Monday 27 January 2014

Goodbye Lyubov Orlova

Such a sad end for such a lovely lady (boat). Named after a Soviet actress, The Lyubov Orlova, which I spent two weeks aboard in 2007 on a trip to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica, is either still adrift or sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rat-infested ghost ship drifts towards the Irish coast

I saw many great birds from her decks as we sailed the Drake passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. Wandering, Royal and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, hundreds of Wilson's Stormies, Prions, Giant Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters. May she rest in peace where ever she is.

Sunday 26 January 2014

The final 'foot-it'

So the final weekend of 'foot-it'. I was nowhere near my target of 70 so I pondered giving in altogether and heading to coast or somewhere else but in the end I decided to stick with it.
Shortly after I left the house this morning the rain started to come down and the wind picked up. I was out for around three hours and although I managed to pick up Mealy Redpoll, Canada Goose (feral), Shoveller and Herring Gull, I was cold and wet by the time I got back. I walked through UEA checking the feeders (where I had a single female Brambling and at least two Mealys). The broad remains quiet but at West Earlham marshes I had managed Canada Goose (feral), Shoveller and Herring Gull. In all my total is now 54 and likely to stay on that unless I luck a Tawny Owl during the week or can make it on Friday evening to Eaton Common and jam in a Barn Owl - both are a long shot though.
So what's been the highlight of 'foot-it'. Well several things really, its been great to explore the area around where we live. Up to now I had kind of ignored it and this has pushed me to see what sort of habitats exist locally and I have been surprised by what I discovered and excited by the prospects of what these places could offer in the next few months. Marston Marshes and Eaton Common in particular will be places I intend to visit in April and May as the summer migrants arrive. Cuckoo, Garden Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat all look like possibilities in these spots and wouldn't it be special to dig out a singing Nightingale somewhere?
The other benefit has been the exercise. Four weekends in a row I've left the car parked up and birded on foot. And what's more, what started as night time walks around the local area looking for calling Tawny Owls has become a regular walk each evening after work, I intend to keep that up as the benefits are obvious.
And bird-wise what have been the highlights. Well, there were no real shocks or surprises. It was nice to see Brambling and Mealy Redpoll on the feeders at UEA but I expected I would at some point. Hearing a Cetti's Warbler only ten minutes from home on Eaton Common was very nice. For those who regularly bird the Yare river valley, its nothing special, but coming from Ireland where the species is very rare and having only previously seen or heard them in Mallorca, that was the highlight for me.
So what did I was miss out on. Well with a score of 54 versus 70, quite a lot obviously. But I was surprised not to see any Sparrowhawk, Siskin or Green Woodpeckers. I couldn't, despite my best efforts, flush any Woodcock or Snipe, I was unsuccessful, despite trying, for any owl species (I tried many evenings for Tawny, searched at UEA for Little and on Eaton Common for Barn Owl). I hoped for a wintering Chiffchaff and expected to at least hear a Water Rail but will finish without these two as well.
So what's next? Well, the Six Nations starts next Saturday, so I will work my birding around the matches as I always try to do. I've enjoying looking for my own birds rather than fruitlessly chasing other peoples finds around Norfolk, so I will try to catch up with some species such as Woodlark, Goshawk and Rough-legged Buzzard in February and I will practise a bit more with the external flash and fresnel lens in preparation for my Ohio warbler trip in May. Enough to be getting along with me thinks.

River Yare at west Earlham marsh - 26th January 2014

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Birdguides Review of the Year 2013 - Part II

I was very pleased to see one of my photos used in Birdguides Review of the Year: 2013 - Part II .

The photo was one I took of male Common Redstart near the plantation on Blakeney Point, Norfolk on the final weekend of August 2013. Suitable weather conditions lead to a very decent sized fall of early autumn migrants such as Common Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats and Wrynecks.
For this one I lay on my stomach in front of a small Tamarisk in which the bird was feeding from and propped my lens up on my rucksack. The bird showed very well for a few minutes as it chased insects, allowing me to obtain a couple of decent images and a short movie clip

Common Redstart, Blakeney Point, Norfolk - August 2013

Sunday 19 January 2014

Back to Foot-it

It was back to 'footing-it' today. With this being the penultimate weekend and my total still at a measly forty two, I had some catching up to do.
The rain cleared about 10am and as I headed up through Eaton Park, it was turning out to be a fine morning.
I checked the feeders at UEA and the first bird there was a female Brambling, after spending thirty minutes there I had a total of three Brambling but no Mealy Redpoll. Still, that was okay. The Broad itself was quiet, but in the woods on the far side I had Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. In general birds were very active with several songsters taking advantage of the mild weather. A Mistle Thrush sang from the top of one of the University buildings and Blue Tits and Great Tits were spending a lot of time chasing each other around with some already displaying. I checked the plantation above the rugby pitches for Crossbills but no joy and then made my way back to check the southern edge of the Broad. Unlike New Year's Day, there was no Gadwall or Great Crested Grebe, best there were three Cormorants and a bunch of Black-headed Gulls having a wash.
I headed over to the boardwalk and began to make my way along the track beside the river Yare that runs into Eaton village. Unfortunately the surface was extremely muddy so I spent more time trying to avoid falling over than actually doing any birding. I had hoped for Cetti's Warbler (or an outside chance of Goosander) along this stretch but reached Eaton with nothing added to the list.

River Yare between Eaton and UEA - 19th January 2014

It might not sound like it, but by this stage I'd covered a lot of ground. My target now was to make it over towards Eaton Common for 3pm in the hope of connecting with a Barn Owl that Nick Watmough had there last week.
As I reached the level-crossing I heard a distant mewing call and just had a few seconds to see a Common Buzzard (with a full looking crop) disappear over the tops of the trees on the far side of the common and out of sight. Oddly, my first BOP of the foot-it challenge. There was still plenty of light so I ambled along the path towards Keswick Mill. I had one time hopes for Kingfisher here (having seen them from the bridge in October) but the water is very fast-moving right now. However a pair of Grey Wagtails were compensation.

No Barn owls but nice evening light near Keswick Mill, Norwich - 19th January 2014

From 3pm to 4.45pm I spent all that time scanning for Barn Owl but to no avail. As the cold set in I finished off the last of my hot coffee. By 4.30pm I was chilled to the bone. I gave it ten more minutes before calling it a day. I had gone just two steps when a Cetti's Warbler gave me a burst of song from the ditch in front. I even managed a brief glimpse of the bird before it broke cover and flew up the path to resume its scolding song from another patch of thick vegetation.
When I got home I tucked into some Thai soup that Polina had prepared. The bird's eye chili that I accidentally bit into has certainly warmed me up.
So, my total goes to 49. Not great, but the exercise has been fantastic, its great to explore the local neighbourhood and dig out some of the things it has to offer. Despite at least three night time strolls for Tawnys, I'm still without any Owls. Siskins are eluding me as are Snipe, Woodcock and most birds of prey but Cetti's was bird of day and I still have one more weekend to go.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Five of the best by Lars Jonsson

Thirty-five years ago I bought the first of the two books in the Penguin Nature Guides series illustrated by the great Lars Jonsson.
The books were available in my local book shop, the sadly now defunct Exchange Bookshop in Dalkey, County Dublin. I think they were £3 each at the time and if I remember correctly it was pocket money from a generous visiting relative that financed my purchases. Between the ages of twelve to thirty two I was distracted away from birds (as so often happens), but I kept the books and have opened them many times since then and slowly pored over the stunning illustrations.
Last week I was clearing out old books and brought a bag full to a second hand book shop in Norwich. I didn't want any money for them so the owner told me to pick out a book for myself 'on the house'. I found a near perfect copy of third book in the series 'Birds of Lake, River, Marsh and Field. Seeing how much I was enjoying the books, my wonderful wife Polina found the last two on ebay and amazon earlier in the week and this morning the set was complete........thirty-five years later.

All I need now is for Mr. Jonsson to sign them.

Sunday 5 January 2014

'Foot it' effort stumbles (a bit)

After my mediocre start to 'Foot it' on New Year's Day, it's come to a complete standstill since. I had an early start on Saturday morning, I was up at 3am for a run to Luton airport. Should of gone back to bed when I got home but I stayed up and felt shattered this morning. The sun was shining first thing on one of those beautiful crisp winter days. I should have been up and out but stayed in the scratcher until 11am. All I could manage was to do a little sneaky 'sniping' instead. I drove up to Exeter Street in Norwich and looked around for the Waxwings, no sign. Then I drove to UEA to look for Crossbills, no sign either. The only 'new' bird I saw was a Grey Heron, which of course I can't count because I drove there rather than 'footing it'.
This evening I'm going to take a short walk around the neighbourhood and try a spot for Tawny Owl - it's one of my 'Slight Chance' species (see previous post), so if I happen to score one then it might re-invigorate my efforts. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Footing it

The first post of 2014 - Happy New Year to one and all. I hope 2014 will be at least as good as 2013 was. Having gotten the first year in Norfolk under my belt, I intend this year to be a bit more targeted about the birds I want to see. 2013 was great, but a bit random, as I was getting to know the places and the scene. This year I'm starting with the foot-it challenge for January and as the year moves along I'll be aiming for some species like Woodlark, Bittern, Jack Snipe, Dartford Warbler and so on. In May I have a week long trip to Magee Marsh in Ohio and may get another week mid-summer in Latvia. As for the autumn, I'd love to go back to Cape Clear once more or perhaps even Fair Isle, I'll see how the finances are looking and if I can negotiate a few days with my better half of course.

Anyway, back to more immediate matters. On 31st December I decided to sign up for the foot-it challenge. (see Foot it 2014 Blog for more details). I've never done this before but thought it might be interesting for a change. I set a 2 mile radius from where I live and have given myself a target of 70 species. That may be a bit kind but other more experienced observers in the same west Norwich area are targeting 75.

On my list I have broken it up into several groups (based on my experience of the general area in 2013, although I have to say I did very little birding around the neighbourhood last January). I have four groups, Probable, Possible, Slight Chance and Outside Chance. The total adds up to 110 species. In the Probable group its the obvious stuff like Robin, Blackbird, Great Tit etc., Possible has things like Water Rail, Kingfisher, Snipe and Skylark, in the 'Slight Chance' group I have birds like Goosander, Little Owl and Woodcock and 'Outside Chance' (i.e. unlikely but who knows!), I have things like a flyover Hawfinch, wintering Yellow-browed or Firecrest or perhaps a Smew on UEA broad.

I was all set last night to kick-off the challenge early but then I saw a report of a Red-necked Grebe at Whitlingham CP (which is outside of my patch). I couldn't resist the temptation and went for that first. There's nothing nicer than close up views of wintering diving ducks, grebes or divers on an inland patch of water. Somtimes you can be really lucky and get them close in to the shore and have some amazing photos. Not this time though, I arrived at 9am, the bird had been looked for but not seen. A bit surprising but nothing I could do. I drove back home, parked up and started the foot it challenge.
And I was glad I did. First of all the walk did me good, and all the time you're birding! Not driving from A to B, parking, walking to a spot, seeing or not seeing a bird, walking back again, more driving and more driving. This was back to basics birding and a lot of fun. A bit like doing a mini bird race. It reminded me of my days doing the bird races around Cobh, County Cork (see The Great Island Bird Race).

In a short time I had female Blackcap, plenty of Redwings and a finally some birds starting to use the feeders I have hung out in the front garden (Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest). I made my way over to Eaton Common which frankly was a bit disappointing. I had hopes for Kingfisher at Keswick Mill or maybe Grey Wagtail but best I had was Little Egret. The weather started to close in with persistent rain and wind. This seemed to lessen the amount of birds I was seeing. I stopped to eat lunch in Eaton village (last night's left-over take-away - surprisingly tasty when you're ravenous), this picked me up a little and I headed up towards UEA where, despite the nasty weather, I managed to score a few more species. Jay, Lesser Redpoll, Coot, Great Crested Grebe and on the broad a single male Gadwall (rare for the area I believe). By now I was starting to get a bit soaked. I was enjoying the birding but the rain was seeping in and I didn't expect too much more. I walked the board-walk in hope of Cetti's Warbler but called it a day without that species.
So, I finished the day with a modest 38 species, others working the same area hit 48. But for me it's more about knowing what's on my doorstep. Its what birding is about and hopefully by the end of January I will have a far better idea of the habitats and species that are on my local patch. I'm exciting about doing the same exercise come April and May as the summer migrants arrive and of course in autumn as stuff moves through again.

UEA broad - 1st January 2014