Sunday 27 April 2014

Keeping it local

The week just gone I've been keeping it local. Every evening, if time permits, I've been walking down to my local patch, Marston Marshes. This is an area of grazed meadow, open and over-grown river bank, small stands of willows, reeds and the odd patch here and there of gorse and bramble.
Before this week I'd had good numbers of Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Common Whitethroat, Cetti's and a single Marsh Tit. This week though it's started to come into its own. On Tuesday evening I had a reeling Grasshopper Warbler and I've continued to hear it from different locations around Marston up to and including tonight. On Wednesday evening I had a singing Garden Warbler which had been joined by second male singing in the same area since yesterday. Sedge Warbler numbers have steadily increased since last weekend and this evening I had a Reed Warbler before I left at 8pm. All I need now is a Cuckoo! Which now that the Acros are in, are probably not too far away.
I tried all day today and yesterday to photograph the Garden Warblers but failed miserably. I'll leave them now and maybe they'll settle a little if some females come in. I did manage a decent shot of a male Reed Bunting singing from the top of a Hawthorn. It was pretty straightforward, every time I passed this bush along the path he was there, unperturbed by walkers or my lens pointing at him. 

Singing male Reed Bunting, Marton Marshes, Norwich - 26th April 2014
I also managed finally to get a glimpse of the Green Woodpecker that I hear calling but never seem to see. On the raptor front I also added Peregrine to my Marston Marshes local list to go along with Buzzard, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk.
Yesterday I did also head back over to the area between West Earlham and Bowthorpe Marshes where there would now appear to be at least two singing Nightingales (I suspect a third bird may even be there but I can't be certain). Hearing them was no problem but the only looks I got were as one bird dashed across the path from one Hawthorn to another or a dark shape moving around from deep cover. I stood by a Hawthorn at one stage with the bird singing loudly from within and I still couldn't see it. Here's a sound bite taken using my iphone. Excuse the poor quality but you get the idea.

Youtube link to sound of Nightingale singing

A Common Tern was also in the area but sadly no Arctics passing through (or Whiskered for that matter!).

At UEA I checked the slopes below the gorse near the NNUH and I was in luck. The male Ring Ouzel was still present although approach was difficult so all I could manage was this cropped record shot. This morning there was no sign of it but not to mean its gone, could just have been sitting in the hedgerow.

Ring Ouzel, UEA campus, Norwich - 26th April 2014
I returned this evening around 6pm for a final wander around Marston Marshes as the sun dropped. The Garden Warblers were still singing on and off, as was the Grasshopper Warbler and several Common Whitethroats, Best of all though, as I mentioned already, was the first Reed Warbler of the year!

Saturday 19 April 2014

Return of the Breckland Redstarts

Yesterday I kept it local and birded around Marston Marshes and Eaton Common in west Norwich. My first Common Whitethroat of the year, a singing male was the highlight although Marsh Tit, two Cetti's Warblers and a ringed Chiffchaff were nice. Plenty of yodeling Blackcaps including two males, having a right sing-off with each other, was fun to watch also.
Today I decided to drop into East Wretham Heath seeing as a male Common Redstart had been reported from there yesterday.
I arrived about lunchtime and managed to pick up a smart male bird feeding in the vicinity of the hide. The females, I believe, come in slightly later. This particular male was giving some short bursts of sub-song / song but spent most of the time moving around from place to place, it really was quite mobile.
I have always found Common Redstarts to be very difficult to photograph. They seem to be very flighty and wary except on autumn passage when they are slightly more approachable. However by then the handsome males have developed pale fringes to the feathers and are perhaps not as striking. I reckon the best place to photograph them is Gilfach Farm in central Wales but that's a five hour drive at least from Norwich, so I'm not in a rush to do that. Even in Latvia, where they are common around the gardens and parks of Jurmala, I've struggled to get decent images. The slightest movement seems to spook the males away.
Today I tried the sit and wait approach, or rather lie and wait. I placed the lens on a bean bag, got down on my belly and waited...........three hours later I had some reasonable shots, although my back and shoulders are now killing me and my bladder at the end of it all was ready to burst.

Male Common Redstart, East Wretham Heath, Norfolk - 19th April 2014

For me, there is scarcely a finer or more handsome bird than a male Common Redstart in fresh breeding plumage.

Sunday 13 April 2014

More Crossbill fun

So after returning from my brief trip to Latvia, I still had a few days off. Once all necessary 'chores' were out of the way I had time for birding. While it was certainly more spring-like in Norfolk than Latvia had been, there was still a chill in the air and migrants were relatively thin on the ground.
On Thursday I walked Winterton north dunes going beyond the toad pools to try and find the Wryneck that had been reported earlier in the day but it had moved on probably. It was only on the return leg that I saw one of the three Ring Ouzels, a fine male perched on a distant gorse bush. Apart from my first Swallow of the year, the other highlight was this fine Adder. The first time I have seen one anywhere, I guess thats what becomes of living in 'snake-free' Ireland for most of my life.

Common Adder, Winterton Dunes, Norfolk - 10th April 2014
On Friday I birded Horsey Gap where four Swallows, one Willow Warbler and an adult Med Gull were the best. I popped into Great Yarmouth Cemetery en route home but could only dig out a Chiffchaff in the northern section.
On Saturday I tried East Wretham Heath briefly to see if any Redstarts had arrived - they hadn't, but there were plenty of Blackcaps singing. From there I went to Lynford Arboretum to try for Hawfinches but after two hours stood waiting in the one spot I gave up and joined the group near the entrance hoping for views of the Two-barred Crossbills as they came in to drink. Again another two hour fruitless stake-out. Well, I say fruitless, but it had its benefits as you will see. I got speaking to the couple who own the old gardener's cottage. A nicer pair of people you couldn't hope to meet. They invited me and a few others to come in a stand near the white container so we could get better views, should the birds come to drink. I spent the next hour or so chatting with them as we waited. The Crossbills never showed and as the light faded and the cool air began to make me shiver, I decided to head away. It was then about 7.15pm. However, they suggested that I should come back early in the morning and stand at the opposite side of the pool to have the best chance of a photograph. With their permission I returned at 7am this morning and after about one and a half hours the Crossbills finally played ball and dropped in to drink. First some Common Crossbills, then the 'contentious' Crossbill and finally a male Two-barred Crossbill. I filled my boots with photographs, with mission accomplished it was time for coffee back at the car.

Female Common Crossbill
Female Common Crossbill
Male Common Crossbill

Male Common Crossbill

Male Two-barred Crossbill

Male Two-barred Crossbill

Male Two-barred Crossbill and female Common Crossbills

Male Two-barred Crossbill and female Common Crossbill

'Contentious' wing-barred Common Crossbill or 1st year Two-barred Crossbill or hybrid??
The bird above is very interesting, I first saw it in November last year and wondered whether it was a Two-barred Crossbill or wing-barred Common (see previous blog entry Two-barred Crossbill....?). Recently Marcus Nash has written an excellent article on the RBA about the Lynford Crossbills and this bird in particular (see The Crossbill Conundrum). Whatever it is, the whole thing has been very educational, my experience before moving to Norfolk had been flyover Common Crossbills in Ireland. But within the last year I have seen Common, Parrot and Two-barred and this 'contentious' bird also. You can't help but learn from seeing these birds whatever they are!
After the Crossbill fun we drove over to Felbrigg Hall for the Red-rumped Swallow. Sadly it seemed to have moved on before we arrived. I stupidly forgot my bins and returned from the lake to the car to retrieve them. On my way back I had a very interesting looking Buzzard. The first thing that drew my attention was the very pale band across the rump. I know some Common Buzzard can show this but it was quite striking and well defined. Secondly as it passed over me I could see very clean and pale underparts and undersides to the wing. It showed dark primaries, a dark tailing edge to the inner primaries and secondaries and a brown crescent shaped mark on the underside of the wing by the carpal joint. Of course, I now had my bins but no camera. I returned to the lake and mentioned it to Nick, he had managed some distant photos and will be checking these at home later. Based on a look at Forsman's text I am leaning strongly towards Rough-legged Buzzard.

Monday 7 April 2014

Late winter in Latvia

I'm back over in Latvia for a few days. Not a birding trip but my gear did come with me just in case. Gardening chores were finished ahead of schedule so I was given a pass to go birding for the day. I didn't have any transport and had left it too late to arrange a guide so I just decided to check out the local patches that I had birded often in the three previous summers. The small reserve up by the Leilupe river has been a fine spot for summer migrants, birds that I have seen here from June to August in previous years include Great White Egret, Black Tern, Cuckoo, Wryneck, Marsh Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Barred Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Whinchat and Common get the picture, its a good spot! Spring comes late in Latvia, its still quite cold and grey and shoots are only beginning to appear. In the summer this place has tonnes of cover, today it was stark and bare so I didn't have much hope of seeing anything special.....but you never know! The pictures below show the contrast.

April 2014

June 2012
Anyway, before I had gone twenty meters I had a nice flock, about thirty strong, of Tree Sparrows. Commoner here than the UK so worth stopping to watch for a while. I wandered around the trails and paths and noted the many Great Tits and Chaffinches and small flocks of Siskins and Redpolls (I thought there seemed to be both Common and Lesser in these flocks???). I headed out along a worn path across some open fields towards the river which is where I usually see Whinchat and RB Shrikes in the summer. This time I had a small flock of Song Thrushes, several Hooded Crows, a single Lapwing and when I reached the willows near the river's edge......a fine Great Grey Shrike!
What a stunning bird, it hunted along the river edge, perching in the stunted willows to scan the field below and occasionally hoping down to chase after some prey-item. I watched it for a while when it appeared to take a small rodent from the long grass. It then took off into a willow clump and began impaling its victim on a branch before ripping its head off and beginning to devour it. Unfortunately then a woman walking her five dogs flushed the bird and it left its meal behind before resuming its hunting position atop another willow.
I reckoned with my presence also it was unlikely to return to its larder so I too beat a retreat. Meanwhile I walked another trial that ran alongside a small fishing lake, the reeds here in summer have been great for Reed and Great Reed Warblers. At the beginning of the trail I had a single Chiffchaff feeding high in the willows (the first summer migrant) and a brief glimpse of a female Black Redstart.....not bad birds really.This time I had to contend with Reed Bunting and at least four smart looking White Wagtails.
At this stage I decided to head back to the house for some lunch and to pick up my camera. On the return journey to the area I stopped to take some photos of the Tree Sparrows which were wary at first but quickly became quite confident.

Tree Sparrow, Lielupe River, Latvia, 7th April 2014
I headed over to the area where the Great Grey Shrike had been and took a quick peek at his larder first as he was nowhere to be seen nearby.

The victim!
I scanned the tops of the trees and soon picked up the Butcher Bird himself about four hundred meters away. I approached carefully but as expected with this species, he had seen me long before I had seen him and he kept me at arms length.

Clearly eyeing me carefully!

Great Grey Shrike (nominate race Excubitor) - Leilupe, Latvia

Keeping watch from the willows on a grey and cold morning
The cold was starting to get into my bones by now and hunger pangs were gnawing at me. As I left a female Merlin caused panic amongst the Reed Bunting and White Wagtails as she passed over the reedbed.
That's more or less all the birding I will get on this short visit. As always Latvian birding never disappoints!