Tuesday 20 October 2015

Operation Brambling

My mission, should I choose to accept it, to get out the of house at an ungodly hour (again) and find Brambling on the patch. I did accept it. Having spent the first winter season not really bothering very much, this autumn I am all systems go, and as we move into yet another season I am well up for it. My list of winter wants is great. Earlier on in the year I didn't see Lapwing. I didn't see Water Rail. I didn't see Woodcock and I didn't get Brambling. It's like I'm starting at zero again - except I'm on 105 - so the excitement is palpable. 

I met up with Bob in the mist just after seven. So not that ungodly, but barely light and the sun not yet over horizon. He had the same idea, and so together we made our way to the Vizmig Point. This is on the central path immediately to the east of the main broom fields, marked by the Wheatear logs at one end, and a "Keep your fucking dogs on a lead you bastards" sign at the other. It was also marked this morning by a dead mouse, but that disappeared a little later on, either by Crow or by Fox, so don't rely on it. The first birds were thrushes, and lots of them, but it didn't really start happening until a very tardy Nick turned up. He's the patch Double Decker in many ways, and within about five minutes of him turning up a Brambling wheezed through heading west. Called twice in the end, but once would have been enough. Easy when you know how. 

It didn't end there of course. It hadn't been more than a few more minutes when I became aware of a funny tootling call. Couldn't place it for a while, and then the bird was over our heads without much of a tail. My brain struggled with the thought of Woodlark, Nick's mouth managed to say it. Bob's mouth fell open, for it was a full fat patch tick for him and nullifies my little sprite from the other day, honours even at 144. Two year ticks in the space of a few minutes, getting up and getting out had been an inspired decision. Birds continued to pour through. Groups of Chaffinch up to 30 strong, more thrushes, the first signs of Woodpigeon migration, and then..... Lapwing! Eight birds, flopping west, swiftly followed by a further four. Get in! Suddenly from being a total lightweight I find myself within a couple of Bob for the year*. How did that happen exactly? And as mentioned above there are plenty of what ought to be sitters to come as all the winter stuff remains unseen. So does Tawny Owl, and one lives about 200 yards from my house. I just have to risk my life and go out in the dark to find it - taking James along for protection later this week.

An excellent morning all in all, with a supporting cast of Snipe, a few Redpoll and Linnet, and Reed Bunting. And it was beautiful too. Tomorrow? Don't bet against it, the weather is on the turn, and that usually means birds.

*Note that we don't compete with Nick as that's pointless. He lives on the patch, and in a day spends more time birding it than we do in a fortnight. In the past I used to attempt to keep up, but no more.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Tick-fest in Norfolk

Norfolk has been good all week. Not quite as good as Lewis perhaps, but pretty wonderfully good, stacked to the brim with Eastern goodies and the promise of more. I very nearly took a day off on Friday as I could barely contain myself, but a quick look at the weather suggested that nothing was in danger of doing the dreaded Friday night bunk so I played it cool. Accepting of the fact that there would be more people in Wells Woods than I would likely enjoy, but cool nonetheless - birding in solitude is the preserve of very few of us and North Norfolk in autumn isn't exactly noted for being bereft of birders. I can live with that, and an early start would ensure that Bradders and I stood a chance of staying ahead of the scrums.

So it was that at 4.25am the gentle tinkling of my alarm roused me from a well-deserved slumber and a short while later I hit the road. Yes, the road - I had to drive. Bradders' recent move to rural Colchester has selfishly made birding trips to the South of England less practical for picking me up, so I had to drive to the Brecks myself and get in his car there. Pffff. The new Braddersmobile - or rather the new MrsBraddersmobile - has heated seats and a fluffy Snow Tiger, so I felt quite at home for the short trip up to the coast. Arriving at Holkham we bit the bullet and donated some hard-earned cash to the ex-Earl of Leicester's slush fund, but secured the prime "mega-alert" parking spot at the very top of Lady Anne's Drive. Birders were already arriving so after a quick coffee and a Barn Owl we trotted east towards the drinking pool for what we would hoped would be the first of the day's special birds, a Red-flanked Bluetail found the previous day. 

We were the first there, and took up positions either side of the pool. Penny C, a local Norfolk birder had it first though, having been there the day before she knew exactly where it liked. Good views were obtained in the gloom over the next thirty minutes, with minimal people. Gradually a procession of birders began to pick their way through the woods towards the pool, so it was time to leave for the next treat, a Blyth's Reed Warbler at the Wells end. When we hit the main path the extent of the green-clad activity began to become apparent - birders everywhere, all with the same idea as us - come to Norfolk to fill their boots. And who can blame them really? The Blyth's gave itself up pretty easily all things considered, helpfully takking to let you know where it was in the brambles, occasionally popping into view whilst picking off insect delicacies. This was a much-wanted new bird, having somehow not coincided with one over many visits to Shetland, nor of course the bird 200 yards from my house....

Next stop a Hume's Warbler on the way to the another Bluetail, which decided at the moment we were passing the general area to start calling its head off. A quick diversion into the wood and we were looking up at it at almost point-blank range within about ten seconds. Twitching the way it ought to be. It shut up within a minute and vanished, much to the consternation of the large crowd stood on the path wondering what they had heard. But ninja-like we were gone!

A relatively long march now, back to Lady Anne's Drive via some more coffee, and then onwards west via a relatively close and beautifully marked Isabelline Shrike which we watched pick off wasps. Another 'rare' under the belt and we were off again, non-stop this. This was the second Red-flanked Bluetail of the day - I always like to see several before lunch if I can, which on Bradders Birding Tours obviously gives me most of the day. I jest, but it wasn't long before we looking - in solitude - at yet another of these stunners, feeding in a sheltered tangle just off the main path. Frustratingly fleeting for most of the time, completely stymieing my attempts to get a decent photo of it, but allowing wonderful views. Not easy like the Geosetter or Gloucester birds, but somehow appropriate to the situation. Midday and the plan was going very well indeed. 

The afternoon couldn't possibly be as good of course, and so a second attempt at Pallas's Warbler back east in the Wells half was beset by massive crowds and very poor views of the bird hovering high up in oaks. With this final bird done we high-tailed it to Beeston for a second Isabelline Shrike as one is always insufficient. This showed pretty well in deteriorating weather, but sadly didn't give itself up for the type of wondrous photos I've been seeing on the internet of it. Nevermind, they all count! A quick trip to Muckleburgh Hill to look for the OBP proved fruitless, and our frustration with crowds proved ultimately to be our undoing as we left Pipitless as it started getting busy. The bird was picked up a short while later and showed well, but we could hardly be disappointed at our day - more rarities than I can remember seeing for a long while. Although I didn't go to Shetland this year, Saturday 17th October was so productive it almost felt like I did.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Autumn comes to Wanstead

I've been hitting the Park a lot more recently. Although I much prefer the Flats as a birding experience, at this time of year your chances are better for Tit flocks in the Park, and I've been spending a bit of time trying to track them down in the hope of Firecrest or Treecreeper. I've also had half a mind on Yellow-browed Warbler given the huge numbers that are in the country at the moment, but I didn't really think this would ever come off. I am however the luckiest birder in the entire world, or sometimes it feels like it, as walking around the far side of the Ornamental Waters today after a fruitless half hour in the OSW I heard that magic call again. GET IN!! A patch (144) and a London (252) tick, and to think I very nearly twitched a bird in Regent's Park a few days ago!

It was almost absurdly loud (or perhaps I'm particularly attuned to it at the moment) from across the narrow stretch of water, and called only once. In fact I never saw the bird, and in the time it took me to retrace my steps back around to the other side it had moved on, and despite searching for around an hour and a half with Bob and James (who does a mean whistled version!) we couldn't pick it up again. One call is enough though when it comes to this species, they are very distinctive indeed. Interestingly there are a lot of Sycamores alongside the OW, and in the wood between there and the Plain. They're huge trees in fact, and I'd never even realised they were there - in my mind a Sycamore is a stunted sapling only a few feet high, but I suppose that's the Shetland sub-species! The trouble with the Park is that the habitat is incredibly dense. In contrast to the Flats which has distinct pockets of habitat separated by open space, in the Park the cover stretches for acres without much of a break and it's very difficult to work. As I say, I was very lucky.

We gave up as the light began to fail, picking up a full dozen Wigeon (possibly a patch record) on the Canal, which added to the three I'd had on the Shoulder of Mutton pond earlier is a very healthy number indeed for around here. That's another reason to do the Park more often in winter, there are far more water bodies that are much more suitable for Wildfowl than any of the ponds on the Flats. Pintail remains a much wanted patch tick, and the yearlist is still missing Goldeneye, Smew and all those other tasty things that a cold snap could bring. I am very much looking forward to winter. Today though it was all about autumn.


Tuesday 6 October 2015

Dogged persistence delivers the goods

With massive overnight rain yet a day that dawned bright and relatively clear, there was only one place to be at first light. Long Wood, the favoured haunt of Ring Ouzels at this time of year. Jeremy Bob had found the first of the autumn at the weekend while I was away enjoying Snow Bunting, and my first opportunity came today. You can only imagine my massive disappointment and frankly, rage, at approaching Long Wood and seeing 187 dogs, an enclosure, some little jumps and a fat lady giving out ribbons. It's ridiculous it really is. I had hit the Flats at about 6:45am, it was barely light and yet the place was overrun. Ring Ouzels are about the shyest bird species known to man, nervous beyond belief. I don't think I'll ever come across a friendly one, you get within a hundred yards and they're gone. So to have Crufts in full swing before it was even light was a major obstacle to seeing one. It was hopeless, and I started thinking dark thoughts. Mainly about how ISIS were better than dog-walkers, several of whom were chummily (see what I did there?) chatting away as their charges crapped wantonly in the long grass away from view. I've said it before and I'll say it again now.

Dog-walkers are the most selfish and deluded group of people on this earth.

They are never in the wrong, they have an absolute God-given right to do whatever the hell they want, and hey, if their dog deposits a turd and they don't see it, well so what, it's somebody else's problem at that point. Which it largely is even if they do see it. I would be willing to bet that 90% of dog walkers on Wanstead Flats have never picked up their dog's mess in the entire time they've owned it. They're arrogant, defensive and aggressive to the point of absurdity, and do not give a flying fuck about anyone other than themselves. And in case you hadn't worked it out I hate them passionately. 

Today however I didn't even talk to a dog walker. I just silently loathed them just for being there, just for existing, for totally scuppering any meagre chance I had at seeing a special bird. I met up with John W at the east end of the wood in a grim mood. He too was feeling completely disillusioned with London living, of his birding dreams dashed by the omnipresence of other people of the sort most likely to result in fewer birds with the possible exception of gamekeepers. We whinged for a while before going our separate ways. Roughly 30 seconds after this I glanced up at the sky and picked out a Short-eared Owl spiralling up from roughly the Coronation Copse. "John! John!!". He heard my desperate cries and came back quickly (I can't in all honesty call it running!), thinking I had an Ouzel. Fat chance, but as it happens SEO was a year-tick and only my fourth in over a decade, whereas I found five Ring Ouzels this April alone and have seen well over 20 individuals here since I started watching the patch.The irony that a dog had probably flushed the owl out of the long grass that I would not walk in was not lost on me.

I went to work buoyed by this success, and continued to thank my good fortune for the rest of the day. 

John carried on birding and found an Ouzel.

Sunday 4 October 2015

But as long as you love me so...

Who knows whether the Cley Marsh Sandpiper was a Greenshank or not, I don't even need it for the Norfolk list I don't keep. For me the star of the show yesterday morning was a ridiculously tame Snow Bunting on the shingle north of the reserve. The first of the winter, it pottered unconcernedly around people, it's only care in the world where the next seed was coming from. Despite it walking up to you - literally - 'real' birders felt the need to scope it, which was totally absurd really. I mean sure, you'd get a nice view and all that, but the real relationship with the bird was one where you lay down on the shingle and observed it from about three feet away. Possibly two feet actually, it just got silly at points. This was a bird that you knew had never ever seen people before. Photography took a back seat for large parts of this special encounter, mainly as it was a pleasure to simply watch it so close and observe it feeding, but also because for a lot of the time I would have needed either a wide angle lens or a macro. I honestly could have reached out and touched it it was that close. So delightful - let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Weekend target

As you will have gathered from my previous tweet, I am somewhat jealous of all my pals on Shetland. They have the potential to "go large", as they did last year with a Rubythroat, but even if they don't top that, the fact remains that they're knee-deep in Yellow-browed Warblers, and Yellow-browed Warblers rock. Birders not clued up on autumn won't have any idea what I'm talking about. Non-birders who have perhaps landed here by accident looking for domestic pointers will be even worse off. So what's a Yellow-browed then? Well put simply it's a very regular migrant whose frequent occurrence in the UK at this time of year belies the massive distance that it has come. Siberia and the Urals is about the closest they live if you read the literature, yet somehow they are the most regular eastern migrant. They're small, marginally bigger than a Goldcrest, but with the most superb call you could imagine. Writing cannot possible do it justice - its a very high-pitched, very quick and extremely strident "Tsuu-eeee-viit" that sounds like nothing else. It cuts through wind and the rustling of leaves, and is a sound that autumn rarity-hunting birders are very in tune with. Until you've heard it you don't know what it sounds like if that makes sense, and in my case autumn isn't complete without it.

I remember hearing my first one on the north Norfolk coast in about 2008. I knew exactly what it was but I couldn't tick it as I couldn't see it! Can you imagine the frustration, my number one wanted bird somewhere invisible above my head. Later that day I did finally clap eyes on one a few miles down the coast, and since then I've seen them every year and in some numbers. I'm probably on 60 or so now thanks to several trips to Shetland, but the numbers there this year are incredible, with some guys seeing over 40 in a single day. Whilst I can't get to Shetland this year, there was no way I was going to let a year pass by without hearing that magical call, and with birds gradually trickling down the coast I headed off to Norfolk this morning for a spot of coastal birding, with a particular focus on Sycamores for that is what they particularly like. 

There was one at Beeston Common, bouncing around in a Sycamore (!) close to the road and sure enough I picked it up on call just as I'd walked up to local who was explaining how the birds this year just weren't calling. This particular "Tsuu-eee-viit!!" was triumphant in quality, a real "are you sure about that 'cos I'm not!" riposte. Music to my ears. No photos and it remained mostly hidden, but it called its head off for us, and then solely for me as the other people headed back to the sea to twitch a fish. No really, there was a Basking Shark off the coast and they were really interested in seeing it. I'd already seen it from Cley Coastguards, and perhaps was a bit blasé about it. Hey ho, just a big fish, whatever. This however is a Yellow-browed Warbler from Siberia and it's a gem. 

Here's one from Shetland a few years back so you know what I'm talking about - you can see how they get the name.