Thursday, 31 January 2013

Caspian Gull at Amwell

The last 20 years has seen a distinct shift in the gull population in the UK. When I was a lad there were just five resident species, Black-headed, Common, Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed, but since then we have witnessed the arrival of a small number of breeding Mediterranean Gulls and winter visits from Yellow-legged Gulls and their cousin, the Caspian Gull.

Identification of Yellow-legged Gulls and Caspian Gulls is tricky and is mostly practised by gull fanatics. I was aware that a 1st Winter Caspian Gull had been arriving at Amwell late afternoon for the last four evenings so I hung around hoping for a new tick and some record shots. It was after 3pm that a likely candidate was picked by Phil Ball and myself as it swam just beyond the reeds in front of the viewpoint. The only features that I had logged in my brain were white head, black eye and sloping fore-head and this bird seemed to tick all the boxes.

I went down to the sloping viewpoint where I was able to get an uninterrupted view of the bird and took a loads of shots at about 50 yards range in fading light. Once home I sifted through the photos and sent Barry Reed a selection who duly confirmed the identification.

I then sent the photos to Alan Harris who annotated the photos with the key criteria to look out for. To me these are the best user-friendly identification aid I have seen so far and have reproduced the slides below.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Mammals are like Buses

Another visit to Amwell with the first bout of snow still lingering with well below freezing temperatures. It was cold at the viewpoint with a northerly breeze in your face so time for a wander up the lane. As I have mentioned before, birds always seem to be tamer in the cold, more intent of feeding than worrying about your presence as exemplified by this male Chaffinch next to the path.

Before long I was approaching Tumbling Bay and time to check on the progress of the 1st winter male Scaup which has been present since the 21st October 2012. It was in its usual position near the east bank towards the southern end, associating with the usual group of Tufted Duck and on this occasion, a sole Pochard. The photos show what a difference there is in its plumage since it first arrived and also provides a useful size comparison with the tufties.

On the way back I checked to see what was going on at the James Hide, starting with the lower storey. The feeders had been taken down during December due to the unwanted attention from a family of rats, but have now been re-instated and were attracting the usual array of tits and buntings.This is my favourite place for photographing Reed Buntings as they will often settle on reeds or branches before moving on to the feeders, thereby allowing some shots without ironmongery.

I then moved upstairs where I met fellow photographer Andrew Chu. I was hoping that a Bittern would walk across the pond or the ride cut through the reeds and after a few minutes not one but two brown objects appeared at the far end of the ride. These were clearly too large for Bitterns and I assumed therefore that they were Muntjac, but a closer inspection through the bins revealed that they were in fact two Foxes.

Clearly, mammals are like buses. It was only the other day that I was bemoaning the fact that I never got the chance to photograph mammals and now, if you include the Stoat, which was photographed on the same day, three come along at once. They started walking down the ride, but it was clear from their reaction that they could hear the shutters and diverted into the reeds, but not until we had taken a number of shots.

Back at the viewpoint one of the Bitterns decided to emerge from the reeds on the far side. I was just getting my camera into position when it decided to fly towards us but unfortunately diverted to the reed bed to the left, rather than the one in front. However, I did mange to get a record shot of the bird in flight.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Freezing at Fishers Green

Blue skies heralded another freezing day with the remnants of the first bout of snow still on the ground. Wrapped up warm in my new birding coat (which cost almost as much as my camera) and a packed lunch I headed off into the badlands of Essex, Fishers Green to be precise. The first stop was the compulsory Bittern Hide which is fast becoming a crime under the Trade Descriptions Act. There was, however, a brief glimpse of one of the resident Water Rails and a pair of Gadwall, looking very smart in their breeding plumage.

But the biggest surprise of all centred on the feeders. Whilst many birds hang on the feeders, many others feed on the ground under the feeders, picking up the seeds that the others have dropped. And today, the star of the show was a beautiful Jay, just 12 feet away. A red-letter day as this was the first Jay I have ever photographed.

Time for a walk to keep warm and I decided to head north for the Grebe Hide which overlooks Holyfield Lake. On the way it was quite noticeable that, when it is cold, all types of wildlife are more intent on feeding and less worried about your presence. This was particularly so for this Grey Squirrel which was foraging at the side of the path and a Robin that was so concerned it let me walk round it at close range to get the light on the right side.

Meanwhile a lone Magpie was keeping sentry from the top of a tree.

It is quite a long walk to the Grebe Hide but I wasn't disappointed as there, right in front of the hide, was my quarry - Goosanders. One female had taken time out to sit on a submerged log for a bit of chill-out time and was then joined by the male for a spot of synchronised preening. Absolutely stunning.

For better reproduction of my photos, see my photo gallery at


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Ermine at Amwell

I have always been unlucky when it comes to photo opportunities for mammals. Every one else seems to come across Weasels, Stoats chasing Rabbits and Foxes wherever they go, but for me....zilch.

Stoats are often seen at Amwell, but rarely by me but today was not only an exception but a bonus. For as I was standing at the viewpoint scanning the scrape, a Stoat was running across the rides just 20 yards away. But not only was this a stunning Stoat, but it was acquiring its white winter coat - an Ermine. Notice the black tip to the tail which separates it from a Weasel. Magical.

For better reproduction of my photos, see my photo gallery at


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Blown Away on the Beach

When we arrived on Titchwell beach, the tide was out revealing acres of sand and mud and even the hundred or so visitors were spread out very thinly. Unfortunately, cloud was now starting to appear, but as there was a strong wind there were still plenty of sunny spells. I headed off for an area of beach where there were no people at all and just waited for the birds to come to me, having been disturbed further along the beach. Gulls are always the first to appear and this Common Gull and Herring Gull showed well in the sunshine.

Sanderling, Knot and Dunlin also soon appeared and, provided there were no sudden movements, seemed unconcerned by my presence and were more interested in feeding up after their long journey.

But my favourite bird on the beach at this time of the year is the Bar-tailed Godwit. Although lacking their rusty summer plumage, they are such elegant birds and, provided that you are patient, will allow you to approach quite closely as can be seen here.

Although not always the case, godwits on the beach ie salty water are more likely to be Bar-tails. Other more reliable indicators are the short length of the leg above the knee-joint, the slightly up-curved bill and the lack of a wing-bar as can be seen from this flight shot.

It was now time to leave Titchwell and head for home so we left the beach and started to walk back to the visitors centre. The cafe was very busy with many birders sitting around the picnic tables having a coffee before the journey home. If you took a step back and reviewed the array of top quality telescopes and binoculars on display, the majority being Swarovski, I would estimate that we were talking about £50,000+ of kit. However, it was a pity that none of them had bothered to pick them up and use them to view the feeders just 10 yards away where two Bramblings were feeding on the floor, picking up dropped seed.

For better reproduction of my photos, see my photo gallery at


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Med Gull at Amwell

Mediterranean Gulls have been on the increase in the UK for several years, presumably as a result of global warming. However, they are still only present in small numbers and generally associated with the coast. A few birds do stray inland and single birds have been recorded occasionally at Amwell over the years. Most of the records are from late afternoon towards dusk when the gull numbers increase as they fly in to roost, but recently one bird has been present during the day.

When I arrived at the viewpoint the gull, a 1st Winter, was on the water out on the spit with a handful of Black-headed, Common and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. I was hoping that it would eventually stand on one of the "goal posts" for some photos, but no such luck. Light conditions were good, but at a range of 40-50 yards, I was only able to get some record shots. Note the heavy black bill and the mask giving the bird an aggressive look.