Thursday, March 12, 2015

A day in Breckland.

An absolutely gorgeous day, although a little cold and with a blustery wind throughout the afternoon. Off and out and first to arrive at Lynford Arboretum. The amount of birdsong was impressive and really confirmed that Spring must now be here, whether or not there's the occasional set-back of short duration. A sighting of the first lambs on the journey helped to confirm matters !

As ever the walk down towards the lake held a succession of bird sightings. A walk around the whole paddock didn't produce anything that even suggested Hawfinch, so I retraced my steps and , suddenly, had a brief but not very satisfying view of two birds on top of one of the tangled Hornbeams. That appeared to be "it", so I struck off and explored a few areas that I'd not visited before. There are lots of such areas at Lynford and the place grows on me the more I visit. I was looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which used to be recorded here , but I had no success. All the usual woodland species were around, including some particularly good views of Marsh Tit.  I also had great views of Grey Wagtail along the stream that runs into the lake.  So I gradually wended my way back to the car and breakfast and , as the Sat Nav says indulged in a period of   " Recalculating".  I went back to the feeders at the main entrance area and amidst Nuthatch, Chaffinch , odd Brambling and titmice there it was......a single Hawfinch feeding amidst the throng on the ground.  Tremendous views for quite a period and a definite testimony to disciplined " hanging on in"!.

Given it was now approaching lunchtime I next went on to near Grimes Graves, attracted by the idea of seeing the wintering Great Grey Shrike. But where to start as the directions were a bit vague and imprecise?  As there had been mention of the Ministry of Defence I pinpointed a suitable area only to find it was a firing range with all the accompanying warnings etc. Thankfully I gleaned from a local lady dog walker that there was actually a public footpath across the area ( it could only happen in England! ) and you only had to keep out if the red flag was flying. So hoping that I hadn't missed this most essential of indicators I found the access ( which, in itself, required expert local knowledge as to its location, it was so obscure ) and set off along what proved to be a really attractive route. The open area of grass heath with the odd gorse and birch/conifer dotted around was great and well worth a visit later in the year.  After about a kilometre I suddenly saw the bird fly and then had prolonged views of it hunting, perched and in flight. Tremendous!

I finally moved on to the Santon Downham area.  Lesser Spotted Woodpecker again figured on the agenda, but was never realised.  I was told later that the birds were thought to have moved into an area closer towards Brandon!!  Whilst there was a good variety of common species, numbers weren't high and birding was quite hard work in some senses, producing nothing of particular note!

I've always been fascinated by the Breckland area but confess to knowing precious little about it!  Santon Downham is located within a meander of the River Little Ouse and was the village where HM Forestry Commission set up its administrative headquarters following the planting of tens of thousands of trees which, collectively, form Thetford Forest. On the outskirts of the village lies the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. I don't believe this is in active use any longer and is looked after by a Trust.

It's an attractive small church which nestles within the forest itself.  The north and south doorways to the Nave are dated as 12th Century so the building has seen many, many changes throughout its presence.

  It's a sobering thought to contemplate the landscape that surrounded the church when first it was built and the various jobs that its congregation held and even how many people lived in the area. And what were the local commercial activities that produced sufficient wealth to allow its benefactor to initiate its construction? Apparently the adjacent heathland caused problems at times in that wind blown sand engulfed parts of nearby villages with part of the problem being the instability brought about by the presence of large Rabbit warrens. What with the watery wastes of the Fens to the west and clearly large barren areas hereabouts the bird communities of that period must have been dramatically different to today. Something to ponder and research.........

Incidentally, I'm now about to be in that part of Norfolk where cyber facilities are somewhat questionable at times. My next entry may miraculously be on time or in a few days time.........

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fenland focus !

It's many years since I visited the Nene Washes, east of Peterborough, so I was really looking forward to this visit.  It's not the easiest place to find but, if you've a SatNav, then simply pop in the following post code reference and any confusion is totally dispelled........PE7 2DD.

There appears to be no general access to or trails around this RSPB reserve other than along a flood bank on the boundary, but much of the site can be viewed from the car park. Sadly it was somewhat dry today , but when the site is fulfilling its washland role then the transformation must be enormous both in terms of its appearance and the numbers and variety of birds present.  A list on the reserve noticeboard of the birds present in mid February was mouth-wateringly good!!!  Ducks abound but accompanied by a wide variety of other species. In future I shall ensure a future visit falls within January or February. As it was I had a few duck and geese but also a pair of Common Cranes that were the highlight of the visit. A close second though was a diminutive Long-tailed Tit, its bill full of nesting material, which sat on the superstructure of a bridge across a drainage dyke nearby and scolded me with deliberate intent !!!  The nearest bushes were a distance away but, nonetheless, the bird made no pretence of what it thought of my presence or what I should do. I retired, admonished, to the car and breakfast.  It must be said that it's not just the winter communities this reserve is famed for. It is the most notable site in England for breeding Black-tailed Godwit and also for the reintroduction scheme (in England ) for Corncrake.  I found this intriguing, comparing the physical attributes on site to those where Corncrakes occur on Islay  ( not a nettle bed or Flag Iris in sight here ! ) and would like to come back in mid summer to view the situation.  So a site to visit as opportunity allows.

On then to a site I've visited without success in the past......the Yaxley area.  Part of the Great Fen project, the area is typical central fenland with an impressive birch woodland  to boot. Nice views of a Great-spotted Woodpecker as I arrived augured well, or so I thought.  A Rough-legged Buzzard had been reported from this area in recent times so I set about my quest!!  Visiting and scrutinizing various areas for at least an hour produced nothing but a Red Kite and a Kestrel . And then I found a Common Buzzard "worming " on an area of rough ground, and then another and a Kestrel too. One of the CB's, and then a Carrion Crow, flew towards a bird I'd not seen previously, and there it was, the Rough-legged Buzzard !!   Quite good views were finally obtained, although not in the form that I'd perhaps first expected.

I then moved into what I always personally consider to be "central Fenland" and looked at the area around Welney. Some good views were obtained of Bewick's Swans and a few Whooper Swan, but little else despite scouring a whole series of areas. Much of the Fens is now showing Spring crops coming through and what areas remain are generally being prepared for cultivation. As I travelled towards my selected overnight base near Mildenhall, a female Marsh Harrier drifted across the road and provided an apt completion to a good Fenland day!!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Travelling south, flying high and moving far !

A traverse almost the length of Lincolnshire today to visit Frampton Marsh, an RSPB reserve on The Wash. But my mid-morning arrival followed an eye level encounter with the RAF's  Red Arrow  Aerobatic team over Scampton airfield culminating in an awe inspiring climb and "turn over" . Wow!   All the more impressive as the nine man team only went out on their first practice this year on the 3rd March. That's only a week ago  ( I had more driving lessons than that!).   See more details at RAF Red Arrows team .

And more was to come. As I passed RAF Waddington there was an AWACs plane in all its glory  ( you know the one with kind of a large mushroom radar tracking device on its upper fuselage ). Officially designated as NATO's E-3A component it supplies an integrated multi-national flying unit providing rapid deployability, airborne surveillance, command, control and communications for NATO operations ( my description of course! ).

So, following all the diversions I arrived at Frampton Marsh and spent the rest of the day there. I've only been a few times but enjoy the place more and more. Today there was plenty to see with ducks and geese all over the reserve.

Dark-bellied Brent Geese were in several parts of the reserve but with groups flying to the Wash throughout. Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal, Shelduck, Gadwall, Mallard, Pochard and Tufted Duck were all in evidence. Waders too were represented by Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff , Lapwing, Golden Plover and Avocet , an absolute plethora of birdlife. In one of the hides is a very interesting display about waders and their migrations.

As can be seen the mileages covered are mind blowing and truly global

Much more was on offer with Little Egret, Whooper Swan ( ca 40/45 ) , a very high overflying skein NE of Pink-footed Geese, besides Yellowhammers and Tree Sparrows in the hedgerows. A good place and a good day. Well worth a visit as I guess this is a reserve that has something throughout the whole year.

As I left and travelled through the very intensive agricultural countryside my eye was caught by the following.

There was no accompanying place to stop nearby and no other explanatory material. I found it both fascinating and frustrating as I guess the intention would be missed or ignored by the vast majority of people passing to and fro to the reserve which I felt was a great shame.  No great shakes, maybe, but  an effort by the Parish Council to celebrate something of interest and relevance within their area.  Well done anyway!!

From the dizzy heights of Lincolnshire's airspace, to transglobal migratory highways, all brought down to earth by the depiction of our understanding of time zones and the UK's role in that sphere. Not bad for a county often sidelined into simply being an agricultural "factory".

Monday, March 9, 2015

Ever southward and a couple of bonuses.

Another early start and a convoy type progression southwards amidst traffic.  The weather forecast wasn't too great so I resolved to be flexible and cram as much as I could into the morning.

The evolved road systems in the Castleford / Normanton area are not as simple as I remember them, nor is the plethora of developed "Industrial Estates". Eventually I did locate the area of choice ( Loscoe Lake ), located virtually opposite the new(?) Police Headquarters. From a distance it appears simply as a water filled depression in a field, but it seems it's developed an attraction for birds.  It's difficult to oversee the whole of it so some mild trespassing was necessary to view the entire body of water. But worth it when the flock of grazing Wigeon was located within which was an adult American Wigeon. Probably the best views I've had and worth the effort. Other birds on site were Lapwing, Grey Heron, Tufted Dick, Mallard and Canada Goose plus numbers of BH Gulls. Success was followed by a late celebratory "mobile breakfast" at the Captains Table, another good find!

On to the RSPB Fairburn Reserve after successfully negotiating the centre of Castleford and choosing the correct exit route. Things started well with a good selection of birds ( Pintail, Shoveler, Little Egret, Goldeneye ) but then went swiftly downhill with quite heavy rain developing. After attempting to wait out the predicted eastward moving frontal system I called it a day and moved eastwards myself.  With the weather still not improving exploring North Cave Wetlands wasn't at all productive so I finally decided to delay things until the morning!!

The journey south begins! 8th March, 2015.

Yesterday ( 7th ) was a complete write off with high winds and rain. It provided a good opportunity to catch up with a load of admin work and have a good read!

This morning saw an early departure with the first port of call being Musselburgh on the southern side of the Firth of Forth.  The intention at hand was to try and see the Surf Scoter which has been in the area, and last year too, but encountering two birders prior to 0800 hours already leaving the site amidst mutterings of things being hopeless in this wind didn't augur well. In addition to this the tide was well out. Yep, you have it, the Surf Scoter wasn't in evidence, although scoters could be seen offshore but at distance. A nice selection of duck fed at the mouth of the river, a few waders were around and a Skylark sang so there was plenty to enjoy.

Moving off southwards a breakfast stop had singing Song Thrush, Robin, Great Tit and Dunnock alongside the car  which, at the end of winter, is always uplifting. Less so was to see several dead Badgers alongside the A1 out to Berwick on Tweed.  Moving on I decided to see if it was feasible to pay a quick visit on to Holy Island. Sadly there was only an hour before it was advised a crossing of the causeway was inadvisable, so the idea had to be shelved.

A few waders were around ( Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank ) and a group of 26/27 Whooper Swans rested close to the onshore boundary with the mainland. I parked up for a period but didn't add anything to what I'd seen previously, the expanse of habitat surrounding the island being quiet.

I moved on to Budle Bay where Mallard , Teal and Shelduck fed and numbers of gulls rested, including two LBBG. My journey then took me through one of Northumberland's finest towns, Warkworth. As you cross the River Coquet in the valley bottom and then drive upwards through the streets of Warkworth, witnessing both impressive historical architecture and the sheer atmosphere, you then reach the castle, located within the loop of the river and presiding over the old, original part of town. The first documented records for Warkworth Castle are in 1157 so there is much to explore and enjoy including mediaeval weekends or similar.

And so onwards to Amble. The Sunday Market near the harbour was in full swing, the harbour itself full of Eider, but try as I might I couldn't find a favoured fish and chip shop!!  And then, slightly further into town, I discovered Harbour Fish and Chips, whose product now figure within the top three ever sampled!!!  Tremendous.  I even found the carpark further down the coast where, after savouring my late lunch, I could then walk over the coastal dunes and view Coquet Island offshore.

Unfortunately a party of people was ashore but few birds were around anyway.  Later the area will be a hive of activity as auks and terns ply incessantly to and fro their feeding areas, including small numbes of the rare Roseate Tern.  Landing on the island is not allowed during the breeding season but trips around the island can be arranged from Amble.  The sea today was somewhat tranquil in marked contrast to the "voyage" Matthew and I had a couple of years ago  ( best to have your fish and chips on your return! ). A nice consolation was a party of four Sanderling on the beach nearby.

Continuing on I then visited Hauxley Reserve but found it both busy and on the point of closing for a year for renovation, the building of a new centre following the previous one being gutted by fire and the incorporation of upgraded trails. The intended opening is in April 2016.

With the day moving on I took the decision to seek out the reported large flock of Pink-footed Geese near Widdrington that contained a Ross's Goose. The reported number had been 3000 but I could only find around 800 which sadly didn't include the vagrant!  Still, it was enjoyable going through them........ And that was it with only a journey left to Washington Services to overnight!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rambles around the Neuk of Fife. 6.3.2015.

Every time ( at least it seems the case ) I come to this area it's cold, showery and there's a stiff SW wind blowing that does little as far as wave conditions are concerned out in the Firth of Forth. And so it was today!  However I stationed myself along the shore at Lower Largo and patiently began to work my way through the birds that were dotted around offshore.  Small parties of scoter were everywhere, although the absolute total wouldn't have been great. Both Common and Velvet Scoters were seen easily, both on the sea and in flight.  At one point a flock of Pink-footed Geese flew inland up through the centre of the estuary and a small party of distant passerines looking like Skylark similarly made there way westwards with some difficulty at wave height. Red-breasted Mergansers, Eiders, Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye,  all eventually revealed themselves to scrutiny but little else of interest.  A single Gannet moved out of the estuary at distance and proved to be the only one seen.  After an appreciable period I decided to move on, but not before I'd spent a little time in central Lower Largo itself.

This is the rather magnificent and well preserved statue of Robinson Crusoe looking out over the Forth from the village. It's part of the property where Alexander Selkirk lived formerly, whose exploits included being a castaway on an island in the Pacific for four years, an area now within the jurisdiction of Chile. This is said to have been the main inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel , "Robinson Crusoe",  in 1719.  Crusoe was the central, fictional character, that of being  a castaway for 28 years , following a shipwreck,  until rescued ( "delivered" ) by pirates. The fictional island in the book was in the mouth of the Orinoco River, but that on which Selkirk survived has now, in 1966, been called Robinson Crusoe Island.  The story, as we all know, has been the subject of sequels, TV programmes, stage and film productions and is still as popular as ever.

After exploring a couple of tracts of woodland, and actually seeing very little other than a Red Squirrel, I went to Kilconquhar Loch.  This necessitates entrance to a church graveyard and then into a very nice "quiet garden area " which has a seat at the water's edge overlooking a large part of the loch. It's lovely and tranquil and, at present, is surrounded by a nice display of spring flowers. Sadly the weather didn't really support much more than a short stay, but there wasn't a great deal around anyway. Tufted Duck, Red-breasted Mergansers, Mallard, Goldeneye was the main interest together with a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

And then off the Ruddons Point. The advancing tide, wind backed was coming in apace, and soon filled the previously "empty " bay. The wind was strong and little could be seen on the open sea with ease. Birds were about, but barely in view for any period of time. I systematically went through the Eiders at the edge of the Bay, or further in towards the shore, and, eventually found what I had come for, the female King Eider. I spent a long time doing this in the hope that the bird might come close , but to no avail. I got half reasonable views but nothing like those Matthew and I had when we visited a couple of years ago. Nevertheless a number of the necessary pertinent points were gained on the bird in addition to much more aspects on its jizz.. It's dumpier generally, and compared to Eider its tail is very rarely in evidence. The bill and head shape are distinctive, as is the the bill and head colouration. The ground colour and patterning are also distinctive but were hard fought for. After some prolonged , but sometimes frustrating views, I felt sufficiently convinced I'd seen enough which coincided anyway with the group of eiders it was with moving out into the central bay east of the Point.  Ironically , not a lot of other species were around , although a fly by Peregrine put in an appearance twice and wrought havoc amongst the Mallard and Oystercatcher.

As the weather had deteriorated I went back to Lower Largo in the mistaken belief conditions might be a little less severe. The general numbers of birds was lower and most of them seemed farther offshore and difficult to view. I spent the rest of the afternoon seeing some of what I'd recorded before , but nothing new and so eventually called it a day!!

Commencement of a late winter sojourn. 5.3.2015

Darkness still shrouded the landscape as I set off for the ferry. Gradually the first vestiges of light appeared at which point a lone Woodcock quit its overnight feeding area near Ellister and made its way into the confines of the nearby woodland. Arriving at the ferry terminal in gathering light a Song Thrush belted out its song and provided the evidence we all looked forward to, namely that Spring , however raw , was at least under consideration!

I first of all spent some time at the head of Loch Gilp ( at Lochgilphead would you believe! ) where in recent times Caspian, Mediterranean and Little Gulls had been seen. Such was not to be despite going through the assembled gulls gathered on the shore. A single Bar-tailed Godwit picked its way through their ranks and several Oystercatcher roosted nearby, but of the elusive gulls not a suspicion.

The journey across to Crianlarich can be completed by taking the somewhat lonely route on the single track, lochside road which saw me encounter four other vehicles. Despite numerous stops, birds were in short supply.  The adjacent forestry cast a dank, foreboding atmosphere along the route and little life was in evidence. Certainly the area had had more snow in recent times than experienced on Islay, although little now remained. A few Canada Geese and Grey lag Geese, Mallard and Wigeon were out on the loch and proved to be the main constituents of the observations made.

Hitting the main highway that's where Plan A went somewhat awry. A short stretch of new road, a bypass, threw the Sat Nav into utter confusion. At one point I looked at the screen and saw the depicted vehicle moving stoically through a block of forestry!  I didn't know that happened but it brought a howl of laughter. So I fell back on what I ought to have done anyway and that was follow my own instincts. Following the odd adjustment, more stops for birding, but little of inspiration arising, I finally arrived in Fife. Now I haven't the greatest admiration for Fife's road systems so I reverted to the Sat Nav and eventually arrived at my base, Glenrothes, without further mishap.

In keeping with what I've mentioned before, and given that it's the Full Moon , the latest offering by North American Indians for this period was "Full Worm Moon". This was because the ground was beginning to soften and worms begin to appear. Soften, eh, Islay ground tends to be saturated by this time, but different areas different circumstances I guess. I think if I was attributing a name and description to this period I'd call it the Full Snowdrop Moon given the many drifts of snowdrops present in various woodland areas. On a clear night with the moon shining at full brilliance, a series of  rather nice reflective patches must stand out in such woodlands as the light catches the drifts of flowers.

Hen Harrier Roost Survey.

Well, another winter has gone round without my finding any new Hen Harrier roost sites. In fact, I'm not at all sure whether, until quite recently, harriers have been present at the height of winter in the same numbers as we're used to.  The RSPB has a couple of roosts they monitor , but no large numbers are involved. I now know of no others although there must be the odd bird present in odd corners of Islay and, of course, there are some birds on Jura ( I haven't tackled that situation yet ! ). Speaking with the Warden at RSPB Gruinart recently he agreed that the numbers were somewhat lower than previously and this had been reflected in the breeding season returns too. This is something I have been saying for at least a couple of seasons, although it's hardly a surprising situation given the concerted efforts that have gone into their persecution on the mainland in the last couple of decades. Thankfully no such actions appear to occur on Islay but, of course, many of our birds move off the island in winter and are subject to the targeted depredations in their winter quarters or on passage.

The trouble we have on Islay is that, with the island sustaining reasonable numbers of harriers still, visitors see a few birds and conclude the situation is quite normal and healthy. Far from it , even to the extent of reduced numbers of passage birds in autumn in my opinion. But such messages and conclusions take time to establish and that is why it's so important for this monitoring scheme to continue. Should anyone be interested in contributing then contact Anne Cotton ( BTO Stirling office ) or Chris Rollie, ( RSPB, Dumfries and Galloway) as they are the organizers of the survey in Scotland and England respectively. Full instructions   and count dates ( Oct-March ) will be sent direct to you each season.

In the meantime I shall plot and plan and pore over OS maps, as previously, in anticipation of what next winter might bring, although this was perhaps  never the time to try and find new roosts anyway!