Sunday, 22 April 2018

Getting back into the patch

It hasn't taken long to wash away any post-Spain blues, with Spring in full swing in the South Yare Valley there is much to see and enjoy. The sun shone on the 16th and the first Butterflies emerged from hibernation, a pair of Brimstone in Claxton along with Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell at neighbouring Langley. Always a red letter day when the first Butterfly of the year is sighted, and I look forward to a Summer in search of more.

Amongst the mist and murk that the 12th bought, I recorded the first returning Warblers at Church Marsh. Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Blackcap were all welcome new for the year, and to be honest some have probably been around since earlier in the month. With Lesser Celandine and Grape Hyacinth in flower, it was beginning to feel like Spring, but the season was having to make every effort to please amidst misty cold conditions.

It was really this weekend gone that Spring could finally breathe, with temperatures today reaching almost 25 Degrees C. Although Saturday was a little cooler, upon opening the Moth trap 2 Cuckoo sang from the marshes to the north and south. Orange Tip and a likely Holly Blue were in the garden, the first of the emergence after the hibernators have made their play. A dusk visit to Claxton Marshes ended with a nice pint of Trawlorboys and a loud and agonisingly close Grasshopper Warbler. He was still there this morning, giving it hell and out of sight again. Whitethroat was another new for the year, the nettle-creeper also in full song whilst giving his new territory the once over. Tremendous views of Barn Owl at both Claxton and Langley marshes, hopefully both males doting on the incubating female someplace.

I had a couple of hours to spend with Rose this morning, so before the park we went to Rockland Broad. An Arctic Tern had been reported, but I settled for a pair of Common. A Reed Warbler pushed me closer to a full house of returning Warblers and of note were 2 singing Cettis, a species that has been wiped out on the coast after The Beast.

Mothing has not been prolific (around 25 species for the year) but I was thrilled with first a Pine Beauty this morning, and then almost embarrassed to pull out a Purple Thorn. Both new for the garden and me, properly spoiled today. EDIT- Purple Thorn a second for the garden, thanks to Moysie for reminding me!

Sighting of the Spring so far goes to Debs, who had 3 Crane south over Claxton on the 20th, and as if that wasn't enough to make me wince, a Peregrine hunting the field out the back too.

Purple Thorn 

 Sunset over Claxton looking towards Rockland

Rockland Broad- Common Terns

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A casual trip report- Southern Spain, Cadiz Province, April 2018

Back from a lovely week in Southern Spain, staying on the edge of delightful small town Prado del Rey in Cadiz Province. We flew with EasyJe, hired a car (essential) with Europcar, and stayed in the charming Casa Rural La Jaima, further details here:

At this point, I would like to thank John Cantelo for providing me with a PDF of his latest guide to Birding Cadiz Province. John was extremely helpful and is the go-to guy for any questions about birding in this region.

I intend to add a few photos, but currently the camera charger is out of view......

With this being a family holiday with no intention to travel too far (and alpine walking a challenge for a 1 year old) I spent a lot of time birding from the doorstep. Olive groves, scrub and lightly grazed hillsides made for a beautiful outlook and were home to a range of bird species. Serin, Corn Bunting, Linnet and Goldfinch were the regulars of the 33 species encountered. On warm days, Raptor watching was superb. A maximum count of 80 Griffon Vultures latched onto thermals and soared high above the villa. Booted Eagle was regular overhead, and singles of Black Kite, Short-toed Eagle and Lesser Kestrel all made it onto the house list. Bee Eater were often bubbling away overhead, and Sardinian Warbler was a common bird. The song of Nightingale was a constant companion, although typically I never laid eyes on one the whole week through. Wryneck (locally scarce), Woodchat Shrike, Spotless Starling, Melodious Warbler and Iberian Green Woodpecker were just some of the local highlights. What a pleasure it was to breakfast, then take a gentle stroll around the site and pick up these species and more. As the days passed, more was revealed- a Cattle Egret commute in the evening clocked in around 8pm, the maximum count being 64 heading north. 2 Pallid Swift passed through on the 6th, and on the final day a female Pied Flycatcher turned up on passage. Whilst I enjoyed this side of the locality, Rose enjoyed seeing the Donkey, Horse, Sheep and Chickens that were all a part of the small holding here. The location was safe, rustic and our hosts were excellent. I cannot recommend this enough as a base to bird from- but beware you may end up staying put, viewing large kettles of Raptors with the mountains as a backdrop, beer in hand.

We visited El Bosque twice, enjoying excellent tapas at La Duende and some good birds in and around the botanical gardens, well signposted to the north of the small centre. Western Bonelli's Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff were easy here, the Bonelli's in particular a real treat to watch fly catching, zipping about in the pines. Other common species here included Crested Tit, Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap, Nightingale and Woodchat Shrike. Although my Butterfly list for the trip was a little disappointing, I did see the wonderful Spanish Festoon.

Alpine birding was more challenging with family in tow, but the driving was great and the climb from El Bosque to Grazalema and beyond is not to be missed. There are various places to stop and walk if you wish, and the best spot we found was west of Grazalema at El Torreon. Here, a pair of displaying Short-toed Eagle (including the male hovering) was just immense. Bonelli's Eagle and Griffon Vulture were also observed well, and a flock of 13 Bee Eater passed through. A little further on, I came across a singing Alpine Accentor, and a Cleopatra Butterfly. I am sure Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting and Black-eared Wheatear are do-able with more time in the area.

So, in conclusion- a little hard to return home! 13 avian lifers, and 2 new Butterflies. The wealth of birds on our doorstep was just a pleasure to be around, and is in stark contrast to the number of species encountered in open countryside here in the UK. I enjoyed seeing species that rarely make landfall in the UK, and therefore feel more prepared if I should be lucky enough to encounter any of the above on the coast in October.

However, it is time to walk the trails and tracks across the marshes and footpaths here once again and although dreary at the moment I am looking forward to Spring arriving in northern Europe having seen the effect in the med. 2 Swallow were seen on wires yesterday, the first for the year on the patch. Before leaving for Spain, I went to see the Felthorpe Redpoll massive (2 Arctic in there for me, but I am sure everyone has had enough of reading about Redpoll ID and my two-pence-worth is not worth that!) and lucked in with 4 Spoonbill seen across the river at Buckenham. With warmer weather forecast this next week, what about an Alpine Swift on the patch?

Monday, 12 March 2018

Thoughts on The Beast

With The Beast From The East in the rear view mirror, driving past the frozen drifts that scatter the countryside today I reflected on what was an unprecedented few days in my experience. I remember well digging my car out when I lived in Norwich around 5 years ago, before the call came in from work to remain at home. If anything, temperatures were even colder then, but this year the sheer amount of snowfall and strong winds caught almost everyone out. To be genuinely cut off in the village was a unique experience (the road to Rockland the only passable route, and the shelves of the village shop were ransacked with no plan nor recipe in mind) and I am sure we will talk about this for years to come.

The local wildlife made instant changes to behaviour. On the final day of February, a female Reed Bunting appeared amongst the snow in the back garden, and 2 males arrived over the next couple of days. Fieldfare and Mistle Thrush became firsts for the garden, both hanging around until Saturday the 3rd when a gentle thaw began and the garden was empty by mid-morning. A fascinating Thrush v Thrush battle played out in the arena of the lawn, and a Barn Owl and Kestrel showed interest in proceedings, flying through once each between Wednesday and Friday.

I managed to get to Rockland Broad, which turned out to be a great decision as 9 Pochard (7 drakes) were on the broad, a bird that has not graced the year list for over 3 years. Weather can have that affect I guess. Down on frozen Claxton Marshes, I watched a little sad as Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover and Common Snipe drifted aimlessly past me, presumably looking for a piece of open ground or water to feed. No doubt some of these birds would have perished over that week. Very unusual to see these species so close, but desperate times and all that. On the river, I found Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall and Mallard all sheltering from the wind against the river bank. A tiny Wren and a Robin shared the same hollow tree stump, away from the Arctic conditions.

Now things have warmed up (a little) I had the Moth trap out on the night of March 10th. First trap session this year incredibly. One stunning Oak Beauty ushering in Spring at Claxton, along with the timely March Moth (3), Chestnut (2) and Dotted Border (2). A single Oak Nycteoline was in the bathroom.

 Claxton Marshes
 9 Pochard, record flock size for the patch, Rockland Broad
Oak Beauty

Monday, 19 February 2018

Hawfinch cracked

I began the half term week at Wrentham cemetery, whereby upon arrival I raised my head to the bare branches towering over the yews and there atop the tree was a Hawfinch, easy as that. I was starting to think this species was getting the better of me, having dipped at another Norfolk Churchyard on 2 occasions. This bird was soon joined by 2 more, and I enjoyed views of them feeding up high before flying low through the churchyard and disappearing into a Holly bush. Great to hear them calling too.

The weekend's WeBs counts were disappointing, and after a week of ice on the car early in the morning, I had hoped for more especially on Rockland Broad. Teal, Coot and Tufted Duck are expected species in small number. The Black-headed Gull pre-roost of 180 was more impressive. Teal and Mallard were the only birds I was able to record at Church Marsh, although the small private lake behind the church held at least 2 Wigeon and a male Shovelor, a first for the year. 2 Little Owl called from the gun club meadow, another first for the year and always nice to hear that they still hold onto this territory, seemingly not bothered by the full bore club. Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Marsh Harrier the other bits of note. Singing and calling has picked up on the patch in general, and yesterday a singing Marsh Tit at Rockland was added to the list of songsters which now includes Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and the odd burst of Cettis's Warbler.

A walk down to the river through Claxton Marshes yesterday, and a record count of 92 Mute Swans were loafing out on the grazing meadows and marsh. At least 4 Buzzards loudly proclaimed their presence, unsettling the gathered Corvids. A single Barn Owl hunted distantly as the light began to slip away.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

WeBs recap and old red returns

My wife nonchalantly dropped into conversation that a Red Kite had been present for most of the day out the back of the house on Friday. Out for most of the day Saturday, I finally managed my own sighting earlier today. The heavy, drooping wings and forked tail unlike any other Raptor in the valley and a welcome return to the patch. I am almost convinced that breeding took place last summer, but from September onwards the birds disappeared and I never had the smoking gun in the form of a nest or a juvenile to prove my thinking. Hopefully this will be the year. In other local news, I am still enjoying at least 1 Tawny Owl on my drive home from work in the evenings. A bird remains around Pond Farm, and on Thursday evening I had a second near the old church. The bird at Pond Farm is around half a mile away from a substantial block of deciduous woodland, so unless it is using a garden or not breeding at all, this individual must be making a short commute each night to what on the face of it looks like fairly inconspicuous farmland. Presumably the local Rat population is healthy enough for it to continue its endeavours.

Having made clear a few targets in my last blog, it was with great surprise and excitement that I watched a male Goosander flying down river at Surlingham Church Marsh on the 20th. Not even on the list, I exclaimed! I love how patch birding can still surprise even after over 5 years patching at Surlingham. Goosander are unpredictable in the valley, and more reliable at quiet inland lakes and pools such as Sparham or Thorpe Little Broad. A great bird to add to the lifetime list here, and after a relatively lean year in 2017, this was a species I had never recorded, in the bag, before January slinks away. Elsewhere on the reserve, a Nuthatch was calling near the church, at least 2 Bearded Tit pinged from the reeds near the gun club and 17 Mallard were on the lagoon. Most interesting was a possible Siberian Chiffchaff. At the time, I noted that this was the palest Chiffy I had seen (bar of course an actual Siberian) with grey tones to its plumage. The breast though was strikingly pale. Annoyingly it never called, and remained low in scrub. I saw it on and off for around 30 seconds before it moved away, lost to view. I expect this probably was a Siberian, but without the call to clinch it, it won't go down as anything more than a very pale Common Chiffchaff.

At Rockland the following morning, I was struggling to keep warm with the temperature hovering around zero. Warming the cockles slightly was the long-staying drake Goldeneye, nice to get this not only into the New Year but on the WeBs count too. 7 Teal, 2 Coot, GC Grebe 2, Little Grebe 2, Mallard 2, Tufted Duck 3, Kingfisher 1 and Heron 2 completed the count. Again, Bearded Tit were pinging here too, this time on the Rockland Marsh side rather than the more likely Wheatfen land. 2 Marsh Tit, 2 Buzzard, 1 Marsh Harrier and a single Snipe rounded off the morning before I returned home to warm myself up.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Tawny in the hedge

For the last few days, arriving home in the dark via Carleton St. Peter I have been treated to splendid views of a Tawny Owl. If anyone reading knows where Pond Farm is, drive past there around 5-6pm and you have a bloody good chance of seeing this bird sat atop a hedge. One night, I pulled up alongside it and we just stared at each other for around half a minute until it grew a little more anxious and flew. I have watched it hover by a verge and drop into the undergrowth, and tonight I had a nice flight view over the road and beyond into the field by headlight. The local Tawnies are getting ready to raise a family once again, and are fairly vocal. Perhaps this bird is a youngster, as the territory does not seem ideal for breeding, but then one cannot tell how far they wander in a night.

Before the New Year we made a family visit to Santon Downham in the hope of connecting with the Parrot Crossbills. I did not let on about the tolerant Otter family on the river, but need not have worried for one individual performed superbly in front of a small gathering on the river bank, close enough for even Rose to see. Although tough to beat the wilderness that accompanies a sighting on a Scottish loch or coast, this was certainly my best sighting in terms of views. No Crossbill sadly.

The following day, we blanked with Hawfinch at Sotterley Park but an evening stroll down the marsh allowed for a close encounter with both Barn Owl and Woodcock. I managed to time it right so that I was on the track to the Beauchamp Arms just before darkness, with the Corvid roost erupting above me. A sight and sound I never tire of.

The New Year crept in and so did the birds. A drake Goldeneye on Rockland Broad remained from at least the 5th of December, and at the staithe a Grey Wagtail is again over-wintering. The common Raptors have all been recorded, including a male and female Marsh Harrier at Surlingham which bodes well. 

A Hume's Leaf Warbler had been present at Waxham for over a week, so on Sunday the 14th I caved and went for a look. I had not added a bird to my British list since the Cliff Swallow at Minsmere (probably due to the fact I rarely choose to make those longer journeys) and this was a species I had wanted to observe for some time. On arrival I was the first birder on site, and walking past the impressive new Shangri La Passivhaus I instantly heard the vocal Hume's calling. The first couple of notes were similar to a Coal Tit, but then the classic call I had been listening to on my Aves Vox app kicked in. The call began to drift beyond the cottage, so I followed north past Bide a Wee cottage and managed a glimpse of the elusive Phyllosc as it dived into a bramble. I did wonder whether that would be it, and although other birders had turned up not all knew the call so I felt a little isolated with this one. Thankfully, as I was creeping through some low scrub south of Shangri La, the Hume's decided to make an appearance right in front of me. I whistled and got others onto the bird, which again called and moved within 2 inches of the ground gleaning whatever insects it could find from the foilage. It was pale, with grey tones especially around the mantle. The supercilium was there but not bright, it didn't jump off the bird. What was most striking was the behaviour, reminiscent of a Cetti's Warbler. I didn't even bother with a photo, and just counted myself lucky that I had observed the bird so closely as it went about its business. 

WeBs count tomorrow, so back to the patch. A few targets for the year ahead- Merlin (always), Med Gull (hoping for a bird in the Rockland pre-roost), Firecrest (migrant, has been recorded but not by me), Long-eared Owl (have been recorded relatively locally in recent years), Marsh Warbler (the ultimate) and finally Glossy Ibis (maybe the likeliest of the lot?). 

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Midwinter Solstice seems like a good time to reflect

After a quiet November, I had to wait until the 20th of December for one of the patch days of the year. I began with a casual pre-lunch stroll down to Claxton Marshes, hoping for the first Short-eared Owl of the Winter. The marshes themselves were quiet, save for the small gathering of Mute Swan and 2 hunting Marsh Harriers, both female. The dyke alongside the footpath caught my attention however, with the pings of Bearded Tit emanating from the lower stems. There were at least 3 birds here, at least 1 a male, and these birds constituted my 3rd, 4th and 5th records in Claxton. Much closer to home than the last; a garden bird next?! I watched them feed for a while, then lost sight and turned my attention to the wet flashes across the grazing meadow, which had caught the interest of a group of Lapwing and Starling. One of the Harriers flushed a Snipe, and walking back I looked up to hear the monosyllabic call of a Pipit, and one I had been after for a while- this one was a Water Pipit, my first on the patch! I know that Ben gets them every year, often in off-piste locations, but this year he had seen flyover birds in Rockland and birds on the deck at Church Marsh, so I had felt like this Winter was a good chance to connect. And so it proves to be.

Later that afternoon, I met Ricky and James for a walk to Rockland Broad and back. Beguiled by the local Muscovy Ducks and slowed by Ricky's missing phone, we headed out as dusk approached. We had at least 2 Redpoll call overhead and briefly circle before being lost to view. Upon checking the water levels, I flushed a Woodcock from the damp carr woodland. The Broad at first appeared to hold very little bar a c300 strong Black-headed Gull roost. A flash of white of a diving Duck, and my hopes were raised. It was indeed a Goldeneye, a stunning male. This is not an easy species at Rockland, and I believe this is my 4th or 5th record. According to the sightings sheet, this bird has been here since the 9th and presumably arrived on the cold weather system that swept the UK in early to mid December. A nice addition this late in the year. At the back of the broad, mist made Raptor watching difficult. A large group of Bearded Tit went unseen, and singles of Marsh Harrier and Buzzard slipped through to roost.

Looking back over my notes for the past couple of months, a ringtail Hen Harrier was certainly the bird of November, at the back of Rockland Broad on the 4th. 8 Little Grebe on the 19th were a site record count, and 2 Woodcock over Claxton on the 18th of December flew in the absence of a traditional Woodcock moon. Away from the patch, I was lucky to catch up with one of my favourite species. Sotterley Park in Suffolk, along with neighbouring Henham, have historically been Hawfinch breeding and wintering sites but have been blank for at least 5 years. The nationwide invasion of this bullish Finch has bought birds back to Sotterley, and on the 3rd of December I connected with 2 (1 male) in the dell at Sotterley. I wonder how many birds are here altogether, and fingers crossed they hang around to breed. I need to spend more time here to find out what is going on. A roost count would perhaps be the best way of establishing numbers.

My year list on the patch looks like it is all done at 118, my lowest total since counting and 3 off last year's total. Water Pipit was bird 150 heard or seen on or from the patch, so a genuine landmark. Looking ahead to next year, Merlin still evades me as does Firecrest and these would be 2 likely additions one day. A singing Marsh Warbler is still the number 1 target! I can only put the lower than usual total, and lower number of blog posts down to family life, and I wouldn't change this for anything. I am still lucky enough to have the patch on my doorstep, and Rose's fledgling list already includes the likes of Barn Owl and Marsh Harrier. What a place to grow up.

Away from home, we have a family holiday in Spain to look forward to in April which although not for birding I hope to see a few Vultures, some continental Butterflies and enjoy nice wine amongst the mountains. Although a year with endless highlights, it has not always been a cake walk and the holiday is much deserved for Debs and her dad for reasons I won't go into here. UK-wise, I was talking with James about a trip to see the Marsh Fritillaries in Lincolnshire and we just need to pick a decent weekend nearer the time for this to come off. Black Hairstreak is another target, and I recall a weekend either side of Father's Day should work for this species and perhaps Wood White. Cirl Bunting? Maybe......patch? Without question. Seeing and understanding the wildlife in the South Yare Valley is what continues to drive me, and I look forward to the arrival of the first Willow Warbler back at Church Marsh just as much as the first Autumn foray to the coast.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, and I will endeavour to blog just a little more often in 2018.
 Church Marsh at its best

Hawfinch country.