Wednesday, May 30, 2007

After the rain

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
Various factors, but mainly the constant rain, have conspired against me in recent weeks to reduce my birdwatching to a minimum. So, last night, with the skies finally clear for a couple of hours, I thought it was time to get back out there.
I made my way down to a local nature reserve where Barn Owls have bred regularly in recent years, hoping that the break in the weather might have encouraged them to get out and hunt. As I arrived at the former sewage works, though, there were only plenty of Swallows and Sand Martins to be seen, plus an encouraging number of Reed Buntings and Whitethroats, with the small birds seemingly as glad as me that the weather had taken a turn for the better.
Surprise number one came as I walked past the little pools, screened by earth banks, towards the second hide. The twittering of the hirundines suddenly reached a crescendo, and as I turned to look, a Hobby appeared from behind the bank, sweeping round in a wide circle before disappearing behind a treeline. Even before I had time to take in the Swift-like shape, the red 'trousers' were noticeable in the late sunshine.
Delighted, I made my way into the hide, and opened the first flap. There, less than 50 yards away, perched in a low bush, was a raptor-like silhouette, which took on a bluish tone as I looked closer. Merlin? Surely not at this time of year. A slightly small Sparrowhawk or Hobby? The bins soon resolved things - a Cuckoo, completely unperturbed by my presence. Even as I rather noisily opened my scope's tripod, it only shifted position by a few feet. I've seen plenty of Cuckoos in flight, but never so close, for so long, and perched.
After I left the hide I saw it and what was presumably its mate again, but as things got unseasonably cold and the light failed, I started to make my way home. Then, there it was, flying directly towards me, with a hapless vole in its dangling talons. I held still, waited, and only when it was around 15 yards away did the Barn Owl suddenly seem to spot me, screeching loudly and veering away sharply, before coming round in a wide circle towards its nest-box.
It would have been hard to imagine a more rewarding hour's birding, a reminder that the period just after a spell of bad weather can be among the most productive times to go looking.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More cricket

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
Saturday's cricket was surprisingly productive in terms of birdwatching, even if we did capitulate in a manner reminiscent of the current West Indies side.
We were at a ground in Wilford, Nottingham, close to the river, and with allotments, a disused railway line and wasteground nearby. While we were fielding, the highlights were a fine pair of Mistle Thrushes who repeatedly perched on an old roller down at third man, and a Whitethroat singing from the low hedge on the shortest boundary. Plenty of Swallows, too, putting to rest my fears of last week.
Then, while standing at the non-striker's end, bat in hand, what should fly directly overhead but a Common Tern, complete with fish in bill. And just to prove that was no fluke, it made several return trips. I'd guess it might be nesting at Attenborough, but had discovered a rich source of food nearer to Trent Bridge.
What was good about all these birds was that, of the grounds we've played at so far this year, it looked the least promising, in terms of being surrounded by a heavily built-up area. It just goes to show that great birding isn't always about beauty spots and nature reserves. In July's Bird Watching, we'll be looking in-depth at the less obvious birding sites - don't miss it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Following the Oregon trail

US birder John E Riutta (he hails from Oregon) emailed us this week to say that he is a keen reader of the magazine, which he regularly writes about on his excellent blog, Born Again Bird Watcher. Have a look yourself, to get a transatlantic view of British birding, as well as all sorts of interesting material on birds generally.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cricket update

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
The cricketing bird list is coming along slowly but steadily, both helped and hindered by the rainy May we've been having. A week last Saturday, we only managed 20 overs at Thrumpton. The bonus was that it's just across the River Trent from Attenborough Nature Centre, and sure enough, while we were sat around wondering whether the showers would ease up for long enough to get finished, two Buzzards came over. They returned a little later, once the sun was out again, spiralling over the umpires as they tried to make a decision on whether to abandon the game and head for the pub (they did). There were two Grey Herons as well, plus loads of Jackdaws and Swifts.
Last weekend, at home to Caythorpe, there were plenty of House Martins, plus Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the wooded part of the pit bank down one side of the ground. That took the total so far to 16, and a nice bonus was that a pair of Starlings have decided to build their nest in the roof of our pavilion.
The one disappointment so far has been the lack of Swallows - there's no shortage of them over the water at any one of a half-dozen local reservoirs and lakes, but so far they've stayed away from the cricket. In the past, they've often skimmed ultra-low over the outfield.
Still, no ducks either so far, for which I'm grateful.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Night activities

Assitant editor Mike Weedon writes:

As your copy of the latest Bird Watching magazine flops through the letterbox, and you eagerly rip it open, you will notice that I have written a feature on birds at night. If your copy hasn't arrived yet, it will, and if you don't subscribe then you should by going here and follow the links. Or you could just buy it in the shops from May 30 (WH Smith is recommended).
In the feature, I discuss the activities of birds during the hours of darkness and add a few tips. Last night (May 22, 2007), I tried a bit of night-birding myself. I had a pass from my wife to stay out late and my aim was to find a Quail. I didn't want to see one (which is near impossible) but to hear one singing.
I left home in the evening and headed down to my favourite Peterborian wader hotspot, Maxey pits. A rather runty, new-in Sanderling was the best bird on offer, but the night was still, superb and warm with a lovely atmosphere building and the air becoming jammed with millions of tiny mayflies.
At about 9.15pm, I left the site and headed slightly north for the fields around Baston and Langtoft pits (south Lincolnshire) and the road to Baston Fen. There are plenty of fields with crops and grass across these flat former fenlands. So, my tactic was to drive along a bit, find a field with a crop, then stop with the windows open, turn the engine off then listen for a minute or two before moving on another 400m or so.
The first few stops produced nothing. But as I turned toward Baston Fen, a lump on a wire angled down from a telegraph pole beside the road was unmistakable. It was a Tawny Owl, less than 10m from me. With the engine off, I quietly raised my bins and gloried in the beauty of this magnificent bird. It was staring down at a ditch, but I rudely made a tiny sqeak and it instantly rotated its head to stare right at me.
After several minutes during which it seemed to be completely unbothered by my presence, the owl flew across to my side of the road and perched on the wires above my car.
I drove on and 700m further down parked again. Surely that was the sound of a distant Quail? I got out of the car and strained to hear into the distance. No further sound, apart from Red-legged Partridges, but there was another Tawny Owl, perched as the previous bird out on a telelgraph wire over the road.

Red-legged Partridge by Mike Weedon

Another 100m on I parked and listened again, and there it was, the unmistakable 'wet-my-lips' of a Quail. Superb: my target bird achieved with minimal effort, plus brilliant Tawny Owl views thrown in.
Quails (I prefer the 's' plural) are out there somewhere. But generally you have to be out and about at odd owling hours to hear them for yourself. Go for it.

Testing time

Production Editor Matt Merritt writes:
I spent yesterday at a gloriously sunny Rutland Water Nature Reserve with David Chandler, testing 12 of the best 8x42 binoculars available in the £200-£400 price range. We were both amazed at just how much binocular it's possible to get at an affordable price nowadays, but if you want the full lowdown on the bins from Bushnell, Kowa, Minox, Nikon, Pentax, Pyser-SGI, RSPB, Steiner and others, make sure you buy the July edition of Bird Watching.
Strange as it might seem, testing days are not always great for actually watching birds, because you get so caught up in the technical aspects of the kit, but we did see a lone Tree Sparrow, and marvel at the sheer range of Sedge Warbler songs. And, on the way home, I couldn't resist stopping briefly at Manton bridge to watch one of the breeding Ospreys tucking into dinner.

Welsh Osprey success

The third and final Osprey chick has successfully hatched at the Glaslyn site, in Wales (emerging on May 20). The birds can be viewed from Pont Croesor near Porthmadog (10am-6pm). Over May 26-28, 2007, there will be a special community weekend there with plenty of activities, stalls and events. For a fuller story see here

New Big Sit record for Cambs pioneers

Turtle Dove, by Mike Weedon

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first Big Sit – possibly the first following American rules in this country – Allistair Berry and Peter Wilkinson smashed their previous record at the weekend (May 19, 2007). The pair returned to the tower hide at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire and scored a mighty 72 species during their 12.5 hour vigil. Ten years ago they recorded only 62 species at the same site (and their previous best was 67), following rules that restrict your movements to a 17-foot circle, as a 'greener' alternative to motorised bird races in a format only an American could conceive...
Birds recorded by the pair included Cetti's Warbler, Turtle Dove, Marsh Harrier, Mandarin, Little Egret, Avocet and Red Kite.

For more on Cambridgeshire birding, see Cambridgeshire Bird Club
For more on US-style Big Sits, see here

Weedon's World, April 2007

American Robin by Mike Weedon, Bingley, 4.2.07.

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:

Each month, I shame-facedly explain how I’m not a twitcher, before going on to tell a tale of unashamed twitching. This month I received my punishment. Though, as I frequently say, my local patch is my real birding obsession, when a Pacific Diver turned up in Yorkshire I got the twitching bug big-time. It was one UK first I really did not want to miss.

So, I foolishly masked a bit of flu I was nurturing since Friday, February 2nd and took the back seat of my friend’s the Bowells’ Mondeo heading north on Sunday 4th. OK, I’d been sweating out a raging fever all night, but I had to pretend to be at least half well or else I would miss the once-in-a-lifetime lift to see this unique loon.

The pretence lasted a few hundred metres, though, and safely ensconced on the journey north, I confessed to feeling as rough as a Badger.

Yorkshire was holding two birds of special note, the diver and an American Robin. A decision was made to try for the robin first, as the light was apparently dreadful at the loon site until the afternoon. But Will’s pager was silent with no news of either. The drive continued, and the sweat was beading on my brow. Not only was I feeling even iller by the mile, but I was also going to dip on both birds – a double-dip from Hell.

Then the pager beeped with the news that there was no news either way regarding the Pacific Diver. What does that mean? Maybe 500 birders were already there, scouring every drop of water; surely one of them knew whether it was there or not.

Then, a brief moment of bliss came with the news that the diver had been re-found. We were certainly going to see it! Hurrah! This was soon followed by news that the robin was ‘showing well’. I was almost cheerful through my delirium.

We were deep within Yorkshire now, heading for Bradford, and I was confident that two great ticks were coming my way.
The pager beeped. I thought it was an illness-induced nightmare, but the words were true enough. The Pacific Diver had risen high off the water, circled and risen some more before heading north, never to be seen again. After at least three weeks on the site, and less than a week in the open, at the worst possible time for the thousands of the nation’s Sunday twitchers, the loon had gone.

We pressed on for Bingley. Somehow, though, the combination of flu, the news of the diver’s departure, the large crowds and the fact that I’d seen loads of American Robins before (in America), took most of the thrill from seeing the pretty thrush.

It should have been a happy time, but my gloom increased when the robin was relocated. It nervously came down from a tree and started nibbling around in the frozen ground for worms, slowly edging its way to some frosty apples kindly put out for it the day before.

American Robin by Mike Weedon, Bingley, 4.2.07.

Aha, we thought, all it has to do is edge a few metres to the right, out of the way of the bramble and it will be in glorious digiscoping range. No sooner had the thought excited my brain, than a small mob of DSLR-wielders, equipped with their new Christmas lenses came blundering in far too close for the robin’s comfort. They were shaking trees and encroaching so close the bird froze, startled, then flew off into nearby gardens, not to show again for another two hours.

I blame these people for making me stay out in the cold, freeze my bins off and cause me to be ill in bed for the next week.

Don’t go twitching, it just makes you ill..

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Butterflies show climate change

Comma by Mike Weedon, photographed 13.3.07
A report in today's The Independent discusses the findings of Butterfly Conservation, which have shown that 11 species of butterfly broke their earliest-emergence records this year. This is nearly a fifth of all our regular species. Some species, including the Green Hairstreak, Chalkhill Blue and Lulworth Skipper showed as adults a month and a half early this year. Southern Britain's spring was effectively a month early.

Green Hairstreak by Mike Weedon, photographed 19.4.07

Planning reforms could bring doom

The new Planning White Paper could open the way to destruction of threatened wildlife areas, by weakening planning restrictions. For example, long-term readers of Bird Watching will remember John Gooders' repeated concerns, in his column, about the threat of a developed Lydd Airport to the Dungeness area. Now, the RSPB are seeing this as a very real danger.
For more on the RSPB's stance, see here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Wembley Wheatear

Robben and Wheatear share Wembley turf
(click the pics to see them bigger)

Wes Brown and Arjen Robben 'have a chat'...

Robben gets attention while the Wheatear hops toward the United penalty area

Widely acknowledged as the worst FA Cup final since the competition returned to Wembley, the 2007 clash between Chelsea and Manchester United on Saturday did feature one incident to wake up eagle-eyed birdwatchers. In the 67th minute while (to the delight of all non-Chelsea supporters) Wes Brown flattened Chelsea's Arjen Robben, a female Wheatear was seen hopping by!
Despite claims by Mark Lawrenson that the grass was too long on the brand new pitch, it was clearly just the right length to draw down the migrant chat. However, as it tried to avoid the unsavoury incident on the touchline, its ungainly flapping did hint at an injury possibly worse than that sustained by the Dutch flyer. Perhaps, that is unsurprising with the play (though at pedestrian pace almost throughout) covering most blades of grass.
Chelsea took the glory of a 1-0 victory after extra time, but what with the players' repeated diving celebrations, laps of honour and minor pitch invasions by the Chelsea extended family and TV crews, it is uncertain whether the Wheatear survived the ordeal.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Still twitching... we're (in)famous

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:

Bird Watching's website has reached the business pages of The Daily Telegraph in the comment column of Damian Reece (click on the link to read all).

Hardly the most complimentary web-review I've ever read, it is nonetheless complete with an hilarious and dazzlingly original reference to 'breasts', referring of course to the Robin on the cover of our May issue. More surprising is a later reference to a 'stint', but perhaps they really do have a bird-loving sub...

We are still awaiting the next stage of our website development.

Meantime, if you want to see how the other half blog, and in the absence of a blog by Damian Reece (as far as I can see), try reading the blog of Ben Verwaayen, hosted by the very same Daily Telegraph that gives Mr Verwaayen such a massive big-up and plug in Reece's column, today...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

WIlson's revisited

Wilson's Phalarope (plus Greenshank), High Wash, Whittlesey, Cambs, 10.5.07 (digiscope), by Mike Weedon

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:

Soon after I posted the video below, I got a phone call from Jonathan Taylor, assistant warden of RSPB Nene Washes saying he had a Wilson's Phalarope on the High Wash near Whittlesey – ie very close to Peterborough (indeed in the official Peterborough Bird Club recording area). I was off like a flash and, thanks to local birder Brian Stone climbing onto the roof of his car, we were able to refind it. It was raining, cloudy and dark, but I still managed a couple of digiscoped record shots. What a bird!

WIlson's Phalarope

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:
Being not far from Peterborough, Grafham Water's Wilson's Phalarope had me twitching during a week off, during the first week of May. It mainly either filter-fed by sweeping its head under the surface (like an Avocet) while swimming, or swam along behind the dabbling ducks, picking at what they stirred up. Occasionally, though, it went into a typical phalarope spin to stir up food to eat, as in this short video.

Grasshopper for lunch

Editor Kevin Wilmot writes:

Working in the edge-of-Fens outpost that is Peterborough does have its compensations, such as Ferry Meadows Country Park, just a couple of minutes' drive from the office.
This time of year, it's filled with the songs of warblers - Blackcaps, Garden Warblers and Whitethroats, with some Lesser Whitethroats and even a few Grasshopper Warblers, not that I'd ever seen one, let alone heard its reeling song.
It was to FM that Matt Merritt and I popped one lunchtime this week for an hour as the deadline for the June issue of Bird Watching loomed, to be greeted by very little of excitement on the two large lakes, but by the expected warblers in a delightful scrubby area hidden behind a children's play area.

Male Reed Bunting, by Mike Weedon (digiscope)

Blackcaps and Whitethroats were abundant, with plenty of Reed Buntings, tits and Robins... and then we heard it. Grasshopper Warbler! Close as well! Never easy birds to see, we contented ourselves with the strange 'freewheeling-bicycle' song, but trained our binoculars towards the bush where the sound seemed to be coming from.
And there it was! Skulking around the lower branches, but in full view and totally oblivious to our presence. A fantastic, all-too-short lunchbreak, and a trip to the chip shop on the way back was the icing on the 'Gropper' cake.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Swift turnaround

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
In a piece appearing in the forthcoming, June issue of Bird Watching, regular contributor Mark Ward says that each year, he reminds himself he must spend more time watching Swifts.
I'm with him all the way on that one. I live on a small Victorian terrace, and Swifts have nested under the eaves of the house three doors along every summer since I moved in, back in 2000. You can sit watching from the living-room on an early summer evening, listening to the screams, seemingly of sheer exhilaration, as they hurtle back and forth.
By last Sunday morning, I was getting a bit concerned as to their whereabouts, and worrying as I do every year that maybe the householders had had their roof fixed. Then, as I sat down with the papers and a cup of tea, I heard them out there, and went to the front door to watch. There they were, two of them, fairly high up at first, wheeling above the old folks' home opposite. Then they swooped down, almost skimming the walls, and passing so close to my head that I could feel the rush of air from their wings, before making as if to enter the nest hole.

Swift by Mike Weedon

But they didn't. I watched for maybe 20 minutes as they repeated this procedure again and again, then had to leave, rather downcast at the thought that a bit of DIY by my near-neighbours seemed to have left a pair of Swifts homeless. Don't get me wrong - maybe I'd feel differently if they were nesting in my roofspace, waking me early each morning, but it was still a sad moment. The hole, I assumed, was gone, with the Swifts likely to follow.
When I got home at about 7 that evening, all was quiet. It was only an hour or so later that the screaming started again, and I was outside in a flash. This time, without any hesitation, first one bird then the other flew towards the house at breakneck speed, before, with a bit of last-second braking and contortion, disappearing into the join between wall and roof. Relieved? I could have jumped for joy. OK, OK. I did.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
May's here, and with it the chance to combine two of the great loves of my life - birdwatching and cricket.
Now, although I've been playing for almost 25 years, my cricket is pretty much on a par with my birding - purely for fun, very local, and as much about the chance to get out in the open air as anything else. The club I play for, Snibston Grange, are in a league (the Gunn and Moore South Notts), and although we've had a fair amount of success in recent years, no one takes it TOO seriously.
There's only one snag, though, and that's the fact that cricket is incredibly time-consuming, and can easily swallow up large chunks of the weekend when I could otherwise be out birdwatching. So, I like to think I've mastered the art of keeping an eye out for any good birds while travelling to and from games, and even during them. I've not yet missed a catch because I'm too busy wondering if that's a Lesser Whitethroat in the nearby hedge (although I have missed them for umpteen less excusable reasons), so the two obsessions can co-exist.
This year, I thought I'd keep a list of birds seen purely on or over the grounds I play on. First game was on Saturday, a home friendly, and I got off to a slow start. Carrion Crow, House Sparrow, Starling, Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, House Martin and Chiffchaff, plus the species that I'm betting will be the most commonly seen during the season - the Pied Wagtail. There were never less than four skittering around the outfield, and sometimes as many as eight, and although at first it's slightly distracting when you're stood at slip and there's two of them literally four or five paces to your right, you soon get used to it. British cricket grounds don't seem to get big flocks of seagulls settling on them like Down Under, but the Pied Wag is doing its best to fill the niche.
Actually, the prospects of tallying up a sizeable list are pretty good. For one thing, we play at some far-flung and rural locations, and the name Hoveringham on the fixture list this year promises some interesting species. Sadly Attenborough, who play just a few yards from a huge wildlife reserve, are in a different division this time around.
Secondly, our own ground, despite being in the middle of a medium-sized town (Coalville), has potential. Two sides of it are enclosed by the old Snibston Pit spoil heap, now overgrown with vegetation, partly wooded, and including a small nature reserve. Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker and the commoner warblers are regular, and it's even had Ring Ouzels and Wheatears in the past, although sadly just outside the season, so although I won't be smuggling a pair of binoculars onto the field under my sweater just yet, I'll be keeping a sharp eye out.