Monday, 26 November 2012

A Day at Rainham Marshes

It has been a long time since I visited Rainham so on a beautiful sunny day I set off with Tony Pickford. OK, Rainham can't compete with the North Norfolk coast or even the Essex marshes come to that , but where else can you find such a huge expanse of marshland habitat just 45 minutes from your door?

We decided to do the tour in an anti-clockwise direction therefore passing the Purfleet Scrape and the Cordite Stores before moving round to the Aveley Pools. The water levels were high so no exposed mud and virtually no waders with just one Black-tailed Godwit and two Golden Plover seen, apart from the usual flock of Lapwings. As we left Aveley and headed for the Target Pools we could see the usual Peregrine Falcon perched high on Pylon 205.

The target pools were also fairly full of water with just a few duck including three Shelduck, but our attention was soon diverted to a solitary male Stonechat perched on top of a bramble bush. This individual was far more confiding than the pair of Stonechats that we had seen in the reed bed by the railway and, as we edged closer, would always return to the same bramble perch affording some good opportunities.

As we completed our circuit there was a flock of some 30 Linnets feeding close to the visitor centre. Unfortunately, each time they landed deep in vegetation and were obscured. In an attempt to get a better view we went on to the sea wall where, on occasions, they would sit up in a tree.

Whilst I was sitting on the side of the bank, a Kestrel came in to view and started to hover about 50 yards away, too far for a photo. Then, as if by magic, it flew a lot closer and hovered in front of me in full sunlight with the sun behind me. This doesn't happen very often.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Desert Wheatear at Abberton

To finish off a very successful day at East Mersea I decided to call in to the Layer Breton causeway at Abberton to see if any owls were on show. However, as soon as I got out of the car, the first thing I did was to scan the distant pylons for Peregrine Falcons and sure enough one was clearly visible on one of the cross-structures. I pointed it out to another birder nearby who was clearly delighted to have seen it and said that it had rounded off a superb day.

He said that apart from lots of wildfowl, he had spent some time watching the Desert Wheatear by the Layer de la Haye causeway. I knew that the bird had be around for the last few days but did not know that it was still present and showing well, albeit distant, from the visitor centre. He told me to look out for about 40 birders down the bank as I drove into the car park.

It was now 4.00pm and so I only had about half an hour of light left so I made my way round to the other causeway and the visitor centre. As I entered the car park I looked to my right expecting to see the crowd but there was no-one there. There were, however, a number of people standing around the car park, some of them crouching down and pointing their cameras under cars. Luckily for me, the wheatear had moved from the house-high pile of sand on the building site and was now feeding in the car park itself, seemingly unperturbed by the interest it was attracting.

The light was now getting poor and so I set my camera to ISO 1600 and started clicking. Considering the gloom the results were not bad.

Desert Wheatears are rare birds to the UK and this was only the third record for Essex, the first being in 1958 and the second in 1987. What a fantastic way to end a perfect day.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Mersea Magic - Sea Wall and The Point

....and so on past the freshwater pools to the sea wall. This is a fantastic piece of habitat with the sea on one side and the grazing fields on the other. Both can be filled with birds depending on the conditions. The first bird to appear was a Sky Lark on the edge of one of the fields. For what is after all a brown bird, they are amazingly photogenic.

The second birds to appear were a couple of White-fronted Geese, one of my favourites. White-fronts were the first wild goose that I ever saw, at Abberton some 45 years ago, and they have always been special with their white markings around the bill and the black stripes across the breast.. Unfortunately, these were on the far side of the field which I subsequently measured on Google Earth as being at a range of 320 yards. Therefore, the results aren't great but adequate for a record shot.

I then continued  to The Point where the tide was exceptionally high, too high in fact to go onto without wellies. I therefore watched initially from the sea wall until the tide had started to recede. One of the many Little Egrets provided a fly past and luckily this time the sun was in the right position.

As the tide receded I managed to get on to The Point which, for the first time I've been going there was very quiet. However, the 500 or so Brent Geese had been disturbed from the fields, surprisingly by just a Sparrowhawk, and were now floating around just off the saltmarsh. Again, such an attractive goose and so small. As I watched them the air was full of their gutterel calls which seem to give reassurance to the rest of the flock.

But finally, what visit to East Mersea could ever be complete without some compulsory shots of those most trusting of waders, the Turnstone. When I got to within about 10 yards of these, the only response I got was for them to look at me as if to say, are you coming any closer? A bird photographer's dream.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Mersea Magic - The Freshwater Pools

Time for another visit to East Mersea, but first the compulsory breakfast stop at Abberton. Nothing much doing here, but from my favourite a nearby hedge I could hear the familiar call of a Yellowhammer. Sure enough, just a few yards down the road, there he was sitting up on a bush, unfortunately partially obscured, but still irresistible.

But now on to East Mersea and the main business in hand. I walked down the east side of the park, past the hide and on down to the floods behind the sea wall. As usual, they were full to overflowing with birds. There were about 400 Black-tailed Godwits this time, with some giving reasonable views and a few photo opportunities. The third photo shows quite nicely the black tail, white rump and wing bar which separates the Black-tails from the Bar-tails.

A few Snipe were also present, scuttling along the margins and in between the rushy tussocks. I was a little bit unlucky here as two days later a couple of bobbing Jack Snipe appeared. Unfortunately, the birds I saw were all Common Snipe as can be seen from the central crown stripe.

Duck were also well represented, predominantly by Teal and Wigeon. This male has now come out of eclipse but was still giving some final adjustments to his new attire whilst showing off his brand new green speculum.

The Wigeon were more of a mixed bunch with some of the males displaying full plumage while others were still moulting through, either adults coming out of eclipse or young birds moulting through for the first time.

Well, the pools never disappoint, now on to the sea wall.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Brambling at Amwell

The newly excavated ditches in front of the viewpoint had started to attract Water Rails which could be viewed down to 20 yards, and therefore I set off to make the best of an otherwise gloomy day. Unfortunately, there was little activity although I did manage to see one individual run across one of the clearings. Then a call came through from Bill Last that a Brambling was coming to some seed that had been thrown down by the Gladwin Hide.

Four of us abandoned the viewpoint and set off down the track where Bill and Paul had seen the bird. It had disappeared for a few minutes although there were still quite a few Chaffinches and a Blue Tit in the bushes that were obviously keen to come down on to the path. While we were waiting a couple Jays were working their way along the verge, but clearly not interested in the seed on the path.

Then, as a number of Chaffinches plucked up courage to come down to the seed, the Brambling appeared from nowhere and joined them. The grey head shows that this is a male. Actually, the head feathers are not grey at all but black with grey fringes which overlap to give the grey appearance. During the winter months these grey fringes will wear away allowing the black breeding plumage head colour to show through.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Water Pipit at Startops

Following the lack of success with pipits at Wilstone I moved on to Startops where there had been both Water and Rock Pipits last year. I concentrated my search along the bank by the Grand Union Canal because, in my opinion, this has the best beaches for pipits and wagtails

I hadn't gone far when I found two pipits, one of which was an obvious Meadow Pipit. The other bird, however, needed further investigation. Unfortunately, it was very flighty and quite difficult to approach and required a great deal of patience and stealth to get some shots. When I am photographing I rarely carry my scope and when the bird is close enough I am concentrating on looking through the camera rather than my bins. Therefore, it wasn't until I got home and had a look at the results that I realised that it was in fact a Water Pipit.

Note the almost white ground colour of the breast and belly, the prominent double wing bar and the almost black legs. The supercilium (eye-stripe) is also prominent but, as Lucy Flower has pointed out is asymmetric, the one on the left hand side being more prominent than the right. I assume that the right hand one will moult through in due course.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Slavonian Grebe at Wilstone

What an amazing sequence of events. This bird was initially identified as a Red-necked Grebe, then a Black-necked Grebe and finally correctly as a Slavonian Grebe. Slavonian Grebes breed in parts of Scotland and in winter are found round the coast in Southern England but rarely inland, so this was a special bird.

I arrived at Wilstone and hauled myself up the famous "car park steps" and looked round for a huddle of scopes, which I soon found located in the northwest corner of the reservoir by the outfall. I had a quick scan with my bins to see if I could locate the grebe in front of the observers. I did indeed find the grebe but it was nowhere near the gathering, but a mere half way between me and the corner. I quickly moved into position and there was the grebe, bobbing around in the water just 20 yards from the bank in glorious sunshine.

I rattled off a number of shots as an insurance should the bird move away or the sun go in, but eventually was able to wait and choose the best posture and light. I wish all subjects, especially birds as rare as this, were all so obliging.

What was still intriguing me was what the assembled crowd at the corner of the reservoir were watching, so I went along to have a look - a pair of Whooper Swans. Now before we all get excited I should point out that these are just two of a number of feral birds that roam the area and have even bred at Wardown Park in Luton. However, they are magnificent birds and tame or not, are worth a few shots.

The final mission at Wilstone was to go in search of some pipits, preferably of the Rock or Water variety, so I made my way over to the beaches by the jetty. Unfortunately, there were no pipits, but there were a few wagtails including a rather smart Grey Wagtail which made up for it.

Well, that was a very successful morning so now on to Startops for some pipits.