Sunday, 8 April 2018

Marsh Harriers Mating at Cley

I like visiting the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley Marshes nature reserve in part because it has become an occasional treat rather than somewhere I would visit at least monthly before children came along and limited my birding time.

The weather forecast yesterday looked pretty good and so we piled the kids into the car and headed east along the A149.
Male Bearded Tit, Cley
After coffee and cake in the Visitor Centre we walked out to the group of three hides in the middle of the reedbed. This was a quintessentially Norfolk scene behind us Cley Windmill and the Church,  in the reeds the pinging of Bearded Tits and the occasional explosive burst of Cetti's Warbler song. Once in the hide the sound of Avocet's "Klooting" calls hit us as we opened the windows.

Avocet's, Cley
A very pale female Marsh Harrier flew in and landed on the grassy bank on the far side of the lagoon and I got the scope on this for the kids to have a look at this "top predator". As we were admiring the bird a male Marsh Harrier flew in and mounted the female for a few seconds and then flew off. this was the first time I have ever seen Marsh Harriers mating and I managed a few hand held digi-scoped pictures with my little Panasonic Lumix hand held to my Kowa scope eyepiece.

Female Marsh Harrier, Cley
Marsh Harrier mating, Cley

Marsh Harrier mating, Cley

Marsh Harrier mating, Cley


Thursday, 5 April 2018

Spring out of the Bottle

Spring is late this year, the Beast from the East and its various pale imitation successors have delayed the arrival of early Summer migrants and to be honest it just hasn't felt that nice out. But with the Easter Bank Holiday weekend safely out of the way the weather took a turn for the better and on Tuesday afternoon I had a walk around Holme Dunes in 12 degrees and with a warm breeze blowing.
Chiff Chaff, Holme Dunes
I knew that there had been a male Black Redstart seen and as I lifted my binoculars to scan a familiar out of focus deep blue shape flitted across my line of sight, a Swallow, soon to be followed by half a dozen others, marvellous. A short walk and I found some Chiff Chaffs feeding in the scrub and there seemed to have been an increase in Stonechat's with at least four present. But best of all were two box fresh totally immaculate male Wheatear's feeding on some short turf.


Wheatear, Holme Dunes
 Still no sign of the Black Redstart and I had almost given up when a movement in the distance caught my eye and I had a brief glimpse of it on a fence wire perhaps 50 metres from where it had last been reported. I walked round for a better view and managed a couple of shaky handheld digi-scoped shots before what proved to be a very skittish bird moved off.

Black Redstart, Holme Dunes
Then the light left the sky and it started to spit a cold rain, this rapidly increased in volume and size of rain drops and I took partial shelter under the pines whilst a heavy cold squall passed through.

This morning I managed a couple of hours out using the car as a mobile hide on the local back roads. It was slow going at first but for the last half hour before I needed to get home to look after the kids, the sun came out and the wildlife action hotted up. Highlights were large numbers of summer plumage Brambling's in the hedgerows, a Bran Owl flying into a hole in an old oak tree presumably its nest site? and a Little Owl standing sentry by a break in an Oak branch, another nest site?

Brown Hares
A Marsh Harrier quartering a field close to the road watched by a wary Hare was the final bird before I had to make a speedy drive home.

Marsh Harrier

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Feeding Wild Owls


Barn Owl waiting for food
I used to know a one eyed Barn Owl in Kent. If I positioned myself on the birds blind side it would fly really close to me, before when it turned its head and good eye in my direction it saw me, at which point I could see the bird panic as it  banked sharply and rapidly flew away. This individual owl stands out in my memory not because it only had one eye, but because it came so close, a rare thing for wild Barn Owls.

Scroll forwards a couple of decades and I'm sitting in a curry house in Holt, north Norfolk with my friend David  who is talking about a friend of his who feeds Barn and Tawny Owls in his garden "flocks of them, up to eight or nine in the air at once."

I'm intrigued and a little sceptical at first, but I trust my friends bird knowledge and know slightly the person he is talking about. As the curry and lager goes down I ask if it would be possible to see this spectacle for myself and bring my young family along. My friend has a think for a moment and then says that he'll make a call and see what he can arrange.

Which is how a few weeks later I find myself in a large garden come scrubby meadow with my friend and his daughter, our host, my wife and our two young boys. It is freezing and the arrival of the bad weather soon to be known as the "Beast from the East" is just a couple of days away.

Earlier sitting in our hosts lounge we'd already seen video footage of the Barn Owls in their nest site in his roof and now we have come outside into the cold night air with a bag of dead day old chicks, several of which have now been placed on carefully positioned dead tree branches.

Above us in sharp silhouette against the sky and stars a barn owl fly's silently round the field, looking down at us, eyes set in its large round head held aloft by long white wings. Looking up I get a sense of what it must be like to be a vole in this same meadow when one of these top predators is hunting.

But this evening the owls are not hunting but scavenging, our host supplementary feeds "his" birds helping them to fledge two broods last summer. In this unique setting and in accepting this free source of food the birds have also become habituated to people. Nonetheless this gathering of seven people is the most that they have experienced and our host is cautious about the effect that this might have on the owls behaviour.

There are now three owl's flying around above us in a ghostly holding pattern. The kids for the moment forget the cold and excitedly point out the circling Barn Owls.

Barn Owl getting a free meal
I focus my camera on a dead day old chick that has been placed on a branch less than three metres away from where we are standing. I pop up my cheap DSLR 's inbuilt flash, I'm ready, just as well because one of the tamer owls decides that it is safe to come in for food. It descends quickly, wings held high and legs stretched forwards talons ready to grasp a dead chick. Although we all know we should be quiet an excited chatter accompanies the birds rapid descent and departure. I don't think that any of us visitors had expected that, a wild owl coming in quite so close.

Over the course of the next 15 to 20 minutes (I didn't check the time) two more Barn owls come in to grab a free meal and another shyer pair watch from high in a tree waiting for us to move on before they come down for their food.

Our host decides that we should turn around and move a few metres to where we can view another dead branch that he has planted in the grass of his meadow garden. Here on the edge of some scrubby trees he hopes we will see the Tawny Owl that he feeds.

Now there used to be a one eyed wildlife photographer who lost an eye when he was returning to a hide on a Tawny Owl nest late one night. His name was Eric Hosking and he had his accident way back in May 1937 before the advent of modern camera gear. I'd heard his story many times and had never quite understood how it could have happened. But on this cold Norfolk evening it became a lot clearer to me how such an accident might have occurred.

Our hosts Tawny Owl was usually later to put in an appearance than the Barn Owls and it wasn't on its normal perch waiting to be fed when we had arrived earlier in the evening. Maybe there were too many of us. Now gathered together we stood even closer to the bait than we had for the Barn Owls and as for them there were some basic lights rigged to illuminate the scene. Somewhere in the darkness we could hear a Tawny Owl hooting, a more familiar and less other worldly sound than the screeching of the Barn Owls.


Tawny Owl with supplementary food
Then in the time it took to utter a warning "here it comes" the resident Tawny Owl shot towards us in a fast low level flight out of the dark and straight to the dead chick, talons outstretched wings up to brake. One flash of the camera and it was gone as suddenly and as quietly as it had arrived.

Now having seen the speed and power of a bird I normally only see dozing in a tree during its day time roost, I could better understand how Eric Hosking could have lost his eye in a speedy attack by a Tawny Owl defending its nest.

The cold is starting to rise through our feet and permeate our bones, one child tired, excited and cold goes back to the car to warm up. Another declares that they need a trip to the loo. So reluctantly we decide to call it a night and turn to leave. Just as our bodies are at 45 degrees to the perch with a dead chick on it a Tawny Owl bursts from cover and repeats the rapid flight in and out we'd seen earlier.

Maybe not the flocks of owls I'd been promised over a curry, but a truly remarkable experience nonetheless. We thank our host and climb into the car to drive home with his admonition ringing in our ears to drive carefully and not hit any of his owls.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Snowdrops

This is forecast to be the coldest week of the winter so far. This morning I had to clear a thin layer of ice from my car windscreen and drove through flurries of snow on my way across Norfolk. Yet by lunchtime the sky had cleared and it was a bright but cold day.

In the Rosary Cemetery I paused on my lunchtime walk to take some photographs of the Snowdrops these has naturalised here and there are great clumps of them, splashes of white petals in lieu of the patches of snow which never settled earlier in the day.

I always love it when there is a sense of a season turning, being elbowed out of the way by its impatient successor and today's show of Snowdrops tells that Spring is starting its inexorable push to succeed winter.

Snowdrops, Rosary Cemetery, Norwich

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Front

Its easy to work out the points of a compass at Titchwell the coastline runs east to west and the West Bank Path runs from North to South, so if you are standing on the beach facing the sea you are looking due North. This morning the view from the top of the Dunes was of a choppy North Sea with a perishing cold wind cutting through exposed flesh and the waves making it hard to pick out of sea duck. 

I made my way to the top of the highest dune and had a quick scan of the beach but could just see the to be expected mix of Oystercatchers, Sanderling and Bar Tailed Godwit's, whilst the sea seemed a little devoid of birds. 

View east from Titchwell towards Brancaster Beach and Scolt Head
Looking East towards Scolt Head Island and the Royal West Norfolk Golf Club at Brancaster I could see a weather front coming in. Above me the sky was still blue with sunshine, to my east it had turned black, dark clouds edged with silver inexorably moving in my direction.

My fellow birders eyes were focused on a narrow field of view in front of them, the beach for shorebirds and sea for wildfowl and all seemed oblivious of the approaching bad weather. I decided to turn  around and head back down the West Bank path as I did so the cloud caught up with me and gone was the blue sky of an hour ago, Island Hide was illuminated by a spotlight of sunshine breaking through the clouds and was fronted by a rim of golden reeds. On a small island half a dozen Red Crested Pochard sat hunkered down heads tucked under wings to keep warm.

Red Crested Pochard, Titchwell
Beyond the hide a pair of Marsh Harriers buffeted in the wind did a half hearted little bit of courtship over the reedbed but buffeted by the wind soon went their separate ways.

Island Hide, Titchwell
A return walk over the same route in just under an hour but with two very different views.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Light

December is a month of short dark days, weeks that compete for gloominess and a month that seems to shudder to a halt with the indoor excesses of Christmas. Yet just a week or two later as the days  start to draw out in the new year there is a also a subtle change to the quality of the light. Now on sunny days it has a vibrancy that was missing in December and comes with a gentle hint of the Spring to come. 

Ken Hill Woods last Friday, I quite liked the light
Last Friday was just such a day of promise, a clear night left a heavy morning frost that coated the cars windscreen with a thin layer of ice. In the local woods at lunchtime a bumblebee sat in a stupor on the ground woken to early from its winter sleep, the vibrant yellow flowers of a Gorse bush were out a little early for pollinators like the unfortunate bee. As I enjoyed my walk snatches of Great Tit and Nuthatch song cut through the trees, whilst a large mixed flock of Long Tailed Tits, Goldcrests and Coal Tits reminded me that this was still January.

But it was something about the light on a woodland ride and how it brought out the colours of the bare trees that made me stop in my tracks and pull out my little compact camera. To the left of the ride sunlight streamed through a gap in the trees, creating a natural spotlight at 45 degrees. This light hit the bronze leaf litter on the forest floor and reflected back up onto the white bark of the silver birches that edged the ride. Behind all this a belt of conifers suffused with the same winter light gave a soft green background to the scene.

This viewpoint is one that I have passed many times before, it is on one of my favourite walks through these woods, a walk I do probably at least once a week throughout the year. It is pleasant but it doesn't normally having me pausing and reaching for my camera. But today what for me briefly lifted the scene was the light helping me see a different view and bringing this bend in a path in the woods to life.


As I stood and tried to capture an image that would go someway to capture the spirit of the scene in front of me, I was acutely aware of the transient nature of what I was enjoying. All it would take for the magic to fade would be a change in the position of the sun as the afternoon wore on, or a light breeze pushing in some cloud and with it turning off the magical soft winter light.

I carefully composed my image and pressed the shutter button, then after taking one last look at the scene in front of me continued my walk around the wood and eventually back to my office and a full afternoons work at my computer.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Den Brooker - walking amongst the birds

I found out recently that my old friend Dennis Brooker died just before Christmas, a couple of months short of his 96th birthday. I first met Den 34 years ago back in 1984, when I was an impressionable 19 year old volunteer on Operation Osprey and Den was in his early 60's.

At that time the Osprey camp was still run on the model set up by George Waterson and Frank Hamilton, volunteers slept in tents and used chemical toilets. The rota was based on teams of three taking turns to guard the nest, talk to the public and do the chores around the Osprey camp and perhaps more importantly to a reasonably obsessive young birdwatcher every three days you got 24 hours off to do with as you wished. If you were lucky and had a car owner in your team this could mean birding excursions all over the Highlands.

Den Brooker outside the Osprey Hide 1984
During that first hot summer on the Ospreys I must have found myself on Den's team and I recall his easy going company, thoughtful speech and a twinkle in his eye when it came to the ladies. He was to my young mind charismatic and a bit of a unconventional role model. A social sort of a chap he was often to be found in the kitchen sipping a glass of red wine whilst helping the invariably young female cook.

Plants were Den's passion and I must have agreed to go looking for Bog Orchid's with him one day, I think I negotiated a promise out of him that we would go birding on the coast afterwards. Something which he graciously agreed to. Many years after he sent me a printed booklet of short essays his "fragments of a personal flora" I got it down the other day and re-read the account of our excursion. I had to laugh as I read his short pen portrait of me. "So one Sunday morning S and I set forth to Inverness. S was large, ginger haired, loquacious even in his sleep (we shared a bell tent), later served as Information Warden, and at that time was profoundly uninterested in plants."  Funny I have some vivid memories of that particular day out looking for what I uncharitably described as "Bogey's on a stick" After our successful botanising we headed to the coast at Burgh Head a austere Moray Coast fishing village. I vividly remember sitting on the slope of a hill overlooking the sea whilst a male Kestrel hovered for ages at eye level, then a pod of sleek battleship grey Bottle Nose Dolphins swam past close inshore, my first dolphins and I later put an elderly passer by right when he tried to tell me that they were porpoises.

Den will have been known to a large number of RSPB seasonal staff and volunteers who worked at the Osprey camp in the 80's. I wear as a badge of pride the fact that he used to refer to me along with Richard Thaxton who went onto be the RSPB Site Manager at Abernethy and Zul Bhatia who was RSPB Site Manager at Insh Marshes and then Lochwinnoch as his "young men". The passage of time means that Richard and Zul have both now retired from the RSPB, I the baby of the trio have a fair few years ahead of me yet before I stop work.

In recent years I saw little of Den but would look forward to his homemade Christmas cards usually an abstract photo of a plant accompanied by his almost indecipherable scrawl. Sometimes we'd talk on the phone and he'd tell me about his latest visit to Kew Gardens, his curiosity and lust for life still strong in his early 90's. the last call was difficult as his hearing had gone. My spell working at Titchwell coincided with Den's girlfriend being a retired lady doctor based in Cambridge and would look forward to occasionally bumping into him on the West Bank path. I still use in public talks that I give about the Norfolk Coast something he said to me on one occasion at Titchwell. "The great thing about Titchwell is that you can walk amongst the birds" A great summation of a fine place and perhaps also of Den's life walking amongst the birds.

Goldeneye, Loch Mallachie, Abernethy Forest



Wednesday, 10 January 2018

A Look back on 2017

Every year is different and 2017 felt like a year that started well and then bird wise petered out into a bit of a damp squib in the autumn. Below are a few highlights of my bird and wildlife watching year based on the Norfolk Coast with the occasional foray further afield.

Boat dashboard in a Norfolk harbour
January and I can still see the scene a brute of a Glaucous Gull on the Fresh Marsh at Titchwell eating the corpse of a Herring Gull. It really did stand out from the large numbers of Herring Gulls present even from a distance. The fact that it had a food source also meant that it hung around and was easy to find.


Glaucous Gull and dinner at Titchwell
Each year I get a "volunteering day" at work and this year I decided to carry out two Beached Bird Survey sections on Sunday 26 February. This meant walking the tideline from Old Hunstanton to Holme and from Titchwell to Thornham Point. I found just three dead birds on this long stretch of coast the most interesting being a Common Scoter. I unfortunately also found a large number of shoes: single kids welly's, deck shoes etc and a large number of sealed dog poo bags abandoned by their owners and washed up on the beach. 


Dead Common Scoter during Beached Bird Survey
The birding was good with the best birds being a small flock of Snow Buntings just east of Old Hunstanton and single Merlin and Peregrine resting on the shingle bank that is forming off Holme

Spring and my Great Aunt died and I decided to do a day trip to west Yorkshire to attend the funeral. Before the service I had a brief walk on the moors and saw some Red Grouse. In the late afternoon I went down to the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey to clear my head and had a wonderful walk the air full of hirundines and on the river Mandarin Ducks and Dippers to set me up for the long sugar fuelled drive home to Norfolk.

The first of a trio of Rares that I saw in the spring was a very unexpected Red Flanked Bluetail at Titchwell on the evening of Sunday 26 March. Given given how poor the autumn was a doubly good bird to get. Then on the 6th of May I joined the crowd at Choseley to watch a Red Footed Falcon hunting over the fields for a couple of hours before it suddenly disappeared. Saturday 6th May and I spent an enjoyable hour in the car park at Holme watching a stunning summer plumage Red Breasted Flycatcher. 


Red Flanked Bluetail, Titchwell

Red Footed Falcon, Choseley

Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme
But much of my time in the field these days is spent in the company of my family and at Whitsun half term we had a weeks family holiday on the Northumberland Coast. On the first of June we booked on the whole day excursion to the Farne islands landing on Staple Island and Inner Farne and had a simply amazing time watching Puffins landing with beak full's of sand eels running the gauntlet of Herring Gulls and the crazy antics of nesting Arctic Terns on Inner Farne perched on our heads and crapping down our backs. 


Arctic Tern making memories for the boys on Inner Farne
In early June a work trip took me north to Speyside and a chance to briefly revisit some of my old haunts, places that I have visited and loved on and off for the last 35 years. What struck me most as I looked out of the Osprey Hide at Loch Garten was the amount of regrowth of the forest with the view changed considerably since my first visits back in the eighties. Bird wise it was a little quiet [and very wet] but the prize for least expected bird of the year probably goes to a male Woodchat Shrike in the Findhorn Valley a pretty good but not quite adequate consolation prize for not seeing a Eagle here.


Forest Regeneration, Glen Feshie

My oldest son was eight this year and old enough to accompany me on a evening visit to Dersingham Bog in search of Nightjars, we invited his friend and his dad to join us. Labelling this as a Nightjar walk was in hindsight a mistake as we had one of the worst evenings for them that I can recall [we did get very brief views and heard them churring] But the kids loved their night hike and especially the large numbers of Glow worms around the boardwalk. 

Another wildlife highlight shared with the kids was at Holkham Pines in early August when we realised that we were in for a great butterfly day with the boys enjoying stalking them and trying to catch them by hand. A Dark Green Fritillary was the best of the day for me. 


Dark Green Fritillary, Holkham
As a family we spend a lot of time on the beach and in mid August I enjoyed slithering on my belly in the wet sand along the edge of the sea getting close eye level views and photographs of Sanderling freshly arrived back from the Arctic and sharing the beach with holiday makers.


Sanderling, Gore Point, Holme

Back at Holkham in September we "found" an Osprey [well we didn't know it was there] and watched it diving into the Lake several times before being seen off by a Red Kite. Not a sentence I would have imagined writing when I first moved to Norfolk over twenty years ago.

With the wind in the west for pretty much the entire autumn I saw very little in the way of unusual migrants this year. But In Early November I enjoyed a great day out with some former work colleagues on a boat on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, looking at areas of managed realignment from the sea and marvelling at what an amazing wild place it was. We also saw the incongruous sight of a Clouded Yellow butterfly and Glossy Ibis on the same day that we watched hundreds of Brent geese.

Our Boat on the Blackwater
On the last day of the year my oldest boys friend who joined us Nightjar watching in the summer accompanied my two sons, wife and me to Welney to watch the swan feed and as well as the pleasure to be gained from bird feeders dripping Tree Sparrows and flocks of Whooper Swans it was great to see all three kids enjoy the spectacle and comparing the photos that they were taking of the bird's.


Welney, New Years Eve dusk
So not a bad year with some great memories and I even managed a respectable 202 species on my year list. Here's to more memories in 2018.