Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The Bittern Trip Mk2

As the saying goes, if at first you don't succeed... so this was our second trip to find the Bittern at Potteric Carr NR, near Doncaster, and this time we weren't to be disappointed.

Perhaps it was the birds becoming more comfortable at their wintering site, the calmer brighter weather, or maybe we were just luckier this time, whatever the reason they showed well yesterday, with two different individuals from one very popular hide. A new lifer for me.

Their famed talent for transformation is well founded, and we watched these birds seamlessly move from streaky egg-shape to towering serpent. It's quite remarkable, and quite typical of this highly charismatic species.

That other elusive bird of the reedbed Water Rail was similarly accommodating, indeed more so. I'd never previously heard of them coming to feeders, never mind seen it, but now I'm a believer. As the tits and finches scattered seed down onto the grass below, the Water Rail skulked and crept from the reeds, out into plain view to peck up the remnants, no more than ten yards from the hide.

On the far side of the reserve beneath the main road into Doncaster, 2,000-3,000 Golden Plover roosted in the afternoon with smaller numbers of Lapwing.

All in all, a grand day out, and just reward for all that Christmas shopping I've had to do with my girlfriend.

Bittern in Winter, Black-necked Grebe breeding in the Spring/Summer, Potteric Carr is quickly becoming a must-do for the northern birder.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Bitternly Disappointed

Potteric Carr, Doncaster, probably the best place in the North for Bittern. Five apparently on the reserve, and did we see one? Nada. Two hours in the number one hide, if they're showing they are there. Birders came and went, but Bittern didn't. Some people had been there all day and seen just as little as we did, whilst we were told early morning is the best time to see the birds.
At times of great frustration it's often helpful to philosophise, and we've decided that striking out today must mean we deserve outrageous luck elsewhere. Soon may it come.

Overall it was a quiet day bird-wise, but it's a relatively new reserve so it is bound to take time for word to get around the bird flocks.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Another wild bird chase...

First of all let me say I am NOT a twitcher, work had dragged my partner down to Cambridgeshire and I hitched along for the ride in hopes of maybe ticking off a very special bird indeed - an inland Leach's Storm Petrel.

The story is covered here by timesonline, but briefly speaking the terrible and persistent southerly gales Britain has suffered in the past week have brought north great numbers of Leach's Storm Petrel that would otherwise be safely wintering in calmer, warmer areas of the Atlantic.
Most are turning up on the south and west coasts, areas like Morecambe and Cardiff Bay, but others are being blown further inland. Areas like Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, even London. So if you've been at all nearby a recorded sighting, it's a chance not to be missed.

Alas, according to birdguides.com, the petrels had either gone or all died by the time we arrived at Grafham Water (where they'd been well reported earlier in the day), all there was were us and several other wet and disappointed birders. At least there is some solace in not seeing a species that wasn't there, rather than not seeing one that was.
The best bird of the day, a couple of flattered Goldeneye probably wondering what all the fuss was about.

Much worse luck for the petrels of course, once inland they seem terminally doomed. Even if they find a large body of water, it's fresh water and there just isn't the marine food for birds already tired, cold and wind battered. Sad really.

The gales still blow, so there's still a chance they could turn up almost anywhere in the UK.
This might be a once in ten or twenty year event.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Blacktoft Sands RSPB

East Yorkshire, a good place to be to catch the late migration season.

Blacktoft has been a regular destination for years in my family, though for some reason we'd never been during November and seldom stayed very near dusk. Both big mistakes. Yesterday we were on the reserve until nearly 4pm, more or less around high tide and the flocks were becoming big. Wigeon, Teal, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit too, by the hundreds and thousands, and all alighting when a languid Sparrowhawk twice quartered across the lagoons. And in the distance large skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed by.
It was a true natural spectacle.

We're very near the inland port of Goole at Blacktoft, so pacing container ships are common.

The Pinkies.

Locally rare a couple of Whoopers were in fields adjacent to the reserve.

Other notable sightings included Merlin, Goldeneye, and finally the bird which the reserve is most famed for Marsh Harrier - three of them. Oh and we also saw Roe Deer.

If you're too far north of the north Norfolk reserves of Snettisham and Titchwell where all the birds I've mentioned gather in even more unimaginable numbers, Blacktoft isn't a disappointing substitute.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

A Lost Loon

A new tick for me, and probably a new one for lot of birders since by all accounts it's been a bumper month for Great Northern Diver across the country. This one, a first winter bird by the looks of it, was doing laps around the tower at Carsington Water. Even out of its pied adult summer plumage the diver is an immaculate creature, the delicately white-dotted back, the gleaming red-eye and large dagger bill, alas a rudimentary moment of digi-scoping sans-adapter just doesn't show it so well.

The GND has been there most of the week so word had gotten around and we happily guided four or five other birders to the rarity. You know you have a special bird when people don't even have to tell you what species they're looking for, a simple 'is it about?' is enough.

Good numbers of Wigeon around too.

Monday, 20 November 2006

"Walking in the cold driving wind is half the point of birding, don't you know?"

Marvellous clear skies yesterday for our trip to Rutland. Although no megas were around we did see what I tend to think of as glamour birds, those that are a little scarce and very handsome - Goosander, Goldeneye, Red Kite, even Pintail falls into that category for me. Four very decent lifers for my girlfriend in her first year of birding.
Other sightings included Dunlin, Curlew, Egyptian Goose, Little Egret and Goldcrest. As the evening began to draw in I found myself looking across to the southern arm of the Egleton reserve when hundreds of Golden Plover descended to their roost. I've rarely been there so late and definitely plan to leave late next time I go. Around that time countless groups of 20-50 Starling hurried in and into the distance one of those awing swirling humongous winter flocks gather and tossed and turned into the distance, how many individual birds by the end I really don't know, just think of a number and triple it.

We chose Rutland in hopes of seeing Bittern, since on the Birdguides.com website one had been regularly reported at the site. No luck on the day, but I think we'll continue to keep an eye on that website, seems like the premier source for the latest sightings news and bird photographs. It will probably help us to decide which destinations to choose and when, even if that means paying a subscription when the free account deadline runs out.

Happy birding everyone.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Another Feed the Birds Day

Our Bullfinches still seem to spur a great deal of excitement among visitors, I suppose it's the close proximity you can get to them. Probably helps the birds watch us scattering seed.
Quiet day otherwise, although Redwing are still around. About a 150 flew in from open farmland to the north of the park late in the day.

Off to Freiston Shore RSPB on Monday. Being so landlocked here in Notts it'll be my first visit to the coast during winter. With any luck it'll be loud with Brent Geese and rolling with flocks of Knot. I can hardly wait.

Video - Brierley Forest Park Bullfinch

Saturday, 11 November 2006

To find a Little Owl

Out on feeding station duties around the local nature reserve yesterday. We'd long heard reports of Little Owls up around the farm buildings on the northern boundary, yet hadn't actually seen them for ourselves. Being a warm afternoon on an otherwise cool day, hopes were high of spotting one of the small characters warming in the low sun, and we weren't to be disappointed.

Now it's well known that Little Owls pick prominent perches, but this bird seemed to have made an extra effort to stick out. Look at the pale dot near the centre of the big dark barn toward the right of shot...

Okay, not a picture to grace the magazines, but enough to confirm ID, and how conspicuous the owl's notably bold behaviour can sometimes be.

They're sort of the emblem bird for the volunteer group at the reserve, and I couldn't think of a more suitable or perky choice.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Not quite a tick

After reading in the bible of British birding, Birds Britannica (by Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey), that the stuffed remains of the nation's first ever Egyptian Nightjar were still on display in our local museum 120 years after it was shot, a short pilgrimage felt necessary.

Okay so it's no great feat in taxidermy, but there is an interesting story attached, here's an excerpt from the book;

A Nottinghamshire gamekeeper, Albert Spinks, flushed a bird from its resting spot while he was shooting rabbits and, thinking it looked unusual, brought it down with his second barrel. A day later when it started to smell he threw it on to the ashpit near his cottage, only for his ornithologist employer, J. Whitaker, to notice and retrieve the skin. Whitaker sent it to his taxidermist and subsequently had its identity confirmed as an Egyptian Nightjar, then he honoured 'his' find by erecting a monument at the site of discovery (Thieves Wood, near Mansfield). The inscription, in which the largest letters spell his own name, was intended to read: 'This stone was placed here by J. Whitaker, of Rainworth Lodge, to mark the spot where the first British specimen of the Egyptian Nightjar was shot by A. Spinks, on June 23rd, 1883, this is only the second occurrence of this bird in Europe'. In fact 'occurrence' was misspelt and the date appears to have been wrongly given as 1882.

Apparently this was almost unique for being memorial for an individual wild bird in Britain, and probably the only one since the last British breeding pairs of Great Auk were killed in the Orkneys during the early 19thC. Alas it has since been removed from the site, replaced by a simple post etched with the momentus date and a figure of the bird.

So far there has only been one other record of the Egyptian Nightjar in Britain so it seems very likely this will be the closest of come to ticking off the species, short of a trip to Africa.

Reading back through the history of the way our ancestors interacted with the wild bird populations they found can often be deeply saddening exercise, where you'll learn about centuries of exploitation, superstition and casual disregard, so it's truly heartening to think we live in more enlightened times, with a renowned organisation like the RSPB, with its million strong membership passionate about conserving and enjoying our natural avian heritage.

Monday, 6 November 2006

November at Carsington

It's still quite warm but the winter arrivals are winging their way into the south Derbyshire reservoir at Carsington. Wigeon number in the hundreds, Tufted Duck similarly, and among them the odd glamour bird, yesterday it was stunning male Goldeneye.

Little Owl were once again a tick for the day, and it seems they hang around a couple of large trees beside an electricity pylon, viewed from the left of the wildlife centre should you ever visit. Looks likely that a family group have made a home there.

Flocks of a hundred or so Redwing periodically scooted overhead, so far it seems like a good year for them.

In all we scored 43 species for the day, not bad for a site shared with human sporting interests. Every visit it impresses more and more, you could pick worse destinations for a birding trip.

Friday, 3 November 2006


...or Whopper Swans as The Sun called them when describing the BBC's Autumnwatch programmes. These were on my local patch today, a reservoir in the midst of the sprawling conurbation surrounding Mansfield.

They probably won't stay the night so we rushed down to see them when we heard they were around. It's a new tick on our local list, a lifer for my girlfriend, and a very elegant one too.
Seems the haywire season we're experiencing means practically any species can turn up wherever you are.

We saw Kingfisher too, which have spread from their breeding waters as wintering individuals. They certainly add glamour.

Cormorants are another species to arrive during the cold months, probably regional migrants from the reservoirs up in the Peak District. Welcome ones in mind, despite what the fisherman say.

Happy birding everybody.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

A sad demise...

A misfortunate moorhen we found on the fringes of our local reservoir, tangled in discarded fishing line - as if the litter left by fishing parties isn't enough. I waded out to free the bird hoping there would be no lasting damage, hopes that were dashed when we discovered the line ran up into the moorhen's beak and down its throat. Doing what seemed best at the time we broke off the line to make it as short as possible, collected up the rest, and let the bird free to allow a private death without the stress of being in the open - it was very exhausted and clearly wasn't long for this world.
It's a real shame the interests of fisherman and birdwatchers must conflict so badly. We both must want a clean and healthy environment to pursue our hobby, it's what our respective game surely need.

Ah well...
Since birds are so highly prone to being affected for good and bad by human influences, I suppose it's up to those of us alert our of own impact, to make sure it's a good one.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Local Birding

A long time has passed since my last post here, primarily because we're not getting out to five-star birding sites at the moment. My girlfriend's broken bones are still recovering and of the two of us she's the only driver. So I'm left to concentrate on getting to destinations closer by on bike. I live in an area of Nottinghamshire dotted with land reclaimed from the mining industry, put to modern use as nature reserves and country parks to chase the tourist pound. They feature landscape verging on the desolate, where the soil is thick enough the trees are only young, elsewhere only highland grasses thrive, perfect habitat, it seems, for Green Woodpecker and Skylark. I ride four or five times a week and the bounding lime-green rump of a fleeing Green Woody is always a thrill - especially if you're riding fast enough to pursue!
As familiar as it has become to me, that bird never loses its exotic appeal.

Elsewhere on my local patch the return of half a dozen Teal have finally signalled the arrival of Autumn, as has the boom in the Lapwing flocks. Fair enough, it may not be 40,000 Pinkies or 10,000 Knot, put 600 or so Peewits erupting over your head is a spectacle in itself, and this one seems like ours.

If you get out there on your local patch often enough, it's not difficult to find inspiring sights. I bet there's somewhere at least five miles from any home in the UK.

Friday, 18 August 2006

RSPB Old Moor

Situated between Barnsley and Doncaster, five or ten miles off of the M1, Old Moor is a recent addition to the RSPB's fleet of reserves and this was my first visit.

Immediate impressions were that it's been developed with families in mind. This isn't one of those quieter reserves with a hut for a reception and long pathways to the hides. There's a sizeable shop, cafe upstairs, picnic area, even an adventure playground for the kids. I'm quite certain some birding snobs would feel it's an affront to their sedate pastime, however, the number of kids enjoying a day at the reserve and getting excited about the birds, leaves me inclined to welcome the direction the RSPB have taken at Old Moor. Even if it meant fanciful claims about Red-Throated Diver and Jack Snipe, if only they were true!

The hides are tidy and even at a busy time in the summer holidays we found space to sit with a scope. They overlook open lakes, marshland, reedbeds and grassland too, with plenty of wet mud to attract passing waders.

Star bird on my visit was a Little Egret, which don't number greatly this far north, and a Wood Sandpiper was also a nice find, as was an early Curlew Sandpiper.

That's Green Sandpiper, one of a twenty plus movement.

We're in the heart of the South Yorkshire industrial belt here, so don't expect total tranquility from road noise. Enjoy the birds instead.

I'll be returning there in a couple of months, interesting to see what the colder months will turn up.

Thursday, 10 August 2006

Holkham NNR

I find late summer is lovely time for birding, it's the families. Just the other day I watched a gang of half a dozen Redstart darting after each other as much as food, a nice find for the East Midlands.

A couple of weeks ago we camped for a weekend down on the North Norfolk coast, very nearby to Holkham National Nature Reserve. The site comprises a sandy shore, extensive dunes, saltmarshes, pinewoods, and some reclaimed marshland a little further inland. I was beach-holidaying with my girlfriend so didn't devote as much time to the reserve as I'd have wished but still found stunning and close views of Marsh Harrier, enough to excite any birder. Below them species like Sedge Warbler could be heard. Underfoot the dunes were full of toads, and out on the beach Little Terns skimmed the surfed, and a pair of Oystercatchers babied their one remaining chick.
We plan to make future visits, give the reserve the attention it deserves. Also not a long drive west along the coast are both Titchwell Marsh and Snettisham RSPB reserves. This part of England really is very rich for birders.

Driving back home through the quiet farm roads brought us across this Barn Owl patrolling over one of the vast Norfolk wheatfields. We've found travelling along such lanes to be a marvellous birding tactic. It may not be very eco-friendly but there seems few other ways to cover so much rural habitat in a mobile bird hide.

Monday, 31 July 2006

Swifts and Martins

How's the birding everybody?

I'm a little concerned myself, the swifts in my neighbour are still prospecting for nesting places and it's almost August. Watching them hover under next-door's eaves has led to me to researching swift nest boxes, which seem like a jolly good idea keeping in mind how modern building practices deprive possibly the most enigmatic of all our summer visitors of suitable next sites.
We just might invest in one.

Happily the local population of hirundine seems to be in good number, particularly sand martins. There is a lot of sand quarrying in my part of the country and that keeps in ready supply the soft banks that are ideal for this species to carve nest hollows into.

Very sweet little birds, in a few months this youngster maybe only a three weeks old will have flown all the way to sub-Saharan Africa. How amazing is that?

Thursday, 13 July 2006

Rutland Water

There are half a dozen posts I've meaning to type up about my recent bird trips, so I'll begin with the most recent - Rutland Water.

Little wonder the site is annual host to the British Birdfair, it truly is second to none. With the breadth of habitat and literally dozens of hides a day's list grows rapidly indeed. We only spent three hours and casually chalked up 67 species in all, I'm certain a little more attention might have crept us up toward 80 but this was intended as a leisurely visit with my girlfriend and we missed the hides to the south of the centre. Really the place demands a full day, dawn to dusk if you're able.

We didn't catch the Ospreys this time, though they are around. One of the team looking after them told us he'd seen the nest earlier in the day and the youngster was flapping its wing, tip-toeing into the air, very ready to get going.
His tip was to head out onto the Hambleton peninsula early in the morning and late in the evening, and find a spot on one of the bays. This we did, but I fear we chose the wrong bay for all we saw were Common Terns, Egyptian Geese and fishermen.

Best species of the day was Black-necked Grebe, although my personal favourites where the summer Black-tailed Godwits very rusty and orange-red. Close views of fishing Common Terns were also particularly memorable.

The quiet roads back north offered almost as much wildlife as the reserve. Weaving back through the quiet country lanes and villages might be far slower than the A1, but when was the last time you saw hare, Red-legged Partridge and Sparrowhawk as you rushed along at 60mph on a dual carriageway?
Surely worth the time, effort and wrong turns.

If I was pressed to recommend one and only one birding destination, Rutland Water may very well be my choice.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Nifty Nesting

It's the breeding season, and every year our local TV news programming features ducks nesting in pubs and robins rearing in red post boxes.
Well, I've found a quirky nidifier of my own.

Travel along a winding farm road and under a disused rail bridge, and you just may find this Grey Wagtail. Running water is some distance away, which only increases the unlikelihood of the nest.

That's the hole under the R. Could these be politically-minded birds? Anarchists even?
I felt uneasy about the location of this nest. The country road gets more traffic than it really deserves, and surely it would only be a matter of time before a terrible tragedy.
That's why it was with more than a small amount of relief I found several days ago that the pair appear to have moved elsewhere.

Monday, 24 April 2006

Two Places to Visit

Over the Easter weekend I was fortunate enough to get a few days with family down on the Norfolk coast, during which I made a trip to a reserve I'd often heard about but never visited.

NWT Hickling Broad
Home to vast ranges of reed, interspersed with small pools, bordered on one side by the expansive waters of the broad, Hickling offers a near unique habitat for birds and wildlife, with wooded areas and sedge too. Though the star attraction are the Bittern, I wasn't fortunate enough to see the secretative bird on this occasion, but any disappointment was dispelled by stellar views of breeding Marsh Harrier. Previously I'd only seen the raptor very distantly, and not really been able to appreciate the patchwork plumage of the male, of the cream-tipped chocolate of the females. This time it was all on view, the harriers far closer to the hide than could have been imagined, close enough to watch a spectacular food exchange. My days list wasn't huge, but the common warblers are present, as are species like Teal, Shelduck, Snipe, Lapwing, and I heard Bearded Tit too.

Potteric Carr Nature Reserve
Situated on the south side of Doncaster this is a reserve still partially under development, but already a cracking destination for birders. Prime among its number are breeding Black-necked Grebe (which I was lucky enough to see performing a courtship dance), though here again Bittern may well be sighted.

With reeds, glades, and open farmland, there's good walking and tidy hides - this place is modern and it's good. A dual carriageway lies nearby the reserve and the east coat mainline actually running through it, that said there is greater peace than you might imagine.
The opening hours are 9-to-5, and Potteric Carr really deserves a full day.
One cautionary note, the reserve isn't very well sign-posted, so make sure of your route beforehand. When we arrived the welcome was warm, with a very informative lady making sure we understood the map, where the birds might be and how to cross the railway. She was really rather sweet.

You could do a lot worse than set out for either reserve.

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


During a birding trip to Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire on an unsuccessful hunt for the park's famed Hawfinches, a couple of surprises presented themselves around a nearby layby used by birders to spot the Honey Buzzards.

We've seen several of these bottle-green-black pheasants along that stretch of road, birds presumably released during the shooting season.

Then along the fence a pair of shy wild Mandarin Ducks turned up, perched along the top feeding from the seed pots.

Pretty, long time and very welcome Chinese interlopers to our countryside, all seen from our mobile Volkswagen birdhide.

Monday, 16 January 2006

The Green Arrows

I'm a happy birder, it's still only been a matter of days since I saw my last new tick. Although I'm far from a twitcher I find it's nice to keep a growing list and at the bottom of mine now sits Ring-necked Parakeet.

Inevitably I saw them in Richmond Park during a visit to the capital. I confess I'd forgotten it was the famous home to the exotic birds so when the initial screaming calls came I wondered whether a bird of prey was quartering the area. You see, first of all you hear these birds.

As we walked between the pocketed woodlands of the park various groups of these green arrows squawked between the trunks and provided marvellous entertainment. Whatever the debate over the place this thriving escaped species has in our countryside, it's an exciting presence while they last.
If you can get to Richmond Park it's well worth taking the time, sighting the deer will please any family and for birders, well, within the brief hour or so we saw countless Jay, found Shoveler and Green Woodpecker, nice birds and indicators to what species the habitat can be expected to feature.

Such a surprising silhouette to find wild in Britain.
Admittedly not great shots of the parakeets, but you get the idea.

Also at Richmond,

The parks within central London also supply a ready number of birds for the photographer, particularly tamed wild species that would otherwise be vastly difficult for amateur duffers like yours truly to photograph.

My favourite, the Smew in St James'.

Ruddy Shelduck

Black-headed Gull

Closer to home, birds at Rufford Country Park in North Notts...