Saturday, 16 May 2015

Ode to a Nightingale

So....Nightingales! While I'm fortunate to live in a part of the UK where they still hang on, they're not the easiest bird to see, never-mind to photograph. There are a few local spots where they breed near Norwich but I've never seen them well in any of those, usually just a fleeting glimpse as they break cover and then sing from deep in some impenetrable whitethorn bush.
For me there is something enigmatic about them, maybe because in Ireland they are so rare, maybe because of the sheer beauty of their song, their reference in literature or their ability to remain so well concealed! At the beginning of 2015 I made a promise to myself that I would try to photograph a Nightingale in England, somewhere, anywhere! Didnt have to be Norfolk, I would travel if I knew of one that was singing in the open.
Anyway, a friend of mine contacted me during the week and gave me directions to a site in Suffolk where up to eight birds were in song. One or two where singing out in the open apparently. I decided to do a reconnaissance of the site after work on Friday evening. I'd had a crappy week and was looking forward to getting out for a few hours to unwind.
At the site, the Nightingales were easy to locate, within half an hour I had found one male singing in reasonable view. With patience and care I managed to figure out a spot where I had a clear view of him as he sang from a bramble, as the sun dropped he got busier and put on a great show.

After so many collective hours spent trying to photograph this species and very little photographic success so far this year, this was one of those times when it all came together. One of those moments when you remember why you love birds so much and why photographing them can be so rewarding and exciting.
I returned this afternoon and having figured out the HD movie function on my new camera body, I  tried to catch a short movie clip of one in song. This time I had to wait as the bird wasn't quite so fond of his bramble. I spent two hours waiting for him to hop up, at one stage as I sat waiting and drinking my coffee, he sang a few feet from my head - perfectly concealed of course. But eventually he played ball, sat on his "singing" branch and performed - he's now on YouTube!

A Nightingale sings in Suffolk

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Right place, right time - Citril Finch twitch

The ball bounced my way today. I was en route to Choseley Barns for Dotterel when a text came in from Nick Watmough asking if I was up twitching the Citril Finch at Holkham Pines. The thoughts of a crowded twitch and distant views of the bird with little chance for a photograph were slightly off-putting but it was Britain's only second record of Citril Finch since the 2008 Fair Isle bird and I was only twenty minutes from Holkham - I caved in and went for it!
Being close to Choseley, I stopped first and took a look at the Dotterel. I counted nineteen though I believe it has been up to twenty-nine. The last time I saw this species (and only other time for that matter) was in Cork in 2012 and they were juveniles. I had not seen a proper female bird, even at a distance they were impressive.
Anyway, I didn't hang around and was soon skimming along the A149 coast road towards Holkham. I parked up at Lady Anne's Drive where I met Nick and we began the trek towards the far side of the pines where it meets Burnham Overy Staithe. It was a good half-hour yomp but there were plenty of Warblers singing en route, Grasshopper, Whitethroat, Cetti's, Sedge, Willow, Chiffer, Blackcap and Reed. Within two  minutes of arriving the bird was re-located, feeding on the deck at the base of a pine but in thickish cover. Despite my best efforts and to be fair, with a bit of help from one very decent birder who did his best to put me onto the bird, I couldn't see. The best I had was a flight view as it broke cover. I wasn't 100% sure about ticking it on those views but still had time if I was patient. For the next hour or the bird was in absentia. Having said that no-one was really looking too hard. There were probably one hundred plus birders but very few with bins to their eyes. James Lowen, myself and Nick got bored and began to wander about. I spent time at the same spot it had been earlier but no luck. Then, as it happened, James and a few others relocated it further west in a small gulley. Cue one hell of a stampede down the dunes and back up before the bird flushed and flew over our heads to the spot we had previously all been standing around. Anyway, this time it was a little easier to pick out. After a little confusion about which pine tree it was under, I managed to get onto the bird and enjoyed excellent views as it fed on the short turf below a stunted pine tree.

Citril Finch, Holkham Pines / Burnham Overy, Norfolk - 10 May 2015
Although the crowd was sizeable, behaviour was generally good. I did see one woman tell another birder to "Fuck off" when he requested her to sit down because she was blocking his view - it wasn't an unreasonable request in my opinion and her reaction was over the top. Still apart from that, the crowd was well-behaved and once everyone had seen the bird well, the banter was great craic!

A selection of the crowd enjoying Britain's second Citril Finch
The journey back seemed to take forever, thirst and hunger were kicking in but so too a sense of satisfaction. I hope James, Nick and I didn't look too smug to those who were just arriving and heading to see the bird.
Back at the car I enjoyed a well-earned sambo and a chat with Rob Holmes. After that I headed home and had a good wash after all that dirty twitching ;-)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A long weekend in Latvia

Just back from a long weekend in Latvia. Not a birding trip as such but bins and camera came along.....just in case ;-)
I managed to slip out of work early on Friday afternoon, as I avoided the stag parties en route to Riga I bumped into fellow Irish birder Killian Mullarney at Stansted as he returned from a week of guiding in Greece. I arrived in Latvia after dark so it was Saturday before I got out.
I was greeted by a fairly grey and miserable morning as I looked out on the garden first thing but the scene was soon brightened up by two fly-over Hawfinches. I was to catch up with later on while I walked the dog to the nearby shop so not a bad start.
That afternoon we opened the BBQ season with a no nonsense grill in the back garden, chicken and pork good as it gets believe me!
Polina's friends joined us with their kids for the BBQ but the star of the show was the three month old Bernese Mountain Dog pup which I fell in love with (much to our Pug Sashsa's disgust).

Me, the 'pup' and a jealous Pug.

Polina wanted to natter with her friends so I was advised to 'F' off birding! second invite needed there. I checked the woods across from the house where a single Wood Warbler was in full song despite the cold and wet day. Up at the Lielupe river it was quiet but four fly-over Common Cranes and a reeling Locustella spp. were welcome (more to follow there).

Weather-wise Sunday was a big improvement, still a chill in the air but the crisp bright sunshine seemed to make all the difference. A Common Redstart pair chased each other along the fence of the house across the street and during a walk around the neighbourhood with the small hound I had four more singing male Common Redstarts........I'm so envious of these being garden birds!!
Up at the Lielupe river I decided to see if the Locustella spp. I had the previous day was still reeling, I hadn't seen the bird but my money was on Savi's Warbler. Sure enough, when I returned to the same spot (pausing briefly when I heard a fly-over Blue-headed Wagtail) the bird was still reeling. A scan of the reedbed revealed the source to indeed be Savi's Warbler. One bird became two, then three and at times four birds in a hormone-fueled "reel-off"! They kept a little distant for photos and the sun was very much from the side and very harsh, but I managed some "artistic" shots in the end.

Savi's Warbler, Lielupe, Dzintari, Jurmula, Latvia
These show much better than G'roppers and were my best views of any Locustellas I have ever had. River Warbler would have been a lifer, so I'll have to return when they arrive and start reeling (I wish). As I said at one stage there were four birds reeling at the one time, I tried to record this on my iphone, not exactly state-of-the-art recording equipment but maybe this gives you the picture.

The sound of the"reel-off"

I called it a day by 8pm, Common Terns, a singing male Whinchat and female Black Redstart finished off the day as I headed home.
Today I'm back in the UK and already missing Polina, the Pug and the great birding in Latvia!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Keeping it local

I used the longer day light hours to check a few places after work each evening last week. Truth be told though I was a little disappointed with the seemingly low number of migrants so far on breeding territory.
I checked East Wretham Heath three times last week and up to Friday evening there were no Common Redstarts present (from what I could see / hear). Marston Marshes also seemed dead with the odd Blackcap and Chiffchaff being all there was to liven things up. Colney GP / Bawburgh Fisheries was about the same although a single Common Swift consorting with a mixed hirundine flock was my earliest record yet of this species in either Ireland or the UK.

Common Swift - Colney GP, Norwich - 21 April 2015
Not far from Colney, a Nightingale continues to sing but as usual evades all attempts to be photographed or even seen. I had a brief glimpse one evening but no more. At times it sang within ten feet but I couldn't see it - frustrating but remarkable all the same. I took the following movie clip (click on the link) with my iphone - not exactly a state-of-art microphone but you get the picture (or sound in this case)!

The unseen songster

Resisting all offers to travel over-night to the Scilly Isles for a certain Great Blue Heron, I awoke fresh and rested on Saturday morning and set-out for Colney GP to search for more Nightingales and other arrivals. Things seemed to have picked up with a Garden Warbler singing from a Whitethorn bush just as I entered through the steel gates. I spent the next five hours in the area and had two more Garden Warblers, at least one Common Whitethroat, numerous Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs and three Reed Warblers. Mid-afternoon produced bird of the day with this fly-over Hobby.

Hobby, Colney GP, Norwich, 25th April 2015
En route home I checked the Nightingale spot where the bird remains..........singing from deepest cover, of course!
Sunday was definitely cooler but a walk around Marston Marshes and Eaton Common showed that migrant numbers were up. In total I had five Sedge Warblers, two Grasshopper Warblers, one Common Whitethroat, one Willow Warbler and numerous Blackcaps. Last Thursday I had a brief snatch of Garden Warbler song so I suspect they may be in too. I didn't have much time for photos but managed a reasonable shot of one of the five Sedgies.

Sedge Warbler, Marston Marshes, Norwich - 26th April 2015
While I watching this chap a Grasshopper Warbler began reeling behind me, against the light and slightly obscured by a frond of grass, I managed a quick shot for the record. If time permits I may give these birds a little more time and go for a better shot than this.

Grasshopper Warbler, Marston Marshes, Norwich, 26th April 2015
This coming week is a busy one, but hopefully I'll find time to continue checking the local spots. I would expect the Common Redstarts to finally arrive at East Wretham (fingers crossed) and will continue to check Colney for Nightingales and see what more arrivals reach Marston Marshes. Stay posted!

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Easter Weekend

Yesterday (Sunday), I decided to try one last time to see the Santon Downham Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I must have tried seven or eight times this winter without success, its been a boogey bird for me in every sense of the word and up to now still missing from my life list. If I didn't get it today then the chances of connecting at all would be slim, I would be distracted by arriving summer migrants, the birds would start to become less vocal and the canopy would begin to leaf up! So it was now or never!
I arrived at what I considered to be the usual spot at around 11.30am, a bit late to be fair and becoming a bit gloomy too! Which after twenty minutes of nothing was a fair reflection of my mood! However, I met another birder who said that recently the bird had been reported from a spot about ten minutes walk further downstream (near to the tree marked '80' in luminescent green paint). That perked me up a bit so I picked up my stuff and walked on. I reached the marked tree and sat down to wait and listen, however after thirty minutes.....not a sausage!
As I was thinking of giving up a GSW started to drum and call. As I located it, a second bird began drumming further off in the distance. That drumming sounded different though, higher pitched maybe! I wondered if it might be an effect of distance and distortion of the sound as it traveled but it did sound different. I walked further along the river bank for maybe 500 yards and reached a large dead tree on the right hand side. Just as I was scanning the top branches of this tree, a small woodpecker flew in calling, landed on a branch near the top and began to drum. Up to now I had never seen or heard Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but there was no doubt that this was one. The bird spent two or three minutes drumming busily in the same spot before taking leave, flying over my head to the opposite bank of the river and stopping briefly to allow me take a few record shots. Only one shot came out but one was all I wanted - Lesser Spotted Woodpecker sorted finally!

Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - Santon Downham, Suffolk - 5th April 2015
I watched it for about a minute as it fed around the branches before moving deeper into the woods, where it continued to drum on and off for another five minutes or so. Even though it was now only 1pm, a Tawny Owl hooted away in the background.
Lunchtime beckoned, so I headed back along the path to the car stopping only to watch three Mandarin ducks that dropped in briefly before setting off again up the river. A bit 'plasticy' but it'll do for my UK list - two birds added within twenty minutes is not bad!

Male Mandarin Duck, Santon Downham, Suffolk - 5th April 2015
After lunch I still felt I had an hours birding left in me. I popped over to Lynford Arboretum where three Hawfinches (two males and one female) gave decent enough views in the company of some very smart male Bramblings.

Male Hawfinch, Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk - 5th April 2015

Female Hawfinch, Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk - 5th April 2015
Today (Monday) I took a different tack and went with Nick Watmough to Happisburgh to start looking for arriving migrants. The morning started off sunny but by 9am a thick fog had rolled in. First bird as we left the car-park at Happisburgh was a rather dull male Northern Wheatear, first one of the year for me (and Nick too I think). We did a circuit of the area but couldn't dig out anything else of note. From there we decided to head towards Weybourne and look for the Lapland Buntings which appeared to be moulting quite nicely into breeding plumage if photos on the web were anything to go by.
Two birds had been reported but we only managed to see one, still a smart individual nonetheless and only my second ever Lapland Bunting (a very scarce migrant and rare winter visitor in County Cork).

Lapland Bunting, Weybourne, Norfolk - 6th April 2015
By now the fog had burned off and the sun was out, it had turned into a very fine day. Having enjoyed decent views of the bird we decided to take lunch and headed back along the cliffs, past the coastguard cottage to the carpark, taking in the fine view as we walked.

Looking west along the north Norfolk coast - 6th April 2015
So all in all a good weekend and some good birds, three UK ticks, one of which was a lifer, its not often you can have that. Next week the winds veer south for a few days, hopefully we'll finally shake this long winter and see a decent arrival at last of our much loved summer migrants. Roll on!!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Easter Saturday stroll

Started the day off early with a very nice walk around Eaton Common. The morning was overcast and damp but a brief spell of sunshine brought some birds out. I reckon there's at least five Chiffchaffs now singing in various spots around Eaton Common / Marston Marshes, however for the moment that's it for summer visitors. The winds turn southerly late next week and across next weekend, so expect to see a few arrivals then!
A male Reed Bunting was calling from Hawthorns along the track from the level crossing to Keswick Mill. At the mill itself a Kingfisher sat still on low branch, it took flight just as the sun began to shine, flashing its vivid cobalt blue plumage as it sped off downstream. Meanwhile a pair a Grey Wagtails chased each other around below the bridge.
I returned back along the path to the level crossing, just as I was thinking to myself that I hadn't heard a Cetti's Warbler there for a while, that familiar scolding verse blasted out. I didn't see the bird (as usual) but good to know there is one still around.
As I crossed the railway track a fox watched me warily from several hundred feet away before exiting stage left. From the path on the opposite side of the track leading to Marston Marshes I had three Bullfinches (two males and a female). I called it a day at that and headed home for coffee.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Marston Marshes and Eaton Common

With no rugby this weekend to distract me and the clocks finally moving forward, I thought it was just the right time to kick off the spring season with a walk around my local patch of Eaton Common and Marston Marshes. In 2014 I birded this area three or four times a week from mid-April to the end of May and was delighted to see and hear nine different species of warbler (including Grasshopper and Garden Warblers) as well as seeing Cuckoo and a hunting Barn Owl.
The season is still early and the weather hasn't brought a significant arrival of summer migrants just yet. The photo I took of Eaton Common yesterday evening would make you think it was still mid-January, but resident birds like Dunnock, Greenfinch, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Great Tit were all busy singing and in some cases carrying nest material. A pair of displaying Buzzards over Keswick was a fine sight to behold.

Eaton Common, Norwich - 29th March 2015
A flock of forty plus Fieldfares certainly put a wintery feel to things but just beyond Keswick mill, high up in bare sycamore was a single Chiffchaff, belting out his onomatopoeic song. Hard to believe that such a simple and repetitive verse could sound so sweet, spring at last. A second bird was also singing in the woods between Eaton golf course and Marston Marshes. Chiffchaffs, along with Wheatears and Sand Martins are the first summer migrants to arrive. The males come in first followed a few weeks later by the females. The majority of British breeding Chiffchaffs winter in the Mediterranean basin but some also winter south of the Sahara with ring recoveries indicating that Senegal on the west African coast holds most of the sub-Saharan wintering British Chiffchaffs. So where-ever these two small warblers have traveled from its wonderful to welcome them back. In the next few weeks I expect them to be joined by Willow Warblers, Common Whitethroats, Blackcaps and hopefully Garden, Reed, Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers. I'll keep you posted and hopefully some good images to add also.