Monday, 29 October 2012

Poor Light Doesn't Stop Play - Part 1

What a dark gloomy morning. I therefore decided to go and do the shopping in the morning and see what the afternoon would bring. Just five minutes after I arrived at Tescos I received a phone call from Tony Pickford to say that a male Mandarin was showing well in front of the White Hide at Amwell. Not surprisingly, by the time I got home and made my way down to Amwell, the Mandarin had long departed. The light was still poor and to make matters worse, there was a cold northerly wind blowing across the viewpoint, and so I decided to set up camp in the relative cosiness of the White Hide. From a photography point of view the White Hide is at its best on dull days like this, because otherwise the sun is in your eyes. Also, with the water levels in the lake rising for the winter, there were plenty of water birds performing at close quarters.

Amwell has large numbers of Coot during the winter months, but even at this time of year they are starting to display and can often be seen swimming around all puffed up to make themselves look larger and more threatening. They also lower their heads down to the water in front of them to look aggressive.

Like most other inland waters, there is also a healthy population of Cormorants. They breed on the island in front of the viewpoint and stay around in good numbers during the winter, generally loafing on the islands and tern rafts when they are not feeding. Luckily one was diving for fish right in front of the hide. Look how low they are in the water. No wonder they can slide under the water with the greatest of ease.

Herons also breed on the islands and are a regular feature at Amwell but never in large numbers during the winter months. Although they can be seen feeding along the water margins, particularly at the edges of the reed beds, they also spend hours just sitting around, digesting their food.

But to end Part 1 I have chosen one of the most under-rated birds in the UK, the Gadwall. I am sure that these dull-coloured ducks (male grey, female brown) are frequently overlooked and dismissed as female Mallard but, if you ever have the opportunity, take a close look at the subtle colours and vermiculation of the males. The female is indeed very similar to a female Mallard but the speculum on the wing is white instead of blue.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Scaup at Amwell

I was Amwell this morning when a phone call came through that Barry Reed had found a Scaup at Tumbling Bay, so half a dozen of us set off in hot pursuit. It is quite a trek to Hardmead Lock where it had been found but with heads down and a brisk walk it didn't take that long.

Fortunately, when we got there it wasn't too far away, although the light conditions were dreadful. It was relatively easy to pick out but was diving almost continuously, only staying on the surface for a few minutes, and staying under the surface for a long time.

This was not the most colourful of individuals. It was obviously a Scaup due to its very rounded head, larger size than Tufted Duck and the grey starting to show through on the mantle. The grey on the mantle points to this being a male bird and therefore, at this time of year when adults should be more advanced in their eclipse plumage, a first winter bird. The first photo gives a good size comparison with Tufted Duck.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Amwell Assortment

It was a pleasant sunny morning so I thought I would have a wander up the lane at Amwell. The Lee Navigation towpath was very quiet so I popped into the James Hide in case the Kingfisher decided to oblige. No such luck there, but a Reed Bunting was carefully manoeuvring towards the feeders and allowed a couple of shots before he jumped on to the feeder itself (I absolutely refuse to photograph birds on feeders). Even at this time of year the black head is already starting to show through indicating that this is a male.

Next stop is the Bittern Pool with the compulsory scan along the reed margins hoping for a Bittern to be showing albeit for perhaps just a few seconds. Once again no luck but a Grey Heron flapped lazily across the pool in search of a new feeding ground. To the left of the pool a female Chaffinch was sitting on the outside of a sallow, making the most of the warm autumn sun.

The lane itself was fairly quiet so time to visit Tumbling Bay, where a lone Coot was having breakfast out on the water and a male Robin was proclaiming his territory from the top of a bush.

Next stop was the bridge over the old River Lea. Under the old Bailey Bridge left over from the gravel working days there used to be a lump of concrete on the side of the bank where, with the aid of a telescope you could often see Otter droppings called spraints. Unfortunately, during heavy rain a couple of years ago the river flooded and the concrete was washed away. It has been replaced by a log but doesn't seem to attract Otters in the same way.

The only sign of wildlife here was a rather old male Common Darter which was enjoying the warmth of the wooden handrail. This late in the year the only two dragonflies still flying are the Migrant Hawker and the Common Darter. These will continue to fly until the first hard frosts and, in recent years, Common Darters have been recorded egg-laying as late as November.

Just as I was about to leave a I could hear the "weeooo" call of a Siskin and a couple of birds appeared over the trees and landed right overhead in clear view. A little high up but a great way to end the day.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Tewinbury Revisited

My last visit to Tewinbury was very rewarding with plenty of action resulting in good shots of Siskin, Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail, so I thought I would try my luck again. The water levels were still low with lots and lots of oozy mud but, unlike last time, the site was fairly deserted. This was particularly frustrating as the light was very good and going to waste. I say there was nothing, but of course there are always a few Moorhens creeping along the edge of the reeds so they became the subject of the day.

The adults are always a pleasure to photograph with their gaudy red and yellow bill setting off an otherwise sombre charcoal and brown body plumage.

The young birds are a totally different kettle of fish being a much paler grey and lacking the bright bill. They are so dull at times they I suspect that they are sometimes mistaken for the elusive Water Rail as they creep about just inside the reeds.

Still no sign of any Kingfishers or Grey Wagtails but then the shrill triple call of a Green Sandpiper, which circled the area in front of the hide and settled on the other side of the mud. A little later it was joined by a second bird. After a long wait one of the birds did work its way round to this side of the mud and allowed a couple of reasonable shots to be taken.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Last Hobby of the Year

An early Autumn visit to Rye Meads proved to be a relatively quiet day. The water level in front of the Draper Hide was high, covering all the wide expanses of mud, so no feeding waders and just a few Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Pochard and Tufted Duck. However, the scene from the hide was still full of vibrant colours due to the abundance of the yellow Buttonweed growing all over the islands. Amazingly, when I checked on the status of Buttonweed in the Flora of Hertfordshire, published just three years ago, I found that it was not in there........because it is a new species for Hertfordshire!! It is most likely that it has been brought in on birds feet.

A scan of the islands did in fact reveal the presence of some Common Snipe, all asleep unless they were disturbed by a passing duck.

Suddenly, a raptor appeared over the trees at the back of the reed bed. Clearly a sharp-winged falcon and at it came closer, scything its way through the air, it was possible to see the tell-tale white throat and collar of a Hobby. Hobbys are summer visitors to the UK and this fairly late individual was taking the opportunity to feed up on the still fairly numerous Migrant Hawker and Common Darter dragonflies present at Rye Meads at the current time. Probably the last one we will see this year.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Great Ooze

Tewinbury is a Herts and Middx Wildlife Trust reserve just outside Tewin next to the Tewinbury Farm Hotel on the B1000. Its main ecological value is its large reed bed which in the summer months is home to many breeding pairs of Reed Warblers, a couple of pairs of Cetti's Warblers and the occasional Water Rail. During the summer when the water levels are kept high the only interest in front of the double-decker hide is a few Tufted Ducks and Little Grebes. However, at this time of year, the water levels are dropped to encourage migrant waders.

I arrived at the hide and chose the lower floor of the hide as, although the upper deck provides better views over the reserve, the lower deck is much better from a photography point of view as you are at eye-level with the birds. I gently opened the flap and was confronted with a large expanse of wet oozy mud interspersed with spring-fed channels of flowing water, a mecca for any self-respecting wader.

There were three Green Sandpipers in residence, spending most of their time in and around the centre channel, but sometimes disappearing up one of the five bays cut into the reeds. Eventually two of the birds did stray close and enabled some shots to be taken.

Next up was the familiar call of a Grey Wagtail. It flew into sight from the back of the reed bed and after a couple of circuits landed on the mud in front of the hide. Because of the amount of yellow on them, Grey Wagtails are often confused with Yellow Wagtails. However, Yellow Wagtails are summer visitors with an olive-green back and are usually found in and around grassy fields or crops. Grey Wagtails, on the other hand, are resident in the UK, have a grey back and are invariably associated with water.

Then, for something totally different, there was a movement on the mud under the trees. Not water birds this time, but four Siskins coming down to get a drink from the overnight rain that had collected in some footprints in the mud. Siskins are resident in the UK but leave Hertfordshire during the Summer months to breed further north, but are now starting to return for the Winter.

Around the channels there are are a number of strategically placed sticks for Kingfisher perches and very well used they are indeed. Unfortunately, when I was there, the Kingfisher was only using the most distant perch so was not close enough for a good photo, but these birds are also a pleasure to see whatever the range.

And so to the final drama. During the morning there had been two Little Egrets feeding down the channels between the reeds. Then, just before I was due to leave, one of the egrets, a juvenile as can be seen from the pale bill and greenish legs, came out into open in front of the hide and posed for some photos.

A few minutes later the second bird, an adult with black legs, darker bill and long crest, approached the juvenile from behind.

This young upstart was clearly taking more than his fair share of the fish and had to be taught a lesson. So get out of it!!!

Job done, and the adult flew back into the reedy channels.

What a fantastic morning. It seems to me that, when water levels are low as they are at the moment, the hide at Tewinbury is clearly one of the best hides in the county for photographing birds.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

....and so on to East Mersea

Today I decided to park at Cudmore Grove Country Park, as one of the reasons for coming to East Mersea was the hope of finding some migrant passerines in the bushes on the way down to the sea wall. Unfortunately, like everywhere else this year, the migrants had seemed to have departed particularly early as the bushes were very quiet. There was also the tell-tale signs of bunches of ripe Elder berries hanging there uneaten.

I therefore made my way past the hide down to the floods on the meadows which never disappoint. It is still a bit early for large numbers so that there were only half a dozen Snipe, a few Teal and a single Black-tailed Godwit, although there was a most impressive gathering of Redshank which were taking refuge from an in-coming tide.

I continued down to the seawall and had a look at the pools of saltwater that had been left from the previous tide. Still too early for any pipits, especially the hoped for Rock Pipits, although there was a lone Black-headed Gull feeding in the pool. Next to the gull is a sprig of Glasswort Salicornia europaea, which on the North Norfolk coast is sold as Samphire (pronounced samfer), apparently tasting like a cross between asparagus and thin green beans. I am reliably informed that now you can even buy it in Waitrose under the name of Marsh Samphire.

And so on to the beach or, when the tide is still a way out, mudflats. As for the pools, it is still too early for large numbers of waders, but a few Turnstones were in evidence with distant Oystercatchers, Curlew and Dunlin.

But if the Yellow Wagtails got the medal of the day at Abberton, then at East Mersea it must go to the six Golden Plover, freshly arrived back for the Winter. Although their colouration makes them very hard to see at times, especially against a muddy background, when the sun comes out they positively glow.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Autumn Expectations in Essex

In the latter half of September a foray into Essex is always worthwhile in the hope of a little Autumn action. The plan today was a stop-off at Abberton to see what was on show from the causeway and then on to East Mersea for some passerines around the bushes and hopefully some waders along the sea wall.

After the recent spell of warm weather the causeway at Abberton was a bit of a shock, demanding not only a sweat-shirt but also the trusty Barbour. A quick sandwich and a cup of tea and then it was on to the business at hand. At first all seemed a little quiet and I once again succumbed to photographing the posing feral Egyptian Geese. I am sure you must be able to get counselling for this.

I crossed the road to avoid further temptation and this time was confronted with an equally photogenic and approachable Lapwing. The problem is that all Lapwings are. But how can you ignore that iridescent plumage that changes from green through blue to purple depending on the angle of the light. This bird is a young one with only a small wispy crest and buff edges to its wing coverts.

A quick scan through the bins along the waters edge revealed an interesting profile of a wader half way along. A stealthy approach soon revealed that this was a Ruff, one of many around at Abberton at this time of year, but much closer than normal. I was able to loose off a couple of shots before it lost its nerve and flew to a distant beach. The young ones and adults in winter plumage are nothing like the gaudy males in their summer plumage that you see in illustrations and so I suspect that many are overlooked by the casual observer, normally being passed of as Redshank.

But I always like to award a medal to the bird of the day and today's gong must go to the small flock of Yellow Wagtails that were feeding along the shoreline. Unfortunately, they were a little flighty but with patience and following them slowly up and down the causeway for half an hour, I did manage to get some reasonable shots.

Well, that wasn't a bad morning, so now on to East Mersea. Watch this space.