Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wondering about Waxwings

I saw my first Waxwings of the winter right back at the end of October, a handful close to home, but it's taken until the last week to catch up with many more. On Sunday, though, there were three decent sized flocks in the middle of Coalville, Leicestershire, where I live.

The first thing to notice was that these birds were very much confirming what we're always told about Waxwings, with two of the flocks turning up in supermarket car-parks (Netto and the Co-op/Iceland, out of interest, although I'm not sure they're especially discerning).

The third flock, in a few rowan trees around the Clock Tower, tended to refute the Waxwing stereotype, though. They actually fed on very few berries (the trees around the square had been largely stripped anyway), instead spending most of their time eating the occasional insect, and hanging around in the manner of people waiting for a party to begin.

The good news for them is that, when the cold weather returns in the next couple of days, there are plenty of berries still around. The car-park of the nearby doctor's surgery is one huge cotoneaster buffet just waiting to be raided.

Finally, on the way to work this morning, a few were in a tree next to the A47 at Tixover. It's strange that, though they can look superficially Starling-like, you very quickly start to find them totally distinctive, even at distances at which their crests aren't apparent. It's something to do with the way they move and interract with each other - a classic case of 'jizz' being more important than more tangible ID factors.

Monday, December 13, 2010

UKBS reports for November

Christmas meant an early deadline for our January issue, and as a result a few of the monthly UKBS reports arrived just too late to make it into the print issue. Here they are:

Greater Manchester - November
Highlights: A Pied-billed Grebe was at Hollingworth Lake (6th-21st). A Slavonian Grebe lingered at Audenshaw Reservoirs (1st-21st). Eight Whooper Swans flew over Burnt Edge and two were at Audenshaw Reservoirs (both 1st), 14 flew over Whitefield (10th), three flew over Horwich (13th) and two were on Hoillingworth Lake (16th). Waxwings were present in large numbers with maximum counts at Winter Hill (250), Wigan (230), Horwich centre (125), Bolton (81), Stockport (70), Swinton (65), Horwich Moors (37), Hale (30), Oldham Broadway (30), Salford (30), Moston (28), Timperley (20) and Rochdale (20).

Elton Reservoir: A Scaup was present (1st-20th). Seven Bar-tailed Godwits flew over (6th). A single Long-eared Owl was present (from 1st) with two later in the month (19th-30th). Two Whopper Swans were recorded (14th). Eight Waxwings was the maximum count (25th) with a single also present (20th-22nd).

Mersey Valley: A drake Mandarin was on Shell Pool (14th) as well as a pair of Goldeneyes. Peregrine (3rd) and Raven (20th) were both seen over Shell NR. Over 350 Pink-footed Geese flew over the Carrington Moss area. A Water Rail was still at Shell NR.

Other sites: A Lapland Bunting flew over Winter Hill (7th) with a maximum of nine Crossbills also over (19th). A Short-eared Owl flew over Whitefield as did nearly 2,500 Pink-footed Geese (both 10th). A Ring Ouzel was at Rumworth Lodge (13th) with another over Horwich (13th). Audenshaw Reservoir held a Yellow-legged Gull  (10th-27th) while another was at Castleshaw Reservoir (10th). Two Black Redstarts were still in the Horwich/Winter Hill area and another was at Piethorne Reservoir (16th). A Bittern was in the Wigan Flashes at Hawkley Reedbed (30th).
Dr Paul Brewster (01606 590 491)

South Lincolnshire - November
RSPB Frampton Marsh: Three Bewick’s Swans (12th) were more unexpected than the more numerous records of Whooper Swans. A Black Brant was seen in company of the regular flock of 2,500 dark-bellied Brent Geese on several occasions. Good counts of duck on the Scrapes included 700 Teal (6th) and 650 Wigeon (13th). Two Scaup were on the reedbed for much of the month. A Little Stint remained (to 7th) and up to 53 Ruff were also seen. A Water Pipit made a brief appearance (1st), as did Frampton’s first ever Bearded Tits (three, on 15th), but Lapland Buntings were a little more obliging, with up to eight seen. The highest count of Twite on the Saltmarsh was 90 (17th).

RSPB Freiston Shore: October’s American Golden Plover remained with up to 8,000 Golden Plovers (to 1st). On the sea 75 Common Scoter and two Velvet Scoters were seen (7th) when a first-winter Glaucous Gull was watched following a shrimp trawler. Two Goosander were also present on the Lagoon. Strong onshore winds (9th) produced Grey Phalarope, Sooty Shearwater, two Manx Shearwaters, 141 Common Scoters, Little Gull and a Red-necked Grebe, which was also seen 14th & 21st. Two Long-tailed Ducks were seen (10th & 14th) and a Black Brant (21st).

Whisby Nature Park: November is usually a quiet month, but this one proved to be somewhat different. On the Whisby side some peak counts included 15 Snipe, 12 Tree Sparrows, 50-plus Lesser Redpolls and 65-plus Siskins. Other good birds included a Waxwing (11th), two Jack Snipe (13th), Peregrines (18th & 23rd), the first Woodcock of the winter (25th), a male Mandarin (26th-28th), a Water Rail (27th), up to three Goosander (26th-30th) and a wintering Green Sandpiper (30th). On the N Hykeham side regular gull-watching was rewarded with adult Caspian Gulls (25th & 29th), up to six Yellow-legged Gulls all month and an adult Med Gull (29th). A drake Scaup (15th-23rd) was another good local find.

Gibraltar Point NNR: There were two Taiga Bean Geese (29th) and five White-fronted Geese (21st). There 32 Barnacle Geese (29th-30th), four Velvet Scoter (28th), a Great Northern Diver (26th), an Iceland Gull (28th), a Bearded Tit (20th) and three (21st). Shore Larks were present from 4th, when there were 12, with 15 (13th) and 11 (28th). A Pallas’s Warbler was present (17th). Maximum number of Waxwings reported was 31 (5th). Up to 35 Snow Buntings were present during the month and 16 Lapland Buntings. A Rough-legged Buzzard was seen (30th), and one was nearby at Wainfleet (2nd & 5th). Three Pomarine Skuas were at Skegness (9th), a Black Redstart at Gibraltar Point (12th) and another at Skegness (13th).

Other sites: A Ring-necked Duck was present at Bardney Pits (1st-28th) and a Black-necked Grebe was there (21st). A Grey Phalarope was at Boston Golf Course (7th). A Great Grey Shrike was at RAF Woodhall (7th) and a Raven at Bicker Fen (21st). At Marston Sewage Farm, there were four Bearded Tits (6th) and five (15th), and a Cetti's Warbler (10th & 15th). Waxwings were widely reported, highest numbers being 12 at Spalding (7th), 14-plus at Lincoln (from 14th), 26 at Sloothby (24th), and 16 at Sutterton. There were 20 Lapland Buntings reported at Gedney Drove End.
Steve Keightley, County Recorder, assisted by Colin Jennings, John Badley, Grahame Hopwood.

Ayrshire - November
Highlights: There was an unconfirmed report of an American Herring Gull at Troon harbour (5th). A first-winter Black Redstart at Turnberry Point (24th-30th), a Little Auk off Saltcoats (26th), and a Water Pipit at Seamill (29th-30th) were notable.

General: The Waxwing invasion continued as birds dispersed widely. Largest flocks were 400+ at Irvine (9th), 300 at Prestwick (10th) and 200+ at Saltcoats (15th). Up to 3 Great Northern Divers were between Turnberry and Dipple throughout. Up to three Leach’s Petrels were at Troon and Stevenston (3rd-5th). By the end of the month there were five pale-bellied Brent Geese at Maidens. The largest herd of Whooper Swans was 75  at Springside/Knockentiber (2nd). Two Hen Harriers were near Cumnock (9th) and at Auchinleck there were two Jack Snipe on the same day. Single Merlins were at Irvine (10th) and Greenan (13th).  A Great Skua was off Troon and Stevenston Point (12th) and off Saltcoats (13th) where there was also a Pomarine Skua (11th) and another along with a Storm Petrel (13th). A female Long-tailed Duck remained in Maidens harbour (13th-30th). A Slavonian Grebe was at Southannan Sands (14th), when six Grey Plovers were at nearby Hunterston. Another Slavonian Grebe was at Saltcoats (26th). An unusually high count of 39 Black Guillemots was seen between Portencross and Hunterston (14th). A Green Sandpiper was along the Cessnock Water at Barleith (15th) and four female Ruff at Saltoats on the same day. Two Snow Buntings appeared at Prestwick Beach (16th), a single was at Turnberry Point (26th-27th) and five were at Prestwick (30th). A Ring-necked Parakeet was in Skelmorlie (13th), Alloway (24th) and Saltcoats (28th). The adult Iceland Gull remained on the river Ayr throughout. A large movement of Woodpigeon was noted at the beginning of the month. Small groups of Bramblings were widespread and large finch and lark flocks were noted, particularly at the coast. Crossbills were noted in most forests and groups of up to 10 Woodcock were also reported.  Nuthatches at bird feeders in Alloway suggest a consolidation in that area. Mixed flocks of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese were widespread but small.
Michael Howes

Thursday, July 8, 2010

UKBS: Greater Manchester

Because of an early deadline for the August issue, one or two UKBS reports may not have made the cut-off. Here, then, is the Greater Manchester round-up, with the birds seen in June.

Greater Manchester

Highlights: A Red Kite flew over Woodford Aerodrome (4th). The male Black Redstart was still in Manchester city centre all month. A Marsh Harrier was at Bryn Marsh, Wigan (12th-13th). A Quail was flushed from an Offerton garden (17th).

Mersey Valley: A drake Wigeon lingered at Shell Pool late month (23rd-30th).

Elton Reservoir: Star bird was a brief Little Tern with the Common Terns (6th). Ten Gadwall (3rd) was a noteworthy count. A Dipper was regularly seen nearby from Bury Bridge.

Other sites: A drake Garganey was at Horrock's Flash, Wigan (1st) with 31 Black-tailed Godwits there later in the month (17th).

Dr Paul Brewster 01606 590 491 (& Peter Alker Pennington Flash, 01942 605 253), Chris Nield, Peter Baron

Friday, June 25, 2010

Deceased Kingfisher

(Assistant editor) Mike Weedon writes: I found this male Kingfisher dead at the top of the stairway up to our offices this morning. I am not sure how it died, but there were no obvious wounds and the neck was very floppy. I suspect that it may have flown up from the carp pond and hit one of the shiny windows. These photos were taken by Darren Harbar of Practical Photography magazine.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Derbyshire UKBS for May 2010

Owing to a technical glitch in our July 2010 issue, Rod Key's Derbyshire report for UK Bird Sightings went AWOL (in fact it morphed into a duplicate of the Herefordshire report...). Here, then, for those of you who missed it (pretty much everyone), is the Derbyshire report for the birds seen in May 2010. Apologies all round.


Highlights: A Great Reed Warbler, a county first, was at Straw’s Bridge Pond, Ilkeston (from 12th). A Red-rumped Swallow was at Ogston Reservoir (29th-30th). Nine Cetti’s Warblers were in the Trent Valley. A Spoonbill was at Willington Canal Pit (29th). A Montagu’s Harrier was on the North Derbyshire Moors (to 19th). Seven Dotterel were at Abney Moor (11th) with two (16th-18th). Two more flew over Big Moor (19th). Five Cranes were at Ogston Reservoir (3rd). A possible Black Kite was at Higher Tor, Hathersage Moor (17th).

Aston-on-Trent gravel pits: A Marsh Harrier flew west (1st). There were three Sanderling (29th), with a few Dunlin and Ringed Plovers.

Carr Vale: Eight Marsh Harriers flew through. The Bar-tailed Godwit remained (to 4th). A Whimbrel was seen (5th and 10th) with a Little Egret and Greenshank (19th). A Wood Warbler (3rd) was a rare record here.

Carsington Water: The Great Northern Diver remained (to 8th), as did the Scaup (to 1st). An Osprey sat on a buoy eating a fish (26th). There were two Sanderling (12th) with one (26th), a Turnstone (8th-10th), eight Whimbrels (5th) with 15 (8th), a Greenshank (10th) and three Black-tailed Godwits (5th). A Mediterranean Gull was seen (1st), with a Black Tern (28th). Arctic Terns peaked at four (8th).

Foremark Reservoir: There were seven Common Scoters (31st). A Black Redstart was seen (8th). A Wood Warbler was at Carvers Rocks (31st).

Middleton Moor: There were three Sanderling, four Dunlin and 19 Ringed Plovers (29th) with one Sanderling (30th). Seventeen Greenland Wheatears were seen (3rd).

Ogston Reservoir:
There were Red Kites (1st and 23rd), Ospreys (8th and 15th) and a Marsh Harrier (19th). Sixteen Whimbrels were seen (7th) with one (10th), a Sanderling (22nd) and Turnstone (15th). A Sandwich Tern arrived (19th), with a Little Tern (26th) and 52 Arctic Terns (7th).

Willington gravel pits: Garganeys were seen (9th-12th and 22nd-31st), with four Wigeon and a Teal noted. Three Marsh Harriers were logged. There was a Grey Plover (10th), three Sanderling (6th), with one (22nd), up to 13 Black-tailed Godwits, a Greenshank (6th) and a Wood Sandpiper (19th-21st). A Mediterranean Gull (1st), Little Gull (31st), Sandwich Tern (2nd), Black Tern (22nd) and up to 17 Arctic Terns were seen.

Other sites: Red Kites were at seven sites including three over the A38 near Ripley (23rd). Marsh Harriers were at Ambaston gravel pits (3rd), Barbrook Pools (23rd) and Erewash Meadows (27th). An Osprey flew over Clowne (7th). Two Quails were at Etwall sewage farm (26th). Six Greenshanks were at Barbrook Pools (8th). Wood Sandpipers were at Ambaston gravel pits (3rd) and Pleasley Colliery (21st-22nd). Four Sandwich Terns were at Barrow gravel pits (3rd) with a Black Tern at Straw’s Bridge Pond, Ilkeston (15th). Two Hawfinches were at Cromford Canal (2nd). Long Eaton gravel pits logged two Shelducks, two Egyptian Geese and an Arctic Tern (5th).
Rod Key (

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter birding

Easter's always a favourite time of year for me, because of course it falls during the spring migration period. A little earlier this year than some, and certainly a little colder, but still a great chance to get out there and try to catch up with a few migrants.

In fact, though, my two birding highlights of the long weekend didn't involve new arrivals at all. The first came on Saturday, in the unlikely surroundings of Welford Road, Leicester Tigers' rugby ground.

Now, over the years, I've got some reasonably good ticks while watching sport, with the best probably being an Osprey drifting over the cricket club where I play. But, in many years of watching at Welford Road, or more often at the nearby Walkers Stadium (and Filbert Street before that), I've learned not to expect much more than Feral Pigeons and Black-headed Gulls going overhead.

But, as I stood there around 20 minutes before the kick-off, with 22,000 people packed in for the game against old rivals Bath, my eye was caught by a bird flying diagonally across the stadium, just above the level of the tallest stand. The sun caught it, and I could see that it was a Woodcock, one of the last birds I'd expect to see in the middle of Leicester. I excitedly pointed it out to everyone around me - not suprisingly, most looked at me as if I'd lost my marbles!

Yesterday, as I returned home from looking for Wheatears, Ring Ouzels and Black Redstarts at Beacon Hill (only the former were to be found), a large bird drifted across the road in front of me at a height of around 100ft. For a second I took it for a gull, then realised that it was a Curlew, followed by another.

In the time it took to park safely, they'd landed in a large field where I've often seen them at this time of year (so much so, in fact, that I think of it as the Easer Monday Curlew field). They were a bit nervous, but for 45 minutes or so, I watched them feeding and occasionally doing their wonderful display flight and song, the latter a bubbling, trilling thing of beauty that is probably my favourite ever birdsong.

Whether they breed locally is unclear (they certainly did within living memory), but the Curlews that I see in this particular vicinity are always around six weeks later than the first I see going through the local gravel pits. For me, their appearance is always proof that spring has well and truly arrived.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Birding getaways

Later this year in Bird Watching, you'll be able to read UKBS stalwart and Scottish birding enthusiast Gordon Hamlett's excellent account of an RSPB Birding Weekend at the Cavens Hotel, Kirkbean, Dumfries and Galloway.

In the meantime, though, you can find out more about the hotel (situated on the bird-rich Solway Firth) and the birdwatching breaks it offers here.

It has RSPB Weekends scheduled on April 23rd-25th and November 5th-7th, when you can join RSPB experts for a trip packed with the best of Solway birds, including flocks of geese, breeding waders, dabbling and diving ducks, spectacular seabirds, spring songsters, migrants and
birds of prey. Visiting some of the best bird-watching sites along the North Solway Coast, you can expect to see around 100 different species.

The all-inclusive weekends include:
Drinks reception with expert
Ranger-led daily excursions & talks
Delicious dinners including wine
Packed lunches
Hearty Scottish breakfasts
Afternoon tea
£137.50 pppn or £550 for Country rooms
£150 pppn or £600 for Estate rooms
(based on two people sharing)

In addition, 10% of your room rate goes directly to the RSPB.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

30,000 Barnacle Geese

This is what happens when 30,000 Barnacle Geese take off and fly directly over your head. This is just part of the massive flock we saw in Friesland, north Netherlands, on a weekend tour with Birding Holland ( this February.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More migration watch

We're starting to get the first reports of summer visitors arriving in the UK, with a small group of Sand Martins at Marloes Mere, Pembrokeshire, and both Sand Martin and Wheatear seen around Worksop, Nottinghamshire, at the weekend.

Let us know as and when you note the arrival of migrants, and we'll try to build up a picture of just what's going on out there.

And us? Well, we go to press with the April issue today, but once that's finished, we'll be out there scanning the skies with the rest of you...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


written and compiled by Steve Dudley

The first annual report for the island covering all species recorded on the island in 2009 and details of many rare and scarce species records from previous years.

50 pages covering 257 species, many colour photographs.

As well as accounts of commoner species, records covered also include many notable scarce and rare species including details of the first Lesvos records of Steppe Eagle, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Knot, Little Swift, White-throated Dipper and Bluethroat; the second Caspian Plover; the fourth Whooper Swan; the fourth and fifth Terek Sandpipers; the fifth White-tailed Eagle; the eighth Common Pochard; and tenth Egyptian Vulture. In addition, the report includes the first recorded winter records of Black Kite, Turtle Dove sp. and Short-toed Lark.

FREE to view web version PDF (3Mb) via the Lesvos Birding Website –

FREE high res PDF download (37Mb) also available from Lesvos Birding Website.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Migration watch

There are two sides to visible migration. One is the hard slog – standing on a windswept hilltop, freezing cold, getting a crick in your neck as you try to log huge numbers of Sky Larks, Meadow Pipits, geese or whatever passing overhead.

Despite all that, the rewards are enormous. There’s no better way to get an idea of just how many bird movements go on in these islands, even among species we often think of as essentially sedentary.

The other side of it is the happy accidents. A couple of years ago, I went along to a local reservoir at the end of March to see a Lesser Scaup that had arrived the previous day. As I set up my scope on the crowded dam, I looked up at the observation tower just as a very bedraggled Wheatear alighted on it. For 15, maybe 20 minutes, it sat there, occasionally preening, but mainly just getting its breath back. It visibly revived, before heading on its way further north, perhaps even beyond the UK.

Yesterday was a glorious, clear day, but still probably a week or 10 days too early to realistically expect the first Wheatears or Sand Martins. I went over to Willington Gravel Pits, a fine Derbyshire Wildlife Trust reserve between Derby and Burton, mainly in the hope of seeing the Water Pipits that have been there.

After parking in the village, I walked up the green lane as far as the entrance to the reserve itself, when I heard the unmistakeable ‘coor-li’ call of the Curlew. Small numbers are fairly regular visitors here in spring and autumn, but at first I struggled to locate just where the sound was coming from.

I scanned over the valley of the River Trent towards Repton, and finally, between the trees and hedges and fences, picked up some movement in the water meadows there. A flock of 30 or so Curlew were bustling along the riverbank, feeding constantly as they went. Once or twice, they were flushed into the air by dogwalkers, but they quickly returned to the same spot and resumed their lunch, joined now by a pair of Oystercatchers.

Now, I love Curlews anyway, and although we don’t have huge numbers on my inland patch, neither are they particularly difficult to find in the course of the year. This, though, was the biggest flock I can remember for a long, long time, and the sight and sound of them even overshadowed the long-staying Bittern that flapped over the reedbed a little later, or the Whooper Swan drifting through a flock of Goosanders.

I suspect they’ll be gone on their way to their breeding grounds very soon (indeed, they’re probably already gone), which makes the lucky chance of our paths crossing all the more pleasurable.

We want to hear about migration on your patch. Let us know when your first summer visitors arrive, about large-scale movements of year-round birds, or anything else you see on your travels.

Matt Merritt, features editor

Friday, March 5, 2010

How did you start birding?

What was your birding 'eureka' moment?

The Glamorgan UKBS report for the April issue arrived this morning, and the mention in it of the Ogmore Estuary took me back to childhood summer holidays in South Wales. My mum's family are all from Bridgend, Kenfig and the surrounding area, so every year we went down there and spent days on the beaches at Porthcawl and Ogmore. One year when I was still pretty young, I remember standing at the edge of the water at Ogmore and seeing a small flock of Oystercatchers fly over. They're such an eyecatching bird that they must have really caught my fancy, so off I went to find out more.

There were other things that got me started, notably having to do a project on birds at school. It led me to start watching the Kestrels that nested up a lane near our house (incidentally, walking down that lane a couple of weeks ago, it was good to see that there were still Kestrels doing well), but that moment on the beach might just have been the start of my birdwatching life.

So what was it that started you off? Let us know...

Matt Merritt, features editor

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Keep the questions coming

One of the most interesting, and enjoyable, parts of the production process at Bird Watching is putting together the Q&A pages.

Every month, we get a little flood of queries from readers about birds they've seen, behaviour they've noticed, or features they've read in previous issues of the magazine. While we're sometimes able to answer them straight away, on other occasions we send them out to friends whose specialist expertise can help us come up with a fuller explanation.

But, we're also always pleased at how often readers come up with the answers. What might be unheard of to a birder in one part of the country might be obvious, or familiar, to a someone else.

So, don't hesitate to write or email with your questions, or your answers. It's a learning process for all of us.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Make a difference

You'll have noticed by now that I do a lot of thinking about birds and birding on my journeys to and from work, and today was no difference.

With the weather much more pleasant than it has been for ages, and spring on the point of exploding into life, it was disappointing to see long stretches of hedgerows not just cut back, but stripped almost bare, at exactly the time of year when many birds will be looking to use them for nesting.

Now this isn't an anti-farming rant. A lot of farmers do a great deal to help the birding environment, but the main problem in cases like this one, I suspect, is that some are still unaware of just how relatively minor changes to their routine can impact on wildlife.

A bigger hobby horse, for me, is the cutting of roadside verges by councils. In some locations this is, to be fair, absolutely necessary for the sake of visibility and road safety, but in others it seems absolutely pointless. It does, however, significantly affect birds, by reducing the amount of available insect and seed food, and by reducing scrubby cover.

So, if you get the chance, have a quiet word with your local farmer about bird-friendly scheduling of tasks such as hedging, and better still write to your local council to suggest that this spring and summer, they let the verges grow. They'll be doing birds a big favour, and they'll be saving themselves a lot of money.

Matt Merritt, features editor

Monday, March 1, 2010

Buzzard variations

My birding over the weekend was pretty much limited to the garden, for one reason and another, although I did manage to walk a little two-mile circuit close to my house yesterday afternoon.

But home and away, the most noticeable birds were Buzzards, in pairs, soaring and mewing away like crazy. A pair drifted fairly low right over my garden at one point, a first, although I’ve seen one in the nearby cemetery regularly.

These days, they’re the UK’s commonest raptor, but the sound of them always makes me think back to the days when they were a comparatively rare treat on a trip to the Peak District or Wales.

It’s fast reaching a point when some birders don’t pay them much attention (although quite apart from anything else, it's always worth checking fro the possibility of Rough-legged Buzzard).

But one of the real pleasures of Buzzards is the variation in plumages. Within 15 miles of home, there’s one very pale bird, appearing almost white from a distance, and another very dark one. And then, driving into work this morning, I saw one on a roadside fencepost that, while mid-brown, had only the merest hint of the U-shaped pale breast band that’s usually such a distinctive feature. Variety - it's the spice of birdwatching.

Matt Merritt, features editor

Friday, February 26, 2010

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Shameless plug, but also a pretty good deal that could save you some money.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wooden woodpecker

About a week ago, there was an intriguing report on the news services of a Black Woodpecker at a site in Cumbria. One or two birding blogs mentioned it too, there was a little flurry of activity on Twitter, and we braced ourselves for one of the biggest UK twitches of recent years. Even though it sounded rather unlikely, we're as insanely optimistic as most birdwatchers.

For some reason, even though they can be seen immediately on the other side of the Channel, Black Woodpeckers never make the short hop across the sea to the UK. This, then, looked mega.

Sadly, the bird turned out to be a model, placed on a telegraph pole specifically to deter Great Spotted Woodpeckers! Binoculars, scopes and cameras were put away, travel plans cancelled, Ginsters pasties returned to chiller cabinets in petrol station shops.

I’m not laughing too loud, though. On some allotments near to my house, someone has placed a handmade and highly realistic model of a Tawny Owl on a fencepost. No matter how many times I drive past it, I feel compelled to look and check that it isn’t, in fact, a real owl.

But all this talk of woodpeckers leads us to a little trivia test for you all. There are five woodpeckers on the British List – can you name them all?

Matt Merritt, features editor

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spring migrants

Our May issue is going to be taking a close look at the whole subject of migration, but in the meantime, we're all getting excited at the thought of the arrival of the first summer visitors. In little more than a couple of weeks, the first Wheatears and Sand Martins might be appearing locally, and there are already reports of some freakishly early arrivals.

We'd like to hear from you about what, when and where your first summer visitors are. Forget the annual Cuckoo debate on the letters page of The Times - this is where it's at! Email us at the magazine, or post your comments below, with details of your migrants.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Owling mad

I've spent quite a few cold afternoons this winter watching the owls down at Cossington Meadows, a Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust Reserve just north of Leicester. There have been three Short-eareds (now possibly four - it's a long while since we've had even one long-stayer in the area), around the same number of Barn Owls, plus the resident Little Owls and Tawnys (although you only hear the latter).

Anyway, I'm no photographer, but Andy Mackay, AKA The Leicester Llama, has posted some great shots on his own blog, and at Soar Valley Birding. Enjoy!

Matt Merritt, features editor

Friday, February 19, 2010

I can see clearly now

Seems like every post these days is about the weather, but sitting there waiting for the roads to clear this morning I noticed one little bonus of all this snow.

The light reflecting off it makes it much easier to identify flyover birds, and turned a straggly flock of Fieldfares from the usual dull silhouettes into the sharply marked beauties they actually are. Some consolation, at least!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Weather or not to go birdwatching

Driving to work today was like barrelling through an enormous cotton wool tunnel - from beginning to end, visibility never got more than 50 yards or so, and at times the fog was even thicker than that.

But although it might, on the face of it, seem like the worst birdwatching weather possible, there are times when a bit of fog is the birder's friend. Six weeks from now, for example, when spring migration is well and truly in full swing and everything's on the move, a bit of early morning fog can be the signal to get down to your local reserve and start scanning, because it can ground all sorts of birds that might otherwise overfly your patch in the night without stopping.

In future issues of Bird Watching, we're going to be paying closer attention to the weather than we have in the past. We won't be making any rash forecasts, but we will be looking at how certain conditions can bring in certain birds.

We'd also like to know your weather-related birding tips. And we don't mean "always carry an umbrella"!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Getting twitchy

Our thoughts, and those of Bird Watching columnist David Lindo, AKA The Urban Birder, have been turning to twitching these last couple of days.

The reason? A Dusky Warbler - London's first - discovered at Lockwood Reservoir, Walthamstow. It's around the allotments on Black Horse Road, E17, if any of you are interested in going after it. So far, the weather has stymied David, but we don't reckon he'll resist temptation for too much longer.

It's another sign that spring's on the way. In early January, it's easy to vow only to bird your local patch this year, but the closer the spring migration period gets, the more you start to think: "Well, maybe I'll twitch the odd county rarity".

We'll be looking at the psychology of twitching, and of birdwatching more generally, in the magazine in the near future, but what are your thoughts on it? Where do you draw the line? And what birds might lure you into a madcap overnight motorway dash to the other end of the UK?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Here comes spring

I know that by saying this I’ll guarantee that I’ll wake up tomorrow to six-foot snow drifts, but yesterday really did feel like spring was right on the brink of exploding into life.

It wasn’t particularly sunny, or warm, but it was milder than it has been for a while, and everywhere I went, birds were in full song. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes in particular, but also the likes of a Nuthatch. One dense plantation of larches I walked past was absolutely alive with Goldcrests. There are fears that they might have suffered badly in the bad weather, but they seemed to be doing well here – stand still for a minute and do a bit of pishing, and six or seven would appear to have a look at you.

Of course, that’s why St Valentine’s Day is on February 14th – it’s when, traditionally, birds were thought to start pairing up for the breeding season. The truth is a bit more complicated than that, as you can discover in Bird Watching magazine soon, but it’s one of those pieces of folk wisdom that is firmly rooted in reality.

Friday, February 12, 2010

One of those days

We've already talked on here about how the hard winter has affected birds (our March issue will contain more on the same theme), and it shows no sign of changing.

I had the day off yesterday, and although there was the odd wintry shower early on, things brightened up by the afternoon. I thought I'd head over to a rather nondescript field where, in the past, I've found Jack Snipe, but although it still looks perfect for them (boggy, with lots of tussocky grass), there was no sign. I did see a Kingfisher flash down the nearby stream, though.

So, it was on to Kelham Bridge, a former sewage works that's now a Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust reserve. It's my favourite local site, but I've neglected it a bit recently. Next to the first hide, there are a few feeders, and as I settled into my seat I did a double-take - underneath them, a Water Rail was pecking away at the fallen seed, along with a few Moorhens, Dunncoks and Robins. Now I hear the Water Rails squealing away here quite often, but to get such great, unobstructed views was amazing.

On the feeders themselves, there was a mass of Great Tits and Blue Tits, plus the bizarre sight of a Moorhen trying to climb out along one of the branches to get to the feeders (or possibly the tits - Moorhens can be voracious and none-too-fussy eaters). One of those days, as it turned out, to learn something new about birds you think of as familiar.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

UK Bird Sightings

It's deadline day here at Bird Watching, which means putting the finishing touches to the UK Bird Sightings section. It can be a bit hectic at times, but the real hard work is done by our little army of contributors and our UKBS sub-editor, Gordon Hamlett.

Every month, against a strict and pretty tight deadline, they produce reports from most corners of the UK We know from talking to readers, and from surveys, that it's one of the most popular parts of the magazine. You might not read every word, but most people will look at their own county and neighbouring regions. A lot of people use the information for the future - if you see that a site has a regular influx of, say, Smew in January, you can go there the next year in anticipation of seeing one.

Inevitably, over time, our entirely voluntary correspondents come and go, as they move house, change jobs and generally get on with everyday life. That means there are always a few gaps in our coverage.

So, if you think your county is not getting covered (at the moment, notable absentees include Oxfordshire, Surrey, Gwynedd, Shropshire and most of Cheshire, while Kent, Sussex and Northumberland will shortly need new writers), and you think you can do the job (we'll give you the guidelines), let us know in the comments box, or email

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Challenging IDs

There’s a really interesting letter in the current issue of British Birds (Vol. 103), concerning the identification of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit. To sum up, Dr JTR Sharrock and Barry Nightingale respond to a recent paper by Richard Broughton, and say that they feel he may have been too pessimistic. They add: “Positive field identification of these two species may be challenging, but it is – in our view – easier than that of, say, silent Common Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler”.

Now, I was thinking about separating the two when I was at Willington GP on Sunday, and I’d tend to agree with what they say. One thing that tends to get underplayed, in our experience, is the structure of the two birds – Willow Tits always look very bull-necked to us, and that seems to be a more reliable ID factor than any of the others (pale wing panel, shape of bib, glossy or non-glossy cap). The letter writers, to be fair, point out that the important thing is taking into account a whole combination of factors, and we'd agree.

But we'd like to know - would you find separating Willow and Marsh Tit easier than separating silent Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, as they suggest? And are there any other match-ups that you find even harder?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bitten by the Bittern bug

One of the side-effects of the hard winter is that certain birds usually known for their secretive and skulking behaviour can be seen a lot more easily (see our forthcoming March issue for a look at how the bad weather has affected British birds). Woodcocks, for instance, of which I’ve seen more locally this winter than in the last 10 put together, and Bitterns.

There have been several seen around Soar Valley sites since around Christmas, but I’d managed to miss them every time, even the one at Swithland Reservoir that seemed impossible not to see, so small was the area it was frequenting. So, for a change, I went to the far side of my local patch, to Willington Gravel Pits, where a Bittern has been seen since early autumn.

Thing is, once I got there, I rather forgot about it. It’s a big site, and there was plenty else to divert my attention, and anyway the reedbed’s big enough that any Bittern can stay hidden for days at a time. I walked down to the first viewing platform, which overlooks an almost enclosed bay of the main lake, and after a scan of the water and the reedy fringes, started watching the nearby bird table. There were plenty of Reed Buntings, two Willow Tits (easier to find than March Tits in my part of the world), and several Robins and Dunnocks.

At one point, there was the sound of movement in the reeds behind me, but careful scanning revealed nothing, and when a Water Rail started squealing from the same area, I assumed it had been responsible for the whole commotion. I returned to watching the table, which now had a couple of Bullfinches in attendance.

Then there was the sound from the reeds again, and I looked round to see a Bittern flying almost straight towards me. Bizarrely, it seemed not to have even noticed I was there, even though the viewing platform is really rather prominent, and it got to within 15 yards before suddenly veering right then sweeping round in a wide curve, and finally dropping out of sight into a ditch. They’re really glorious birds, and always look more golden than you expect.

After that excitement, anything else was always going to be an anti-climax, so a single Stonechat, four Oystercatchers and a couple of Shelducks were no more than pleasant diversions. But out on the far side of the water, patient grilling of a flock of dozing Pochards produced a pair of Pintail, also dozing with their heads tucked out of sight. They’re not a duck we get very often in the East Midlands, so it was a nice tick.

As it turned out, my regular Soar Valley site, Cossington Meadows, had a Bittern, two Pintail, two Little Egrets and the three Short-eared Owls yesterday, but I’d bet my house that the Bittern wouldn’t have shown if I’d gone there instead!

Matt Merritt, features editor

Friday, February 5, 2010

Field guides of the future

I've just downloaded BirdGuides' Birds of Britain and Ireland (Pro Edition) for my iPhone. Described as a high-quality digital field guide, first impressions are very good indeed - they seem to have done a very comprehensive job.

In fact, although a copy of that birders' Bible, the Collins Bird Guide, will always remain in my car for ID emergencies, this is the app that, when I first bought the iPhone, I dreamed about someone developing. You have pictures, descriptions and calls of 271 species at your fingertips, for a very reasonable £14.99, and without having to carry a chunky tome in your pocket. It'll complement the Collins Guide very nicely.

In the March issue of Bird Watching, new subscribers can get a free copy of the new second edition of the Collins Bird Guide, and there'll be an in-depth review of that iPhone app. I'm off to really put it through its paces now...

Matt Merritt

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A taste of Jamaica

In the March issue of Bird Watching, Mike Weedon will report on his recent trip to Jamaica, and particular his new found addiction to the endemic streamertail hummingbirds, which are very common birds on the island. Here is best flight shot of a Red-billed Streamertail. Great bird, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

To tick or not to tick

I've been thinking again about one of my birding hobby horses - non-native species. Not so much the Ruddy Duck controversy, as the fact that most birders (myself included) are curiously inconsistent in what they regard as a 'tickable' species.

So, some geese and ducks (such as Red-crested Pochards, at some times of the year) immediately arouse suspicion, on the grounds that, although they might now have formed self-supporting populations, they're originally from captive stock. Even Egyptian Geese get ignored by some, although most of them in the UK are descended from stock released in the 17th century.

Mandarins, on the other hand, nearly always get ticked, even though they're surely just as suspect. Little Owls always get ticked. They're not native. Neither are Red-legged Partridges, or Pheasants. Or Rabbits, for that matter, which as a prey species must have greatly helped the rise and rise of the Buzzard. Where do you draw the line?

So, where do you stand? Do you have your own criteria? Send us your comments now...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On the move

Driving into work this morning in the wind and rain, I kept seeing small, straggly flocks of Lapwings heading vaguely east.

It was only then that it occurred to me how few I've seen since the really cold weather started in mid-December, a reminder that, quite apart from all the bird movements into and out of the UK, there are also an awful lot within these islands.

We've been getting reports of larger than usual numbers of Redwings, Fieldfares, Sky Larks and various other species, including Lapwings, from the south-west, with the obvious conclusion being that the cold weather has pushed the birds further and further west in search of unfrozen ground. Now, it seems, they're coming back. It might not quite be spring yet, but it's not too far away.

In the March issue of Bird Watching, we'll be looking in more depth at just how the big freeze affected our British birds, including your pictures of some unusual garden visitors.

Matt Merritt, features editor

Monday, February 1, 2010

Owling mad

I spent yesterday trekking round my local patch, attempting to kickstart my 2010 list, and to prevent my increasingly dodgy back from seizing up altogether.

It worked on both counts, with the early highlight being a good look at a lovely drake Smew at Swithland Reservoir, near Leicester. It took a while to find it, watching from the dam, because it was tucked in right underneath the overhanging vegetation along the Kinchley Lane side of the res, so I walked over that way and, as it gradually made its way out into open water, was able to get great scope views of it in all its cracked-ice glory.

Most of the rest of the day was spent mopping up some fairly bread-and-butter birds, but on most of my birding trips this winter, I seem to have been magnetically attracted to Cossington Meadows, and its Short-eared Owls (although there was also the hope that the Bittern found my John Hague the previous day would still be around).

It was a gloriously clear, sunny day, and as I entered the reserve and walked over towards Rectory Marsh at about 3.45, I could see a white shape flitting around behind the trees. As I got closer, it was revealed as a Barn Owl, and a very pale one at that, hunting along the hedgerows and occasionally perching on a fencepost. As I watched, along with a couple who’d made the trip over from South Derbyshire, I caught sight of a crow mobbing a large bird high in the distance. To my surprise, it was one of the Short-eareds. Surprised, because for most of the winter they’ve been waiting until it’s almost dark to come out, and because you don’t usually see them at any great height.

So, we trooped round to a position overlooking Swan Meadow, and stood with half a dozen other birders as the show commenced. The mobbing had finished, so the SEO descended to its usual level and started quartering the rough grass. Another Barn Owl appeared, this one much darker and more orangey on its back, and for the next hour, we were able to watch up to three SEOs and three Barn Owls hunting nearly non-stop. It was very noticeable, especially when they glided close in, that there was a considerable colour difference between the Short-eareds, too, with one appearing much lighter than the others.

I finally gave up when I realised I was getting positively dizzy with cold (or was that just with the experience and with having my eyes pressed up to my Swarovskis for so long?). There was a fantastic sunset over Charnwood Forest, with what seemed like every possible colour bleeding into each other, and after 15 minutes thawing out in the car, I drove home, enjoying the extra bonus of a Woodcock in perfect silhouette as it flew across the road between Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood.

Matt Merritt, features editor