Sunday, 25 January 2015

Big Garden Birdwatch, and then some


A snap shot through the window of today's female Blackcap, the first of the winter, on the Christmas cake feeder. It appeared just after I'd finished the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, but visited on and off throughout the morning.
Unless you have been living in a cave with no outside contact for the last few weeks, the chances are that you’ll know this weekend was the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch event. I know many keen birders who don’t take part, and for some years I didn’t do so either, but when the kids were little it started to become an annual ritual in our household, as a way of opening their eyes to the natural world. Now they’re big and understandably have other priorities (not least university), so the ritual falls to me – and it’s one that I actually enjoy.


As this hugely popular citizen science survey lasts only one hour, you have to time your run right. One year I had a dismal seven species, a poor showing in my small but typically wildlife-rich urban oasis in north London. Today was better, with 37 birds of 13 species actually in the garden between 08:10-09:10. In order of appearance, they were Blue Tit (3), Blackbird (5), Chaffinch (3), Robin (2), Starling (2), Goldfinch (6), Great Tit (2), Magpie (2), Wren (1), Dunnock (1), Woodpigeon (4), Collared Dove (2) and Greenfinch (4). A Carrion Crow and three Black-headed Gulls which flew over fell outside the terms of the survey but took the garden day list up to 15 species, while no sooner had I finished and entered the totals into the RSPB website than the first Blackcap of the winter, a female, appeared on the Christmas cake feeder!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Wintering Greenshanks - in Scotland

Eight Greenshank with Common Redshanks, Dunlin and other species at Cramond today.
While up in Edinburgh for a couple of nights, visiting my Dad and squeezing in a little incidental birding as time permits, I came across this group of eight Greenshank on the mud at Cramond. In all my years of visiting Edinburgh I don't recall seeing the species here in winter before, though Kris Gibb, who runs the excellent Birding Lothian website, says a few are regularly reported there - eight, however, is a high count for the site. On checking The Birds of Scotland (Vol 1), up to 90 were reported around the country in January-February 2001, the highest winter site counts being 13 and 12 (both from Clyde). Milder winters are said to be the possible cause of increasing numbers, which seems likely for a species traditionally associated with the south and west coasts in winter.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Every cloud has a silver lining

First-winter Caspian Gull in Alexandra Park today - the first site record.
It's strange how an unfortunate series of events can turn into something positive. We are without email, internet and landline access at home after a massive British Telecom error, which they say will take several days to fix. I had important files to send to the team at Birdwatch, so unexpectedly had to go into the office today. I would have driven, except that thieves had stolen the number plates off my car! Still, I had to go, and decided to walk rather than get a bus. Taking the slightly more scenic route through my Alexandra Park patch for the first visit of the year, I was pleased to discover a Water Rail at the Conservation Pond, but then struck gold by finding a first-winter Caspian Gull on the reservoir - the first site record. I immediately phoned local birders, and was joined quickly by Henry Wyn-Jones and his mum Sarah. Henry kindly lent me his camera to take this distant record shot after the bird flew to the nearby filter beds - we pursued it and got closer views and more images, though the latter were unfortunately only front-on. The bird then flew back to the reservoir and seemingly didn't linger, but perhaps it will reappear tomorrow. To cap off a great afternoon, while I continued on to the office, Henry went to see the Water Rail - and found three!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A New Year's Day tradition (of sorts)

First-winter Brent Goose at Rainham Marshes RSPB today - a welcome lingering bird from 2014.
Except on the rare occasions I'm away at New Year, I always like to spend 1st January on my patch at Rainham Marshes RSPB. Straddling the London/Essex border on the north side of the Thames, it is sufficiently large and diverse enough in terms of habitats to rival many sites in more rural areas and even coastal settings. Today it did well, delivering an above-average crop of locally interesting species and a day list to match - to be precise, 72 species personally for me between dawn and dusk, and somewhere between 80 and 90 for the combined site list generated by all observers (total TBC).

Water Rail - quizzical ...
This year's kick-off on the patch also coincided with a new competition devised by Howard Vaughan, the reserve's information officer. Teams of up to four are competing to see who can log the highest number of species by the end of 2015. Team members can do this together or separately - something that should work well for a group of birders with differing commitments and availability. I've joined the team established by Dave 'Peregrine' Morrison and Paul 'Hawky' Hawkins, both of whom were also out on site today, and our other team member is Shaun Harvey. Together, the four of us aim to give the other teams a serious run for their money, though perhaps first on the to-do list is to come up with a team name (polite suggestions only please!).

... confiding ...
My tally today included Brent Goose, Marsh Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, European Golden PloverSpotted Redshank, Yellow-legged Gull, Rock Pipit, Bearded Tit and Raven, all decent enough species in the London Area, yet bird of the day had to be a Water Rail which has not read the field guides - I have never seen such a fearless, indeed bold, individual, as these photos show. This is normally a shy and retiring species, so to watch one for so long as it fed in the open was a real treat. If you're planning to visit Rainham RSPB, take a camera in case it sticks around. Try for the bird as follows: take the loop trail anti-clockwise from the visitor centre, continue past the Ken Barrett Hide in the north-east corner and, just as the tarmac footpath heads west onto the boardwalk at the start of the reedbed north of Aveley Pools, check the small reed-fringed pool on the right. The bird was feeding out in the open, sometimes less than 10 feet away, on both occasions I checked today (thanks to Sam Shippey for the tip-off).

... and in fact utterly mad.
You can follow the progress of all teams in the competition on a board in the visitor centre at Rainham Marshes. Wish us luck!

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