Saturday, 31 January 2009

Calm after the storm

After the superb birding in Kuwait, the rather dismal weather in Britain seems to have quietened things down here at home. Having dropped my daughter Ava off in Enfield this morning, I had a quick glance at William Girling Reservoir on the way home, from the very distant viewpoint of Mansfield Park in Chingford, and single Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes and a drake Common Goldeneye were just about discernable.

At home in the afternoon, a motionless passerine silhouetted in the beech tree suggested just one species: Blackcap. Perhaps to conserve energy, this species seems far less active in winter, and birds are not inclined to move much once they have found somewhere to feed. I have had both male and female Blackcaps visiting the garden since mid-December, and with other local sightings there are perhaps up to five or so in the area. I didn't photograph today's bird, but the above image was taken in the same tree earlier this month.

Friday, 23 January 2009

More Kuwait images

Here are more images from our first day in Kuwait - the widespread White-eared Bulbul, and the Indian Roller (this bird seems to be the only individual wintering in the country at present).

Kuwait at last

160. The potential trip list? The number of people queuing to get through the gate on this flight? No, actually the number of words in the ingredients list of the 'Winter fruit frangipane' served up by British Airways on this late evening departure from Heathrow - strange it tasted of so little then. I ruminated on this as we passed over the twinkling lights of Baghdad below, just ahead of dawn on the home strait of the six-hour flight to Kuwait City.

After laborious visa procedures Roy Beddard and I were met by the welcoming figure of Pekka Fågel, an ex-pat Finn who spends much of his time in Kuwait, and our guide for the next few days. Pekka whisked us off to the Sabah Al-Ahmed Nature Reserve, an extensive enclosed sanctuary where desert vegetation has been able to regenerate without the ground-clearing ravages of herds of goats. Our first Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Lesser Short-toed, Bar-tailed and Greater Hoopoe Larks and Asian Desert Warblers indicated the diversity such restored desert habitat could hold, while Eastern Mourning and Persian Wheatears added even more glamour.

Elsewhere, we struck lucky with a group of three Macqueen's Bustards - a species at risk from hunters here as in many places. While racing off down the track to try and relocate them, we flushed a fourth bird which gave even closer (and briefer) views before disappearing at speed.

High on our success in the desert, we moved on to Jahra Farms, where highlights included my first Indian Roller in the Western Palearctic (at least as defined by Stanley Cramp et al), as well as White-throated Kingfisher, Black-throated Thrush and Isabelline Shrike. Identification of the different forms of this last species continue to prove problematic, but on current understanding it seems that the regular wintering birds in Kuwait are most likely to be so-called Daurian Shrikes.

We ended the day with a visit to the tidal shores of Kuwait Bay at Sulaibikhat, where numerous Crab-plovers, Marsh and Terek Sandpipers, Greater Sand Plover and Heuglin's Gull were among the more notable species.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Kites flying high

Family commitments away meant vacating my London patches this weekend, but as we headed west along the M40 birds inevitably loomed large on the Chiltern escarpment - literally. Red Kites are now an inescapable sight along this stretch of motorway, especially in the vicinity of High Wycombe; the challenge is not in seeing one, but in seeing how many you can count. This morning's tally was an impressive 18, in contrast to a single Common Buzzard and three Kestrels between London and Evesham, and a Raven in west Oxfordshire. Reintroduced or not, who would ever have thought that Red Kites would become such a commonplace sight in England?

From south Worcestershire we headed to Bath, getting notice via the pager just too late of an Iceland Gull in a field at Bishop's Cleeve; sod's law. On the return journey a pit stop in the area proved fruitless, but two ploughed fields north-west of the village were teeming with Fieldfares. A quick head count put the total at somewhere around 1,000 birds, perhaps the largest non-migratory gathering I've seen 'on the deck', and among them a Redwing or two, a few Blackbirds and a squadron of Starlings. It was too dark for a recount of the kites on the drive home, but two Common Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk upped the overall raptor tally.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Another owl, but no larks

I spent the much of the morning on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, hoping for some good raptor watching. A few patches of fog on the way down weren't unexpected, but as I continued towards the north Kent coast the fog became denser, to the point where, at the turn-off to Capel Fleet, visibility was barely 75 metres.

A male Pheasant gave itself - and me - a scare by running in front of the car as I turned down towards the raptor watchpoint. The next bird, hunched up on a roadside post, was immediately more interesting. Even through the dense murk the silhouette said 'owl', and sure enough a fine Barn Owl got off its perch, hovered briefly over the verge and landed a few posts farther on. I fired off a few record shots, but the bird was nervous and each time I edged closer it moved another along. Eventually, another car pulled up behind me, so I had to move forwards - but I pulled up briefly alongside the owl and fired off a couple of close-up portraits. They are superb birds.

Thereafter, it was slow going and the fog never cleared. A few Common Teal and other ducks were on the fleet, but temperatures were low and the ditches were still largely frozen. Several Curlew were working the banks were the sun had just permeated the fog and softened the going, and a Green Sandpiper call alerted me a bird somewhere; eventually I pinned it down in a frozen ditch. A female Merlin, at least 15 Red-legged Partridges and one or two Corn Buntings were all good to see, as were two Brown Hares, but I gave up waiting for clearer skies and headed back before noon.

I diverted my route home to east and then north London via Sidcup, until yesterday home of a small Woodlark flock. But as stated on the Rare Bird Alert pager yesterday, the stubble fields are now all ploughed and the larks, which peaked at seven, have been replaced by the same number of Pied Wagtails. Ring-necked Parakeets were all over the place, but otherwise it was quiet.

Rainham Marshes was better. First off was a Short-eared Owl hunting reedbeds close to the seawall from the visitor centre - my third owl species in less than a week - and as I walked out via the scrub flights of Black-tailed Godwits and a few Dunlin were streaming in to roost on the wet areas west of Aveley Pools. Up to four Water Rails, two Cetti's Warblers and a Goldcrest were along the new boardwalk, and at the far end, on the right-hand side just before the bend in front of the target pools, at least one Bearded Tit was calling late on. This last species was a site tick for me. Also of interest was a Jay calling somewhere in the woodland - often not an easy species here, though my second record already this year.

Now that temperatures are up and the ice has gone, the target pools were covered in gulls, but I couldn't pick up anything other than the usual suspects today; three of the six Little Egrets, also up in numbers, were on the targets with the gulls. In total, I had five new species for my 2009 site list:

75. Kingfisher
76. Tufted Duck
77. Goldcrest
78. Pochard
79. Bearded Tit

Friday, 9 January 2009

Patch tick: Common Teal

An unexpected year tick at Alexandra Park today, and indeed site tick, was a drake Common Teal on the boating pond. The bird, which is barely annual these days, was found this afternoon by Gabriel Jaime on his second-ever visit to the park, so he has set the bar high! Thanks to Gareth Richards for the prompt call.

Nearby, I heard a Common Chiffchaff just around the corner from the Birdwatch office in Coburg Road, Wood Green N22, this lunchtime - with a typical collybita call it was clearly not Mark Pearson's tristis bird ranging up the New River from Stoke Newington.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Freezing weather

After a good first two days of the New Year birding at Rainham and Alexandra Park, both sites have been less eventful since. My list for the latter has crept up to a modest 34, including Water Rail, Little Grebe and the recently elusive Redwing, and this last species was one of five patch ticks added in a short dawn sortie to Rainham today; the other four were Fieldfare, Sparrowhawk, Jay and Little Grebe, taking my 2009 site total to 74.

The two Little Grebes were in a small ice-hole on Aveley Pools that was teeming with birds in an otherwise frozen landscape; it was positively arctic first thing and I almost expected a seal to come up for air among all the Coots, ducks and gulls crowding the small patch of open water. There must have been the best part of 1,000 birds on the ice soon after first light, at least half of them Lapwings. The adjacent reedbed was frozen solid, and I flushed a Common Snipe from the boardwalk and had four Water Rails and two Cetti's Warblers, but no Bearded Tits (the main target) or Penduline Tits.

My only other London sighting of note this year was a female Blackcap in the garden yesterday, doubtless the bird first seen just before Christmas.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Rainham kicks off!

Happy New Year!

I spent the whole day at Rainham today, despite my best intentions of wanting to cover other east London sites as well. Quite a bit of time there was spent in company with Baz Harding and Dave Holman and his wife; perhaps it's a sign of the times that Norfolk's birding luminaries are choosing Rainham to kickstart their yearlists.

Anyhow, it was a day well spent. I was up to 22 species even before I got through the door of the visitor centre, and while lingering outside checking the gulls Baz came out to tell me that the Pendulines were reportedly showing well. Within 15 minutes we were watching them down to just a few yards, and put on a decent show for the camera. I continued out to the Target Pools, but that proved a fruitless exercise as they were frozen solid and, apart from a brief Little Egret and a few Moorhens, totally devoid of birds.

Back in the scrub, a Cetti's Warbler gave very close views for a few moments, and I heard a brief, very distant call that may have been the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker reported along the approach road; unfortunately it did not call again. I have rarely seen so few gulls on the river in winter but they did include two adult and a third-winter Yellow-legged, and there was a decent scattering of waders on the Kent shore and all three pipits by the seawall.

After lunch, two Bearded Tits - a Rainham tick - were reported back in the Aveley Pools reedbed, but I had already decided it was time for the Ferry Lane end. I flushed a Short-eared Owl from the bank of the silt lagoons and had a Green Sandpiper flying around, calling; it went down by the pool at Tilda Rice but soon departed, doubtless having discovered it iced over. With
light fading, the roosting Black-tailed Godwits on the barges (day tick number 68) were followed by another Short-eared Owl over the tip, but I scoured the darkening skies in vain for a Stock Dove.

At the last gasp, however, I did find a superb male Dartford Warbler on the tip slope, tagging along behind a male Stonechat (as they sometimes do, in an association never fully explained). I haven't had this species in London for many years and it was also a Rainham tick, so it was a fitting find to end the first day of the year on one of my patches, and species number 69; I couldn't quite break the 70-mark single-handed. Summary highlights as follows:

Great Crested Grebe - 1 on the river on the rising tide
Little Egret - 2
Pintail - c.18
Peregrine - 1 on pylons west of Aveley Pools
Water Rail - Aveley Pools boardwalk
Ringed Plover - 41 on the foreshore
Grey Plover - 1 on the foreshore
Golden Plover - 6 on the reserve
Green Sandpiper - 1 over the silt lagoons/Tilda Rice, and heard again at dusk over the tip
Yellow-legged Gull - 2 ads and a third-winter on the river
Ring-necked Parakeet - 7 fly-overs in total
Short-eared Owl - singles on the silt lagoons and tip slope
Rock Pipit - 1/2 on the foreshore
Water Pipit - 1 on the foreshore
Cetti's Warbler - 3 in total
Dartford Warbler - tip slope (look up slope from the riverside path beyond the barges car park)
Penduline Tit - 2 males on the Aveley Pools boardwalk


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