Friday, February 26, 2010

FREE Collins Bird Guide

If you want the best deal on the excellent new Collins Bird Guide, you can get it for absolutely FREE when you subscribe to Bird Watching.

Call 0845 601 1356 and quote CVAA and not only will you get 13 issues of the UK's best-selling birding magazine delivered to your door at a discounted rate, but you'll get a softback copy of the new Collins absolutely free.

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