Monday, April 30, 2007

Center Parcs surprise

Editor Kevin Wilmot writes:

It's a source of constant amazement that any bird in its right mind would want to spend its days and nights anywhere near Center Parcs, but having just spent a weekend at the Elveden Forest Center Parcs near Thetford in Norfolk, I can report that the bird life there is thriving.

Despite constant traffic from hundreds of cycles and thousands of people (most of them lost), there are plenty of quieter areas where the bird life can offer some pleasant surprises. A Blackcap seemingly in every bush, plus Chiffchaffs, Jays, Coal, Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits, Robins, Chaffinches... but the highlight was a glorious male Siskin perched unobtrusively towards the bottom of a lakeside tree. A very pleasant surprise during an otherwise children-dominated weekend.

Back to the office today and it's very quiet without Mike Weedon and Carol Debney who are both on holiday. Mike, ever the considerate one, has just called me with news of a summer-plumaged Black Tern on a local gravel pit. Thanks mate! Don't worry about me - I'll man the phones...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Norfolk trip

Editor Kevin Wilmot writes:

One of the more enjoyable parts of my job on Bird Watching magazine is that I get to on 'press trips' as they're called. This might be in the form of a fortnight in Peru which I enjoyed last November (you can read all about it in the June issue of Bird Watching), or something much closer to home.
My most recent invitation was to spend a couple of days in Norfolk in the company of German optics manufacturers Steiner and their UK distributors Intro 2020. Steiner had just released their new Discovery binoculars and were keen to show them to the birdwatching press.
Great! Two days of birdwatching in one of the prime locations in UK at the perfect time of the year for incoming migrants. Our base was the exquisite Titchwell Manor Hotel and after lunch and a short presentation from the lovely Stephanie from Steiner, we were on our way to the reserve at Holme-next-the-Sea.
A singing Lesser Whitethroat was hopefully a taste of things to come as soon as we got off the bus and we were delighted when this skulker showed well at the top of a bush for a minute or so before realising that it shouldn't have been there and disappearing down below.
Further along the path (and after I got a polite ticking-off from the warden for walking 10 metres across the grass) we saw a group of birders and were soon focussing the Steiners on a magnificent pair of male Ring Ouzels. Rumours of a male Redstart in the same area proved unfounded, though a particularly vivid male Chaffinch was about (hmmm).
Next day, the RSPB Reserve at Titchwell gave us a splendid Short-Eared Owl, Cetti's Warbler, Bearded Tits, the boldest Sedge Warbler I'd ever seen, three Marsh Harriers, Barn Owl, a glorious breeding-plumaged Spotted Redshank, and unfeasibly large numbers of mating Avocets.
Oh, and the bins were brilliant!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Three Pigeons

Assitant editor Mike Weedon writes:
These three Feral Pigeons were outside our office window in Bretton, Peterborough, today doing not much.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Firsts in Coto Donana

Stone Pines in the Corredor Verde

Garden editor Carol Debney writes:

There's a first time for everything but my first visit to Coto Donana (April 17-21) combined several 'firsts' for me including some new birds and my first bird race. But the trip had a more serious purpose than bird racing – though I now realise just how serious that activity is – as along with Tim Appleton (Rutland Water), Keith Betton (Travel Consultant) and Mike Witherick (Ornitholidays), I was invited to attend the First Professional Meeting of Birdwatching Tourism in Andalusia. This involved some serious meetings intersposed with delicious Spanish food eaten at strange times and the chance to watch wonderful birds in some of the most beautiful woodland habitat I've ever seen. I just fell in love with the area known as the Corredor Verde where tall Stone Pines stand among masses of shrubby rock roses covered in pink and white blooms, wild flowers of many kinds are underfoot and the 'opoo-poo-poo' call of Hoopoes was everywhere.

An abundance of wildflowers

Keith (left) and Tim

Scenic shots of the Corredor Verde

I had reservations about the bird race but it was fun. By Friday our numbers had been swelled by bird tour operators from all over Europe and the USA so competition was fierce. We began with an early morning scramble for breakfast in a local bar where the single-handed owner was overwhelmed by massed-birders demanding coffee and toast. Then we were off. With Keith Betton at the wheel 'The BirdFair Team' was soon clocking up good numbers of species while, as recorder, I tried to scrawl legible lists as we jolted over bumps and potholes. The terrain is rough for this kind of activity as even the metalled roads have lots of speed bumps intended to stop boy racers!

Conference organiser Beltran de Caballos Vazquez (left) and bird-race organiser Jorge Garzón

We finished at 2.30pm when all entries were scrutinised – and a few sightings disallowed! Trust me, I'm a journalist, I'll mention no names! The BirdFair Team came a respectable (we were gutted) third with a total of 104 species, beaten by The International Brigade, led by Gerry Foster Thomas (Celtic Bird Tours) with a total of 112. Lunch and a few beers helped.

The International Brigrade, bird-race winners (Gerry in the hat with the prizes)

My new birds included Crested (Red-knobbed) Coot, White-headed Duck and Azure-winged Magpie which I saw along with other great birds including Black Kite, Black-shouldered Kite, Short-toed and Booted Eagle, Bee-eaters, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Purple Swamp Hen, Little Bittern, masses of herons and egrets, terns, ducks, waders, warblers and larks. I enjoyed the birdrace far more than I expected but I prefer slow birding by foot or even just standing in one place and waiting to see what turns up. Coto Donana would be a great place to do that!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Weekend birding

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:

Little Owl, Deeping Lakes LWT, Lincolnshire, 21.4.07 (click it for a bigger version)

This weekend (21-22.4.07) I got a chance to go out for a few snippets of birding. I started Saturday with a visit to my regular 'wader' patch of Maxey pits, north of Peterborough and just ten minutes from home. A Lesser Whitethroat was singing near where I parked and a female Wheatear was scurrying around on the short-cropped Rabbit grass. Next stop was Deeping Lakes LWT, where I added Cuckoo to my year list and heard my first Whitethroat of the year, warbling out a varied, almost Blackcap-like subsong. The highlight, though, was a Little Owl near the main track by the car-park, which allowed me to digiscope it.

Female Wheatear, Serpentine Brick Pit, Cambridgeshire, 21.4.07 (click it for a bigger version)

In the afternoon, I took a walk around Serpentine Brick Pits, to the south-west of the city, where I found four Wheatears (two males, two females) and digiscoped one of the females – on its bricky habitat. It was on the edge of what was a great weedy field last year, but has now been destroyed by ploughing and rolling. Indeed, only a week ago, Lapwings and Sky Larks and probably Redhsnks were sitting on eggs in this field, but they have now been brutally removed. Criminal.

Bar-tailed Godwit, Nene Washes, 22.4.07 (click it for a larger version)

On Sunday, I took a long walk on the Nene Washes, east of Peterborough. Drumming Snipe were everywhere, though the scarcest bird I found was a Bar-tailed Godwit – an uncommon migrant through these parts.
Though I am a devout digiscoper, I also possess a DSLR, and use both with some regularity. Digiscoping covers most of my photographic needs, but occasionally, when I want to catch action, particularly flight, I turn to the DSLR. Luckily, the Barwit flew right passed me and I was able to get some shots. I also indulged in a bit of Snipe-drumming action...

Drumming Snipe, Nene Washes, 22.4.07 (click it for a larger version)

Friday, April 20, 2007

I love a happy ending

'Rutland's most eligible bachelor' seems to have found his soulmate at last. Now that the matching is done and dusted, you can follow any hatching through the above link. And, if you're passing anywhere near Rutland Water this summer, drop in and see these incredible birds yourself. Admittedly they spend a lot of time sitting around on dead trees, but see one fishing and you won't forget it in a hurry.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wagtail movie

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:

Here is a short movie (digiscoped) of the Yellow Wagtail I photographed (see below) at Maxey Pits, Cambs on 15.4.07. It was running along picking flies off the water's edge, running over shingle, between clumps of Colt's Foot flowers. In the background you may just hear the odd Redshank calling.
Yellow Wagtail numbers are building at present, with 22 in one flock at Maxey last night (16.4.07).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Migration watching

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
The great thing about this time of year, especially when the weather suddenly turns all Mediterranean on us, is that every day brings with it new arrivals as spring migration gets into full swing.
I spent most of the weekend out looking for Ring Ouzels. I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t get excited about what is after all basically a Blackbird with a white collar, but there you go. I was completely unsuccessful. On the other hand, I spent two and a bit days out in glorious sunshine, striding purposefully all over north west Leicestershire and south Derbyshire, which has to be good for both the soul and the waistline.
And that’s the beauty of birding. You go out looking for one thing, and find something quite different. Because, although the ouzels remained elusive (I’ll have another go tonight), I did manage to hear my first Cuckoo of the year (Sence Valley Forest Park, Leics), along with a drumming Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Swithland Reservoir, Leics) and a Lesser Whitethroat (Willington Gravel Pits, Derbys), and to see three Whitethroats (Charnwood Lodge, Leics), two fine male Wheatears (finally, again at SVFP), a female Redstart (Swithland Res), a Tree Pipit (Beacon Hill, Leics) and a Green Sandpiper (SVFP again). Add to that three Little Ringed Plovers (they’ve been around for a while, but usually singly) and watching a pair of Kestrels play house (unfortunately involving the rather gory dismemberment of a vole just outside the nestbox), and you’ve got a pretty satisfying weekend. It’s just a bit hard getting back to work with the soaring temperatures giving you that summer holiday feeling.

Weekend activity

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:
I spent most of Saturday grilling the area west of Peterborough for Ring Ouzels, as there has been a major spread of them around the east in the last week (with two in the Peterborough area). I wandered far and wide west of the A1, covering masses of the Sulehay area and down to Morborne Hill. Boy did I see some fine habitat, and I couldn't stop thinking about the glory of picking up a Hoopoe pecking around in the short grass. But the best I could come up with was an early Lesser Whitethroat (Morborne) one or two Common Lizards (Old Sulehay) and a Field Vole (also OS).

Brown Hare (digiscope)

Male Yellow Wagtail (digiscope)

In the evening I went to Maxey and had my first Yellow Wagtail, Wheatear and Common Sandpiper of the year. The next day, I visited again, and watched a Brown Hare and got bitten by a dog, but that's another story...

Adult summer Little Gull (digiscope)

In the afternoon I twitched up to Baston and Langtoft and relocated an adult Little Gull with minimal effort (these are pretty scarce passage birds around Peterborough).
It was all pretty satisfactory, until I came to work today (16.4.07) and heard that a Hoopoe had been found a few miles away from my searching area, yesterday.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Strange behaviour

Production Editor Matt Merritt writes:
One of the benefits of patch-watching in an area where spectacular rarities are few is that it makes you look that little bit harder at some of the commoner, more everyday species, so that you suddenly start to notice how often behaviour diverges from textbook norms.
The Easter weekend was a case in point. Late on Friday, I spent some time watching a Kestrel at my local country park. At least, I started off thinking it was a Kestrel, based on its shape and the fact that it seemed the only realistic possibility. After 10 minutes, I wasn't so sure. It spent the whole of that time soaring high in the sky, apparently chasing insects like a Hobby. It was silhouetted, so colour was no guide, and I started to wonder whether I was seeing a very early arrival. Finally, though, it moved lower and closer and, just as I was able to make out the plumage of a female Kestrel, it confirmed things for me by hovering and plunging to the ground.
The following day, out looking for Blackcaps and Willow Warblers, I noticed two Chaffinches doing their best to get mistaken for flycatchers. From perches high in a silver birch, they repeatedly darted out a few yards to snatch insects before returning to the same spot. I've seen this sort of thing before, but not by more than one bird at a time and not for such a prolonged period (15 minutes or so). This pair were clearly determined to make the most of a glut of gnats brought out by the warm weather.
The final incident was the best of the bunch. A couple of weeks ago at one of my regular haunts, Swithland Reservoir, a male Grey Wagtail seemed to be particularly bothered by the wing mirrors of cars parked on the dam, repeatedly landing on them in a rather agitated state and apparently challenging his reflection head-on. Although his mate looked on unconcerned, it was all a bit worrying, because small birds and glass don't really mix.
Yesterday, though, things had changed a little. The pair were still in the same spot, and had become bolder and bolder, regularly venturing to within five or six feet of me (I've usually found Grey Wagtails much more nervous than Pieds). Best of all, the male seemed to have lost his fixation with the mirrors, while his mate landed on them once or twice, but just to peer calmly into the car. Then, apparently satisfied that there was nothing of interest there, she flitted onto the roof, and ran back and forth picking off all the insects she could find.
Fast learners, wagtails, obviously. Even meals on wheels aren't beyond them.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Godwit count

Assistant editor Mike Weedon writes:
Inspired by my friend Graham Catley's big counting technique (as featured in Bird Watching, November 2006) I coloured in a pic of a bunch of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits chased into the air by a Peregrine on the Nene Washes last Friday 30.3.07. This was one of two flocks doing the rounds. And I was quite pleased by my estimate of 1,000 birds. As you can see by the clusters of 50, there are 900 birds in this photo. (DSLR)

Monday, April 2, 2007

Three-way dogfight

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:
My native county of Leicestershire probably doesn't conjure up an image of wild, windswept places for you, and for the most part you'd be right. Don't get me wrong - I love the rolling countryside, dotted with copses and fox coverts, and it offers plenty of good birding for a stay-at-home patch-watcher like me, but it does lack a certain drama a lot of the time.
Except, that is, for a little triangular area just north-west of Leicester itself - Charnwood Forest. There are wooded areas, both deciduous and conifer, but its name is down to it being an old medieval hunting forest, so the landscape is mainly sheep pastures interspersed with bracken-covered heath or moorland and outcrops of granite, some of the oldest rocks in Britain. These long-extinct volcanoes have in effect created a mini-Dartmoor, and the birdlife of the area is accordingly distinctive.
The granite is also much in demand for road-building, and so the area is dotted with quarries, some disused, others huge and very much up and running. To be fair they're mostly (with one notable exception), as discreet as quarries can be, and for birdwatchers they've had a couple of welcome side-effects.
That was very much in evidence on Saturday, when I stopped at a regular haunt, the dam at Swithland Reservoir. It offers a good view, not just over the water, but of Buddon Wood, behind which is the enormous Mountsorrel Quarry. You can very often see Peregrines in the most prominent tree on the wood's skyline, but this time (it was clear and sunny, but very windy), the resident pair were displaying to each other, stooping, tumbling and making close passes.
Their courtship was soon interrupted, however, by the biggest Raven I've ever seen. A full-scale battle ensued, with some quite breathtaking aerobatics but no actual contact, before the Raven in turn came in for a mobbing from a pair of irate Crows.
I've heard it said that each of the area's quarries contains a pair of Peregrines, and Ravens now seem to be spreading in a similar fashion. I see them regularly at Charnwood Lodge, close to my house, and they're always a pleasure, despite the mixed reputation they enjoy. They combine power and menace with intelligence and even playfulness (so much of the time they seem to be flying purely because they can, and superbly well). You can immediately see why they inspired such a mixture of fear and veneration in cultures such as the Vikings.
It's a good example of how natural and man-made environments can sometimes collide with spectacular results. Quarries, gravel pits, sewage works - watch them carefully and they might just turn up some real treasures.