Friday 16 January 2009

2008 Roundup - Part 2

The next week my wife, Lynne, and I went to Shetland for five days. Shetland is something of a Mecca for birdwatchers and Lynne has also wanted to go there for a while. I won’t bore you too much with the problems of flying on a very small plane and needing to carry a fairly large lens in hand luggage, but if I tell you I can’t print Lynne’s reply when she learnt that her entire hand luggage would have to be replaced with one lens in a rucksack you’ll get the drift. Shetland is treeless, rather like Iceland but less dramatic. In summer, days are long. You really get good value out of the daylight. Roads are good and traffic jams are unheard of. Petrol was £1.40 a litre then but probably cheaper now.

Shetland landscape

We stayed two days at Sumburgh, a few minutes from the RSPB reserve at Sumburgh Head. There were still puffins in early August but not that many. Still, there were twite, another lifer, and Lynne pointed out some small birds to me on the grass bank just over the wall. I looked and knew they were crossbills, another lifer, but it wasn’t till I got back to the hotel that I realised they were juvenile two barred crossbills, rare vagrants from northern Russia. What I didn’t know was that nearby there were adult birds that are very colourful! If only I’d had my iPhone then, I would have been able to access the Internet and see what was about!

Two barred crossbill

Next day was Noss, an island off the East Coast, sporting loads of Great skuas (bonxies), about 20,000 gannets, rock pipits, arctic skuas and some seals. It’s quite impressive to see so many gannets, and the smell stays with you for quite a while too!

Gannet, Noss, Shetland.

Great skua, Noss, Shetland.

Next was the island of Mousa for black guillemot, red throated diver and storm petrels. Well we didn’t actually see the petrels, which only come at night.

Red throated diver, Mousa, Shetland.

We then moved to the North West, where the highlights were Whooper swans with young and merlin.

Whooper swan with cygnet, Shetland.

Next a trip to Hermaness in the very North of the islands where it was blowing a gale. On reaching the cliffs after walking across the reserve I sat down to rest and watch the birds. Thousands of gannets wheeled below me over the sea, plunging every so often from a great height to fish. Fulmars soared along the cliffs; puffins came and went bringing food for their young.

Fulmar Hermaness, Shetland.

One puffin approached and then circled round again, …..and again, ….and again. I wondered why he didn’t go to his burrow. Then he landed 2m from me and stared at my feet. I was in ecstasy. A puffin with at least 15 sand eels in its bill was 2m away from me. I quickly took several pictures, one of which I regard as one of the best shots I have been lucky enough to get, and looked down at my feet to see what he was staring at. My leg was in front of his burrow!!! I moved away and he scurried in at last.

Puffin with sand eels, Hermaness, Shetland

A last day in Lerwick and then home. The last three months of the year started with the sighting of a green heron at West Hythe in Kent. I went with David Campbell on a very wet and dreary day and the heron never came out from the tree he was sheltering under. I don’t blame him!

Green heron, West Hythe, Kent.

The following month a night heron was found in exactly the same place! What are the chances of that? I went to see that one as well.

Night heron, West Hythe, Kent.

I had always denied being a twitcher, but as I also went to see the desert wheatear at Sandwich, the hooded merganser at Radipole lake (on the way to the Westcountry) and the hawfinch at Bookham I suppose I must have turned into one of sorts this year. I also saw black redstart for the first time at Portland Bill; a very nice bird.

Black redstart, Portland Bill.

Finally, I went to see waxwings at Folkestone, also a lifer and a very handsome bird.

Waxwing, Folkestone, Kent.

All in all it was a very enjoyable year. My thanks to David Campbell who was with me and educated me on many of the outings. I was never so dedicated or knowledgeable at that age!

Happy New Year to you all.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

2008 Roundup - Part 1

2008 was a hectic year especially in the last few months. I'd never kept a year list before but David Campbell made me (well, all right - suggested that I should) keep a year list, so I did. At first I kept a list of all I saw on any trip but after a couple of months I only kept a note of new birds that year. Initially, we were fairly relaxed and I didn't have any idea how many different birds I would see in one year. By the time I had reached 175 the idea dawned that it might be possible to see 200 and this, linked with a little healthy competition with David, made me turn into something of a twitcher in the last three months of the year.

Early 2008 brought several lifers for me (birds that I'd never seen before). Some early trips to Dungeness saw white fronted geese (like greylag geese with elegant white foreheads) bean geese, which also look something like greylags, and long tailed duck.

White fronted geese.

Bean geese.

Nearer to home I saw brambling in Banstead. A weekend in Norfolk was cold but interesting, with highlights being snow bunting, spotted redshank, barn owl and, of course, the American white crowned sparrow which stayed for several weeks to the delight of birdwatchers everywhere.

Barn owl Norfolk

American white crowned sparrow

The Spring was a lovely time watching the young birds, and their parents desperately rushing around to find enough food to feed them all. At Pulborough Brooks in W. Sussex, one wren in particular had to run the gauntlet of all the visitors as her nest was just outside the visitors' centre. In Devon I saw the peregrine falcons nesting at Plymbridge Woods high in the cliff and a lovely dipper which was perfectly at home in the fast flowing river. Neither was a lifer for me but they are not common birds and it is nice to have the opportunity to observe them.



In June I saw my first red backed shrike, the so-called butcher bird, because it catches its prey and often impales it on thorns or barbed wire spikes to save them till later.

Red backed shrike

July was a lazy month and at Oare Marshes I spent some time observing a sedge warbler as it flew to its favourite perch and then off to the reeds for a while. Its favourite post was just over the water channel and, while it was away from it, I approached through the long grass and set up my tripod. I stopped every time it came back to its perch and sang its long scratchy song, moving closer when it left. Eventually I was directly opposite it and I was able to take a series of photos. One, as it sings its heart out, is my particular favourite. Later in July, also at Oare I saw a grey heron catch and eventually swallow a large eel. It took him some time with the eel wrapping itself around the heron’s bill so it was difficult for him to open it. The struggle went on for 7 or 8 minutes before the eel gave up and the heron had his meal.

Sedge warbler

Heron fighting eel

Our family holiday was just a week on the Greek Island of Lesvos. Opportunities for birdwatching were few but we did get away for a couple of hours to visit the salt pans of Skala Kallonis. July isn’t the best time for birds. Lesvos is apparently a great place for migrating birds in May but here we were in July. Nevertheless we saw c.100 greater flamingos and the same number of avocets. Just as we were leaving I spotted a black winged stilt which was calling loudly, another lifer for me. This is a beautiful wader with the longest legs imaginable on a bird, relative to its size of course. I managed to film it for a short while before it disappeared but I felt very happy to have seen it.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Waxwings and Goldcrests


The end of the year was exciting. Waxwings are common winter visitors from Russia and Scandinavia every five or six years when there is a large influx of them (called an irruption). 2008 was one of those years. There were none near me, however, and I had to go to Folkestone to see them (for the first time in my life). I arrived at 9.00 but none were to be seen. I waited near the carpark of the warehouse where they were last seen but still saw nothing although a redwing came to feed on the berries on a low bush nearby. Waxwings are often seen in supermarket carparks as they often have the ornamental berry bushes that waxwings like.

I was talking to another birdwatcher when someone told us the waxwings were 100m up the road. We saw them in the top of a tree in another carpark. There were 8 or 9 of them. At a certain point they all descended to feed from a nearby berry bush so I could get closer views. Then they flew back to the top of the tree again to digest what berries they had taken. This process was repeated every 5 or 6 minutes. Two of these handsome birds are shown below.


The following day I went to see a ring-necked duck in Hampshire. The only problem was that it wasn't there. It was so cold that the sand pits half full of water were all largely frozen over. I wandered around and flushed three or four jack snipe (they startled me just as much). That was a year tick for me, making my total for the year 200. As I was leaving I heard goldcrests calling. Five or six were coming towards me feeding on the thistle and gorse seeds. I put up my tripod and kept still. Goldcrests are, with firecrests, Britain's smallest birds. They weigh only 9gm and are very active, always in motion. I had never been able to get a good photo of one up to now. As I was alone they came closer and I was able to take several photos as they passed. This more than made up for not seeing the duck.