Sunday, 23 December 2012

Wet wet wet

The sun came out briefly today. Yesterday was so miserable I didn't really mind that much having to work in the morning. Unfortunately some friends were holding a Christmas 'open house' during the best part of the day and being Christmas you feel obliged to go along. Hence there was little time to get out and do any birding apart from a dash out to check the small flock of sheep remaining on the marsh.
The marshes are sodden, the dykes full to the brim and there are large pools of standing water in every field. Everywhere is muddy and the marsh sheep are wearing mud boots up to their elbows from walking through the quagmires associated with gateways. You would think that all this open water would be good for wildfowl but the only ducks out there are a few Mallard and about 50 Teal which actually prefer the dykes bordering the alder wood with overhanging branches.There was even a small party on a pool within the wood itself. Maybe they feel safer from aerial predators hidden amongst the trees. The alder wood had a small party of Siskin and Redpoll feeding high in the trees and I accidentally flushed a Barn Owl from its daytime roost deep in a clump of ivy. Other birds of note were a Yellowhammer fly over, 3 Marsh Harriers quartering the marshes together and a Common Buzzard, otherwise it was pretty quiet.
Work tomorrow then two days off.
Happy Christmas to everyone.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Broads and mud

I've just had another fantastic weekend but this time close to home and out in the field (and just maybe another late night with excellent company).
We had friends over with a small list of target birds which the local Broads area could provide. First stop was Strumpshaw, which we reached after a small altercation with a muddy puddle which left my car looking like we had done several stages in the RAC Rally. Even the ferryman asked where we had been when we drove on to the Reedham Ferry and he obviously didn't believe my reply of "just through Norton Subcourse".

At Strumpshaw the first stop is always Reception hide for permits. Our enquiry about our chances of seeing otter were almost immediately answered when there was a squeal of "Otter!!" from one of my companions as an otter appeared and swam backwards and forwards across the pool doing classic ottery things. A kingfisher appeared at the same time and posed in a classic kingfishery way too. An excellent start! We moved on to Fen hide and rapidly picked up our first 'target' bird, a Water Pipit feeding in an area of cut reed opposite the hide along with a Water Rail.
Next stop was Buckenham where our second target bird Taiga Bean Goose was easily found from the end of the railway platform, accompanied by some Whitefronts. An urgent cry of "What are these 3 big birds flying over the woods?" had us all swivelling around to see 3 Common Cranes heading towards us. They made a magnificent fly past before turning northwards just before Cantley sugar beet factory. Unfortunately my camera was in the car (isn't it always) so you'll just have to make do with the lesser spectacle of hundreds of Wigeon on the marshes at Buckenham.

Our original plan had been to head to Hickling for the raptor roost for the final target bird Hen Harrier but, with news of a Rough-legged Buzzard on Haddiscoe Island, changed our plans as there was a reasonable chance of Hen Harrier here too.
We had superb views of a hunting Barn Owl as it floated above the bank towards us and then after hearing numerous pinging Beardies a pair finally obliged close by and another Kingfisher put in an appearance. Of the raptors there was no sign and there was a hint of discontent within the camp but as I explained that Hen Harriers are just around in the area and it would be a matter of luck if one appeared a lovely male drifted through my scope. Relief all round!
We turned for home and as we did so we heard the distant evocative sound of Pink-footed Geese. A massive flock of geese appeared heading our way. A large flock of Pinkfeet had spent most of the previous week on Haddiscoe/Thorpe marshes but despite repeated scanning from the house, we had been unable to locate the Ross's Goose which usually hung around with the Pinkfeet flock. As the geese flew straight over our heads there was the Ross's at the head of a V-formation with an entourage of 6 Barnacle Geese flanked by many more Pinkfeet. A fine end to an excellent day.
Sunday morning was a time for a gentle amble around our own marshes. A huge distant flock of Lapwing with about 30 Golden Plover, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers and a fine male Bullfinch were the highlights.
In the afternoon, I dropped a daughter off at a Christmas party in Beccles and then went for a stroll around nearby Sotterley Park. No Hawfinches but I saw a nice selection of woodland birds including good views of Nuthatch.

Squirrel update: I was half joking when I referred to fourth, fifth........  We're up to 7 now and there's still at least one more out there.........

Car update: The car is back to shiny black today after a visit to the Hand Car Wash on Beccles Road in Bradwell. They just smiled when I drove up and didn't charge any extra. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Aldeburgh Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll

Being away at the weekend and the short winter days meant I had an anxious wait before I had some free time to nip across the border into Suffolk and see this bird, and what a bird. "Wow" was the word that passed my lips when I first set my eyes on it. It was simply stunning. It wasn't just that it was a fantastic looking bird but it also was giving tremendous views as it fed, seemingly utterly unconcerned by its close audience, on the seeds of Yellow Horned Poppy. Bins and scope were unnecessary to see the bird but scope views allowed the detail of every feather to be scrutinised if you so wished. I simply admired the iridescence of its red crown as it shimmered in the winter sun, the frosty plumage and its glowing white rump. Who cares if its just a race or colour morph? It will be one of my birds of the year regardless.

                                             Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll          Chris Allen

On the home front, the pre-work "bedroom scan" came up with a flock of about 500 Pink-feet, 30 Golden Plover, Lapwings, Barn Owl and Marsh Harrier on the marshes. As I drove to work along the Haddiscoe Dam several skeins of Pink-feet were passing low overhead (making my driving a little less safe than usual!) and by the time I returned at lunchtime the flock had increased to several 1000s spread across the entire width of my view of Thorpe Marshes, a spectacular sight.

Monday, 10 December 2012

BTO conference

I've just returned from a fantastic weekend spent at the 79th BTO conference. The theme was Putting Birds on The Map 2007-11 highlighting the forthcoming publication of the latest Bird Atlas. Given the scientific basis of the BTOs work I was expecting some fairly dry lectures with lots of graphs and tables but instead the facts and figures were presented in an entertaining and accessible way.
The conference kicked off on Friday evening with Debbie Pain of the WWT presenting an enthralling tale describing the extremes of endurance, exhaustion and exhilaration of the expedition to help save that enigmatic species the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A flavour of her talk can be found in the video clip here . She would have won the prize for the cutest picture of the conference, if there had been one, with her photos of the tiny recently hatched baby sandpipers.
Sarah Wanless also held everyone's attention with her talk on the challenges facing the auks of her study population on the Isle of May. At the rate the North Sea is warming it could be soon quite pleasant to go swimming in the sea off Lowestoft. With the aid of trackers attached to the Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills they're also starting to find out where the birds go in winter. Puffins head off over the top of Scotland into the Atlantic, Guillemots and Razorbills hang around in the North Sea for the winter
Of course, much of the rest of the conference covered the how,what,when and why of the atlas. Amongst many contributors Simon Gillings provided us with lots of interesting facts in an Atlas A-Z, David Gibbons from the RSPB described the value of the atlas to the RSPBs work in informing its conservation priorities and Mike Toms described the work of the BTO in collecting data for other Orders including mammals, butterflies and dragonflies. Did you know the BTO collected over 900,000 mammal records in 2011, far more than the Mammal Society gathered? Andy Musgrove also gave us a light-hearted look at the next Atlas due in 2027-30 including his predictions for future breeders. Black-shouldered Kite definitely appeals but I'm not so sure whether I'm quite as keen on Peacocks becoming established (there are already breeding records) and Black Swan looks to me to be well on the way to Category C with the number of records across the country.
The conference wasn't just about the talks. The whole atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, with old acquaintances to be remade and new ones forged. Many thanks to the BTO staff themselves who were so welcoming. Did I really stay up until 3.30 in the morning two nights running engaged in conversation with so many of them?
One last thing, 50000 volunteers submitted data to the Atlas project and the BTO is eternally grateful to them for all their hardwork but the BTO itself only has 17000 members. I've mentioned this before in an earlier post but I'll repeat it again. They deserve your support and right now they are offering membership until June 2013 for just £1. Click here to sign up and put my name in the 'Referring member' box.  Many thanks.

Thursday, 6 December 2012


I've signed up to Patchwork Challenge. I'm proud of my little patch of Norfolk. Even though it has no open water, no wader scrapes or sea views, it still manages to produce a steady trickle of good birds and even once a mega. It's position 8 miles inland along a river valley for birds to follow probably helps.
Now I just have to set the boundaries enclosing 3 square km. My first thoughts were the boundaries would just form a rough squarish/irregular polygon sort of shape extending out to Haddiscoe Island with my 40 acres (my true patch) in the middle but then I started looking at other entrants patches. They vary from the classic irregular square to blobs joined by narrow lines to complicated patterns with thin tentacles reaching out in all directions to touch upon as many different habitats as possible. I got to work with the mouse on a map and worked out that by doing the latter I could incorporate Hardley Flood (a large open body of water for ducks and grebes) AND Cantley Sugar Beet Factory (lots of wader habitat). This would be great for the "patch" list in overall number of species but then is this really my patch? Although I go to Cantley quite frequently, I've never been to Hardley so no, it's not really my patch at all. MY patch is the area I've birded virtually every day for the last 16 years, even if it is only for the 20 minutes I'm outside feeding the sheep in the morning before work, or glancing out of the bedroom window as I get changed. The irregular polygon wins.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Winter thrushes

Yesterday I said it was definitely winter and this view was reinforced this morning when I looked out of the bedroom window.
This was the scene:

Undeterred, I did my first walk for the BTOs Winter Thrush Survey. This is the link if you're interested:  BTO winter thrush survey. The only thrushes I saw were all Blackbirds but it probably didn't help that one of the local farmers was holding a clay-pigeon shoot on part of my route. Surprisingly there was a huge flock of Woodpigeons only about 400 yards from where they were shooting seemingly unperturbed by the noise.
This afternoon we paid a visit to Haddiscoe Island and walked along the New Cut. Here there was the typical winter fare of 4 Short-eared Owls, 5 Barn Owls, 4+ Marsh Harriers including a wing-tagged bird and a Merlin which flew in from the Thorpe Marshes direction and had a brief skirmish with a Sparrowhawk before settling on one of the close by pylons, a favourite site for perching falcons. There were also good numbers of Lapwings with a scattering of Golden Plovers, and a distant flock of Pink-footed Geese.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Winter, Waxwings and Water Pipit

December 1st and its definitely winter. The wet dismal weather of the last few days has turned to cold wet dismal weather. Everywhere, and everything, outside is saturated. The sheep have looked bedraggled for days. Thankfully wool doesn't lose its insulating properties when wet so they don't appear too bothered. I don't mind cold weather and I tolerate wet weather but put the two together and you'll most likely find me indoors. So much of the morning was spent inside apart from essential tasks that forced me out.
Despite spending most of the day in and around the house the birding has been rather good. This morning started well with another flyover Yellowhammer whilst feeding the sheep. In faint hope I also halved some apples and set them up on a pear tree in our otherwise bare orchard. Then from the bedroom (with its strategically placed 'scope) I had 3 Marsh Harriers (including a wing tagged bird), 2 Common Buzzards, several small flocks of Lapwing and a Barn Owl over the marsh, but the highlight was a startled Kestrel that flew across the patio in pursuit of  a Chaffinch and came to a sudden stop perched on the bedroom windowsill only 2 feet away from me.
When the rain finally stopped there was work to be done. The grass is running short on the paddocks grazed by my pampered sheep (the New Year lambing ewes and future breeding stock) so it was time to start feeding hay. We use big 4ft round bales as these are cheaper to buy than the small bales preferred by horse owners and easy to handle with a tractor. Sadly we don't have a tractor but the bales roll well (thank goodness) and can be pushed and shoved on to our trailer. In the middle of one of these manoeuvres  trilling calls had us abandoning our bale as 8 Waxwings flew close by, headed for our garden and appeared to be landing in the vicinity of the orchard. Sadly by the time we got back to the house the Waxwings had moved on but one day...
The walk around the marsh to check the sheep still out there started very quietly until a Kestrel flew low over the neighbours wet rushy marsh and I heard a Rock Pipit-like call. This had to be a Water Pipit. Meadow Pipits are very regular out here but we rarely if ever get views of them on the deck as the vegetation is too long and they flush almost instantly on approach. However it was worth having a go for this first for the marsh. I soon realised my task was going to be impossible as I sploshed in ankle deep water through the rushes in the rain, but I did at least flush a pipit giving the same call which circled round, a silhouette in the fading light, before landing in an even wetter area. Its going on the list!
Back at the house a Brambling rounded off the day nicely.

Squirrel wars update: I'm up to 4 squirrels removed from the garden but there are still at least another 2 hanging around. I hadn't realised we were supporting such a big population. The remaining feeders aren't emptying as fast despite the birds having more undisturbed time to feed so the squirrels were probably munching through ££s of sunflower seed