Tuesday 27 December 2011

A Few Tips, Free Bird News and Better Birding With An IPhone - 27th December 2011

I am quite often asked when I meet up with people out birding where I get my information from and how I am sometimes lucky enough to get some of the images I have in the past. I have decided to put everything I do in this post in a hope that perhaps it will help others to achieve the same and use the latest technology to help them become better at watching wildlife here in the UK.

Technology has advanced so much over the last decade that it has been quite hard to keep up with it, but it is very easy to use it to our advantage so long as we know what we want to get out of it. I now use an I Phone4 and to me it is a tool to help me in my hobby. No longer is a phone just a phone, it's a device that constantly streams information and I will admit that sometimes I need it and sometimes I don't but nonetheless the information is there straight away whenever I need it - literally at arms reach. I am sure that other smartphones will do the same job but as this is the device I have been using for a while, this is the one I shall be referring to in this post.

Free Bird News
Information regarding birds and other wildlife has been the lifeline to many people who want to enjoy the "unusual" but aren't quite in the "clique" as they say. By this I mean in birding and any other wildlife watching it can be quite hard for people new to the hobby to see unusual things may turn up. A lot of bird sightings used to be passed word of mouth so if you didn't know the right people then you may only hear about it few days later, by which time of course the bird had normally vanished. To some extent this is still the case but luckily nowadays things are slightly different. Most bird clubs have their own websites with regular sightings pages - and this is the first tip - bookmark all of these in your surrounding area and visit them regularly. The down side to this is these sites are quite often updated at the end of the day so the next tip is to get yourself a Yahoo account and then search the Yahoo Groups for all birding groups in and around your area. When you join, normally after they accept you, set up your account so you get an individual e-mail for every single posting (this means when someone posts on the group you will receive an e-mail showing the posting). Then on your phone go the e-mail account settings and type in your Yahoo details, ie log in on your name and password and hey presto! All the e-mails from all different groups will be sent to your phone whenever you need it. I personally have all the Northants, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire and North Bucks e-mails now sent straight my phones e-mail account so after pressing a couple of buttons they're all there. The likes of Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert get their information through these too so by checking it regularly you can get the info you need before they do.

Subscribing to Bird Info Services
The likes of Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert have been invaluable to a lot of twitchers and birders who want to "tick" or learn from rare birds. I tend to only "twitch" birds I can learn from, what I mean by this is I normally only chase birds that may turn up on my patch so I have more of an understanding of what I am looking at - I twitch to hopefully become a better birder. Of course this ethic can all go out the window when things like Sandhill Cranes arrive in Suffolk but as a rule I try and stick by my principles. Over the last year Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert have released I Phone Apps to give out rare bird news and in my opinion they aren't really worth spending the extra subscription on. I will say that after trying them both the rare Bird Alert App is a hell of a lot better than the Birdguides App, there is much more info at your finger tips with RBA - but to me the crucial thing is you can't access either of them without having enough phone signal to get onto the internet. So what is the problem? I hear you ask, just have a look when you have a better phone reception. The thing is though, if you have better signal why not just bypass the phone app and go onto the website itself? This is the main reason why I tend to use Birdguides News. Its not because of when the news "breaks" so to speak it's because I find that more information is displayed better on my phones display than RBA. Both the Apps when you subscribe to them only offer the limited info on the Apps themselves as oppose to the whole websites information which the I Phones Safari web browser is more than capable of coping with itself. So in short I find it better to subscribe to the site itself and just use my phone to browse that.

Bird Identification
One thing I will say in Birdguides favour though is their Identification App of British Birds is absolutely superb, with excellent photos and illustrations - but for me most importantly is the inclusion of the birds songs and calls. This feature to me is almost worth the money alone - which is about £12 from the App store. Also I like to save bookmarks of a few websites on the Safari browser - one of the best being Birders Playground. this site is set up by a photographer who has one of the best selections of Gull photos I have ever seen in one place, with a lot of the birds seperated by age which makes comparison easy in the field (so long as you have the signal of course). I have also put the British Bird Songs cd's  onto my phones music library which has also saved the day a couple of times in the field when a call is heard that you don't recognise. A few birders I know also attach a speaker to their phone in order to either use the Birdguides Id App or songs recorded onto their music library for the purpose of tape luring - I remain open minded to this but obviously it depends on your individual politics in such matters if you use it for that purpose or not.

The I phone has a very good internal mapping system but it has one major drawback - it uses the internet to load up the maps which is quite often not much good as birds tend to turn up in "out of the way" places where a phone signal is non existent. This can be overcome however, but at a price. Download the Outdoors GB App (about £5) and then go into the store - from here you can download Ordnance Survey Maps. A 1:50 size map for a region will set you back about £10, but this is A LOT of mapping. The regions you buy can be things like the whole of the East of England etc. I have downloaded onto mine the East of England and the East Midlands, this has cost me about £20 but if you pop into your local outdoor shop and ask for the separate maps it will cost you a hell of a lot more. As Northants is my own county I have also bought the Northants 1:25 map too - these are a lot more expensive at £30 but again the way to look at it is if I were to buy the maps themselves £30 would only get me 2 of them whereas here I get them all. Of course these aren't really much good for orienteering or of course if your phone breaks of runs out of battery you'll be lost but for  and navigation you need to do thats not too demanding these are perfect. The maps are saved to your phones memory too so you don't have to worry about signal and also the phones GPS will show you exactly where you are on the map and what direction you are travelling in. It is in effect a handheld GPS system that would normally set you back a few hundreds of pounds all for about £50.

Another big bonus with these, or any other smartphone, is the camera. Phone cameras used to be very basic but gradually this is now not the case. There's is 2 ways I approach digiscoping with the phone but lets make this clear I am not going to win any awards doing it - I just do it for record shots so if you do want fantastic results it would be best to get a proper set up. The first technique is to simply activate the camera and place it over the eyepiece of the scope, you will normally have to zoom in tad to get rid of the dark ring around the lens. This will take a record shot of what you want but one I thing I have discovered is the second technique. The HD video recording facility I find takes better images than the still camera itself so what I do is set the camera up in video mode and place it over the eyepiece again, zoom in and start to record a video of the bird. Then when you taken the video you are happy with open it up in VideoPix (another App from the App store), this App lets you capture freeze frame images from moving videos. This is great as you can playback the video in slow motion until you find the composition you want and then just press a button to save as a picture. You can then or course use your phones e-mail service to attach the pic and e-mail it to the county recorder or put it on facebook etc in seconds after actually seeing it. Here is an example of a digiscoped picture of a Glaucous Gull taken using my old phone (Sony Ericsson Vivaz) to show what results you can achieve with a little patience.

If You Have A Scope Use It
Sounds simple doesn't it? Sometimes though it is easy to get lazy and thoughts start going through your head that it won't be worth lugging all that weight around so you leave it in the car. This is what happened to me a few months ago. I had a walk around Harrington Airfield in the morning with a friend of mine and didn't see much to exciting so we then went to a local reservoir and had a long walk around that carrying the scope and from there we went and had a couple of beers in a local pub. When we left we decided to pop back to Harrington Airfield just to kill a bit of time if nothing else and as I'd been carrying my scope about all day and was no doubt a little bit lethargic after a lunchtime pint I left the scope in the car. Stupid mistake as this was the time I found a Great Grey Shrike, which posed very well in front of us on a number of occasions before more people turned up and it became very mobile after the that - the moral of the story is though if I had my scope with me I could've digiscoped some superb pics of the bird but as I was lazy and left it in the car I haven't got any to show you.

In conclusion this post just shows some of the many ways technology can help you in your hobby. If I find out any more you'll be the first to know.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Dark Bellied Brent at Clifford Hill Gravel Pits

A certain bird has been eluding me lately, that being the dark bellied Brent Goose that has been seen at Clifford Hill Gravel Pits near Northampton. I have never seen a Brent in Northants before and as Clifford is one of my local patches it was going to be a good patch bird in the bargain too - but despite my best efforts I haven't been able to find it despite 5 attempts so far. As the nights are getting dark so early now at this time of year I'm limited to weekend visits only as a pop in on the way home from work wouldn't now be feasible until next year. So despite not seeing it on my previous attempts I wasn't going to give up, and after spending the morning getting stuck in the mud at Barnes Meadow again looking for Jack Snipe (I didn't see any this time) I made my way over the road to Clifford Hill. All the Geese were in their normal loafing area at the south eastern side of the lake so I made my way over and luckily enough just to the right of a small group of Canada Geese was a small black Goose busily feeding away. Finally here it was at last, hooray! I got a quick digi clip just for the records.

As you can see the bird is a juvenile, with the lack of a white neck band but nevertheless it was nice to finally get it. In my defence there has been so much happening recently with Short Eared Owls and Great Northern Divers (see previous posts) so most of my birding time has been spent elsewhere, and the geese here are very mobile and commute between here and somewhere else. It seems that luck plays a large part in finding the geese here. After watching the Brent for a while I wandered further along the bank to see if anything else was about in the goose flock and soon I had noticed another different looking goose fast asleep with the Greylags. It didn't take long to realise it was a Pink Footed Goose, then it got up after a dog walker got too close and wandered about for a bit allowing me a couple of pics before it went back to sleep again.

I did return here the following day (Sunday 27th) but unfortunately couldn't find the Pink Foot. The Brent was still around but mobile and was also joined today by the Egyptian Goose that I'd seen a few weeks ago. It would be nice to find out exactly where these geese commute to and from as rarer geese in the future will probably be easier to find instead of just relying on pot luck. Never mind that will be for another day.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Great Northern Diver in Milton Keynes and a Lifer in Northants - 17th November 2011

The news came out yesterday that a Great Northern Diver had been found at Caldecotte lake in Milton Keynes and as I had a day off today I thought I'd pop down to take a look. I've seen them many times before in Scotland but I've only had one down south (Pitsford Reservoir a few years ago) so it felt like a good time to catch up with one again. The bird has been fishing in a small bay on the north eastern side of the water almost in the middle of a housing estate and luckily it was still there this morning. So I found myself pulling up along the road to have a look myself. At first it couldn't seen but as anyone who has spent any time looking for Divers will know they can be surprisingly difficult to spot - due in main to the fact they spend a lot of time fishing underwater. In fact it took quite a while to finally see it, and when I did it had come up right where I had started looking in the first place so I must have walked passed it while it was submerged. I'd estimate it was spending at least a minute underwater and then only surfaced for about 8 seconds before diving again, and to add to it the bird would swim a long way underwater so it rarely comes back up anywhere near it dived. This makes getting a clip or pic a difficult and frustrating business - especially if you are like me and is trying to digiscope it by putting a phones camera against the eyepiece! Anyway I persevered and came up with a few results. Apologies for the camera shake in the clips but it was quite a chore getting these, at least they're short. Quite pleased with the photo - not bad for an IPhone.

From here I popped up to have a look at a new birding site for me. Jack Snipe have been one of my bogey birds for years so I had a word with a local guy who told me about a reliable site. Barnes Meadow is an area just south of Northampton and is a Wildlife Trust Reserve that I had never visited before even though I pass it every day. So with wellies on I made my way into the reserve and started to wander along the margins or the wetland hoping to flush a bird. Normally flushing anything is strictly against my birding ethics but unfortunately one of the only ways of seeing Jack Snipe is to do just that. They are renowned for not flying until you are nearly on top of them and when they do they only fly a short distance before dropping down again. I walked around the outside before moving into the middle trying to judge the depth of the vegetated and very muddy water so as not to get a bootfull while all the time trying to keep an eye open for anything flying up. Then as I started walking into a very heavily vegetated part a Snipe sp. flew up about 4 feet from me, flew a short distance before landing 25 feet away. Despite watching where it landed I just couldn't get the binoculars on it and as I only saw the birds back when it flew I tried to get a better view. I've heard that Jack Snipe tend to run a short distance when they land so where they dropped won't necessarily be where they are when you go back. As I walked into the place where it landed I managed to flush it again but this time it flew around me so I managed to see the short bill as oppose to the long bill of the Common Snipe. At this point I decided to leave, I'd seen what I wanted so there seemed little point in disturbing them any further. Jack Snipe at last so it was a worthwhile afternoons work, despite getting covered in mud.

Monday 14 November 2011

Blueberry Farm Short Eared Owls - 13th November 2011

A local patch of mine has been playing host to an amazing amount of Short Eared Owls recently. Blueberry farm near Maidwell in Northants is a raptor hotspot due in main to the Hawk and Owl trust and the local landowners working together to provide suitable habitats. It has been famous most years for wintering Short Eared Owls as the fields have been left as set aside and are cut to the right lengths at the right times of year. A talk with the landowner is very informative and it makes you realise just how much work can go into a conservation project even though sometimes it may look simple. Anyway as I have said this year has been absolutely exceptional with the sheer numbers of Short Eared Owls currently here. I popped here a couple of weeks ago with Pete Bateup and bumped into another Northants birder Keith Tinworth - just standing in the one place we had at least 10 Short Eared Owl, 4 Kestrel, 2 Buzzards and a Peregrine. Keith and I agreed to meet up again this week with a hope of perhaps seeing the Long Eared Owl that has been reported here too. Unfortunately we never did see it though a very dark bird had us racing into the next field at one stage only for it to become clear it was only a trick of the light. Short Eared Owls though are literally everywhere on the complex and it really is an incredible sight to see so many. Keith did a count while I was trying to digivid one and he managed to get a total of 12, which is currently believed to be a county record at one location. When we arrived on site we another nice surprise as we watched a Short Eared Owl and a crow have an altercation, it was only when we noticed to Crow in question was bigger than the Owl we realised it was in fact a Raven. Anyway here's a couple of very shaky clips of Owls flying and one of a preening bird in the bushes - they won't win any awards but they area a nightmare to keep up with!

Also nearly forgetting to mention, earlier today I received a text from Bob Bullock saying 8 Bewicks had been found at Summer Leys Nature Reserve so I shot over here before making my way to Blueberry Farm. It was the first time I'd seen them in Northants so was a good addition to todays sightings.

Dolphins at Chanonry Point - 29th October 2011

At the end of October I took my better half Desica up to Scotland . She had never been to the highlands before and as I've been a few times chasing the local wildlife I decided to spend most of the week doing the tourist stuff and sightseeing showing her around. A very good friend of mine, Matt Whitelocke, lives up here and was good enough to put us up for a few days and take us round all the best places to see. Despite this mainly being a relaxing break we couldn't resist the opportunity of perhaps seeing the Dolphins near Inverness. I have been up here before but unfortunately in vain, and Matt tried a few times before finally seeing them earlier this year - so it was with a fairly unoptimistic heart we decided, after taking Desica shopping in inverness, to head out here just on the off chance they were about. We initially popped to the Dolphin and seal watchpoint just across the bridge but nothing could be seen from the vantage point so we took the drive out to Chanonry Point. This area is a small headland going out into the Moray Firth and makes an excellent viewpoint to observe the water for and birds or cetaceans. A Grey Seal greeted us not long after our arrival as it headed around the point and as we were scanning the area around us a photographer approached  and asked if we had seen anything as not long before he had seen a few Dolphins breaching right out in the middle of the water. We looked towards the red buoy he had mentioned and within minutes 5 Dolphins were breaking the surface and putting on quite a display with one or two clearing the water a couple of times. We were lucky enough to watch them for 10 minutes or so before they dived and disappeared from view. We spent a bit of time chatting with the photographer who said he'd been waiting up here for 4 days waiting to see them which goes to show just how lucky we were to get the views we did -then he stopped talking, looked shocked and pointed towards the water just off the beach, we spun around just in time to see 2 Dolphins coming up for air just 25 feet from us as they swam around the point. They came up another 3 times as they made their way along the shore line giving incredible views. It was an incredible moment and was doubly good as Desica isn't into wildlife watching so it was good to show her one of the reasons I do what I do and I am pleased to say her reaction to the moment showed that she enjoyed the experience too. This was also my first sighting of Dolphins in the wild and I have to say I was very surprised just how big they were, it turns out these are the biggest Bottle Nose Dolphins in the world. To add to the incredible wildlife around here the scenery was stunning and the moody weather and gradual sunset made for awe inspiring landscape. In all a very enjoyable trip!

Tuesday 25 October 2011

White Rumped Sandpiper and an American Wigeon at Rutland - 23rd October 2011

Today I nipped across the border up into Leicestershire. Rutland Water can normally be relied upon to come up with the goods bird wise and it's always worth keeping an eye on sightings there. Recently a White Rumped Sandpiper has been seen here and luckily it has hung around long enough for me to get a day off work and finally get up there and see it. It has been feeding around the Lapwing Hide so when I arrived I made my way straight there as it looked like quite a lot of people were here for exactly the same reason as I was. On entering the hide I could see a number of waders feeding along the shore - mainly Dunlin with a few Ringed Plover and Redshank. The bird I was after at a glance looks quite like a Dunlin with the exception of it's short bill, pale supercillium and very long primary projection (in fact when this bird bends over to feed the wing tips can flap around behind it's tail almost like tail streamers!) and a long attenuated body. To the left of the hide the wader could be seen closely following a ringed Plover. It was a very nice bird to get to see for two reasons. Firstly it was a lifer and secondly (and in fairness more importantly) it is was I like to call an educational bird - as in its a confusion species and can be easily overlooked, especially when feeding with Dunlin, so I'm hoping that by seeing this one I'll make sure I do not overlook it when I am patching in the future. I managed to get a couple of digipics and a very shaky vid in the wind.

Another nice bird to see from the same hide was a drake American Wigeon. It is believed this is the same bird that was present here last winter and if so it is nice to see it back as it is a cracking bird. It was showing very well right in front of the hide but unfortunately because of the rare American wader on the shore it wasn't stealing the limelight as it was last year.

Great Grey Shrike at Harrington Airfield - 16th October 2011

Today I met up with a friend of mine, Pete Bateup, with the intention of looking for and hopefully finding the Ferruginous Duck that had been at Pitsford Reservoir for the last few weeks. Unfortunately the weather wasn't exactly being kind to us and although it was a beautiful clear sky the mist at dawn was so thick birding a body of water would have been a complete waste of time until it had lifted. So with this in mind me decided instead to head over to a local place called Harrington Airfield. This area had been used by the carpet bagger squadron during the war and was very nicely placed at the top of the highest ground around here - this consequently means of course it is a fantastic place to observe visible migration during the autumn. We were not to be disappointed either as no sooner had dawn broke we were watching scores of Redwing and Fieldfare flying overhead with Skylarks and the odd Meadow Pipit shooting over too. The surrounding fields were gradually filling up with flocks of Golden plover coming in from all directions to form a flock of at least 300 birds before we had done the circuit and as the mist was slowly lifting we made our way to Pitsford. Unfortunately despite a 2 hour search through hundreds or wildfowl in walgrave bay we couldn't locate the bird, so we did what Pete and I always like to do on a Sunday afternoons birding and went for a pint in a local pub. Upon leaving we were faced with a choice, we could head back to pitsford for the Gull roost or perhaps bird somwhere else - and as harrington had been so productive this morning we decided to head back there for the last part of the day. we arrived and had a slow stroll round, smaller flocks of Redwing were now coming over but Fieldfare numbers were still plentiful as flock after flock came over. There did seem to be more Skylark than this morning though and the Yellowhammer flocks are starting to get quite sizeable too. as we walked down passed the last bunker before we got to the road where we had parked I noticed a bird fly across the field and land in the top of a tree - I put my binoculars on it to see a Great Grey Shrike sitting right up in the gorgeous autumnal sunshine. This is typical! As I had only expected to have a wander round just to kill some time on a Sunday afternoon I had left my scope in the car so unfortunately I haven't got any pics of the bird to put on here but luckily there were enough daylight hours left to pit the word out to get some other birders here to see it. The bird was very mobile and as it made its was around the airfield complex a few other birders arrived and I'm pleased to say at least 7 other saw it before it flew down to a wood and despite a search until nightfall couldn't be located. As I write this over a week after the event it is still being reported so hopefully quite a lot of people have been able to see it by now. An unexpected self find during an after pint stroll on a chilly afternoon!

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Sunday 9th October 2011 - Woodchat Shrike, Lowestoft, Suffolk

This weekend my fiance and I had been enjoying a weekend away in Great Yarmouth and as it was looking like the ever present westerly winds were not going to be changing direction any time soon my hopes were not that high with regards to rare birds being blown onto the coast. Never the less though as with every autumn an eye was kept on the information services just in case anything did arise, and arise it did. On the afternoon of the saturday a juvenile Woodchat Shrike was found in the bushes next to a small car park just down the road from where I was staying. I have to say after looking at the pictures of the bird I was in two minds whether to go or not as I would rather have seen a full summer plumage adult bird and I will admit that if i was back home a hundred miles in land i probably wouldn't have made the journey - but this was a lifer, was only 10 miles away and to add to it the Eastenders theme tune was starting up signalling the start of the 2 hour long Sunday afternoon omnibus so my mind was quickly made up and off I went. I am very glad I made the decision as right nest to the car park on top of a bush sat the Shrike. Shrikes are normally fairly easy to spot as they do like to perch on top of things and they are also seem to be quite tame for some reason and this one was no exception. It just sat there in the bushes every now and then casting a glancing eye over the people there taking its photo before occasionally getting flushed and flying in a big circle before landing back in the same bush again. Its hard not to get quite attached to birds when they show like this and you get nice prolonged views but I did eventually tear myself away for a bit of sea watching - which produced 2 Arctic Skua, a possible Manx Shearwater and a tiny dot on the horizon which some chap confidently claimed was a Pomarine  but personally I have no idea how he came up with that as it was so far away, so it wont be ticked off the list just yet! Here's a few picks of the Shrike with a short clip too, a nice unexpected surprise!

Monday 3 October 2011

Another Update - 3rd October 2011

Once again it has been a while since the last update. This is mainly due to the end of summer lull which all birders dread when the birds are simply concentrating on bringing up young or moulting etc etc and not a lot moves about. So the slow (in fact very slow this year) onset of autumn brings a breath of relief to people like myself as hopefully things will be starting to hot up a bit.A report had trickled through of a Sabines Gull at Grafham Water just across the border in Cambridgeshire so on the evening of the 15th of September 2011 I shot over there after finishing work to go and see it. I knew I only had an hour of daylight left so various people telling me that it had flown wasn't helping my blood pressure at all, but luckily a few bays to the left I managed to get it in flight and then settled feeding on the water - distant views but views nontheless. The following Sunday Kieran Nixon called me to say he and a couple of birding mates were going to pop over from Norfolk to see the same bird so I nipped back over to see them. As I arrived before them I started the hunt for the bird and once again had it in flight across the main body of water. As before it was very mobile and didn't stay still for very long at all before it flew off into a bay along the north shore. I crept along the footpath before getting the most amazing view of the bird standing on the bank, unfortunately it was then flushed by a dog walker back into the water just as Kieran arrived. but we still had incredible views.

We decided to follow the dam wall after this to see if we could find the Grey Phalarope that had been reported. I did manage very distant views of this the other evening when I came but as people were saying how well it was showing I couldn't resist a quick look - and I am so glad I did, it was wandering along the dam wall seemingly without a care in the world and is without doubt the best view you could have of this cracking little bird.

The next twitched bird was a little bit more local. A Ferruginous Duck had been seen at Pitsford Reservoir so on the 1st of October I made the slow yomp round to Walgrave Bay (it had to be the furthest one away didn't it?) so hopefully connect. The sun was blazing so I was hoping that picking it out wouldn't be too difficult, and for once I was right. It was a cracking drake and stuck out like a sore thumb! The vids not too clear but its the bird centre of shot behind the Pochard on the middle.

Lastly for this post is the big one. Due to the very heavy winds across the Atlantic caused by Hurricane Katrina a Sandhill Crane had been blown across the ocean and somehow ended up in Scotland. Matt my mate from up north had been lucky enough to have seen it a couple of weeks ago, but then it flew off and reports started to trickle in of the bird slowly working its way south people down here were starting to get very excited. It only migrates during the day which is a pain as when it does get reported it invariably flies off shortly afterwards so people miss it. So on the morning of the 2nd October when I get a phone call to say its in Suffolk I am mixed with excitement and apprehension, if we go will it still be there? Its a long way after all! It was agreed though that we certainly wouldn't see it by just staying in Northants so the decision was made to go for it. I quickly made my way to Irchester to pick up Big Jake, Ruth and another Northants birder Frank and we were quickly on our way. For once the A14 was clear and we made very good progress into Suffolk and even more luckily although the bird was mobile it had settled in a stubble field. Kieran had made the journey from Norfolk with fellow Norfolk birder David Norgate and they were already on the bird which is always handy when someone is there to tell you if it flies or not. we found the village (Boyton) parked up on a vergte then ran up the hill to get to the field. lots of birders already there with binoculars up was another encouraging sign and then finally I got my first ever view of a magnificent Sandhill Crane feeding in a stubble field - and what a sight it was. A fantastic sight not just because of what it was and where it had come from but also because of the manic journey we had taken to see it!! Due to the heat haze this pic and vid aren't too good, and also as I had just sprinted about half a mile to get here with a lot of it up hill my hand was shaking rather a lot.

Unfortunately after only 10 minutes of viewing 3 microlights came over and spooked it into the next field, so we shook hands with the people that we knew at the twitch and made our way back to the car - and drove significantly slower back to Northants!! An incredible day and possibly one of the most exciting twitches I've ever been on! At some stage my blood pressure may return to normal.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Sunday 11th September 2011 - Little Bittern at Titchwell

Today was a very good day, and it was good for a number of reasons. We saw the bird we was looking for, the weather stayed good, we all met up with old friends and its the start of the twitching season again! Reports had been coming through of a Little Bittern at Titchwell reserve in Norfolk since friday and as it was a bird I was still hoping to see and with the added bonus of Big Jake and me being able to catching up with close birding buddy Kieran it was a too good an opportunity to miss. So at 6.30 in the morning I was outside Big Jakes house ready for to drive to Norfolk. We arrived at approx 8.15, and soon made our way over to where the bird had been reported - in the reeds surrounding a small pool near the coast path just as you leave the woodland section near the visitor centre. There were already about 40 birders there, with some already having put in over 2 hours of searching in vain. I stood up on the bank in a gap whilst Big Jake popped himself further along on the bench to look down the pool side. Then the waiting began. During this time Kieran had joined in the hunt and we all ( I say all, probably 30 out of the 40 birders were more content to talk instead of actually look for it) searched the base of the reeds for 2 hours before Kieran unfortunately had to leave to pick a scope up from a nearby village. Then after about 2 1/2 hours of peering into reeds I noticed Big Jake waving at me and pointing at the side of the pool. I rather recklessly abandoned my scope and ran a long the path to join him, to be greeted with the sight of a tiny Little Bittern preening itself almost right out in the open. The reeds it was in were almost under my feet from where I was originally standing so after all that searching it was about 5 yards away from me all along tucked up and invisible in the undergrowth. It sat for quite a while in a round opening in the reeds and by now Jake had his scope on it so full frame scope views could now be had too. Perfect!! Unfortunately as always in these events a few people decided to get just that little bit too close and it crept back into the vegetation and disappeared. Al this happened in Kierans absence so I quickly got in touch to let him know  what area it was in and myself and Jake headed down the path to the beach. Both the fresh and salt marshes seemed quite barren which is uncharacteristic of this site in September and the lack of yesterdays Buff Breasted Sandpiper was a slight disappointment but after the views we'd just had of the Little Bittern we would still have left happy even if we didn't see a single bird for the rest of the day. The best we could do sea watching was a single Manx Shearwater along with lots of migrating Knot and Sanderling, with a few Curlew and Blackwits thrown in. So as the wind was getting stronger we decided to head to the cafe for a coffee meeting the just returned Kieran on the way to hopefully hear that he had seen it. By the time we had got back to the Little Bittern site well over a hundred people had arrived to see it.

 I am pleased to say that he and Leila (his partner) had both seen the bird. For a lot of people twitching is a competitive sport, where the idea is to see more birds than those around you - but I certainly don't hold to that, and after some of the twitches that Kieran and I have gone through together it just doesn't seem right not to have him see it too. We all then headed to the cafe where we spent the next couple of hours chatting, reminiscing, drinking coffee and eating. It was good to have us all back together again, it's just a shame Pete Bateup and Matt couldn't be here to have us all together but there's always another day. A very good day indeed!

Big Jake (the one with the beard sitting down), Kieran Nixon (the one standing at the back), and me (the ugly one on the right)

Saturday 10th September 2011 - Great White Egret

A nice surprise today considering I was working. Most days I drive down the M1, and just north of the Newport Pagnell Services there is a small river with a lake which is always full of birds so whenever I am passing I normally always have a quick peak down there to see if anything is about. I'm pleased to say that today there was!! Standing just slightly north of the river in a field was a Great White Egret, and despite driving (slowly) on a motorway at the time I got some quite good views of the bird. Not a bad van window tick!!

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Wednesday 7th September 2011 - a bit of an update and the start of Autumn Passage

It has been a while since the last post, mainly due to me being very busy doing other things and also the mid summer lull where things tend to go a bit quiet. Highlights of July and August have been a drake Ferruginous Duck at Paxton, Ruddy Shellduck at Grafham Water at the start of August and a return to Grafham at the end of the month for a juvenile White Winged Black Tern. That has pretty much been it bird wise so I was looking forward to getting out today after the recent heavy rain to see how things are moving along. I decided to pop over to Pitsford Reservoir for a quick wander round and even from getting out of the car things looked good with waders along the shoreline and literally masses of Hirundines whirling around in the air. A Hobby came charging through a collection of House Martins scattering them all over the place and also spooking the Lapwings along the bank into taking flight. I scanned across the water from the feeding station picking up a Black Necked Grebe just off a spit of land seperating the Walgrave and Scaldwell Bays. This bird was still showing signs of summer plumage which was nice as this is the only resident British Grebe I was yet to see in breeding refinery so it was nice to get a look at it in this mornings sunshine. Further along the shoreline 7 Ringed Plover were busy feeding along the shoreline along with 5 Greenshank and 3 Common Sandpiper along the stretch leading up into Scaldwell Bay. The wildfowl numbers of all regular species now really increasing, with large numbers of Shovelor and Pochard in particular, also the Slavonian Grebe that has spent the latter half of summer here was still showing very well feeding in the bay - but now unfortunately it has moulted and now looks like we are more accustomed to seeing them in the winter. The hides at the end of the bay overlook the mud flats and on here 8 Green Sandpiper and 10 Ruff could be seen feeding amongst the vast flock of Lapwings. All this was seen in just an hour and a half walk, so there must be a lot more to see if a full circuit was made. I'll be off to Norfolk at the end of September so this has certainly whetted my appetite. Hopefully a sign of things to come -  let the migration begin!!.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Saturday 23rd July 2011 - Twywell Hills and Dales and Pitsford Reservoir

After all the excitment of butterflies emerging all over the county I had somewhat neglected this site over the last few weeks so I popped in this morning to see what was about. Straight away the amount of Gatekeepers on the wing was very impressive, in fact they were by far the most common butterfly. No Marbled Whites could be found and I can't remember seeing any Small Heath for the matter either. A few Common Blues and a single Brown Argus were flying too. The Gatekeepers were all over the place but the Brambles on the top of the Whitestones area were literally full of them.

After this I popped over to Pitsford Reservoir. I only walked the Scaldwell Bay area but during my brief visit I found the Slavonian Grebe under the far bank. This is the bird that I had seen here a few weeks ago, and is also no doubt the same one that was at Grafham Water earlier in the year. It is now moulting out of its stunning breeding refinery and is starting to look a bit drab which is a shame - not just because of the way it looks but also because its now quite a nightmare to find at a distance. 5 Common Sandpiper and 2 Green Sandpipers were dotted along the shoreline showing that the Autumn migration was now starting to get underway - which seems strange considering that newly emerged butterflies are starting to fly in the woodland. Fresh Speckled Woods and loads of new Red Admirals were dotted along the side of the paths and I find it incredible how one species summer is ending as another species summer is only just beginning. Us as people tend to start celebrating the summer in July and August but for many birds it's all over by then and it's time to head back to the wintering grounds!

Another nice bird currently kicking around Pitsford is the Bar Headed Goose that has been here for a couple of weeks.It's quite obviously an escapee from a collection and a couple of weeks ago a bunch of twitchers I had met didn't even give it a second glance, which I think is a shame - I know it's as "plastic" as they come but he's quite a dapper little fella when you stop to appreciate him.

Sunday 17th July 2011 - Common Rosefinch

News had broken out during the previous week that a Common Rosefinch had been located near Melbourn in Cambridgshire. To be honest I wasn't too bothered about seeing it but as it was a lifer and nothing else was about I gave Pete Bateup a call and after he said he was interested in seeing it we arranged to pop over on the Sunday morning. The area where the bird had been found was in the gardens of a small farmhouse next to the Melbourn Golf Course and after parking up we began to listen for the call. It was obviously keeping quiet this morning and we searched the hedgrerows of the surrounding gardens in vain for 15 minutes or so before it started singing. It then sang for about half an hour frustratingly out of view all the time. It was very mobile and every 5 minutes it had changed location before settling in the a large conifer by the side of the road - this time on view. We got some nice prolonged views of the bird singing out in the open before it finally took flight and flew over the field calling as it went. Both Pete and myself decided to call it a day at this point as we both agreed that better views of the bird were unlikely. Quite a drab little bird really but a very nice song and a new Brit Tick in the bargain too!

Saturday 2 July 2011

Saturday 2nd July 2011 - an unexpected surprise.

I've decided to wind down the chasing around after 2 weeks of driving all over the place as I'm back to work on Monday after a great 2 weeks off. So with this in mind I went to a local wood, namely Salcey Forest in Northants just for a mornings walk. I was very surprised therefore when a Purple Emperor Butterfly came down from an Oak tree and settled on the ground infront of me. This a bit of a shock in 2 respects - firstly I had no idea they were here, and secondly I have been driving passed this wood to embark upon the 30 odd mile trip to Fermyn to see them there and all this time they were right on the doorstep! Never mind I wandered along the path to the tree canopy walk see another Purple Emperor and a White Admiral on the way. from the canopy tower a Spotted Flycather could be seen zipping backwards and forwards catching flies and a multitude of Tits were working their way through the trees with Goldcrests and a Treecreeper in tow. The real surprise for the day though came a bit further down the path. There's a section where the tree's are slightly set back from the path and the verges are lined with tall purple flowers. it looked like ideal White Letter Hairstreak habitat with Ash Trees and Brambles all around, and it was while looking for these I noticed a small insect visiting the flowers heads and I'll have to admit I nearly jumped out of my skin. A Hummingbird Hawkmoth was right infront of me! I'd spent ages last year trying to catch up with these totally in vain and after all that searching here was one right there. I'm pleased to say it hung around long enough for me to chase it about and get some some decent shots.

Friday 1st July 2011 - Adder and Silver Washed Fritillary

Today was spent up in Rutland trying to get a pic of Adders. I had learnt that Ketton Quarry near Stamford was a good site and as the sun was shining I drove up to see what I could get. The area in question is a pile of rocks just next to the car park, and the initial search was in vain so I spent a few minutes searching the quarry area before returning. Lots of Marbled Whites, Meadow Browns and Small Heath butterflies were whizzing around and a lot of Common Spot Orchids could be seen poking up amongst the grasses as I made my way slowly back towards the pile of stones being very careful how I trod so as not to disturb her and there she was all curled up and enjoying the sunshine. Unfortunately she was a lot more alert than I anticipated and as soon as I got within photo distance she was off. So back off around the reserve I went, this time for a longer walk. It's a fantastic place for Butterflies and I'm sure any botonists would have a good day with the variety of plants and flowers. Up towards the working quarry section I managed to pick out this Bee Orchid in full flower.

Upon returning to the rocks she was out again but this time being very awkward and only have her back end on display. I grabbed a few record shots to show the diamond back pattern before she went back into the rock and slid around to the other side to stick her head out to take a look at me.

As time was getting on I had to give up to concentrate on the next target species of the day - Silver Washed Fritillary. For these I headed to another nearby site called Bedford Purlieus. The minute I waked into the wood one could be seen flitting around a bramble bush and walking further into the wood another could were found in quite a short distance. A single White Admiral was found and also a single Purple Hairstreak flying high up in the Oak canopy. Out of all the Silver Washed Fritillary's along the path it bacame clear that the best pictures would be obtained from the first one just inside the wood due to it's proximity to the path so I returned to find it still feeding away. The technique of standing in one place and letting it come to you seemed to work best and gradually as it worked it's way along the Bramble flowers it eventually settled right infront of me allowing me to get a few shots.

All in all a good day out. Shame the Adder was so shy though!!

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Wednesday 29th June 2011 - Butterflies, Marsh Warbler and a Red Footed Falcon.

An old  friend of mine, Matt Whitelocke,  had informed earlier in the year that he would like to see some of the rarer butterflies in my area, and as he lives way up in the Scottish highlands there is quite a bit of stuff down here in Northants that he never gets to see. So we arranged to take time off work at the end of June this year to try and get him to see some of them and this is the update from the week in which he stayed

Tuesday 21st June 2011
We spent most of today concentrating on local stuff as Matt had a long drive the previous day down from Fort William so didn't really fancy the idea of spending hours on the road today. So the first stop was Glapthorn Cow Pastures near Oundle in Northants. This area is the Black Hairstreak capital of Britain. It has a lot of Blackthorn bushes with little cut outs with Bramble bushes for them to feed on, in fact the middle section of this reserve is pretty much designed around keeping the Black Hairstreaks happy. The only downside was though due to this years bizarre weather it has meant that a lot of butterfly species have emerged a lot earlier than normal this year and although I got some good shots of newly emerged Black Hairstreak last week (see previous posting) the weekends downpour had obvioulsy taken it's toll. The same bush that held several Hairstreak last week was completely barren with the exception of a Large Skipper. We took a walk around the reserve for a bit, lots of Meadow Brown and Ringlet were on the wing with a few more Large Skipper and a Comma trying it's best to remain inconspicuous by closing it's wings in the vegetation.

A hornet made an appearance while we returned to the Black Hairstreak area and then quite amazingly Matt spotted one. I think I would have walked straight past it so 10 points go to Matt, as a very tatty Black Hairstreak was sat on the end of a leaf. As I ahd already taken pics last week I let Matt take all the pics he wanted and eventually it flew. I did sigh a big breathe of relief as this was one of the main reasons for him embarking on the 8 hour drive down and I had a nasty feeling I was going to let him down!
From here we drove over to Twywell Hills and Dales to try and see the Marbled Whites. These are a chalk grassland speciality and are often here in good numbers. I managed to find some the previous week while I was doing a bit of groundwork in preparation for Matts visit along with a couple of Large Skipper mating.

But anyway that was last week, and fortunately there was a lot more Marbled Whites out today despite the blustery conditions. It's easy to get a bit complacent when you see things often enough, and these little crackers tend to get overlooked by many people as they're so common in this area. They are simply stunning though and I have to say they rate as one of my favourite butterflies and I'm lucky enough to have them on my doorstep!

After a brief visit to a local pub for lunch we found ourselves in a Bean Field near to a village called Isham. A Quail had been calling for a few weeks here and although seeing it would be completely impossible, I still thought it would be a good for Matt to hear it. No sooner had we got down to the side of the field we could hear the distinctive "Wet my lips" song could be heard from the centre of the field. It's quite an incredible location with Skylarks singing and lots of Yellow Wagtails calling from the wire overhead, and the amount of Poppies blanketed the whole side of the field a sea of red.

 The last stop for the day was Summer Leys nature reserve. Plenty of breeding activity with Common Terns and Black Headed Gulls all with chicks on the island, and Lapwings and Little Ringed Plovers with young on the scrape. A nice touch was a Cuckoo landing in a small bush in front of the hide, and also the total count of 172 Mute Swans on the main lake!

Wednesday 22nd June 2011 - Norfolk here we come!
Today Matt, Big Jake and myself headed over to meet another mate of mine, Kieran Nixon, in Norfolk. As nothing really unusual had been reported around here we had just 2 birds on the hit list with the hope that anything else would be a bonus. We started with the first of the birds, that being a fairly long staying Marsh Warbler at an undisclosed site. The bird had been here for over 3 weeks and as the finders wished to keep it quiet we have to respect their wishes so I'm afraid no locations will be given out here. Lets just say though it was a cracking bird, and the song was incredible with mimicry of Skylark, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Bee Eater just to name a few. It was showing very well too sitting up on the tops of the reeds rattling out it's song. From here we headed towards Horsey to try and find the Red Footed Falcon that has been here for a few days. No sooner had we got out of the car a falcon sp. could be seen flying over some trees in the distance. We watched it through bins and then I managed to set my scope up and found it in that. It was hovering occasionally, but not like a Kestrel as it rode the wind with straight wings and closed tail and then it swooped below the skyline and I could get all the colours in my scope - Red Footed Falcon in the bag! Thats a brit tick of 260 for me. Unfortunately the weather really closed in and after we all got soaked we started heading back. Shame we couldn't get better views of the Red Footed Falcon but at least we still saw it.

Thursday 23rd June - Rutland Water
Matt and I spent most of today birding Rutland Water in Leicestershire. As there was nothing exceptional being reported we just did a bird list and enjoyed a day out at the reserve. We managed to build up a list of 57 species of bird in total, with the notable exceptions of Osprey and Tree Sparrow but we were at the wrong end of the reserve for Osprey and the Tree Sparrows should be off breeding somewhere. Anyway highlights for me were at least 3 Green Sandpiper, 1 sum plum Black Tailed Godwit and 3 Avocet. Never mind still a nice day to be out and Matt saw a lot of stuff he hasn't seen for a while so thats good.

Friday 24th June 2011 - Fermyn Woods
The weather this morning was exceptionally warm and sunny. So the thought of butterflies emerging at Fermyn made me decide that we should pay a visit on what was Matts last day here. I wasn't holding my breathe for Purple Emperor as it was still quite early but I had my fingers crossed for White Admiral. As luck would have it we counted 4 White Admiral flying around an Oak tree just 10 minutes into the walk, and at the crossroads a Large Skipper was nectaring just inside the edge of the woodland.

As we carried on walking around to the top ride even more White Admiral were on the wing and thats when we met up with a guy who had seen a Purple Emperor a few hundred yards along the path we were walking along. Soon after we had a newly emerged Purple Emperor taking salts of the path right in front of us. To say I was pleased for Matt was an understatement as we really didn't think we'd see one of these on this years visit as they normally emerge later. It was almost tame as well and really didn't mind photographs, with Matt at one point having lens just inches away from it, and it even posed for a couple of videos.

That concludes the update. We had a good time with some nice sightings. For me the Red Footed Falcon and the early Purple Emperor were the highlights, and Matt had a good time too catching up with things he doesn't normally get to see. All in all a good week!!

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Wednesday 15th June - The Start of Summer

I've been longing to get over to Glapthorn Cow Pastures in Northants over the last week as in keeping with this years early emergence of butterflies the Black Hairstreaks have emerged have been on the wing since late May. I did manage to see one of these last year but I was quite late and only managed to see a very tatty individual and that was hard to find. So this year I had intended to get here at the proper time and see them hopefully at their best. They only fly for a couple of weeks so timing is everything with these and as I have been busy working for the last fortnight I was starting to get a bit worried that this maybe another year where they would elude me. I finally had a day off today and the weather was looking quite good in the morning so I got to the site at about 9.30 and started trying to remember the ride where they were last year.. From entering the wood loads of Long Tailed Tit could be heard, hopefully signalling another good year for them, and Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler seemed to be everywhere. A Speckled Wood was the first butterfly of the day as I made my way towards the 3rd ride in the wood and almost straight away a Black Hairstreak could be seen feeding on the bramble flowers in amongst the Blackthorn bushes. As I walked around these Brambles it became apparent that there was at least 4 Hairstreak here and some were looking almost pristine. They are incredibly easy to approach and I spent a good hour taking photo's. In the end I estimate at least 7 butterflies of which 5 were newly emerged.

Around the rest of the site could be found a lot more Speckled Wood and a few Meadow Brown, but unfortunately I couldn't find the Silver Washed Fritillary that had been seen in the same location as it was last year.

Fermyn Woods had more good numbers of Speckled Wood with also a very fresh looking Ringlet, which was my first of the year for this species.

From here I popped over to Twywell Hills and Dales to try and see if any Marbled White had emerged yet as sightings from around the country were starting to be reported but unfortunately drew a blank. Just 1 Dingy Skipper, another Ringlet and loads of Small Heath were the only sightings.

By now the dark clouds were coming over and rain looked very likely so I left. Over the next couple of weeks should see Marbled White at Twywell and Purple Emperor and White Admiral over at Fermyn so i hope the weather improves.

Friday 3 June 2011

Friday 3rd June 2011 - the end of spring

As the weather was so nice over the last few days I decided to use my day off catching up with how the local butterflies were getting on. I only really got into butterflies last year and managed to miss the emergence of Wood Whites in the county so this year I was going to put that right. Over the last few days the weather has been atrocious so any butterfly finding looked pointless but as this week has drawn to a close the weather started to seem a lot more like summer so I popped over to Sywell Woods to try and catch up with them. From leaving the car I walked along the main ride through the wood and almost straight away Speckled Woods were flitting around the edge of the path.

It didn't take long walking along the ride to see a very small butterfly heading along the side of the path. In the books Wood Whites are described as Britain's daintiest butterfly, and today I saw why. They are tiny little things with an incredibly thing body. They look as if one small gust of wind will blow it into the next county so no wonder they like sheltered woodlands.

After spending an hour or so here I decided to go over to Pitsford Reservoir as the summer Plumage Slavonian Grebe that had been doing the tour of the local counties had been seen there for the last few days. I am assuming of course that it is the same bird that I saw at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire(see previous posting) a few weeks ago, since then it has been to Eyebrook Reservoir in Leicestershire, somewhere I can't remember in Bedfordshire, Summer Leys in Northants and now it finds itself here. As the Wood White site was only about 10 mins from Pitsford I thought I'd catch up with it. The bird was just south of the causeway and looked incredible in the sunshine at midday. It did come fairly close to the bank at one stage before taking flight.

I also managed a short and rather shaky digi vid throught the scope.

Back to the causeway and I noticed quite a few Common Tern fishing in the shallow water right next to the roadside so I couldn't resist a few snaps. My lens isn't good enough to get pics of these normally so I thought I'd take the opportunity while they were so close.

Twywell Hills and Dales were next on the menu to see how the butterflies were doing here. A chap I met at the Slav Grebe had mentioned that Marbled Whites were starting to emerge near where he works but sadly they haven't started at Twywell yet. Also I didn't manage to see and Dingy or Grizzled Skipper. On the plus side though Common Blue and Green Hairstreak were still flying despite looking very worse for wear some of them.

On the top of the Whitestones area a pair of Common Blues were mating, just a shame they looked so tatty because otherwise I could have got a better picture, but never mind you can't have it all I guess.