Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter Soltice

It's not often I go this long without posting to my blog, so I thought I'd better get a final one in before Christmas. To be honest there hasn't been much to blog about, in fact you can always tell when things on the birding front are a little quiet when fellow bloggers begin to reminisce about better times!

Sunrise at Brandon -Winter Solstice
For me my cup is always half full and if you look hard enough and happen to be in the right place at the right time you'll find things, like a sneaky Stoat at Brandon Marsh on Thursday and an amazing Merlin encounter for Dee and I at the back of Sainsbury's on Saturday morning. I suppose I should clarify why Dee and I were at the back of Sainsbury's.  For those who know 'The Shires' retail park in Leamington Spa there is a pathway that leads to the Tachbrook Park office complex to the rear of Sainsbury's. The landscaping in this area consists of lots of rowan, hawthorn and pine trees and to our amazement while walking through from Dee's office we unexpectedly encountered a Merlin, which fizzed past us only feet away before crashing into a small flock of feeding Long-tailed Tits, disappearing into the distance empty handed!

Lots of Fieldfare around the Marina
On the local front the marina still has an adequate supply of blackthorn berries and so we've been blessed by some large flocks of winter thrushes making the most of what's left. At least two Barn Owls have been busy and can be found quartering the adjacent fields on most evenings and with the same fields holding plenty of water, Lapwings and decent numbers of Skylarks can also be found. Tawny Owls have been very vocal of late and I've even managed to locate one of the their favourite calling spots, but sadly our tiny population of Little Owls are nowhere to be found these days. This too could be said of our Tree Sparrows, despite the odd sighting around the feeders numbers are really down on previous years.

One of a couple of Little Egret at Brandon Marsh
Brandon Marsh has also kept me busy on the chain saw with a number of coppicing and other projects on the go, plus a replanting of some small areas of Horsetail Glade will be discussed at our next meeting. The birding has been somewhat poor with wildfowl numbers frighteningly low but things were brightened recently by the arrival of a wintering Bittern. Amazingly you could set your clock by this bird at present! Simply stand near the 'Olive Bench' overlooking Newlands reedbed between 7 and 7:15am and observe the silhouetted figure as it flies across the path, normally settling on Swallow Pool, quite surreal. Apart from the Bittern Sundays winter solstice visit produced three Tawny Owls, a couple of Little Egret on East Marsh Pool and at least a single wintering Chiffchaff can regularly be heard around the River Pool area.

With another year ending all that remains is to wish my reader a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous birding New Year.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Quieter Times

It seems that things have now settled down into normal winter patterns on the birding front with the winter Thrushes, Siskin and Redpolls all recorded at my regular site visits. Brambling and Golden Plover are still thin on the ground locally and with a reasonable number of Short-eared Owls around the country a regular local one would be nice.

Wintering Blackcap
The Tawny Owls have been very vocal at the marina of late, one bird so close that it had Dee and I convinced it was sitting on the boat roof. With moorers once again able to place feeders around the moorings we're starting to get regular visits from Tree Sparrows once again. A species that seemed to desert us for a short while during recent months. One bird of note residing at the marina presently is a wintering Blackcap, my only sighting thus far since the summer.

Nuthatch - New Hare Covert
What has been rare this autumn is those wonderful crisp frosty mornings and so with the forecast for Wednesday morning predicting such a start I was at Brandon Marsh before sunrise for a look around. A Barn Owl quartering Sheep-Field and a nice count of nine Pheasant on the recently extracted bramble area as I made my way through to New Hare Covert. Redpoll and Siskin overhead, along with Great Spotted Woodpecker and both Redwing and Fieldfare. The covert held four Goldcrest, Green Woodpecker along with Treecreeper and Nuthatch.

Robin numbers increasing
The pools had the usual winter wildfowl and eight Snipe but no sign of the recent Goldeneye. A lone Little Egret, which spent most of Tuesday perched and overseeing the conservation work we were carrying out on East Marsh Pool, was still on site. Other highlights around the reserve included a couple of Grey Wagtail on Willow Island, Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail calling, plus two wintering Chiffchaffs were also noted. There's also been a considerable increase in the Robin population recently with local birds being joined by those from the continent. Otters have been regular visitors this week with a number of reports from other team members but unfortunately not for me. At least three pair of Bullfinch during my tour and a half dozen Skylark flew south as I walked up to the farm area, where I also startled a Fox which bolted across the reedbed. The farm is actually up for sale and this would explain the major clear up operation that has taken place up there. Nearly all of the old rusting farm equipment and old cars have been removed and sadly a small section of Elder has been decapitated in the process, usually a good feeding area for Finches.

Brandon Team at work
Inspired by BBC Countryfile's article on the Lancashire Wildlife Trusts 'Wigan Willow Tit Project' the Brandon Team began our own Project today. It is estimated that a least two pairs of these threatened species reside at Brandon and we'd like to attract more! With Brandon's diverse habitat there are lots of  ideal nesting areas. The UK population has fallen by 90 per cent in the past 30 years placing it on the red list of species of conservation concern. Willow Tits prefer the scrub where they dig their own nest hole in rotten wood in soft timber tree stumps, less than a metre from the ground. We can help them by creating logs (pictured) that will be attached to healthy trees. These logs will eventually rot providing the perfect nesting site!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Nene and Ouse Washes

Today I took the Brandon Marsh team on the last Away-Day of the year to visit the Nene and Ouse Washes, finally calling in at Wicken Fen. Thanks once again to the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust for use of their minibus over the past year, and what a fantastic finale in glorious autumnal conditions!

Another Away-Day
After a brace of Red Kite on route our first stop was a look at the Nene Washes and our chosen spot along Eldernell lane. This is an area which comes off the A605 just east of Coates. Access is gained almost opposite the last in a line of council type houses. Continue until you reach the wash barrier bank and park in the small car-park between the bank and Moretons Leam (Grid ref: TL 318992).

More swans join the Bewick's and Whoopers on the Nene Washes!
Arriving in glorious autumnal sunshine It wasn't long before a trio of Whooper Swans got the day list off to a good start. A pair of Marsh Harrier next, Common Buzzard, Kestrel and then at distance along one of the many ditches a couple of Common Crane came into view, even display dancing briefly during our stay. Hen Harrier ring-tail next and perched on a nearby electricity pylon the unmistakable outline of a Peregrine. Several large flocks of Fieldfare passed overhead during our stay along with the odd Redwing, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Green Woodpecker and Greenfinch. Huge flocks of mixed Lapwing and Golden Plover were given little respite by the constant raptor movement and at one point three Roe Deer were also on the move. Yet another raptor during the drive back down to the main road, when a Sparrowhawk flew across the track in front of the bus.

Whooper Swans just off the A605
A stop off along the A605 on route to RSPB Ouse Washes for a look at approx. 150 Swans, mainly Whooper Swans but several Bewick Swans were also among the group.

Short-eared Owl at RSPB Ouse Washes
The late morning, lunch and early afternoon was spent in the heart of the fens at RSPB Ouse Washes enjoying the hides and tracks which overlook the flooded pasture. After parking in the centre car park a walk south to the Welches Damn hide saw yet another mixed flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover take flight. It wasn't long before the culprit was identified grounded in a recently ploughed field, a stunning Peregrine making light work of a captured Golden Plover. Lunch in the hide and a selection of wildfowl included: Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Gadwall and Wigeon.

Short-eared Owl looking quite menacing in the strong sunlight!
Just prior to reaching the second of the three hides along this section four Bearded Tit teased us for a good while popping up and down and flying along the reeds, but my attempts to get any decent images proved fruitless. A coupe of Stonechat were also along the same stretch of reedbed. Then came the bird of the day for me when my first Short-eared Owl of this autumn appeared, quartering for a while before actually settling on the edge of the same field the Peregrine had utilised earlier! A look North of the reserve centre at the Kingfisher Hide before heading off to our final destination had additions to the wildfowl list and this included of note several pairs of Pintail, Pochard and strangely only a single♀Goldeneye was recorded.

My arty-farty attempt of sunset at Wicken Fen
With dusk closing in fast our final destination was the National Trusts Wicken Fen and our reasoning for finishing here was to take a look at the renowned harrier roost. A Little Egret flew west as we parked up and after finding our strategic position on the reserve we settled down for the show. I have to say it will go down as one of my best UK birding experiences! First the Marsh Harriers appeared with several females and a single male, then the Hen Harriers, with a trio of ring-tails and a stunning male, this followed by at least three quartering Barn Owls, one passing almost overhead. As if this wasn't enough excitement the whole spectacle took place as we stood in the heart of the reedbed with pinging Bearded Tits and calling Water Rails and Cetti's Warbler all around. Fieldfare, Redwing and even a Great Spotted Woodpecker overhead, plus some huge flocks of Starling and Jackdaws going to roost. A new moon graced the crimson sky to the west and as the temperature plummeted and the mist descended over the reeds a Woodcock to end a fantastic day as we made our way back to the car park.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Autumnal Sunshine!

After an early doctors appointment I decided to pop over to Napton churchyard and enjoy the rarity that is autumnal sunshine. On arrival I was greeted by four Mistle Thrush having a little set-to, until finally things settled down with one bird actually breaking into full song.

One of four Mistle Thrush at Napton
The usual Napton dog owners club were still hanging around: You always know when their about as it seems they spend the whole time screaming at and chastising their dogs, which this morning seemed to be giving the cow population along 'the gully' a hard time!

At least a half dozen Greenfinch, a single Goldcrest and a few Chaffinch were feeding within the Yew Trees, along with a good number of continental Blackbirds, Song Thrush and several Redwings. Overhead a couple of Lapwing flew south but the local Ravens were nowhere to be found. I spent a further half hour or so on site, fascinated by a couple of Pied Wagtails, which were feeding on insects enticed out by the suns heat on the church parapets. I finally gave up when a transit van arrived with another hoard of dogs, the barking of which I could hear halfway down the lane as they approached.

Managed a few images of Lesser Redpoll
Next to a sunny Brandon Marsh with a light north-easterly and I spent my first 20-minutes or so trying to get a half decent shot of at least one of a trio of Lesser Redpoll feeding in the canopy near the wind pump. After achieving a couple of record shots I made my way towards the sound of a strimmer working away and I could also see smoke rising in the still air over near Sheep Field. As expected the Tuesday crew were in action, along with an old friend of Brandon Marsh, Mike Lee, a real loss to us when he moved over to Shropshire and someone who insists on driving nearly 100 miles to join us on occasions, there's dedication for you.

Gorgeous red crown of Lesser Redpoll
After a catch-up with the guys, who'll be pleased to know I'm back on the chainsaw this Thursday after getting my stitches removed today, I took a brief tour of the reserve.

The River Avon is pretty high up after the recent rains so River Pool Hide was inaccessible but East Marsh Pool had the expected wildfowl, Shoveler, Teal, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Gadwall and a single ♂Goldeneye. Carlton Pool held three Little Grebe but the Jury Hide was very quiet. To be honest It was a bit of a whistle stop tour before heading off but my walk did record: Linnet, Goldcrest, ♂♀Bullfinch, Kingfisher, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, (2) Cetti's Warbler and (4) Water Rail heard and a single Skylark over.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Final Day

Our last day on the Scottish west coast and once again the weather surprised with some lovely clear spells before the rain finally arrived mid afternoon. Having spoken to a few local birders regarding our Snow Goose at Cuil Bay yesterday, the general consensus is that it was in fact a wild bird, so if I had a tick list I suppose I could have the tick!

Islandadd Bridge
We decided to spend our last day further south from the cottage and have another look around the Add Estuary and Loch Sween. We arrived at Islandadd Bridge mid morning for a look over the mud, exposed by the low tide. Almost immediately a bird caught the eye low over the peat bogs of Moine Mhòr, our first ♀Hen Harrier of the visit and thankfully on our last day! A Buzzard, Kestrel and Raven next but then across towards the distant hills the unmistakable sight of not one but two White-tailed Eagles, which after brief views disappeared into the pines, closely followed by several Hooded Crows.

Red-breasted Merganser - One of many during our stay
Just along the Crinan Canal towpath from the bridge British Waterways have provided an excellent bird hide that gives superb views across the exposed mudflats. Here Dee and I spent a half hour locating of note: Redshank, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Red-breasted Merganser, ♂♀Goosander, Wigeon, Teal, Shag, CormorantStonechat, Meadow Pipit, Herring Gull, Common Gull and Great Black-backed Gull.

Goldeneye - seen on most Lochs.
After lunch at Tayvallich overlooking Loch a' Bhealaich we moved further south heading for an eventual look across Jura Sound at Keillmore. These are single track roads that offer passing areas great for viewing and we stopped several times to scan Linne Mhuirich, a long narrow inlet about halfway down Loch Sween on the north side. At one such stop a couple of Greenshank, several Ringed Plover, Goldeneye, Little Grebe, ♂♀Red-breasted Merganser, and a lone Tufted Duck. A few stops later we hit the jackpot if your a Swan lover, with over 100 Whooper Swans and bizarrely, sticking out like a sore thumb, a single Black Swan in their midst. Also of note:(5) Shelduck and a single Kingfisher.

Seal - More from Dee's exploits.
From here there are three gated sections with little turning space before you eventually end up at journeys end at Keillmore. This offers great views across Jura Sound to the Island, a terrific place to sea watch, or if your Dee, rock pooling! The weather had somewhat deteriorated by the time we arrived but the odd bright spell helped visibility. On the water at least two Black-throated diver, Great Northern Diver and at sea Black Guillemot, Guillemot at least two Pomarine Skuas , Manx Shearwater and a small number of Kittiwake passed through, but several other distant Skua Sp. will have to remain a mystery. So too a small black bird with a distinct white rump that flashed by low over the water and set the pulse racing. In the surrounding area (14) Ringed Plover, several Rock PipitGrey Seal and Dee managed Springtail and Shore Crab during her dipping session.


Friday, November 07, 2014

Penultimate Day!

Our penultimate day in Scotland and on Friday Dee and I were heading off into the Highlands and a visit to Fort William. Over breakfast at the cottage before departing a large fall of thrushes hit the lawn during a heavy downpour, with around thirty or so Redwing, Song Thrush and Fieldfare.

Fall of Thrushes including Fieldfare!
A stop off on route at Ardmucknish Bay yielded Red-throated Diver and possibly the same Great-northern Diver here a few days earlier. As fate would have it a couple of Snow Geese had been reported at Cuil Bay Loch Linnhe, just a few miles off road from our route to Fort William and so a slight detour was called for.

Red-throated Diver Ardmucknish Bay
On arrival at Cuil the ever present Rock Pipits, Red-breasted Mergansers, Eider, Goldeneye and Shag were in evidence and a Peregrine made a brief appearance, but the search was on for a Snow Goose, apparently in among a flock of Canada Geese.

Snow Goose (blue morph)
There were a few large groups of Canada's in the surrounding fields but at this stage no evidence of Snow Geese. After a half hour or so we finally managed the above photographed bird in with several Canada's feeding, a blue morph version. Snow Goose appears as a wild bird in Scotland annually, those seen in summer are escapes. A small population moves between the islands of Coll and Mull in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. There are also scattered birds elsewhere so whether this bird was feral or wild, it was still a great bird to come across.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Busy Day

With today's weather set to be the best during our week long stay Dee and I took full advantage with a complete itinerary: First on the list was a trip on the ferry to the Isle of Mull and back.

Winter plumage Guillemot 
The weather centre got it spot on as we departed Oban harbour with a flat calm sea and cloudless skies. The usual Black Guillemots were in the harbour sporting their winter colours, along with the odd winter plumage Guillemot and plenty of Shag and our first Cormorants on the rocky crags. Although the sailing was very enjoyable I must say that the birding was a disappointment. A single Razorbill was recorded in flight and surprisingly even Gulls were sparse but Great Black-backed, Herring and Common Gull were all recorded. 

View from the ferry - Snow has arrived on the Scottish mountains.
During the turnaround at Craignure Oystercatcher, Curlew, Grey HeronRock Pipit and other than Common Eider and Red-breasted Merganser no other sea ducks or divers were seen during the trip, although Harbour Porpoise on route back to Oban was great to see.

Seal at Loch Feochan.
After a late breakfast in Wetherpoon's we set off back south stopping off at Loch Feochan. Here the usual selection of Oystercatcher and Curlew and this time with the addition of a really pristine looking Greenshank. Another addition to the holiday list was a Harbour Seal, which entertained itself with a huge fish.

Sea Lock entrance onto Loch Crinan
We'd planned to arrive at the Scottish Beaver Trial area a few hours before sunset, having seen Beavers in Canada several times we thought this would be the best plan, Beavers being very nocturnal by nature. So with a little time on our hands we drove along the nearby Crinan Canal down to the sea lock. An opportunity here for a look across Loch Crinan, which is an open sea loch at the mouth of the Add Estuary. Here (3) Black-throated Divers, more Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eider and Goldeneye, along with a single Harbour Seal was the reward. Dee spent her time exploring the lock.

Looking for Beavers as dusk arrives!
The reintroduction of Beavers to the wild in Scotland for the first time in 400 years has been an "outstanding success", according to the team of ecologists that brought them back. The four pairs of Beavers reintroduced in Knapdale five years ago have produced 14 young. The trial is now complete and a decision as to whether the Beavers will stay here or not will be taken later in 2015. With this in mind time is running out and so Dee and I spent a few hours towards dusk on the lookout at Loch Coille Bharr. During the 5 kilometer walk and two hour vigil birds of note included Crossbill, Siskin, Goldcrest, many Chaffinch and several Long-tailed Tit flocks but did we see a Beaver?

No Beavers but plenty of evidence their about!
Sadly not, this despite a two hour vigil and returning to the car in compete darkness, a bit of a hair raising experience in itself. However, the calling Tawny Owls and the amazing sight of fourteen Whooper Swans calling and silhouetted against the moon lit sky was well worth while.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Head North

Another sighting of White-tailed Eagle at Loch Feochan as we drove up to Oban and having explored mostly to the south so far, a drive north on Tuesday was on the cards. After crossing the Connel Bridge, a cantilever bridge that spans Loch Etive, a stop at Ardmucknish Bay in search of sea ducks. In fact things were pretty quiet on the water but we did manage some nearby views of Great Northern Diver, Black Guillemot, Red-breasted Merganser and several Common Eider

Great Northern Diver - Ardmuckish Bay
Next stop Shain Wood: An ancient semi-natural woodland typical of the Atlantic coast of Scotland. The wood stands above the surrounding land on a low, flattened ridge which juts out from the southern shore of Loch Creran. Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Jay, Great-spotted Woodpecker and Siskin but a pleasant surprise was a brace of Woodcock, inadvertently flushed.

The ever present Hooded Crow
On the shoreline of Loch Creran the usual Shag, more Common Eider, Goldeneye, Curlew and Oystercatcher. At least two Stonechat, Buzzard and the ever present Hooded Crow and a Weasel, which ran across the road on route home were other notables.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Moine Mhòr

The weather was quite pleasant on Monday so we set off further south from Oban and our first stop was Moine Mhòr. This is one of Scotland's oldest landscapes, with 5000 years of history locked in its layers of peat. It's also one of the few landscapes in Britain which takes in saltmarsh, peat bog, woodland and hillside. If we were here in the summer or early autumn Golden-winged Dragonfly would be on the wing, along with the rare Large Heath butterfly.

Roe Deer at Moine Mhòr
However, today's visit had a very wintry flavour with Siskin, Brambling, Mistle Thrush, Redwing and our first Fieldfare of the visit all recorded as we walked the ancient woodland. A boardwalk takes you around 100 yards into the bog and offers excellent all round views. Here Stonechats were in double figures, a Curlew could be heard and a single Roe Deer was seen in the long grass. This is also a great place to see Hen Harrier, which also roost here, sadly not during this stay but it's our intention to return one evening to check it out!

Moine Mhòr
After Moine Mhòr we headed down towards Taynish stopping off at Islandadd Bridge which crosses the Crinan Canal and Add Estuary. Here a look over the water produced Red-Breasted Merganser, Goosander, Wigeon, TealGrey Heron, Curlew, Oystercatcher and Hooded Crow. After entering the Knapdale Forest area we checked out the Scottish Beaver Trial Centre which we'll be visiting later this week. The car park held a large flock of Chaffinch and atop the pines a single Crossbill, along with several Goldcrest at the lower levels. Passing Loch Sween Dee noticed a large splash in the flat calm water and after pulling over a scan revealed a couple of Otter, which we enjoyed for a short while before moving on.

Red-breasted Merganser
After lunch in Taynish we took a short walk through more woodland and peat bog and stopped for a while to explore an 18th century estate mill, where the local farmers came to have their cereal crops ground. A little quiet on the birding front but we did add Raven, Treecreeper and Coal Tit to the day list. It was Dee's birthday today and after dinner in Oban we arrived back to the cottage where we encountered over a dozen Roe Deer on the road up.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Birthday Break

With Dee pining for a visit to her birth-land we decided to head off for a weeks break on the west coast of Scotland to celebrate her birthday. As usual we decided on renting a cottage and chose a place around eleven miles south of Oban.

Our home for the week.
We arrived late afternoon Saturday and decided to spend our first day (Sunday) in the locality, firstly with a visit to Seil Island and then on to take in the surroundings of Oban. An early morning walk around the grounds after a night of torrential rain before heading off produced a small selection of birds: RobinGoldcrest, Siskin, a small group of Redwing, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and three Brambling over.

Hooded Crow- Scottish Carrion Crow
Seil Island is a small island on the east side of the Firth of Lorn. Seil has been linked to the mainland by bridge since 1792 when the Clachan Bridge was built by engineer Robert Mylne. At the end of the road lies the former slate-mining village of Ellenabeich. Several stops on route provided some good viewing opportunities with Hooded Crow, and many Rock Pipits feeding on  the kelp washed up by the recent winds. Oystercatcher and Redshank were the only waders we managed and wildfowl included Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Canada and Greylag Geese. After coffee a look offshore around Ellenabeich produced several Shag, Herring Gull, and Lesser Black-backed and Greater Black-backed Gull.

Record shot -White-tailed Eagle
White-tailed Eagle
The drive back up to Oban has several opportunities to pull in and take a look at Loch Feochan and a first stop produced Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Where the loch ends and narrows as you approach Oban the peripheral held Oystercatcher and Curlew, plus more Goldeneye but the real treat was when Dee called a large bird approaching from the west! It wasn't long before we were delighted to see our first mainland White-tailed Eagle, which took us by surprise and did a brief circle over the loch before departing into the cover of the tree line on the far side.

Mull Ferries in Oban Harbour
Finally, a walk around Oban harbour as the light faded was a little quiet but we managed a few more Red-breasted Merganser, Eider Duck, Shag and a brief fly-by of a Black Guillemot.