Monday, 30 July 2007

Bempton Swallows

Of course at Bempton Cliffs there is more than just seabirds. On our final day there most visitors were enthralled by a busy family of Swallows feeding in the picnic area outside the centre. They were very bold and tolerated the closest of encounters...

Common bird, and amazing.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Our Good Night Heron

What makes a twitcher? An hour's drive up the A1 to see one (or two) birds? Not quite, I hope.

The destination was Fairburn Ings RSPB Reserve, near Castleford in West Yorkshire. We had always meant to visit the place, but never before made it out there - until now. For over a week a pair of Night Heron had been showing really well at the site. Being the summer of exotic European herons this was our chance to bag one, and if the photographs at were anything to go by, they posed a straight forward tick - sitting right out, over open water and in the daylight!

It's in the name; Night Heron. Their activities are normally restricted to the nocturnal hours, whilst in the daytime they roost in trees or reedbeds, and so are not always easily viewed. The natural range of these birds usually stretches no further than the Low Countries and their stronghold remains down in the Mediterranean. Yet, here we have two, an adult in beautiful three tone plumage, and a 1st-summer partner that are slightly muddier, making them one very attractive prospect. The reason they wandered into the UK is that they are migratory herons. Unlike our resident hardy Grey Heron, they retreat from the European winter down to tropical Africa, often as early as July. With that sort of large movement, they do turn up in England - perhaps half a dozen or more per year.

We arrived on site around 1pm, joining the ranks of 15 or so other birders, and we all saw nothing for over three hours. We stood and stared at a patch of reedbed and the trees behind, and nothing. Then an inspired find, through the wind-blown gaps of the reeds somebody had found a small feathery patch. Now you needed to find the perfect angle, almost like looking through the eye of a needle, and you could see small areas of the 1st-year bird. A shoulder here, the behind of the head, if lucky the eye or the beak, all of it 30 yards behind reeds already 50 yards away, where the bird was sitting very low in a willow. As a tick, I didn't mind calling it a disappointment. What I was impressed by was the ability of some of the other birders to pick it out, even knowing exactly where it was, locating a scope was far from easy. Oh yes, these guys are good!

After an hour of peeking at those feathery patches, the girlfriend and I decided to investigate the nearby areas of the reserve. Fairburn Ings is a relatively large area of lake and marshland, that looks a perfectly rich habitat for our breeding waders and wintering ducks. Indeed Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank were in decent number, as was a notably large population of Gadwall. My only gripe was the hide, an uncomfortable metal hut that felt not unlike a prison unit. It had large pillars between the locked-open windows and no room to jam a tripod between the seat and the ledge for anybody without a hide clamp. Just a really poor design in comparison to the traditional wooden bird hide.

Back by the roadside, where unbelievably yobs in cars would yell and beep horns at us as they passed by, we were told the immature heron had flown a short distance. That seemed enough for most twitchers who packed up and left. Only a few more determined if less proficient birders remained, hopeful as we were of seeing something better, and we did. The bird was relocated in a creek, showing very well (with a Kingfisher too), to anybody who stood in eye-line through another break in the willows. That meant one viewer at a time, plus somebody tall enough to look over them, i.e. me.
Happily we managed to make sure everybody got a view, and best of all we had a casual birder who brought his smaller daughter to see the heron. She went 'Wow!'. That probably made the coolest moment of the day for me.

By now it was 8:30pm, over seven hours of waiting for this bird, and the elusive adult did not show at all. I read this morning on the sightings websites of 'not present' reports for the herons today recorded at 10:30am. Now come on boys, have a little patience!

Friday, 27 July 2007

Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve

Holidaying at Bridlington makes Bempton Cliffs RSPB a must do for any birder, it is after all home to almost a quarter of a million seabirds, the largest colony of any kind in England. They are mostly Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin and Gannet, the sheer number is a wildlife spectacle.
Here come the thumbnails...

The most numerous species is far and way the Kittiwake, and with that eponymous call they endlessly shriek you sure know about it. We discovered this young bird on the path above the cliff. It seemed bewildered and a little lost, soon scuttling away into some long grass. I'm sure it soon found its own way to the sea.

Those dark markings, the wing bar, the collar and those weary black eyes, Kittiwake juveniles can a look a sorry bird in dull weather.

The view to the North.

And South.

For me the most striking bird of the cliffs are easily the Gannet. Could it be their impressive size, or their airline markings? Maybe it's the strange dinosaur features of their heads, whichever way you choose to look at these birds we have nothing else in Britain quite like the 'Soland Goose'.

Note the fluffy youngsters on the left.

What there were much fewer of were the auks. Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill only sparsely dotted areas of the cliffs. Hopefully that's not an indication of another bad year for them. They don't seem as able to bounce back from the lean years of the early 2000's in the way the Kittiwakes have managed. The sand eel fisheries may have closed on the east coast, providing time for these seabird's main prey item to restock, there are still problems to solve though. Quick fixes don't exist in nature conservation.

Unusually the Puffins at Bempton don't nest at the top of the cliffs in vacated rabbit burrows as they do elsewhere, instead they choose hidden crevices in the rock face. That makes viewing them trickier than might be imagined. With a keen eye and a scope, you can still get pretty good views of this most charming bird.

Taking to a boat, we chose the steady Yorkshire Belle, gives another perspective on the 300+ft high cliffs. Our choice was the three hour cruise from Bridlington harbour, as far as the RSPB reserve and then onto Filey Bay. Frankly, another time we'd opt for the 2 hour boat that turns back at Bempton, there wasn't much to see thereafter and the loud engine noise was far from pleasant.

You get closer to the Puffins though.

Back at the top of the cliffs the birding in the fields behind can potentially bring up remarkable migrants, but not during our visit, mid-July isn't really the time for passages. Meadow Pipit, Linnet, Reed Bunting and birds like this juvenile Skylark meant there was something worth scanning for.

Truth is we didn't see a great number of species, not even enough to bother counting, the odd Shag and Sandwich Tern, and what remains only a 'probable' and very distant Arctic Skua, was the best of the rest.
The reserve is all about spectacle. Birder or not, to spend time watching individuals busily ferrying into the cliffs among the many thousands of other birds, serves as some sort of reminder about our own lives, our own place in the world, our own importance in the grand scheme of things.
You'll have to go there to understand what I'm getting at. For all the squawking, guano and that relentless wind, it's very... peaceful.

The Return of the Honey Buzzard

Some picture posts on the birding I did on my summer break to Bridlington to come soon, first I should make mention of the new tick I picked up on the way north.

For many years Carburton/Wellbeck Raptor Watchpoint, near Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, has been associated with Honey Buzzards. Since the 70's a small and infrequent population has been present on the vast private shooting estate of extensive mixed woodland. As antithetical as raptor conservation and shooting interests can be (sadly a matter of particular concern for Hen Harrier and Goshawk in Derbyshire at the moment), the arrangement at Carburton has always appeared fruitful.

However, since the early 2000's the migrant Honey Buzzard had been failing to return or stay, a change which some local birders attributed to the increasing population of Common Buzzard at the site creating unprecedented competition for territories. Of this I am dubious, the reasons for failed or successful Honey Buzzard migration is very poorly understood, it is unclear that two species do directly compete, and more indicatively, the Honey Buzzards are back! began getting regular reports again a couple of weeks ago and not wishing to miss what is aptly described as 'an
exotic breeding species', so close to my local patch, I made sure to give an hour to the site before heading for the seaside.

I saw the bird twice. First was when it appeared from nowhere very close to the lay-by, indeed it seemed startled and hastily soared back across the opposite hillside. The typical cream underwing and scarce barring was most noticeable (not in itself discerning the bird from a pale phase Common Buzzard), and then the extended head and long narrow tail confirmed it as a Honey. Can't say I noticed the tail barring described in the ID literature, but they say in the field it's seldom very obvious.
My second sighting was much more distant, yet much more spectacular. The bird lunged into great roller-coaster stoops, a typical display flight for the species. Chatting to another onlooker I was told a pair is present, and that is as much as anybody knows. Whatever conservation body is looking after the site remains highly secretive about the activity there, and quite rightly so.

With those sightings that makes #198 for my life list.

A couple of Osprey are also over-summering in the same area, although I sadly had no time for them on the day. Yes, that's two big and very rare migrant raptors at the same site. What are you waiting for?

During my vigil I picked up a lone wandering Raven, another top county bird - it's likely we don't have one breeding pair in Nottinghamshire.

Each of the three species I've mentioned here are on the increase. Whether it's global warming increasing insect/grub food items for the 'Bee Hawk' (up to maybe 200 UK pairs now), the successful reintroduction programme for Ospreys at Rutland, or reduced persecution for the Raven, there's genuine reason for great optimism for these birds. How refreshing is that?
Now all we need is a pair or two of Red Kite to join in the fun. I look forward to them.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

RSPB: Getting In With the Kids

I've a real success to report - my first day of volunteering with the RSPB!

My duties at the Carsington Water ABB event consisted chiefly of inviting Joe Public to peer through at the Little Owls I'd, with a little luck, been able to centre to the scopes upon. I may also impress on them the conservation work the RSPB and Severn Trent Water (must never forget to include mentioning them both apparently) do at the site and even coax them to sign up for RSPB membership and newsletters. I'm not so hot on pushing that line, it's money and details and I'm all about the birds, fortunately the other volunteers - a little older than I am and less shy - are better in that regard and we sort of naturally organised between ourselves who does what and mucked through the day well. They're pretty cool like that, I guess when you all believe what you're doing is utterly worthwhile that team cohesion is easy to come by, and being volunteers we're all grateful for one another turning up for the event. And you'd be amazed the energy some of the older volunteers can muster!

At the wildlife centre we had around 600 people through in six hours, at least 25 at any one time, so it was always busy. Mostly these were holidaying families and retirees, and I'm sure I nabbed at least a quarter of them to look at the owls. To my enormous good fortune the Little Owls showed the entire day, variously sitting in the open on fence posts and exposed tree branches in their regular spot. They look like fluffy balls, almost toy-like, yet with those enormous raptor eyes they're full of an apex predator's charisma. With such a great bird to look at we got great reactions from all who viewed. Tell me who's going to say no when asked, do you want to see an owl?
Young and old, so many said 'wow!', etc. The resident RSPB staff told me she watched a small girl skipping back to the car park gleefully telling mum and dad about the owl she'd seen. That really makes me feel good inside, the light was sparked, you know?

I'm pencilled in for one day a month, possibly two should I choose, that's all the RSPB asks of volunteers.
It is tiring because there isn't a moment's peace from dealing with a public you must approach, and for a few days I'll be seeing Little Owls every time I close my eyes. I'm happy though.

We also picked up an occasional male Redstart flitting about in the same fence posts, a good bird for the county, a good bird for any county really.

How to conclude? Oh yes, Aren't Birds Brilliant!

Monday, 23 July 2007

More London Birds...

A thumbnail post, click on the pictures for a closer look...

A Jay in St James' Park, less shy than those at home, this fella was hawking for flying insects from a perch above a crowded path and the muttering of many different languages.

Red-crested Pochard, a semi-exotic, an escaped population of these sustains itself in parts of England. I saw my last 'wild' one in Cambridgeshire.

Barnacle Goose, there were also Nene, Snow, Bar-headed and Red-breasted geese to be found.

Tufted Duck.

Wood Duck.

In Regent's Park, some tame and fabulously graceful Whooper Swan.

And famously, the St James' Park pelicans.

So okay, few of these may deserve a place on any serious birding list, they still made a pleasant post-Tour de France afternoon in the park. Merci London!

One Damp Bird

The garden is full of birdlife at present, always at least half a dozen fledglings of one species or another in our tennis court-sized plot of suburbia. Some looking rather sorry for themselves, like this House Sparrow, poor little fella, I'm sure a parent bird was looking over him. Out there with him was a small gang of Blackbird fledglings almost ready to disband, one young Song Thrush which I'm very pleased to see, Starlings and around the forsythia a brood of Blue Tits zip and zoom.
Yes, it's truly delightful to return home to all this activity.

As for holiday birding up on the East Yorkshire coast, expect several picture posts soon.

Thursday, 12 July 2007


Down in London to see the Tour de France, I escaped the post-race shopping hoards for the peace and quiet of the city's great parks. This was birding-lite, a small pair of binoculars and an ice cream in hand.
There may not have been any great rarities to find, what there was were fine views of familiar birds, and the odd exotic duck to tax the old IDing muscles.

The Regent's Park Herons are one of the best treats of the capital.

Those plumes, a most handsome bird.

Nonetheless, the scruffy immatures have a charm of their own.

They'll peck at anything.

Truly park birds.

Little more than an arm's length away!

The outrageous tameness of these birds inevitably leads to visitors feeding them, and it was dismaying to watch a chap throwing bread to them. However eagerly the Herons threw it down their throats, I see a conflict of interests arising - what's best for the birds and what the park visitors want to do are not necessarily the same thing. How sad it would be to see this famed heronry descend into the disease and aggression of the average over-populated and over-fed duck pond.
For now, it reminds a treat.

Video - Herons fed bread!

July: The Month to Enjoy Your Garden Birdlife

Quiet as July is for birdwatching, the garden is providing no shortage of entertainment at the moment. As I type there are three pairs of Swift zooming between the houses of the neighbourhood, clearly looking for nest spaces. I read the usually their colonies have been abandoned by mid-July, not so here, and it was about the same date they began prospecting last year. Unfortunately it seems most roof spaces are already occupied by House Sparrow and Starling, rather a drawback of the neighbourhood's successfulness for those species - indeed last year I watched as a very bemused male Sparrow returned to his brood under next door's roof to find a Swift in there with the chicks. Try to imagine his surprise! The Swift was chased away, and we saw nothing more of them save for the usual screaming parties at higher altitude.
Interestingly, a pair of House Martin followed in with the Swifts today, zooming around the gardens at levels far lower than usual. Do they normally follow their slimmer cousin?

Our earthy patch has become a firm favourite of the House Sparrows. Wait for just five minutes and you can be sure to see at least half a dozen of the birds come down for a dust bath, all scruffily fidgeting in the dry soil.

A Magpie visited this morning for a more liquid wash, very nervously skipping to and fro from the birdbath. A quick dunk and then a watchful pause for any threats.

The littering of feathers found yesterday prove the Sparrowhawks that sail over us will still come down to hunt. These feathers with very small and dark grey in hue, probably cock House Sparrow.

So okay, migration might be stagnant until August, still the action outside our kitchen window offers a different perspective on birding. There are stories out there, not just bird species.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Two and two make Nightjar?

This weather, the wettest month on record, three times the average rainful, I just haven't done very much birding lately. Also helped little that last week I hit a flood damaged path too fast and came off the bike fairly hard, doing a real number on my legs. Haven't really felt like riding since.

During my last circumnavigation of Brierley an elderly gentleman who noted my bins asked whether I'd heard the Nightjar. We don't have Nightjar at the park, so I reasoned he mistook the Grasshopper Warbler's similar reeling call for the much more illustrious species (the warbler has high-pitched grasshopper like call, the Nightar a low chirrrrr, both go on and on). This I attempted to explain yet he was adamant, said he'd even seen them skimming over the lake - probably referring to the Swifts that come in from town. Seems like he put two and two together and came up with Nightjar. Again I tried to explain his mistake to him, still he'd have none of it, and I left wondering whether sometimes it's better to leave chaps like him to enjoy their self-assured ignorance.
Probably not, he's missing out on finding the real thing, which is an amazing thing.

Tomorrow I'm off with the girlfriend to see the Tour de France in London, camping the whole weekend. I think we'll at least get some birding done in the great parks. That leaves just enough time this evening to check out the Barn Owl nest at King's Mill, a secret site I heard about it today on the local birding grapevine. Knew they were about, didn't know where, and I'm told only one of three chicks is yet to fledge.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Bird Miles

So let's face facts, very often birding expeditions will involve an extensive amount of car travel. Even in a nation as small as ours, public transport just can't cover the job. The problem is, whether you are aware of your carbon footprint or not, the more you drive to see wildlife, the more you imperil it through your own personal contribution to Global Warming. I don't know about anybody else, but that came as quite a frightful notion for me.

It has been with that thought in mind, that I've begun to think about 'bird miles', the distance we're willing to drive in pursuit of our hobby and that perhaps we should do our bit to save the planet and restrict ourselves - after all, for most birders it counts as purely a recreational habit.
Now any limit can only be arbitrary, but it occurred to me, that a 200-mile-a-month limit wouldn't be a bad commitment for most birders to make, it ought to allow one or two decent journeys to big nationally important sites (or to find must-see a rarity), or several more closer to home. Not only could that limit decrease the carbon released by hobbying birders, it may very well prove to be a renaissance for local sites if we paid more attention to them.

I have emailed the RSPB's magazine about this, and the editor said that although the next issue is full, the one after that may very well include something on the topic.
I proposed to him a members' commitment, if you could just imagine a million members cutting even just a third off their 'bird miles', then maybe you can understand why I'm enthusiastic about the idea. We could be talking millions of miles worth of petrol not burnt, a worthy contribution to the enormous overall challenge our societies face and a top example for us to set.

In a couple of other online birding forums I broached the subject, and was met with a generally indifferent reception, at other times it was blatant unpologetic opposition - 'it's my right to drive however much I want' etc...
Such reactions I simply do not understand, and they leave me quite dispirited. These are folks supposedly interested in the plight of our wildlife and the environment, and yet they found that moderating their car use was unthinkable, so what hope for the regular punter cutting his emissions?
Some of them cover well over 100,000 miles a year on bird trips!

Anyway, I remain hopeful of a more positive reflection from the RSPB.

ETA: I decided to try out some rough figures. If the RSPB has a million members, let's say that each of them individually covers 100 miles on birding trips per year. Less than 10 miles per month, which might even out it we consider shared journeys.
Now extrapolating from the fact that the average car travels 12,000 miles per year emitting 4.3 tonnes of CO2, that 100 million miles jointly covered by RSPB members equates to the average carbon emissions of 3,500 households (at 10.3 tonnes each per year).
Even if my figures are off the mark, it's clear to see there is a significant issue here that the RSPB really should think about. I don't know the answer, perhaps a parking charge for vehicles visiting reserves could fund an RSPB lobby for extra bus routes, or maybe the solution is the simple one; we all drive less.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Hope Through the Rain

Horrendous weather persists so my birding exploits have been dulled of late. However, my efforts in the garden are still earning their gentle homely reward. Yesterday not one, not two, but three Stock Dove strolled around the lawn. A new record for a species I'm proud to call a daily visitor. I don't know many people who can boast them.
Truth be told, they were initially attracted down by the pesky feral pigeons, the nemesis of my bird feeding efforts. I try to forget that bit.


Welcome to my new birding blog.

My name is James, I live in the East Midlands (of England) and enjoy spending many a weekend on the trail for birds, my trusty, if very modest, camera in tow. For the first several days or weeks here I'll be transferring posts from my previous blogging site so expect dates and seasons to be much of a mixture for a while. The likelihood is I shall probably retro-update so it might be worth looking backwards at earlier dates.

I hope you'll enjoy visiting my blog and be inspired to go out and find some feathered friends of your own.

Cross your fingers and I might just manage to keep updated!