Norfolk with my Dad, Dave 'Leapy' Lyons and Steve Jones. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I wasn't, but things seemed much better after a nice warm shower. Once dressed, I hastily packed my stuff together, knocked up a flask of coffee, grabbed the scope and bade Mrs Reg farewell.

I arrived at my Dad's house at about 5:10am, where I was greeted by Steve. Dad seemed to be running a bit late, but it wasn't long before he appeared. After loading up his car with our gear we zipped up the M42 to pick up Leapy, and we were well on our way to May Day Farm by the time the sun finally put in an appearance in the sky.

It saddens me to say that our first true birding experience of the trip was not a pleasant one. A bird shot out of the hedgerows alongside the A14 and straight in front of the car, hitting the windscreen with some force, despite the fact that we weren't travelling particularly quickly. It appeared to me that it was a woodcock, but to even contemplate ticking a bird under such circumstances seemed wholly inappropriate.

We arrived at May Day Farm at about 7:45am. It didn't take long to track down our target bird of woodlark and we were back on the road within 20 or 30 minutes. That was Steve's first lifer of the day, and a solid year tick for everyone else.

Woodlark at May Day Farm

We travelled the short distance to Lynford Arboretum with the intention of bagging hawfinch. After a patient hour's birding we had to admit defeat, although we had been reliably informed that the birds had been seen only minutes before we arrived. Other species of note in the arboretum were redwing, siskin, green woodpecker and mistle thrush. We heard a few common crossbills around the car park, but despite Leapy eyeballing three likely suspects in flight, we couldn't definitively say we had seen any.

As we were making good time, we decided it was worth popping into nearby Lakenheath, where a great grey shrike had been reported. We didn't have to spend too long there before we met another group of birders, who kindly pointed out a distant bush that held the shrike. It was a long way away, but we all managed to get onto the bird. Another sound year tick and a British lifer for Steve.

Next up was a potential mega at Strumpshaw Fen - a penduline tit that had turned up there a few weeks ago and had continued to be seen ever since, albeit sporadically. Despite the odds being against us, we simply had to put in some time to try to see this bird. The news from the visitor centre was that it had been seen at 10:20am, associating with bearded tits. Walking through the woodland to the hide I latched onto a marsh tit, quickly followed by a female brambling.

On reaching the hide it was clear that it was not going to be an easy task to spot the penduline tit. The wind had got up a bit and in my experience this suggested any bearded tits would be less likely to show. During our vigil we were entertained by a few marsh harriers and a bittern flying over the reeds, but otherwise we had to amuse ourselves with a few teal, coots and gadwall. We heard Cetti's warbler and a water rail, which lifted our spirits a bit, but after much patient scanning we had to move on. As far as I know the bird wasn't seen again that day, so we didn't feel too disappointed.

Stubb Mill was our last port of call. We had an entertaining couple of hours here, watching about a dozen marsh harriers, two barn owls, a male hen harrier and a sparrowhawk, before enjoying the spectacle of about 28 common cranes coming in to roost as the light slipped away. Aside from the birds, I spotted my first Chinese water deer, which was extremely pleasing. Shots of one of the owls with some of the harriers in the background follow, although they are far from brilliant.

Barn Owl and Marsh Harriers

Barn Owl and Marsh Harriers

We didn't have a high species count at the end of day one, but there was no doubt that we had seen some quality birds. After taking a couple of wrong turns we eventually arrived in Sheringham and enjoyed a bit of pub grub and a few pints of the local ale before hitting the sack. After 18 hours on my feet it was no surprise that I was out like a light.

Sheringham was a pleasant and convenient place to stop. Not only that, it is also home to the largest duvet machine in North Norfolk, as evidenced by the following photograph.

Impressive claim

We had drawn up our battle plans for day two during our meal the night before. First up was the cattle egret at Matlaske, just 15 minutes drive from Sheringham. We had some good gen regarding this bird, but after half an hour scanning the fields we drew a blank. However, we did spot another barn owl, an Egyptian goose and a common gull during our search.

Barn Owl

Not wishing to waste too much time, we travelled to Salthouse, where we hoped to connect with snow bunting. This site threw up plenty of decent birds and year ticks, including turnstone, skylark, little egret, redshank and ringed plover, and I also noted four seals in the sea.

We agreed to invest an hour of our time looking for the buntings. News that they had been seen earlier on gave us hope, but the hour passed surprisingly quickly and we begrudgingly headed back to the car. However, as I walked along the shingle I heard excited voices behind me. I wheeled around to see a very animated Steve and Leapy, and about a dozen or more snow buntings on the deck. Dad was further ahead, but I signalled to him and he was able to get his bins on the birds. We watched them for about ten minutes or so, then got back on the road, though not before the hip flask had been produced.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A brief stop at Holkham added a few more birds to the list, including black-tailed godwit and snipe, but we had bigger fish to fry and we were mobile again before too long. We had heard that the black-necked grebe remained at Gypsy Lane, so we felt this had to be worth a look. The bird behaved impeccably, showing well just as we arrived and allowing close views and some reasonable photos. The bird's ability to dive just as Steve was about to take a shot provided some light relief.

Black-Necked Grebe

Black-Necked Grebe

We paid a brief visit to Choseley Barns, getting yellowhammer, corn bunting and stock dove for our troubles, then it was onto Titchwell. The best of the birds here included avocet, spotted redshank and sanderling. With the light beginning to fail we paid a brief visit to the Island Hide and were reliably informed that a few Mediterranean gulls had been around for most of the day. Leapy managed to land straight on one and I too got it in my scope just before it flew off. Luckily, my Dad located another bird and we were all able to see this one before it also took flight.

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank

Hunstanton got everyone a year tick in the shape of fulmar, but the visibility was appalling and we hit the road. Our final adventure was a circuit of the Wolferton Triangle. We spotted several deer and one common pheasant, but no golden pheasant as hoped.

This is the bit where I normally summarise the trip, and not wishing to disappoint I'd like to say thanks to the old boy for notching up approximately 500 miles behind the wheel. Thanks also to Steve and Leapy for the company, the banter and the jokes, none of which I can possibly repeat here. It was another memorable trip, something of an appetiser for the main course that will be the trip to Islay in May. Until then, I guess I'll just have to feed on the scraps of my local patch again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dirty Epic

My loyalty was put to the test again on Saturday when England played Wales in the Six Nations. I'm about one-quarter Welsh, which means that I really should have been cheering on the men in white, but I have such admiration for the way Wales are playing their rugby at the moment, that I couldn't help but celebrate their deserved victory.

Yesterday, I headed to Earlswood Lakes, though when I arrived home you might have been forgiven for thinking that I had returned from the Millennium Stadium, judging by the amount of mud that I was covered in. If you're a fan of the mucky stuff, I suggest you get down there pronto. I think it's safe to say that I might be giving it a miss now until the spring!

Earlswood Lakes is key to me hitting my target of 75 species seen on foot this year. Fellow birder Matthew Griffiths dedicates much of his time to birding the lakes and the surrounding area and has recently had a number of sightings that would make useful additions to my list, notably raven, kingfisher, common gull, water rail, shoveler and pochard. Matthew's blog can be found here.

Sadly, none of these birds were seen yesterday morning, but the lakes and surrounding woods and fields did produce two song thrush, long-tailed tit, grey heron, many mallard, one male goosander, a handful of tufted ducks, two greenfinch, one cormorant, a small flock of presumed siskins, a few pied wagtail, around 20 great crested grebe, a few redwing, about a dozen meadow pipits and at least four nuthatch.

I managed a solitary patch tick when a greylag goose flew in from the fields behind Windmill Pool with a single Canada goose. Throw in a lone stock dove that I spotted in the flooded field along Station Road as I set off and that was it in terms of ticks for the day.

Windmill Pool

On a more positive note, there are real signs that spring is on its way, even though we're only halfway through February. The dunnocks, chaffinches and greenfinches were all particularly vocal yesterday, and some of the black-headed gulls are already acquiring their brown heads. If any non-birders are reading this, then yes, I appreciate that you will find that last statement somewhat odd! Black-headed gulls are quite possibly the worst-named bird in the world, though there could be some Telescope Points on offer for anyone who can suggest any others.

The best bit of the outing was probably the sight of many redwings and fieldfares in the field adjacent to Earlswood Station on the way home. I really struggled to put numbers on the flock, but I reckoned there were at least 80 redwing and 20 fieldfare.

So, in summary, another two ticks for the list and a leg-busting 7.6 miles onto the total distance covered. My crude estimations also tell me that I've lost an inch or two off my waist. Keeping fit is one of the fringe benefits of birding, although I've still got some way to go before people start mistaking me for one of the legs off my tripod!

Birds Seen On Foot 2009: 56

Distance travelled: 35.8 miles

Down To The Wyre

This morning, Mrs Reg and I took a wander down the old railway line in the Wyre Forest, followed by a stroll along Dowles Brook. Following up a bit of first-class gen from Martyn Yapp, we were fortunate enough to see a roosting tawny owl - only my second one and great views too. Lesser redpolls were also seen, as were a pair of marsh tits and a dipper, along with several displaying sparrowhawks, a great spotted woodpecker, three bullfinch, a year tick in the shape of kingfisher, and a deer of some description. Possibly fallow?

Welcome Break

In all honesty, the patch birding has been a bit tough going recently. The trip to Norfolk next Sunday couldn't come at a better time and I'm really looking forward to it.

Once I return I will be back on the patch. I don't expect the month of March to throw too much my way and I will most likely restrict my birding to the more traditional haunts near to home. I don't think my legs can take another trek to Earlswood, although once the chiffchaffs and willow warblers show up I may find it difficult to stay away!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

As expected, the wintry weather curtailed any plans to get out in the field this weekend. To be absolutely honest, I probably could have ventured out on Sunday morning, but it was a bit chilly and I simply couldn't be bothered. However, the heavy snow at the end of the week meant that I walked into work on Thursday and Friday.

At the beginning of the year I took the view that if I did leave the car at home and make the journey on foot, then I would count this as patch birding. As a result, I added just over three miles to my total distance walked this year. In terms of birds it wasn't too bad either, as redwing, greenfinch and green woodpecker were all seen, the latter being a patch tick.

I was also keeping a close eye on the garden this weekend. February is a good month to get siskins on the feeders and the prospect of a lesser redpoll amongst them. I haven't seen either of these species so far, but I'm still optimistic of a visit as winter wears on. However, three great spotted woodpeckers on Sunday morning was an excellent record. First a male and female visited the suet feeders, closely followed by a second female moments later, when the original pair decamped to the large tree in the garden behind ours.

Birds Seen On Foot 2009: 54

Distance travelled: 28.2 miles

Telescope Points

Congratulations to Andy, who correctly answered the crossword clue featured in my previous entry. The correct answer was flinch, which apparently is an alternative meaning of the word quail. You learn something new everyday, don't you?

Being the winner of the first set of Telescope Points to be awarded this year, Andy currently heads the Telescope League Table, closely followed by, well, no one.

More Telescope Points will be on offer over the coming weeks, so keep 'em peeled and who knows, you could be walking away with the Telescope Trophy come the end of the year.


On Sunday 22 February I head to Norfolk with my Dad, Dave Lyons and Steve Jones. We're spending one night in Sheringham and hope to visit Lynford Arboretum, May Day Farm, Strumpshaw Fen, Stubb Mill, Salthouse, Holkham, Titchwell and Choseley Barns. It's going to be a hectic couple of days, but so long as the weather is on our side I'm sure there's going to be some cracking birding, and with Dave and Steve present there's bound to be plenty of laughs too.

Next Sunday I hope to get back on the patch, possibly with a view to looking for snipe again, and I'll report my findings in due course.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Riddle

There was so much to report from Sunday's big outing that inevitably one or two things had to be omitted. I'll leave Kay to tell the lightbulb story, which I'm sure you'll find illuminating, but I thought I'd better write a piece about the woman known only as ... Crossword Lady.

Some say she eats brake pads for breakfast and that she's allergic to the Dutch ... oh no, sorry, that's The Stig. However, Crossword Lady is remarkable in her own right and I feel I must share my thoughts regarding our meeting on Sunday afternoon. I think this is the bit where the screen goes all wibbly-wobbly and someone strums a harp in a random fashion ...

We had not long arrived at Park Hall Country Park, and several of our party needed to pay a visit to the public conveniences. On this note, I must say I'm glad I only needed a number one - the metal can didn't look like a good place to perch one's posterior on such a cold day. Anyway, as we came out we were approached by a lady who had obviously spotted our binoculars and generally nerdy appearance. Yes, this was Crossword Lady.

"Are you twitchers?" Crossword Lady asked us. Without wishing to have to explain the difference between twitching and birding, I replied, "We're birdwatchers."

Crossword Lady's eyes lit up. "What's a cuckoo's nest called?" she asked. Aha! Obviously a trick question!

"Cuckoos don't build nests!" I said, feeling very clever for not falling into her trap, "They lay their eggs in other birds' nests."

"No!" exclaimed Crossword Lady, "What do you call the birds whose nests they lay their eggs in?"

Tree pipits? Reed warblers? I wasn't sure what she expected me to say, then the word host popped into my mind and I blurted it out.

"That's it!" she cried.

It turns out it was a crossword clue that she'd been having trouble with, although I suspect you might have guessed that already based upon her uncomplicated and not-at-all-cryptic moniker. Anyway, she left satisfied and I felt like I had done my good deed for the day. If you're reading this Crossword Lady, I hope you managed to finish your puzzle.

By coincidence, I was having a go at the crossword in the Sunday Times this week, and I too floundered on a bird related clue. Here it is:

Bird flying across lake. It's quail? (6)

If it helps, the second letter is L, the fourth letter is N, and the sixth letter is H. Answers on a postcard to Reg Telescope, Wythall Bird Observatory. First person to get it right wins 10 Telescope points, which are worth nothing in monetary terms, but which bestow upon their holder instant kudos.

Garden Birds

All this bad weather brought a few unusual visitors to the garden and surrounding area last night. A flock of around 80 fieldfare was seen in the trees just a few doors away from the house, and a treecreeper was in our alder tree. That's not a common record, in fact I think I have only seen one ever before and that was before I really got into birding big time, so it's possible I was mistaken.

Tonight, a fieldfare perched in our sycamore tree for a minute or so, making it an official entry on the garden bird list.

Fieldfares - lots of 'em

I love fieldfares, me

The weather may put the kibosh on my birding plans this weekend. I'm keen to get back into the Wyre, but I have the patch to think about too. If I can't do either then there may be a few more cross words on Sunday morning.

To close, here are a few photos taken during the current cold snap.

Barney aka Faterpillar in the snow

This is my meadow pipit field

This is where I push all those pens

Monday, February 2, 2009


Sunday saw temperatures plummet across the country, but the cold snap failed to put a damper on our big day out in Staffordshire. Present were Kay and Max, Pete Walkden aka Duck Pond, Richard 'The Producer' Powell and Stuart from Alrewas Birder. Undoubtedly, everyone will have their own unique take on events, so here are a few links to my fellow birders' blogs where alternative versions of the day's proceedings will no doubt appear:

Kay and Max - Brightside Birding
Pete - Pete's Birding Blog
Richard - Local Birding For Local People
Stuart - Alrewas Birder

But for now, here's my blow by blow account of the trip.

We left Stirchley at about 8:40am. I travelled with Kay and Max, and Pete followed behind. An easy run up the M6 saw us arrive at Doxey Marshes well ahead of schedule, despite an unintended detour in the direction of Eccleshall once we left the motorway.

We had a cursory scan of the marshes whilst we waited for Richard and Stuart to arrive. In this time we saw nothing truly out of the ordinary, although shoveler and, believe it or not, mute swan were somewhat embarrassing additions to my year list. A water rail was seen for a few fleeting seconds near the viewing hide, then Kay spotted a few barnacle geese amongst the Canada geese in front of us. After a bit of debate as to whether these were tickable or not, we voted in favour of them being legitimate.

Richard arrived shortly afterwards, just in time to see a common snipe rise out of the marshes and pass over our heads. On the way back to the car we caught up with the white-fronted geese that we had hoped to see, although the views we had were anything but crippling. There were no more exceptional sightings, but other birds of note included fieldfare, bullfinch, goosander, wigeon and teal, plus a further water rail, which was heard, but not seen.

Onto Cold Meece, where Richard had seen an Iceland gull only the day before. Viewing conditions were tricky to say the least, with the sun directly behind the flotilla of gulls that were present. When the sun did disappear behind a cloud, I checked carefully for any birds lacking black wing tips, but I didn't see any. Mistle thrush, song thrush, common buzzard and redwing were noted, but we didn't consider it worth hanging around any longer and made our way to Park Hall Country Park.

Our first targets were the long-eared owls that roost in the woodland here. Richard knew exactly which tree to look in, but sadly we couldn't spot anything in it. As Richard pointed out, the owls were probably not too far away, but if they're not in their favourite perch, you could spend hours staring up at the canopy trying to find them. A chap turned up with his border collie and he had a good search too. Yes, it was official - everyone and his dog was looking for them! A very vocal raven passed over during our vigil, another addition to the year list.

With time slipping away, we made our way down the into the quarry to look for little owl. Unfortunately, the only sighting of note was a rather crude image of a phallus etched into the rock, drawn in the classic schoolboy style. At least that's what I thought it was, until Max pointed out that it was in fact a picture of a lighthouse with some waves crashing around its base. Silly me!

A scan of the fields added a flock of around 30 golden plover to the day list, but it was time to move on. There had been some debate as to whether it was worth a visit to Swallow Moss in view of the cold wind and occasional snow flurries. In the end, we couldn't resist it. Worryingly, several cars travelling in the opposite direction already had a considerable dusting of snow, but we ploughed on and arrived on the moors at about 3:30pm.

Golden Plover

The biting wind forced us to stay in the cars whilst we scanned the moorland for anything and everything that revealed itself. A common snipe was first to show, followed by a distant, unidentified bird that only I spotted. Probably a red grouse, but not good enough views to warrant a tick. Richard and Max had seen three red grouse whilst driving up to Swallow Moss, and I didn't have to wait too long before a carrion crow flushed two more grouse from the heather. They took flight and wheeled around in an arc before settling back down in the vegetation.

Swallow Moss

Swallow Moss

Finally, just before 5:00pm, we heard Richard pip his horn and we knew something good was on offer. Richard pointed frantically behind us and to our left, where a fine male hen harrier was coming in to roost. It gave good views before dropping into the heather. A minute or so later it came up again, then disappeared once more never to be seen again.

Stuart and Richard then headed off. We waited for a few more minutes, but didn't see anything else. As we set off, Kay received a text from Stuart - he'd just seen a merlin from the car. Although we were losing the light we kept an eye out for anything perched on the fence posts as we drove back towards Leek. Suddenly, I spotted something. A short-eared owl was quartering the moors to our left. Kay and I had reasonable views, but Max had struggled to see it properly from the driver's seat. We turned around and got out of the car to have another look, but we couldn't see it. I have to say, the wind at this point was probably the coldest I have ever experienced! Owl or no owl, I was back in the car pretty smartish!

So, despite the freezing cold weather and the occasional blizzard it was all worthwhile. I got my first lifer of 2009 in the shape of the owl and we had some other good birds, despite dipping on a few. It was good to catch up with everyone again, and to meet Stuart for the first time. As discussed, we shall have to return the favour and have a day out in Worcestershire sometime soon.

Perhaps we'll wait until the weather improves a bit though, eh?