Saturday, 31 March 2012

Cheesy grins for jammy birders

We left Cheddar YH to go in search of the Common Cranes that have been released as part of the Great Crane Project. En route we passed the entrance to Greylake RSPB Reserve, so thought it rude not to pop in. There were loads of people gathering, and it turned out to be the start of an organised 'Crane Walk'. We were in the hide when the masses started to pile in so we bailed out PDQ. It turned out that too many people turned up to go on the walk, so it was abandoned.

We continued with our plan & went to the location given to us by the RSPB chap we had met in Cheddar Gorge.No sign, so stopped in a car park near Stathe. There was a 'Great Crane Project' vehicle there and we spotted 2 people with scopes nearby. It was the occupants of the vehicle complete with tracking equipment. They had found the flock & said we could follow them, which we did. They led us straight to the spot for the best view of the Cranes. There were 30 of the 33 visible, some way off but a great sight even though we can't count them on the Year List as they are introduced birds.

Follow that pickup.....
The cranes are the tiny white dots behind the trees, honest.
Then to Swell Wood RSPB. Not much there, but some nice views & an interesting heronry. The Herons were already incubating according to the RSPB chap in the hide.

Next stop Dorset. Birdguides was showing an influx of 1500 Chiffchaffs & Willow Warblers, plus some Redstarts & Ring Ouzels at the Top Fields on Portland Bill. It sounded like something worth seeing so we headed straight there. We parked up near a building that looked like a prison, but I think was some sort of leisure/business/conference centre. Sure enough, the bushes were alive with Willow Warblers & Chiffchaffs. It was quite a sight, loads of them just flying up to catch bugs & landing back in the bushes.

Willow Warbler/Chiffchaff hedge
We walked around the headland but didn't manage to find any Ring Ouzels or Redstarts. We did see lots of Stonechats, a few Wheatears, a Peregrine & lots of Blackcaps.

Looking at distant unidentifiable auks

Our route took us past the Observatory, so we dropped in & now know where to go to look for the Ouzels & Redstarts tomorrow.

We dashed off to Wyke Regis to look for the Richard's Pipit near the Bridging Camp. We failed to find it just before Christmas & failed to find it again today, but at least this time we didn't freeze in the process. We may have seen a Redstart but unfortunately someone walked past it on the path before we got a good look & frightened it off.

Mary had a few new Year birds, I didn't have any and was going cold turkey when at about 1830hrs 2 Sandwich Terns saved the day.

Mary now on 79 + 1 sub

I'm on 155 + 1 sub

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Magical Mystery Tour

Yesterday I collected Mary from Bristol Airport to start an 11 day birding trip. We don't actually know where we're going, we're just going to keep an eye on the Birdguides website & follow the birds. It will be a bit of a mixture of chasing the rareties & exploring new places.

Straight from the airport we headed to Blagdon Lake in Somerset. Nothing particularly interesting birdwise, but an amazing collection of dead bugs in the gutter & live ones attempting to feed on us.

Weird dead bug collection
Then to Chew Valley Lake in search of the Spotted Sandpiper that has been at Herriot's Pool for a while. I knew where it was meant to be as I'd had a failed attempt before Christmas, so we were quite hopefull. When we arrived a couple of birders were there & one chap already had a bird that he thought may be it, but it required a bit of a contortion to get the scope onto it over a fence. We  managed to get it in the scope & Mary had a reasonable look that revealed the yellow legs. I already have it on the Year list from Lyme Regis but it was a UK tick for Mary. Not a bad start to her Year List.

We were booked into Cheddar Youth Hostel & Mary had never been to Cheddar Gorge before, we headed there via the gorge. We spotted a scope set up by the road so zipped into the Car Park to find an RSPB chap watching a Peregrine nest. Had great views.

Cheddar Gorge
A good start to the trip although nothing new for me on the Year List.

This morining we headed straight to Shapwick Heath in search of the Long-billed Dowitchers. We walked down the track & immediately came across a couple of Brummy birders that had them in the scope. Easy! The 2 Dowitchers stuck close together & we had good views. There was also a Great White Egret which was a bonus for Mary, although I already have it.

Watching the Dowitchers
We had a great time wandering around the reserve & I picked up a couple more Year List birds: Marsh Harrier, Bearded Tit, Willow Warbler, Reed Warbler, Little-ringed Plover & loads of booming Bitterns, although we weren't lucky enough to see one. Mary got all of those except for the Bearded Tit that flew off before she managed to find it with my rubbish directions.

It was lunchtime by the time we got back to the van. We then headed off to Westhay Moor just up the road. It's amazing how many reserves there are in such a relatively small area. We spent quite a bit of time wandering & exploring. It was fairly quiet, but had a Water Rail fly past in front of the hide & a walk around the raised bog gave us a couple of Kestrels hovering & perching.

Then off to the last reserve of the day, Calcott Lows. We felt in need of some refreshment so stopped at the Burtle Inn. It turned into a bit of an experience. It's actually quite normal for us to have a 'tea incident' on our birding trips, but normally it's when we're abroad, so there is an excuse for the inability of the locals to make a decent cuppa. In a pub in Somerset, it came as a surprise. We should have seen it coming as the bar staff was Spanish. She admitted that she couldn't work the rather posh coffee machine, much to Mary's disapointment (she's a bit of a coffee officianado). I said I'd have a pot of tea & Mary settled for an Espresso rather than a Cappuccino, as that was the only variety of coffee on offer.

My mini pot of tea duly arrived & I left it a few minutes to brew. I had been provided with a strainer so twigged that it was leaves rather than bags. When I poured, it did look a bit strong, so I thought I must have left it to brew a bit long. I drank it, although it was stripping the enamel off of my teeth. It was only when I'd finished & actually looked in the pot that to my amazement I found that about 1/3rd of the pot was leaves. It must have been at least 2 tablespooons full. No wonder it looked like a proper Northern pot that would keep the spoon upright!

Tea leaf overdose

I was off in the loo when Mary mentioned to owner at the bar that she should maybe give the Spanish bar staff a bit of training in order to prevent the caffeine poisoning of future tea drinkers. At first she was a bit stressed about it until she realised that we found it highly amusing. She then saw the funny side. She didn't charge us for the pot, although it must have adversely effected the daily profits considering we had used a week's supply of Tetley.

Catcott Lows was a different kettle of fish to the other reserves we had visited during the day.... there were no reeds. It was a vast area of shallow water & the light was just right for some superb views of Teal, Wigeon & a few Pintail. Surprisingly & disappointingly though, there were no snipe.

Catcott Lows
Year List total now on 154 (Long-billed Dowitcher, Bittern, Beared Tit, Willow Warbler, Reed Warbler, Marsh Harrier, Little-ringed Plover)

Mary is off and running at last with a Year List of 65.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Fingle Bridge

I had another great day out with the DBWPS today, starting at Fingle Bridge on Dartmoor at 1000. I didn't think I'd been there before until we arrived & I recognised it  as somewhere we've been walking with the dogs before.

There were about 18 of us & we'd struck lucky with the weather. It was gorgeous. We started off lurking around the bridge which paid off with 2 Grey Wagtails & a Dipper. The Dipper's nest under the bridge was quite impressive.

Watching the Dipper & Wagtails
The Dipper 's nest
We then headed West up the North bank of the River Teign. It really was lovely! The path gradually rose above the water, but we were still close enough for a great view of the female Gooseander below. We also had Marsh Tits, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Goldcrests, Nuthatches & some very vocal Song Thrushes. The path got quite steep & rocky in places, so we actually had to watch where we were walking rather than looking in the trees.

Negotiating one of the rocky descents

We came out onto a track which was inhabited by a couple of Tree Creepers & walked North to join the upper footpath that heads back towards Fingle Bridge under Castle Drogo. The views from the path are fantastic, looking down the Teign Valley & across to the moor. We stopped for lunch & I got intimately acquainted with a couple of large ants! A Raven & a couple of Siskins flew over.

You couldn't have a better lunchtime view
This section of the path forms part of the Two Moors Way which I walked with Simon, Jack & Vera back in 2000. The view hasn't changed much, apart from the leaves, but we have!

Simon, Jack & Vera back in 2000
No idea who this is......
Unfortunately there weren't many birds about, just a few tits, Chiffchaffs & 1 linnet singing, but it was such a fab walk that it didn't really matter.

By the time we got back to the cars I had 27 species on my list, although it would have been 28 if I hadn't missed the Mistle Thrush. Not a great list & nothing new, but it had been a very enjoyable day as usual.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Two ticks & a bug

On Thursday we headed up to Leicestershire for a few days to check on Muriel, our 60 ft narrow boat, & see if Vera can still cope with being a 'canal dog'. Vera fared better than we expected, but we had a few problems with Muriel. Despite only travelling a mile or so up the canal from our marina, we broke down 3 times due to a clogged fuel filter. We only had one spare on board, so I volunteered to drive off to Sileby boat yard to get some more. The fact that there were a couple of birds I needed in that direction was a complete coincidence!

Having checked out the Leicestershire & Rutland Ornithological Society bird report site & a couple of local blogs, I came up with a cunning plan. First stop Sileby for the filters. I then carried on to Wanlip North Lakes, part of the Soar Valley Gravel Pit complex. There is a really helpful map on one of the blogs, although I can't find it now to give due credit. The lake is on private land so can only be viewed from a  slight hill on a distant footpath. I followed the map & found the viewpoint easily enough & also realised that we have history with this particular spot......

Back in 2006 we hired a canal boat with my Mum & Dad to go round the Leicester Ring. We went through Cossington Lock heading South & were enjoying the scenery & expressing amazement that on such a busy route water lillies were still managing to thrive. It took a while for us to wonder if something was wrong, as the river got narrower & more winding. I checked behind us with my bins (I was always wearing them even then!) & a small boat that had been following us was still there, although some way off. So, we  must be OK, right? Wrong! I checked the guide & finally managed to figure out that we had actually taken a wrong turn somehow. By now the channel was too narrow to turn in our 57ft boat, so we had to reverse (not easy) for quite a way until we found a stretch of river wide enough to turn. It was a bit of a tight fit but with the aid of a lot of heaving with the boat pole, we managed to get round & head back to the junction where we had missed the huge 'keep left' chevron! The boat that had followed us was presumably either exploring (they were small enough to turn easily) or were trying to catch us and let us know we were going wrong. The up-side of all this was that Simon wrote an article about our little misadventure for one of the canal boating magazines, it was published & we got a free year's subscription.

Making a U-turn......nice lillies
How did we miss that?? 
As I looked across the the river below towards the field of geese, I recognised those lillies!This was the very stretch of river that we had unwittingly explored.

I was in search of a Tundra Bean Goose that had been hanging about for a while with up to 19 White-fronted Geese. I put up the scope & there they were! I only counted 16 White-fronted Geese, but there in among them was the Bean Goose. Easy!

The White-fronts & Bean Goose were over towards the lake. Note the lillies....
There had also been a juvenile Whooper Swan at Watermead Country Park South for a few days & an adult last week. This is still part of the same gravel pit complex, but further South towards Leicester. It hadn't really registered that it was a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon. I was soon reminded that it was..... queues of traffic to get in & out of the car park and wall to wall ice-cream-eating families. I felt somewhat out of place with bins & scope & quickly made my way down to the lake, wading through slices of bread & goose poo. There were swans, geese & ducks getting fatter by the minute.

One of the quieter sections of the Watermead Country Park South
I started to scan the swans looking for the juvenile Whooper. Almost immediately I was pleasantly surprised to find an adult in my sights, quite close & heading in for a free meal. It made me wonder if it was a countable bird, but having checked the web I haven't found any evidence that it isn't wild.

Bad photo of the Whooper Swan, taken with the Lumix
I had a look for the juvenile on the main lake & then noticed a sign showing a smaller 'nature lake' next to it. I thought I'd check it out. It did have a 'hide' ....of sorts. I thought I'd go to the side of the hide instead to look beyond the reeds, big mistake. I guess there isn't a loo nearby....

Watermead CP South hide, comes complete with Vodka.....Charming!
Not one of my more enjoyable birding experiences. Still, at least I got my bird!

We've made some inquiries about out fuel-clogging problem & it appears we have diesel bug. Once you get it, it's apparently very difficult to get rid of. The bug lives at the diesel/water interface in the tank, living in the water & feeding on the diesel. As they die, the bugs form a black slime that clogs the fuel filters & if it gets through them, knackers the engine. We probably got water in the tank through condensation over the winter & have no idea where we picked up the bug. Simon changed the filter again, we made it back to the marina & came home early. We now have to research our options. I love nature but this is one bit of wildlife we could do without.

Year List now on 147 & 1 Sub-species.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

It looks a bit like a pheasant!

I was feeling a bit 'twitchy' so decided it must be time for another expedition. It was a toss up between the Long-billed Dowitcher in the Somerset Levels or the Night Heron in Woolacombe. The Night Heron won, so yesterday we headed to North Devon. Back on 13th March, 4 were reported, 3 adults & a 'first-summer', although the numbers have dwindled to the 'first-summer' & occasionally 1 adult.

We followed the directions on Birdguides & parked in the lay-by at the entrance to the Woolacombe Sands Holiday Park, and followed the footpath signs down the road to the stables. The road was so steep that poor old Vera had trouble controlling her decent, but she made it down to the more gently sloping footpath  beyond the stables without crashing. The private garden with the pond runs parallel to the footpath & can be seen through a hedge. I started peering through the foliage in search of the Heron, but then went round a bend to find a couple with bins looking in the garden. They had seen it walking on the bank & go down into the reeds, which was lucky as it was pretty hard to spot where it was. The pressure was off! Number 145 was in the bag. Now I could just enjoy having a nice long look.

The best photo I could manage 
We'd started chatting to the couple that had found it, Jill & Peter, 2 ex-DBWPS members who were on holiday in Woolacombe. It was a bit of a 'birdy' conversation (not-surprisingly) & Simon looked a bit blank & explained that he was just the 'driver & bodyguard' (bodyguard following our encounter on the Devon Bird Atlas survey). I found the Heron in the scope & Simon had a look..... "it looks a bit like pheasant", he said. At this point Peter & Jill looked aghast, "you weren't kidding about being the driver!" said Peter. Ok, we could only see bits of it through the vegetation, but a pheasant? I whipped out my Collins & showed him what he was looking at. Although Birdguides had described it as a 'first summer' bird, the one in the scope was clearly a Juvenile according to Collins, with large white spots on its feathers.

We watched it for about an hour; most of the time it was motionless, standing at the bottom of the grass bank at the water's edge waiting for lunch. It moved along a few feet a couple of times, once briefly going onto the top of the bank. It caught a small fish, and something bigger that took a while to get down, but we couldn't see what. Meanwhile we were chatting away to Jill & Peter, a very friendly couple.

A few people walked past  whilst we were there. "What are you looking at" asked one chap. "A Night Heron, its' quite rare" I informed him. "I won't even pretend to know what one is" he said, "it's a bit like a pheasant" replied Peter.

"It looks a bit like a pheasant"
By now it was lunchtime, so we went into Woolacombe & parked up for lunch with a nice view of the beach  before heading off to Braunton Burrows. I'd never even heard of it before, but saw it on the map & thought we'd give it a go. I'm glad we did, it was an amazing place. It's a vast area of sand dunes, 1300 hectares to be precise, one of the most important dune systems in Europe & the biggest in the UK. It fills a 1 1/2 km band between the 6km long Saunton Beach & the marshes behind. Nearly 500 species of wildflower have been recorded in the dunes, along with 33 species of butterfly, helping to make Braunton the most biodiverse parish in England (or so the bumf claims anyway!").

We started off with a walk on the beach, not a bird in sight, but Vera enjoyed a paddle.

Vera enjoys a paddle on Saunton beach
Simon & V then 'did there own thing' while I went off for a wander in the dunes with my bins.

I heard Skylarks, Wrens, & Robins and saw a Stonechat, Buzzard & Crow. I had a bit of a mystery bird which I recorded (on my iphone, worked surprisingly well) & photographed (at a distance, silhouetted) but still can't identify for sure.

There were a few shacks nestled in the dunes looking like something from the American South, but minus the banjo playing hillbilly.

A set from Deliverance?
Spring was in the air with a few Bumble Bees at work in the scrub. Unfortunately at least one of them was carrying extra passengers in the form of mites, although they didn’t appear to be effecting its ability to fly.  

Bumble-bee (sp Bombus locorum..I think) with mites. Nasty!
It's obviously a bit early to see the variety of flowers that live in the dunes, but I did find a couple of interesting plants. I would probably struggle to identify them if they were in flower, but with no flowers I have no hope! Still, they looked good!
This one had a tiny reservoir of water at the centre

Hairy or what!
I may not have found many birds but it was a really interesting place to visit & I'll hopefully go back there later in the Spring.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

West Charleton Marsh & Beesands

Yesterday the DBWPS meeting started at West Charleton Marsh, a new site for me on the Kingsbridge estuary. It was a sociable & environmentally friendly trip as I car-shared with 3 other lady birders. Amazingly it turned out that Pamela, who was driving, already knows Simon from the Monday East Budleigh art class! The other 'crew' members were Libby, who I'd met on the Broadsands trip & Rosemary who's just taken up birding. 
Location of West Charleton Marsh
13 of us met up at 10:00 & after risking life & limb to cross the A379, we stopped to scan the marsh from the reserve access road. Straight away I got myself a new Year bird! An Egyptian Goose was nibbling the vegetation in the middle of the marsh, what a good start! We then walked past a small sewage works - birders must be the only people in the world that actually like them. There were quite a few birds about, including 2 female Blackcaps, and several Chiffchaffs  & Cirl Buntings. A vast cloud of midges was swirling about at the top of a fir tree, but unfortunately there were no swallows tucking in.

The sewage works gets some attention
We walked through the marsh towards the hide, getting closer views of the Egyptian Goose as we went. There were loads of Little Egrets & quite a few Herons, some Teal & a couple of female Wigeon. It was a 'double aspect' hide, looking over the marsh one way & the estuary the other. It was also a luxury hide..... I've never been in one with cushions before!

The 'double aspect' hide

A touch of comfort.....
A snipe was found hiding behind some reeds on the marsh & out on the estuary was a small flock of Brent Geese, some Red-breasted Mergansers, and a lonely Redshank. On the distant shore across the water we got excited when we thought we'd found an otter, or was it a seal? No it was a bird at an odd angle. 

Part of the Kingsbridge estuary from the hide
We went onto the beach near the hide to inspect some distant waders, which we decided were probably curlew, before walking back through the marsh. It had been a bit nippy & overcast, but then a bit of blue sky appeared  along with 7 Buzzards.

A bit of blue sky.......
By now it was almost lunchtime, so we returned to the cars & most of us headed off to Beesands where we had lunch in the car park. Alan spotted a Long-tailed Tit's nest in the brambles beside the car park, although still under construction it was already quite impressive. The forecast had been for rain in the afternoon & we did get a little sprinkle as we walked to the hide, but it only lasted a few minutes.

Looking out across Widdicombe Ley, David spotted 3 birds on the other side, repeatedly flying up & landing back on the roof of a building. They were Wheatears! My first of the year, in fact probably everyone's first as they've only just started turning up having been in Africa for the winter. Great! There were several Chiffchaffs right in  front of the hide, at least 2 of which had black patches above & below their beaks. We couldn't work out whether they'd been eating black berries, maybe ivy, dyeing their feathers, or whether it was some sort of genetic mutation. There were a few ducks, including Tufted & Pochards, and some entertaining Shovelers swimming in tight circles in pairs to stir up the water as they fed. After a while, Alan spotted a Black Redstart on the far side of the Ley! It kept flying up giving us fabulous views of his red tail.

Widdicombe Ley at Beesands
We walked around to the other side of the Ley to get a closer view of the Wheatears & Black Redstart. There were in fact 4 Wheatears, 3 female & 1 male which gave us great views on the roof and the adjacent  football field. Out to sea there was a male Common Scoter quite close in, giving me the best view I've had of one & showing off its distinctive yellow bill patch.There were also 2 Slavonian Grebes further off to the South.

Widdicombe Ley from the sea side.
Looking North towards Dartmouth
Some of the group went on to Slapton, but we headed back to Exmouth. It had been an excellent day. I had 62 species on my list, although I think I probably missed a few. Two new Year List birds puts me on 144 & 1 Sub-Species.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

4th time lucky!

Yesterday it was a bit misty & murky, so I decided to head back to Yarner Wood for another attempt at Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, having made one trip there already, plus 2 to Dunsford. I’ve only ever seen one LSW before, at Groby Pool in Leicestershire in 2008, and that one was silent. When I visited last week, I heard what I thought could be a LSW, the song wasn’t quite the same as the one on my phone App, but it was pretty close. Since then I’ve listened to a few more songs on the Avibase website & decided that it probably was one.

I arrived at about 10:00, parked up & started walking off towards the old hide. I was still beside the pond when I heard 'that' song again, coming from the woods just across the stream from the car park. I went back & started scanning the trees.  I got chatting to a couple of chaps that had just turned up, Dave & Edward, Cornish birders also in search of the LSW. The singing had stopped so we joined forces & headed up the Green Nature Trail to the East of the car park. We met a chap who pointed out a row of oaks, which is apparently the LSW's favoured spot. We looped around the heath & back along the track beside the oaks. No sign there, although we did hear faint drumming from the direction of the car park.

Back to the car park, where we saw a few Siskins on the feeder.  Edward sneaked in a quick ‘crib’ in the new hide (that’s Cornish for a snack!)  & we then headed up towards the old hide. We hadn’t gone far, in fact just beyond the pond when we heard singing again, coming from the large beech trees lining the track. It sounded really close & amazingly enough, when I looked up into the trees with my bins it was almost the first thing I saw! Yes!! A male LSW!! I was trying frantically to direct  Dave & Edward onto it, which wasn’t easy as it was a mass of large branches with no obvious reference point. I lost it myself a couple of times in the process, but luckily re-found it. Dave found it before it flew, followed by a second LSW! Dave saw where one of them landed in the trees to the East of the beech, it was a female & it stayed there long enough for me to take a few photos, us all to have a good look through Dave’s scope, dance about a bit in excitement, take a few more photos & have another look through the scope. We were like kids at Christmas!

Dave & Edward....happy birders!
It flew from trees in the foreground to the 'twiggy'one behind
There she is! Lovely!
We heard it singing a few more times before we headed up to the old hide, happy birders or what!! 

The feeders in front of the hide were busy again, with Blue, Great, Coal & Marsh Tits & the occasional Nuthatch, so I had a quick look before leaving Dave & Edward to have their lunch. I'd left mine in the van, so headed back to the car park to eat in the new hide. I heard more LSW song whilst eating, coming from the woods above the car park again. 

Dave & Edward had gone by the time I got back to the old hide, so I went for a quick circuit of the woods, quicker than planned as I took a wrong turning somewhere. I thought I'd found another hide but I'd actually been walking in a small circle & ended up back at the same one! I wandered about a bit & bumped into Dave & Edward again in the car park. They'd had another sighting somewhere in the middle of the woods beyond the hide. I also met Audrey, a fellow DBWPS member who hadn't seen an LSW, but had seen 2 Mandarin Ducks fly up from the pond when she arrived. 

I always carry my little Lumix camera with me, but after my last visit I thought I'd have a play with my Canon. Although I've had it a few years I've only just started learning how to use it in anything other than full auto mode. I went back to the old hide to experiment!

Marsh Tit
Coal Tit

A Siskin's bottom!

Before heading for home I drove up to have a look at the view across Trendlebere Down. It was quite impressive despite the fog.

View across Trendlebere Down
I'd certainly recommend a visit to Yarner Wood. It's a great reserve & even has a toilet with soft loo roll! Luxury! I'd had a fab day. I finally got my LSW and it's always nicer when there's someone to celebrate with! Dave & Edward were great company & I hope to bump into them again!

Year List 142 + 1 Sub-species