Friday, 31 January 2014

Purple Peeps at The Ness

20th January 2014

It is now probably 10 years since I have seen a Purple Sandpiper. We always used to go and see them on the groynes at Heacham during our winter visits to the north Norfolk coast but I understand that they are no longer seen there. So when I heard that they were still seen fairly reliably at Lowestoft Ness I set off with Andy Johnson to try our luck.

It was necessary to be there at high tide to view the birds at close quarters, so the forecast high tide of 12.00pm was ideal. In fact, we arrived on site at 11.00am and therefore should have ample time with an hour either side of high tide. Unfortunately, despite conditions being just right with still a fair amount of sea weed showing and the jetty being pounded by the waves but not yet covered, there was not a sandpiper in site. In fact, not a wader of any description. I suspect that this was an exceptionally high tide today as, by noon, all the possible feeding areas were covered and the jetty was totally submerged.

It was apparent that there was little prospect of seeing any birds until at least an hour after high tide when some of the more favourable areas would be uncovered once more. At 1.00 pm on the dot three waders flew in and landed on the sea wall, not the intended quarry but Turnstones. They did, however, provide a few moments of entertainment until the real thing arrived.

Eventually, at 1.10pm, eight Purple Sandpipers did fly in but settled on the far end of the jetty some 50 yards away, which is too far for a decent shot of a bird this small. When the waves broke over the jetty, they would merely flutter up just a foot and then settle again for some more voracious feeding. Things were not looking good. Then, for no obvious reason the whole flock took to the air for a couple of laps of the jetty before landing on the large boulders right in front of us. A bit of luck at last. This provided a number of opportunities for some shots as they posed on the rocks. For a relatively dull bird, albeit with gold legs and base to the bill, they are incredibly smart.

Then, as the tide continued to recede they flew down on to the beach and continued to feed on the now exposed seaweed. Well, it took over two and a half hours but was it worth it in the end? You bet!!

Don't forget that for better reproduction of my photos, see my photo gallery at


Monday, 27 January 2014

View from the James Hide

16th January 2014

As it had been very quiet this winter so far I thought I would spend a couple of hours in the James Hide and see what came along. Unfortunately during the recent Truxor work to cut gaps and rides in the reeds, the sole Kingfisher perch had been demolished. However, not only has it now been replaced, but there are a total of four spread around the pond. And, as if that wasn't good enough, the Kingfisher also seems to be far more frequent in its visits. Today was no exception, and although the visit was fairly fleeting I did manage to get one shot.

However, to me one of the best features of the James Hide is the feeders positioned right outside the right-hand flap. This provides superb opportunities to photograph the birds at close range, with Reed Buntings coming within 3 feet! Also, because of the numerous trees and reeds around the feeders, it is possible to photograph the birds before they fly onto the feeders to avoid a load of ironmongery in your photos.

There is of course the usual procession of Great Tits and Blue Tits and, lower down, Robins and Dunnocks. There is also the occasional visit from the scarce Marsh Tit which I have rarely been lucky enough to see here. However, my favourites and to my mind the most photogenic are the Long-tailed Tits and Reed Buntings.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Goldeneye at Amwell

5th January 2014

I stood at the viewpoint idly passing the time of day with Colin Wills when I glanced over to the White Hide. There, just to the left of the hide as viewed from the viewpoint was a cracking male Goldeneye. No time to lose so I bid my farewells and made haste around the boardwalk.

When I arrived at the hide the bird was still present quite close in and the assembled gathering looked on in astonishment as I ran up to the window to loose off a volley of shots. The White Hide is not one of the best for bird photography as the sun is right in your eyes, but luckily the Goldeneye was slightly to the right and therefore was illuminated by the sun without it getting into the lens. The bird was diving all the time making life difficult as it only stayed on the surface for a few seconds. However, after a while I had amassed a fair few shots.

At this point the Goldeneye decided that it was time to have a break from feeding  and devote some time to its all-important feathers, especially with the breeding season not far off. This allowed a slightly more leisurely approach to the photography with the emphasis switched to selecting the right pose.

And what better to finish on than a full frontal.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Quest for a Bittern

3rd January 2014

The forecast was for sunshine and showers. At 11.00am there was no sign of any showers with wall-to-wall blue sky so I set off for Amwell with the hope of  connecting with the single Bittern present this winter. Of late it seems to have moved from Great Hardmead Lake and is now favouring the Bittern Pool, both the Water Vole watch-point side and from the metal gates. After a few moments at the main viewpoint, the clouds starting rolling in, accompanied by some very close thunder and lightening and a rainbow. Time to take cover.

I started to make my way down to the James Hide, purely to shelter from the oncoming rain, but had only got half way when the rain started, very quickly turning to hail. Luckily I had my winter coat complete with hood as the hailstones were half an inch diameter, the largest I have ever seen. By the time I reached the James Hide the rain was torrential and I climbed the steps to join Ray Hooper who had a similar idea of survival.

Eventually the rain eased so I popped out to have a look at the Bittern Pool. After a few minutes I found the Bittern moving right through the edge of the reeds, but too obscured for a photo. Luckily it was heading for one of the gaps cut in the reeds so it was just a matter of waiting. The problem was that, as the Bittern was getting closer to the gap, the clouds were getting blacker and as the law according to Sod would have it, as soon as the Bittern emerged in the gap the heavens opened.

I don't like getting the camera wet but thought I would rattle of a few shots before retreating back to the hide. The light was appalling so I wound the ISO up to 2000 and clicked away before stuffing the camera under my coat. Bearing mind that it was raining stair rods interspersed with hail at an ISO of 2000, the result wasn't that bad.

Now I was hooked and went back on the 6th January for another attempt. After standing in front of the Bittern Pool for half an hour I suddenly saw a brown shape emerging from over the reeds on the left hand side near the metal gates. The Bittern looked as though it had taken off from the other side of the reed bed and was now flying low over the reeds which made focusing difficult. I did manage to rattle off a few shots before it plunged back into the middle of the reed bed. Still not that shot I was after.

The third attempt was on the 8th January. The prospects looked a lot better today as the light was quite good with the possibility of some sunshine. No sign of the Bittern initially, but when I returned from Hollycross, it was being watched in the reeds by half a dozen birders. Although fairly obscured it was making its way along the edge towards one of the cut-outs in the reeds and hopefully it would walk across in the open for some shots. It certainly wasn't it any hurry and took a good 20 minutes to move the couple of yards to the gap.

It then pushed its head out still looking for food as it went and eventually showed itself to the assembled throng. And as soon as it disappeared into the reed on the other side of the gap, the sun came out!!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

In Search of a Med Gull

29th December 2013

It has been a while now since I have seen a Mediterranean Gull so I headed off for Mersea. Out on the Point at East Mersea there were only a few birds around because it was a nice sunny day and people were still enjoying their Christmas break so the area was packed with dog walkers and families. Luckily, Black-headed Gulls feeding close off-shore are not deterred by crowds so it was possible to get a few shots as they worked their way up and down the beach.

As we were making our way off the Point a Rock Pipit rose out of the grass calling and flew a short distance away before disappearing into one of the many creeks. Luckily it was possible to walk alongside the creek and I eventually found the Rock Pipit feeding at the base of the bank. I managed to get a few shots before it flew off.

Now on to West Mersea and first stop was St Peter's Marsh to see if the curlew was still around. No such luck there so we carried on to the house boats. Still quite a few dog walkers around so no Turnstones or Brent Geese this time, but on the mud in front of the house boats were a couple of Ringed Plovers and a single Grey Plover which provided some entertainment.

So how did we do with the Med Gulls? Well we went to both ends of Victoria Esplanade but, due to the crowds, the only gulls were out on the sea and not a single Med amongst them. So, with ideas of heading for home, we started moving back to the car. Just as we were getting to the car I noticed a few gulls on the grass at the far end of the car park, seemingly interested in some food that had been thrown out. Unbelievably, there were at least two Meds amongst them, one of which appeared to be an adult and was the most obliging. It was only when I got home that I noticed something odd about the plumage.

Adult Meds have no black tips to the primaries at all although there is a black margin to the outer web of the 1st primary (counting from the leading edge of the wing) and 2nd Winter birds have distinct black wedges to the outer primaries. This bird, however, was somewhere in between with just small black tips to primaries 2-4. I was confused so I consulted my chum and gull expert Alan Harris who said that this is a little known 3rd Winter plumage, which is not mentioned in most books but does appear in the Gull Bible by Olsen and Larsson. Here it refers to black tips on primaries 1-3 (using my numbering system), although on this individual the marking extended to primary 4. We live and learn.

Monday, 13 January 2014

I Can't Believe It's Hertfordshire

22nd December 2013

A quick visit to Amwell to see if I could find the male Smew that had been seen at Tumbling Bay the day before. I walked the full length of the lake, right up to Ware, checking all the overhanging trees and bays but to no avail. Then, just as I was about to give up and head back, a number of the local passerines were getting a little agitated. I instinctively looked up and there right above me was a magnificent Red Kite just circling aimlessly around. If you had reported that 20 years ago, nobody would have believed you.