Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Saturday, 23 November 2013

A Great Grey Saturday

I think every birder has a nemesis bird, the one that's got away a few times too many. This afternoon I finally tracked mine down.

I made several trips to Thursley Common in Surrey through last winter and early spring, in the hope of seeing my nemesis bird on its wintering ground. Thursley is a stunning piece of the Surrey heathlands patchwork and a great place to visit. I feel like a time-traveller there and love roaming its gentle, sandy contours, thick with heathers and islands of pine and bog. But despite all that, the bird eluded me.

A few weeks ago, my nemesis was reported back again and just to rub it in, after I'd raved about the site to a friend, he'd been along since and seen the bird within about 10 minutes of leaving his car. So today I decided to head back over to resume my quest on the fifth attempt. After several pleasant hours without so much as a flicker of a possible and several conversations with people who had seen it earlier or yesterday or last week, I had conceded defeat again before deciding to check an area on the west side one more time on my way back. As I walked the familiar path, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a pale, indistinct smudge amongst the dwindling leaves of a slender birch to my left. It didn't immediately seem promising to my mind and without bins it barely seemed worth a glance but getting on it, there it nemesis, a stunning Great Grey Shrike, coolly perched in the open. It was a nice moment. Some birds you rock up and run, some you earn. I think I earned this!

It ended up showing brilliantly for half an hour, at one point flying up to perch just 10 metres from me before flying off over my head. It was mobile the whole time and covered several hundred metres as it eventually moved off towards the forest on the western edge at around 3.30pm. It was interesting to watch it scan from perches, much like a Kestrel and it moved incredibly quickly too. Shrikes are great aren't they...

GGS FFS!: Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) at Thursley Common, 23/11/13
 Shrike wintering habitat (bottom)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Browsing twitter on my way home from work this evening, I came across a curious series of tweets from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). They were the highlights of Secretary of State Owen Paterson's speech to the Policy Exchange think tank in Westminster today. The selected snippets made me chuckle a bit, as I'm sure it did a few others (he certainly makes it easy doesn't he?!) I was going to respond to each of these below with my own thoughts but I try to keep swearing to a minimum here and I think they're best left to stand alone. That is, except the last two, which I will probably come back to soon. I'll leave the rest up to you: discuss, debate, enjoy, weep...

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A short walk

I took a short walk today. A lap of Cliffe, then home for the rugby, that was the plan.

The trouble is it was just one of those autumn days you never want to end. It was both crisp and mild, with barely more than jet trails to spoil the blue sky. It sucked me in hopelessly 'til I lost track of time. It was gone dusk when I got back home.

Cliffe was heaving with birds. On Radar I found my first Goldeneyes of the winter, a handful of handsome males with a couple of females. Wigeon, shoveler, teal and grebes were all present in high numbers. Checking the causeways with the recent Glossy Ibis in mind turned up a Greenshank in with the reds. Along the Saxon Shore Way, a Brambling flew over and a male Blackcap caught the morning sun perched among some rosehips. As I was walking along to Flamingo I spotted a couple of swans out on the pool that I'd seen sleeping way back from Radar. Closer in I could see they were awake now and sporting nice 'stiff' necks with yellow around their bills. Finding a better view of the birds, I could see the small extent of yellow did not reach the nostrils which confirmed I had a cracking pair of Bewick's Swans. It was an unexpected treat and a new site tick for me.

Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus), Cliffe Pools, 16/11/13
The shifting shapes of thousands of waders
Coots (Fulica atra): always overlooked, never outnumbered

From being pretty quiet a couple of weeks ago, Flamingo pool was full to the brim this morning. Not only has the current dredging campaign pushed water levels right up, seemingly attracting more wildfowl in the process but it has increased the bank of mud on the far side. I only needed one look at the thousands of Dunlin spiralling and twisting over the pools to see it was high tide on the river. The birds put on a stunning show and I spent quite a bit of time just watching them jostle about on the mud before taking off again. Their restlessness seemed to distract the Bewick's who pitched up and flew off high to the east. Everything was restless it seemed, fleeting appearances from a young Marsh Harrier hardly helped but a Peregrine coursing the skies was the more likely culprit.

I'm not sure why I decided to follow the seawall out to the 'coffins', but I'm glad I did. Some way along, past Lower Hope Point, a single Snow Bunting popped up without calling and landed no more than ten metres from me. It even had the decency to allow me to take some crap photos before darting off.  

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), adult male on rocks at Lower Hope Point, Hoo Pen.
The changing horizon at Cliffe Pools
One of the dredging tugs on the river at Cliffe, not sinking apparently.

I love this stretch of the river but it struck me how quickly its landscape is changing. As I walked another few miles east without seeing another person, the only sound I heard the whole time, aside from the calls of birds, was a distant, endless clanging and whirring from the vast Thames Gateway port on the other side of the river. I ended up missing the Richard's Pipit at Egypt Bay (a great find by Paul Hawkins - here) although I gave it a quick go. A noisy Water Rail, a Bearded Tit and two Green Sandpipers were present but the light was disappearing rapidly as it does these afternoons and I didn't fancy walking those miles back in the dark. So I re-traced my steps along the wall as the light went from orange to pink, ending with a greyness that smudged the marshes and the velvety ooze of the river.

Some way along a small flock of Redwing flew over tseep-ing in the dusk and a bolting Pheasant nearly gave me a heart attack. But a great day out was sealed by a small raptor coming off the sea wall ahead, although only a silhouette, its size suggested a Merlin that was heading back to roost.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wood you believe it...

I got quite a surprise at work on Monday morning when, within five minutes of arriving, I was handed this...

...a beautiful Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). It is perhaps more surprising if you know that I generally work in and around central London, an area not normally known for being to home to secretive, ground-dwelling woodland birds like this.

From the photo above you might think that it looks alive, if rather stunned, indeed, that was my first thought. Sadly though, it soon became apparent that despite its immaculate condition, the bird was deceased:

There are several remarkable things about this find, not least the location - it was one of my colleagues who spotted it on the pavement at the junction of Union Street and Blackfriars Road, opposite Southwark tube station. Secondly, that it somehow managed to survive the pounding feet of morning rush hour or the attention of the local foxes. As an aside, I wonder if any of those hundreds of commuters noticed it as they passed by and thought it a strange bird among the scuttling pigeons. And would an 'urban' fox know what to do with this anyway, it not being wrapped in a Tesco bag after all...

Unfortunately it didn't manage to survive what I assume was a collision with a nearby building in the early hours, the most likely culprit being the unappealing glass block where TFL spend their days drinking tea.

Several colleagues came to look at the bird as it sat by my desk with wide eyes and bill-agape, as if it was about to say something. It's not everyday you get to see a Woodcock this close, in fact it's normally a whirring silhouette or arse-end at best, preceded by a heart-stopping thup! as they flush from cover amidst damp, shady leaf litter. In the hand and out of context certain features stood out, I noted the subtle barring on its breast and the shape of its feet. So what was this bird doing in the concrete jungle of SE1 in November?

As this BTO Birdtrack chart shows, whilst being resident in the UK, woodcocks are more typically recorded during the winter months with peaks from late October through to mid January and again for roding male birds through April. Resident bird numbers are boosted by continental arrivals from the east and I wonder if this was such a bird, migrating over London to a rich and sheltered wintering ground somewhere before it's journey was cut short. Woodcock are known to be great travellers, often arriving in numbers and flying through the night (these incredible journeys were once thought to be the means by which tiny goldcrests would appear in greater numbers on the east coast during autumn - so-called 'woodcock pilots') Migration is tactically a great risk for any species but as ever, this has shown the perils that many migrating birds face in heavily built up areas like London.

There is a positive end to the story of this Woodcock though.

For such a beautiful specimen I was keen that it not be wasted and the obvious answer was a taxidermist. Although several calls failed to get a response from any likely parties, the photo was spotted on twitter by Richard Jones (aka @bugmanjones) who alerted Paolo Viscardi, a curator from the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. A twitter exchange later and the bird is now residing in a freezer before being added to the museum’s extensive taxidermy collection or being used as a skeletal reference piece. Either way, it’s nice to think that from a sad demise, it may end up inspiring the next generation of south London birders and citizen scientists.

Many thanks to Richard Jones, Paolo Viscardi, Julie Cox and David Allen.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Egypt Bay to St Mary's

Jet streams over the marsh: looking back from Egypt Bay, 2/11/13 

Yesterday I took one of my favourite walks out to Egypt Bay and along to St Mary's. There's nowhere else near home I know that comes close to matching to the sense of space there; in a corner of the country rapidly being filled in and topped up with bad ideas, it's remoteness is priceless.

It was bright and calm as I walked down the lane at Clinch Street, the far side of the river was obscured, all except Southend sea front which caught the light and appeared like an island in the estuary haze. I had owls in mind mostly, a Short-eared perhaps or something nice tucked into the sea wall, like a previously undiscovered flock of Hermit thrushes. Not too much to ask for. As it was, I saw no owls and the tide was way up on the sea wall, nothing stirring amongst the heroic, wind-battered weeds and transient strands of litter there. Well almost nothing, a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly briefly spluttered into flight, making a mockery of a November morning in the process.

Along the track past Swigshole cottage, the usual mix of tits and finches flitted about, a few linnets too. A Great Spotted Woodpecker bolted from a willow at my presence before deciding I was little threat and returning. I noticed the RSPB fields behind Swigshole copse have had heavy plants in recently, digging shallow rills by the look of it; hopefully this will improve an area of grassland that was otherwise pretty poor for wading birds. Further along the track, a pair of Marsh harriers, an adult male and female, grappled together in the air momentarily before drifting apart. Overhead a Rook called oddly, a guttural, Raven-esque croak that, scanning around, revealed a third, much darker harrier moving high to the west.

From the old sea wall at the back of Decoy fleet I heard the distinct ping ping ping sound of Bearded tits in the reeds. I spotted a single bird darting for cover in Decoy until a much nearer series of calls took me to the smaller fleet adjacent to the wall. A flurry of movement low in the reeds revealed a roving flock of five birds, 2 males and 3 females, busy stripping seeds from the spongy reed heads as they went. I watched them for a bit and took some footage that probably won't make it on to 'Autumnwatch' (but listen hard and you might hear them calling):

From the same spot I looked over the marshes. In the field behind Egypt Bay I scanned the bramble clumps as I always do, for shrikes, but as always there were none. Three Stonechats turned up though, one being given a hard time by a slightly out of place Robin - an odd bird to see this far out on the marsh so presumably a hungry migrant fresh in. Along the sea wall a mighty roost of Curlews could be seen between the fleet and St Mary's Bay - a sign that the tide was high. I counted 310 birds, no doubt missing a few unseen. On the river was a raft of three hundred Wigeon while a single Little Egret and several Meadow pipits flushed from the thin lip of salt marsh squeezed against the wall. From the wall I picked out a single Kestrel and a hundred or so Lapwing in the fields but the highlight was undoubtedly two winter-plumaged Red-throated divers which flew slowly up river close in.