Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Cranes on Sheppey (and much more)

Some birds instantly catch the imagination so when I heard in the week that seven Cranes had been spotted on Sheppey, I longed for them to hang on for a few days. The encouraging news on Saturday was tempered by squalling conditions on Sunday morning as I picked up Martin and we thudded down the A2 in the rain. Pulling onto Harty Ferry Road with rain still lashing the car and bleak skies overhead, it felt like it was going to be a long day. It didn't stop us enjoying the sight of four Bewick's Swans in among a roadside flock of Mutes but it was ominous...

Four Bewick's Swans (on the right) Harty, 27/1/13

Fortunately though, as we arrived at the Capel Fleet Raptor Viewpoint, the clouds disappeared and opened up a warm blue sky from which the birds followed. As we stood in the car park, a tangle of boot laces and waterproofs, a Green Sandpiper shot overhead and quickly down into the ditch, looking every bit like the oversized House Martin it resembles. On the View Point we flushed a lone birder who was huddled out of the wind but it wasn't long before all eyes were scanning the surrounding fields. Happily, after only a moment, we were able to pick out the Cranes in a distant field to the west. Although a way off, all seven birds were out in the open showing well in the sunshine, making occasional short hops over the fence to the maize field behind. These flights showed their incredible wingspan from which their long legs dangled beneath. It was really great to watch. In fact, perhaps it completed a rarer picture as between us them, other birds flocked to a muddy arable field pooled with water. Lapwing, Starling, gulls in their hundreds and even Dunlin, all foraged and whistled, filling the sky around the cranes with flickering shapes. A Buzzard appeared, loafing along to settle on a fence post next to them while Marsh Harriers drifted by wherever you looked. The shallow, sweeping valley, pocked with maize and fallow fields, criss-crossed by ditches, created a window back to a time when cranes were not the rare or incredibly localised species they are now. However long they stay, it felt like a natural fit - something momentarily put right. As to where these came from, Norfolk seems most likely, perhaps they moved south along the coast to find better conditions away from the snow and ice - what do you think?

A short while later we carried on up the hill and joined the track down towards Muswell Manor. Glancing back at the fields from the ridge we were treated to the sight of all seven cranes in the air, circling high over the area for several minutes before settling again. A magnificent moment, photos don't do it justice:

Common Cranes (Grus grus) (middle of photo) Isle of Sheppey, 27/1/13 (digiscoped)
Seven cranes in flight (blurry specs in middle of frame) from Harty hill, 27/1/13

Bar an ill-advised detour across a waterlogged field, it was a nice walk down to the Manor in bright and breezy conditions. Dunlin skimmed the fields, skylarks chirruped above and a Peregrine cruised by in pursuit of something. A couple of Brown hares spooked at our presence and splashed off across the fields. The sea off Leysdown was quiet but the high tide pushed a stream of Sanderling along the coast towards Shellness and further out a small flock of Wigeon passed by. Heading back along the track, a flock of Golden Plover arced overhead as dozens of curlews probed the sodden fields around us.

Once back at the car we took a slow drive back down the road, passing the now-busy viewpoint. Several Corn Bunting chattered from a patch of brambles and weary partridges scooted among the tussocks. A flock of thirty or so Lesser Redpoll gathered in a tree near the main road was a nice spot and we watched as several flew down to drink from roadside puddles.

Gorgeous colours: willow growth in hedgerow, Harty

We headed back via Elmley Marshes on the off chance of spotting a Short-eared Owl. No score on that front, the species has been much harder to pin down in North Kent this winter, but a short way along the entrance track we did come across two Ruff showing superbly at close quarters on the marsh. In their tortoiseshell finery, the birds dazzled in the soft dusky light. It's been a while since I had views this good and again I noted their odd proportions, the distinctly colourful legs, 'long' body and small head. Lovely stuff, a Ruff.

Carrying on down the track we passed a row of cars piled up by the side and another flock of Ruff turning heads. In amongst these eighteen or so birds were two colour ringed individuals. Down at the farm we stopped for a look off, as everyone does, behind the toilet block. A quick scan found a Peregrine sitting out in the middle of the marsh and some very distant grey geese. A single male Pintail snoozed on the pools with Teal and others for company and a Water Rail dashing for shelter amidst the reeds on the near shore was a great spot by Martin. A moment later it emerged, giving excellent views in the open as it busied itself in the leaf litter. Finally, a single Goldcrest moused its way through the brambles behind the block - not the bird most likely to be found in the middle of a marsh. And that was that, a memorable day on Sheppey capped a fantastic weekend, made all the sweeter by hearing the football scores on the way home.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
Insert your own pun here_: Ruff (Philomachus pugnax), Elmley Marshes,  27/1/13
Sheppey bridge: Possibly my favourite bridge in southern England
A winter sunset looking west from Elmley

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A quick twitch before work

Well, I say twitch, it was certainly one of the more relaxed in that category, but needless to say I took a detour to work this morning, popping into Hyde Park in central London for a look at the two Bearded Tits (or Reedlings) that have been present for some weeks now. Now obviously they're not a rare bird in the grand scheme of things, but a first record for inner London is worthy of note and of course, they're always cracking little birds to see. It's even more remarkable considering their temporary home is a thin strand of reedbed adjacent to a main path of a park filled with runners, dogwalkers, people running with dogs, dogs walking themselves and the odd hundred tourist looking for Princess Diana. But as ever, it shows that if the place is right, nature isn't fussy. The birds were apparently giving the kind of views that would shame a Buff-bellied Pipit, so it was also an opportunity to appreciate the birds at close quarters rather than as the fuzzy little shapes pinging through reedbeds so often encountered.


Two female Bearded Tits (Panurus biarmicus), Hyde Park, London, 23/1/13

The birds were also feeding on the ground at the base of the reedbed, not more than 4ft from me, but protected by a small park fence which caused havoc with autofocus:

Look at the paint job on that fence

Best to head elsewhere for what I'm sure will be stunning professional shots but hopefully this gives some impression. The birds, both female, have been ringed and close observation of better photos than these has been able to confirm that this took place at the RSPB's Rye Meads reserve fifteen miles or so north of here in November 2012. That's another fascinating aspect to these birds' presence - given that the wandering instinct of bearded tits is rarely mentioned or, I imagine, successfully monitored. As I watched them waddle around among the leaf litter like fat little hamsters with stiff, pointed tails I almost forgot where I was supposed to be going...

A heron ponders the meaning of it all on the Serpentine, Hyde Park, London, 23/1/13

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


And so the sunsets on another year.

Sunset at Dungeness beach, 15/1/13

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Tale of a Tufted Duck

They're found across much of Britain, bobbing contentedly on our lakes, ponds and reservoirs year round, largely ignored I imagine, except for in winter when they come under a bit more scrutiny due to their similarity with the slightly more exotic Scaup. But even tufted ducks have a this one, which I came across in Millwall Dock, East London, on my travels this week:

Tufted Duck (f) (Aythya fuligula) with nasal saddle, Millwall Outer Dock, London, 9/1/13

In a flock with twenty or so birds this female stood out instantly due to the distinct reddish band around her upper mandible. Bit of tufty bling perhaps, or something else? Well in this case it's the latter - the band is a 'nasal saddle', a commonly used method of identifying wildfowl ringed in scientific ornithological studies. Each bird's band is unique thus helping plot the movements of individuals and species as a whole. Projects like this help improve knowledge of migration patterns, routes and key stopover/refuelling destinations. For waterfowl and waders, highly visible markers like this are a useful means of identifying internationally important wetland areas these birds may use.

I'd heard about similar sightings of ringed tufties in the East London area before, including an individual ringed in Portugal frequenting the nearby East India Dock Basin NR. A quick internet search and a prompt exchange of emails with a Europe-wide nasal saddle project based in Coimbra, reveals that this is indeed a Portuguese bird and the same bird that has frequented the area recently.

She's travelled a long way to reach East London (approx. 1375km) but seems to like it here and has been reported regularly in the vicinity. She, or to give her proper name - 'female 1red' was ringed LV1732 (Euring code 5) as a juvenile at São Jacinto Dunes Nature Reserve near the town of Averio, 50km south of Porto on 14th January 2011. She stayed in this area until the end of February that year when she began a migration north. She was seen again at Reserve de la Grande Noé in Normandy, Northern France, between 26th March 2011 and 8th April 2011 before departing again. On the 1st of May she was spotted in London for the first time, at East India Dock Basin NR. Since then she has re-located elsewhere, including Hillfield Reservoir in Hertfordshire, but generally remains faithful to EIDB where she appeared again between March-May 2012. It's interesting to note the periods in which she has not been seen - summer 2011, much of winter 11/12 and again summer 2012. She has spent the last 2 springs at the reserve before summering elsewhere and returning for a spell in autumn - perhaps she returns to the continent? (although she has not been recorded back at São Jacinto) Of further interest, sightings also suggest she may have paired with a similarly ringed male as the two have been seen together in the past at EIDB. I wonder where they'll get to next?

So there you go...just another boring tufty?!

Epic Duck: Local girl (with a Portuguese passport)

East India Dock NR is a great little site - check out the blog here.
More on Tufted ducks here and the Portuguese nasal saddle project here.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The year the punks broke

It's been a fantastic winter for Waxwings in the UK - surely one of the best for the Scandinavian species in years. I was hoping for more opportunities to see them and this flock reported in a village park close to home were too good to miss.

Gratuitous Waxwing photos from Hextable Park, Kent, today:

The birds weren't present when I arrived but after a couple of minutes a large flock  appeared and settled in some bare trees in one corner...
They were flighty but not bothered by dog walkers ambling past, I counted around 86 birds in total in the flock

There wasn't a lot of fruit left in the perimeter hedge but every now and then the birds would fly down to feed on the last few rose hips...
This brassy bird flew to the ground right in front of me to salvage a loose rose hip...
...for a split second it cocked its head at me as if to say 'this is MINE! Get your own', before swallowing it whole. It was quite amazing to see actually, rose hips are fairly large...that'd be like me trying swallow a satsuma whole!? I wonder how many they're able to eat and how quickly they digest them?
Some awesome mohican action here

It's a shame the light was so poor today but the birds still gave typically confiding views. They were vocal too, continuously calling, sweetly, in that fashion often described as 'sleigh bells':

After around half and hour, the flock flew off, splitting in two and they hadn't returned when I left 15 minutes later. It seems like the birds are already starting to disperse quite rapidly southwards now, as their favoured berry sources are used up. Given that consecutive irruption years of this scale are unlikely, now might be a good time to find them. My Mum even got in on the Waxwing action this week, following a tip in Dartford, she went out and found her own - nice one! She's never done anything like that before, but who'd blame her?! They are such curious, beautiful birds.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A New Year

I was back at work today after the break and a blissful New Year buried deep in the Norfolk countryside. It felt like going back to school, save one difference being that I don't get told off if my uniform is muddy now, (in fact, there'd probably be questions if it wasn't). In the park, restless great tits darted about the branches and I heard a Dunnock singing for the first time in a while. Although I doubt very much it recognises a calender, this seemed fitting and on cue, for a Dunnock the passing time is heralded by more primal urges.

If I'm not mistaken, I think the done thing now is to indulge my memories of the last year a little bit, y'know: the birds, the lists, the numbers, the one that got away (wait, don't leave!) But for the most part I think I'll keep it brief this time, it's all there below if you feel the need. I think all I need to say is that although nature had a tough time of it, I'm thankful that I had a great year birdwatching in 2012. I saw some birds for the first time and many more apart. I met some amazing people and sadly said goodbye to another. I finished a placement in North Kent that I'll never forget and moved back to the city for a job that feels like a first step in the right direction. Of course, the birds here are different, fewer in number and species, but that hasn't stopped the emergence of a local bird group of which I am very fond - that would be a highlight of the year for me. I travelled a bit to see friends around Europe - marvelling at a Black Redstart which hopped onto Adam and Sarah's balcony in central Lisbon and being entranced by the spotted flycatchers that flitted among trees in a park near Paris. Then there was a trip to Italy which was memorable for different reasons. Conversely, I guess I never made it far in the UK, in fact I didn't make it further north than Lincoln. Ha! With the latter revelation in mind, I'm still pleased with the 173 species I saw in the UK last year. What was my favourite I hear you cry?! Well, I guess those guys in this blogs header bar come close...but I'd probably have to say that any year which features a new Wheatear species counts as a good one.

I think this year I'll try to make more of an effort to see some of the native birds that I'm missing in every sense. It's been three years since I saw a Wood Warbler or a Pied Flycatcher and I've still never seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or Hawfinch. First though, I have to get my head around some other new birds in preparation for a trip next month...

...I'm crossing off the days.

So, 2013 - I wonder what it'll hold? There's no doubt that much of our wildlife will continue to experience the struggles seen last year, but for now, here's to a good one. Here's to turtle doves and common sense, goshawks, harriers and education. Here's to all the little things that make this place great. Thanks for reading, have a happy New Year.

Red Kite photo by Cathy, this bird was soaring over a skylight as her family ate Christmas dinner near Leeds - Thanks!