Monday, November 26, 2007

Back on the patch

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
I had a few days off last week, so used them to try to fill in some of the gaps on my patch year list, with an almost total lack of success. Not that they weren’t enjoyable, though. In fact, the lack of ticks meant I spent nearly all my time looking very closely at the familiar and everyday.

I started on Wednesday at a flooded Wanlip Meadows, where there were good numbers of Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler. If forced to make a decision, they’d be my three favourite ducks, so it was good to sit there, with the air full of Wigeon whistles, watching them swimming in and out of the grass tussocks that line what would normally be the riverbank.

From there, it was off to Cossington Meadows (spotting a small flock of Goosander and a Sparrowhawk at Watermead Park on the way). Cossington was pretty flooded, too, so there were more of the same ducks, and a couple of Snipe, but little else. Oh, and at least 10,000 Starlings, even at 1pm in the afternoon. There was little of the spectacular formation flying going on, just a steady leap-frogging march as they fed across the grassy areas. Every now and then a little breakaway group of 500 or so would disappear for ten minutes, but numbers remained pretty constant, and the highlight was when the whole flock upped and moved a few hundred yards, passing overhead in a rush of wings.

Thursday, it rained. I dodged showers in the afternoon to sit in the hide at Kelham Bridge, watching the few ducks, Moorhens and Black-headed Gulls. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something large, long-winged and pale gliding towards the hide. Thinking it might be a Great Black-backed, I waited for it to emerge from behind bushes. Another split-second glimpse of a whitish underside had me thinking Barn Owl, and then it came into full view – a big, unmistakeable male Hen Harrier, quartering the reedbeds and grassy scrub with wings held in a typical shallow harrier V. I watched it until it disappeared behind the hide, then ran out to try to follow. Just as, eventually, it flew out of sight over a hill, I bumped into two workmen from Severn Trent Water.

“You didn’t just see a big, silver-grey bird of prey go past, did you?” I asked.

“Why, have you lost one?” was the deadly serious reply.

On a gloriously sunny Friday, I thought I’d see if I could find the bird again, either at Kelham or at nearby Sence Valley Forest Park. No luck, despite there being plenty of likely Hen Harrier (and Short-eared Owl) haunts, but there were good scope views of feeding Snipe, and Stonechats popping up on top of bushes and fenceposts. The latter are one of my favourite small birds, and looked superb in the late afternoon sun.

Saturday was a write-off, thanks to the weather, so Sunday I went off in search of the Long-eared Owls reported from Bagworth Heath Woods. A fair few birders had the same idea, and although we didn’t find a single owl, standing staring at their roost site for three hours did allow us to see plenty of Goldfinches and Siskins, and a Kestrel hunting until the light had almost gone. We were all in the first stages of hypothermia by the end of it, but the banter was good. I’m usually a solitary birder, so it was a nice reminder that once in a while, it’s great to share birding time with a lot of highly knowledgeable, generous-minded, funny fellow obsessives.

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