Monday, 31 December 2012

The Queen Mother's Pipit

The Queen Mother Reservoir is situated at Horton in Berkshire, not far from Windsor Castle. From a leisure activity perspective it is primarily used as a sailing venue, and birdwatching is by permit only. On Wednesday 12th December 2012 local birder Michael McKee found a small pipit on the banks of the reservoir and couldn't believe what he was seeing. For instead of being the more usual Meadow Pipit or even the slightly more unusual Water or Rock Pipit, this was a Buff-bellied Pipit.

Buff-bellied Pipits Anthus rubescens come from America, Canada and Greenland and are often referred to there as the American Pipit. Most records in the United Kingdom come from Ireland and the off-shore islands and this is only the sixth record from England. Luckily, Michael was able to identify it quickly as he had seen them in Canada.

Access to the site was arranged by the Berkshire Bird Club who issued day permits, and over 1000 birders have been to see the bird. I went along on Sunday 16th December and joined a line of some 100 birders watching the bird feed along the bank of the reservoir. The main problem was that I had to keep on moving position, not to get closer but to get further way so that I could focus on it. It had a habit of running towards you down to just 5 feet away which is not much good when your lens will only focus down to 12 feet. Anyway, it was well worth it. Notice the completely black legs and the white eye ring.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Allure of the Essex Marshes

Well, East Mersea to be precise. Today I shot through Abberton Reservoir without stopping as I wanted to get to the island before high tide for two reasons. The first is that the high tide brings the birds closer for photography and the second even more important point is that if you don't arrive before high tide you may be prevented from getting on to the island at all due to The Strood, the causeway linking it with the mainland, being flooded.

It was a beautiful sunny day with no wind, and as I made my way down the path past the hide there were a few Chaffinches flitting around in the Hawthorns, including one particularly tame male individual.

The floods were frozen over with very few birds around so I continued down to the sea wall. At this point it is customary to scan the sea for sea birds although up to now I have been particularly unlucky and previously have only seen a few Eider, some fly-past Red-Breasted Mergansers and a seal. But today, not too far away on a calm sea was a dark-looking duck. I only had binoculars with me so took a couple of shots with the camera and enlarged the image to reveal that it was a female Common Scoter. Common Scoters are found in large numbers along the North Norfolk coast but are not as numerous off the Essex coast and this was my first for Mersea. A bit too distant for a decent shot but sufficient for a record.

I continued east along the sea wall and followed it round into the mouth of the River Colne and past the Oyster Fishery. Here there were a couple of male Red-breasted Mergansers fishing off-shore, but again only close enough for some record shots.

I started the walk back only to see that a couple of hang-gliders were flying low over the park and had put every bird into the air with flocks of Lapwings, Golden Plover and Black-tailed Godwits flying in all directions. The godwits sought refuge in one of the fields behind the sea wall along with a handful of Curlews. As I approached the Curlew took to the air but I was clearly too far away to worry the godwits and was able to get a shot off.

When I got back to the Point I walked along the beach and as I appeared at one of the pools from behind a suaeda bush I was confronted by a Little Egret. I am not too sure who was the most surprised. Luckily I had my wits about me and was able to rattle off a couple of shots before it took to the air. The pale lower mandible and the lack of a long crest makes this a juvenile. Also on the pool was a Redshank showing off his reflection in the flat calm water.

On the shoreline the usual suspects were much in evidence. A small party of Turnstones scurried ahead of me, only taking to the air when I got a little too close.

But while I was on the tide-line how could I ignore Calidris alba, the White Calidrid or Sanderling? Not only are these stunning as they race in and out of the surf, but they are also confiding. Just look at the following shots to see what I mean, all taken at a range of 8-10 yards.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Sawbills Dominate Amwell

The management work in front of the viewpoint at Amwell was intended to give better views over the scrape and also to bring the birds a lot closer. Obviously, not all were convinced when a particular individual with a  party of senior citizens leaned on the rail and stated in quite a loud authoritative voice " I am not quite sure why they dug all this here as no birds are ever going to come this close". That was, of course, before the 3-4 Water Rails, Grey Wagtails and Snipe arrived. This Snipe was photographed just 15 yards below the rail.

Unfortunately the Water Rails are proving fairly elusive and can only be seen flitting across the rides, and the Bittern is even more challenging. However, the other Amwell specialty, the Smew, has arrived and today was joined by its cousin, the Goosander. Goosander are quite uncommon at Amwell, apart from fly-throughs. However, this female seemed quite at home at the northern end of Tumbling Bay.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Birds from the Window

The joy of cold snaps in the winter is that they bring birds into the garden and therefore time to mobilise the hide. This involves going upstairs and opening the bedroom window that overlooks the apple tree. The tree has been pruned just recently, which is useful because it provides plenty of perches for birds as they make their way onto the feeders. The first bird along was a Goldfinch, now our commonest garden bird. What happened to all the House Sparrows and Starlings?

But the best was happening on the other side of the garden where a Fieldfare had arrived to feed on the apples on the tree next door. This wasn't quite in the plan but by hanging out of the window I was able to get some shots.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Raptor Rapture

Another beautiful cold and sunny day with frost still hanging on the trees despite it being past mid-day. The ditches and pools in front of the Amwell viewpoint were all frozen so no birds present apart from a couple of Moorhens feeding on the seed in the ride. Then suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I sensed a movement over the reed bed in front of the James Hide. A Sparrowhawk was flying over the reed bed and was coming my way. It was flying fast but despite having gloves on I did manage to get a couple of shots as it went past. Clearly a small male. How amazing was that?

Buoyed up by this piece of luck I walked up to the James Hide to see if the Bittern was showing. I sat down and gently raised the flap. There was nothing on show in front of the hide but I could make out a large bird of prey over the Old River Lea and coming my way. Although it was head-on, the lazy nature of the flight suggested it wasn't a Buzzard so I assumed it was a Red Kite. I lifted the camera and it was only when the camera auto-focused that I could see it had a golden crown and was therefore a Marsh Harrier.

The harrier, an adult female flew around the reed bed for 5 minutes before eventually heading off south towards Rye Meads. This was the first Sparrowhawk that I have ever photographed and the first Marsh Harrier in Hertfordshire, and both in the space of half an hour.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Redpolls and Siskins

Amwell was a bit quiet so I walked along the towpath towards Tumbling Bay. I stopped for a quick  look for the Bittern at the Bittern Pool. No sign of the Bittern I'm afraid, but its place had been taken by a Grey Heron in one of the freshly-cut bays. The floating reeds had obviously not settled down, as it was clearly very uneven underfoot causing the heron to raise its wings to maintain its balance.

Then, wafting through the air was the distinctive wee-ooo call of Siskins. A flock of about 50 birds circled overhead and eventually landed high in the Alders on the other side of the canal. Then, as luck would have it they gradually, a few birds at a time, moved across to the lower Alders next to the gate by the James Hide.

This presented a tricky problem as the sun was the other side of the railway and therefore from the wrong direction, coupled with the fact that most of the birds were deep inside the tree making focusing difficult. It soon became apparent that about one in ten of the flock were in fact Lesser Redpolls and, although it was hard and frustrating work, I did manage to get a reasonable shot of each.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Amwell Scaup Update

The long-staying 1st winter male Scaup was found at Amwell on the 21st October 2012 and is still present. When it was first found it was almost completely brown but is now moulting into its male plumage. As it has now been present for 7 weeks, it is time for a catch-up on the progress of its moult.

I set off for Tumbling Bay from the viewpoint on a bright and crisp day with frost still clinging to all the trees. For some reason birds seem to be far tamer in cold weather, presumably because they are more interested in feeding than worrying about what you are doing. As I approached Tumbling Bay a male Blackbird was finishing off the last of the Hawthorn berries and was totally unconcerned by my presence.

Likewise a Robin was searching the grass at the side of the path for some tasty morsels.

I finally reached Tumbling Bay and the Scaup was in its usual position, not too far out and slightly to the right. Below are a sequence of shots of the bird since its arrival, showing the progress in its moult

21st October 2012

2nd November 2012

2nd December 2012

12th December 2012

Saturday, 15 December 2012

An Unexpected Photo at Amwell

I was on my way to the Amwell viewpoint and as I walked up the track toward the Lee Navigation bridge I could see fellow photographer Andrew Chu by the towpath fence with his camera trained on the tree above me. As I joined him he pointed out a Kestrel that was previously hovering over the field allowing Andrew some opportunities, but was now settled in the tree. The light wasn't brilliant but it was too good an opportunity to miss.

What I hadn't realised was that Andrew had seized another photo opportunity, resulting in probably one of his best ever shots, which I am sure he will be uploading to his Flickr site and entering in all the most prestigious photographic competitions.

Are you ready for this?

And it has been very well received in the birding fraternity, attracting a number of comments:

"Must admit I've seen lots in this plumage, most recently associating with Waxwings, often seen at Amwell, and I believe Mersea Island in Essex!" 

Laurence Drummond
"Nice and sharp image but plumage a bit scruffy."

Mike Ilett

"Just a shame the subject hadn't preened itself first!!!!!!!"

Alan Harris 

But the most discerning, unbiased and insightful comment came from nature photographic expert Iain Petrie who wrote:

"And who am I to disagree? To capture a beauty like this in its natural environment is quite an achievement."

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Bramfield Hawfinches

A couple of winters ago, Hawfinches could be seen high in the trees in Bramfield churchyard, and it was never clear whether these were resident or migrant birds. I don't recall any being reported last winter, but this year they have returned. I arrived on site at 12.30pm and took up position under the tall trees by the gate. It wasn't until 1.15 pm that three birds flew in from the Old Rectory gardens opposite and settled high in the trees above me. Photography was very difficult as they were high up and against a sky background. They only stayed for 20 seconds and then flew back across the road. I did at least manage to get a record shot. Could these be the same birds, and where are they for the rest of the year?

I waited to see if they would return, but I was distracted by the chip, chip call of a Nuthatch coming from the Old Rectory grounds. The bird duly appeared and flew up into a large tree and started searching for food in  the bark. OK, not as rare as a Hawfinch, but far more obliging from a photography perspective.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A Trip down the Valley

The first port of call was Amwell to see if there were any Water Rails performing in front of the viewpoint. Nothing doing there, but a few minutes later Bill Last and Paul Trigg arrived back from Tumbling Bay and said that they had been watching a small flock of Lesser Redpolls feeding on seed heads just back along the track. So the Water Rail vigil was abandoned and I hurried to the place where they had be seen.

Luckily they were still there and feeding just 10-15 yards on the other side of the fence. Unfortunately, for a while they were in deep shade and with their backs towards me but eventually one bird moved into the sun and posed for a couple of shots.

After that lucky interlude I head off to Fishers Green to try my luck with a Water Rail in front of the Bittern Hide. As I left the car park and headed across the picnic area, the air was filled with the calls of a sizeable tit flock. Tit flocks are always worth checking as, not only are there the usual suspects such as Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits, but they often have with them Chiffchaffs and , in the dim and distant past, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. However, on this occasion the prize was a Goldcrest which, instead of lurking deep inside ivy, was feeding in the branches of some trees that had completely lost their leaves.

On into the Bittern Hide where the Bittern has been seen recently, not in front of the hide, but in the reed bed in the distance to the left. No sign of any Water Rails, but somehow a winter-plumaged Great Crested Grebe had managed to get behind the reed bed and was fishing right in front of the hide where the water is only 18 inches deep. You could actually see it swimming around under water.

And now for the final diversion, the bird feeders. As I have often said in the past, I refuse to photograph birds on feeders as the background is so artificial. However, with a bit of patience it is possible to grab some shots as they make their way through the branches of an adjacent tree before flying on to the feeders themselves.