Thursday, 9 September 2021

Catch-up #5, Honey and Fish with a Large Dollop of Purple Sauce. 29th May 2021

We travelled northwards again, this time with a full days agenda in mind. Our first stop would be furthest away before making a couple more on the way home. At each site we had a target bird that we hoped to see although we knew that none of them would be easy to get.

Our first destination was to the Welbeck viewpoint in Nottinghamshire. We've been going there for a few years now to see the resident Honey Buzzards that breed in the Clumber Park estate. The viewpoint is actually just a grassy verge on a minor road, from where you can look out over a vast block of woodland. The Honey Buzzards fly over the woodland and are often seen displaying as well. We've been successful on every visit although views have been very distant with birds seemingly half a mile away over the trees or, in the case of last year, soaring extremely high above the watchpoint (see here).

We pulled up on the verge close to the lowered section of hedgerow which allow watchers to see into the park. There were maybe as many as twenty like-minded folk already there so finding a socially distanced spot was a bit tricky but, after a couple left, we managed to squeeze ourselves in. There were some very knowledgeable birders on site, including the same expert that we'd met there last year so we would have no trouble in knowing that we were looking at a Honey Buzzard, should one appear. I'm always amazed at how much better and sharper some birders are compared to my own modest talents, I really did start birding far too late in life. I also appreciate how good these birders are since it helps lesser mortals like myself immensely. Over the next half hour, raptors would periodically appear above the distant trees but all were considered to be the more compact and robust looking Common Buzzards of which there are many in the area. We had had a lot of practice earlier in the year at identifying Goshawks at a local spot in Oxfordshire so when one of the large hawks appeared off to our right, I was confident of its credentials even before somebody else called it, and a little bit smug when they did. The Goshawk was, predictably, too far away for any photos but a Sparrowhawk passing at much closer quarters just moments later allowed for some comparison between the two similar species.


A murmur rippled through the crowd, a Honey Buzzard had appeared above the block of woodland to the right of the viewpoint, I trained my scope on it and both Mrs Caley and I enjoyed similar distant views to those of past years. The extended neck and long tail could be seen easily enough, as could the pinched in wings at the body sides. According to the resident expert the bird was a male and a few minutes later it was joined by another bird which was designated as a female. I could see both Honey Buzzards and was happy that the species was "on the year list". 

Honey Buzzard

We watched the two birds display briefly before the second bird dived behind the trees and disappeared. Then my latest tale of woe began. I was watching the (male) Honey Buzzard through the scope when a small bird, a Common Whitethroat as it turned out, caught my eye in the hedge to my left. When I looked back through the scope I couldn't see the Honey Buzzard so scanned left and right, up and down but couldn't relocate the bird. Meanwhile the assembled throng of birders had hushed although I hadn't really grasped the reason why they had gone quiet. I was still struggling with the scope when I heard the rapid fire of camera shutters owned by people stood nearby. When I finally looked up to see what they were taking photos of, I saw an obvious Bird of Prey passing fairly low overhead. Of course it was the Honey Buzzard but by the time I had confirmed it by looking at it through my binoculars, it was too late for me to take any photos myself since it had gone and was screened by the adjacent trees. I was almost completely distraught at my managing to miss the first chance that I've had, and probably the only opportunity that I'll ever have, in securing something considerably better than a record shot of a Honey Buzzard. There were twenty other birders stood next to me and not one of them had bothered to say, "It's flying straight towards us". Instead they had all watched it approach in complete silence. Mrs Caley hadn't seen it until late either so both of us were a little bit (I was very) annoyed that we'd contrived to virtually miss the Honey Buzzard altogether. I was gutted and cursed my rotten luck. I then had to watch on as the other camera bearers compared the crippling shots that they'd just taken and I grumpily declined taking a look when invited to.

At least I had had a really good look at the bird as it sailed over and had noted the pigeon-like grey head, coarsely barred body and distinctive three-barred tail. Easily the best view I've had of a Honey Buzzard and yet I felt so hard done by. Where was the "running commentary" birder when you needed one! Mostly I felt foolish that I had failed to realise that the bird was heading directly towards the viewpoint, probably because I never expected it to. My day was off to a stinker, even though I'd seen the 187th species for the year list. As the other attendees continued to congratulate themselves, the resident expert suddenly shouted, "It's back!", why couldn't he have shouted something similar earlier, and sure enough the Honey Buzzard was again flying overhead having returned from the direction in which it had flown to before. This time I did take a few hurried shots but of the bird as it had already gone past us. They weren't sharp by any means but at least I now had some scant reward in grabbing a couple of close shots of the bird before it was obscured by trees again. 

After the second flypast of the Honey Buzzard, mindful of the fact that we had a full itinerary for the day, we decided to leave and move onto our second destination for the day. We were aiming for Rutland Water to catch up with Ospreys, which was needed for our year list. Until recently we only ever saw Ospreys in Scotland but various reintroduction schemes have now placed the fish eating birds at many sites across England and Wales as well. We do see them occasionally on passage in Oxfordshire but so far this year had failed to connect with any of the birds that had passed through our local airspace. Rutland is roughly on a straight line between Welbeck and home so here was an opportunity to see one. We found a nice spot for lunch on the way too so the day was improving after the early frustrations.

There was more angst on the drive, first a lengthy delay because of a broken down truck right on the brow of a hill and then a road closure close to Oakham which meant that I had to take a long detour around country lanes in order to reach the Lyndon section of the reserve and the best place to see Ospreys. The diversion was such that I was so fed up by the time I rejoined the main road south of Rutland Water that, rather than travel back northwards to get to Lyndon, I chose not to and headed south instead with the intention of going straight to destination number three. Time was pressing so I convinced myself that we'd see Ospreys on another day somewhere else, so thought we'd skip step two and connect with a far better bird than an Osprey. I am however, renowned amongst the few folk that know me well, to change my mind frequently and to leave decisions to the very last minute whenever possible. So, when I saw a road sign for a place called Stoke Dry (of course I did know that it would be there, on our route) which I knew led down to the edge of Eyebrook Reservoir (which I knew was also a good place to see fishing Ospreys), I made the turn and headed down the hill arriving reservoir side a few minutes later. Ignoring the carpark which was busy with picnicking families, I parked us up on a grassy verge about half way along the shore side road. Ten-seconds later, after a quick scan of the sky above and around the reservoir, I had found an Osprey, distantly flying in from the dam end. Easy!


We stood and watched the Osprey approach and couldn't believe our luck for once when it circled around and hovered above the water almost directly opposite where we parked. After five minutes of watching the water and frequently hovering above it in different spots, the Osprey made a dive for a fish but missed. It then made another dive and another but again came up empty taloned. The dives were all made on our side of the reservoir but the high bank, and poorly placed cattle, meant that we missed the final water piercing action. We were enjoying reasonably close views of what must be one of the UK's best looking raptor species and to think I'd almost passed up the chance of watching an Osprey by ignoring Rutland Water.

The Osprey, the second highly specialised bird of prey for the day, made a fourth dive, even closer to where we stood and this time I followed it right up to the point of impact. A bloody cow (damn those beasts) managed to get in the way yet again at the pointy end of the dive but it was impressive to see nonetheless. These were the best views we had had of an Osprey fishing since watching half a dozen of them at Lossiemouth two years ago.

On this dive the Osprey came up trumps too when it emerged from the water with a sizeable fish within its grip. The Osprey quickly adjusted the fish so that it was long-ways to the birds own body, which allows for better streamlining and easier transportation, and then flew off over the nearest woodland to presumably take the fish back to its hungry offspring.

We could see another Osprey approaching from the far end of the reservoir but having seen one so well didn't linger any longer but instead hit the road again. We hopefully had a rendezvous with a reedbed skulker which at times had actually been showing quite nicely at Summer Leys nature reserve near Wellingborough.

The carpark at the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust reserve was still very busy even at four in the afternoon. The Purple Heron that was the star attraction was obviously responsible for a lot of the visitors and I was concerned that we'd be unable to find room in the hide from where the bird could be seen. The hide was just a hundred metres away from the carpark so at least we wouldn't have to put much effort into getting there. The Wildlife Trust Officer on duty told us that sightings of the Heron had been hard to come by during the day with just glimpses on offer as the bird moved from one area of reeds to another. I'd seen just two Purple Herons before, one on Otmoor and one last year in Somerset (see here), both juveniles and both observed at distance and only in flight. 

We reached the hide and found a space right in the corner which was fine but looked out over the main lake rather than the reed filled channel to our right where we assumed the bird would be. I asked the birder sat to my right where the Purple Heron was and, as is becoming quite a regular reply these days, was asked, "What's a Purple Heron?" I tried somebody else and was then treated to a five minute whinge when he told everybody else in earshot, which was everybody within half a mile, of how he had been sat in the hide since five o'clock that morning and had a measly ten-second view of the Heron flying across the channel. I'd met the said chap before, when he'd irritated me greatly when Mrs Caley and I twitched a Red-backed Shrike at Sutton Coldfield last July(after seeing the famous Lammergeier, read here) at the height of the Covid pandemic. Mind you it's easy to get on my nerves and especially when I've been out all day and a bit tired and still beating myself up over missing that blasted Honey Buzzard earlier!

For the next half an hour, in between listening to the same chap go on and on about how the Purple Heron had hardly shown at all in almost twelve hours and why had he bothered to bring his super-duper ten grand camera kit, there was no sign of the bird. I had eventually learned where the bird was supposed to be, in the reeds on the far side of the channel, which I could scrutinise by peering through the gaps between the folk in the prime viewing seats to our right. I suggested to Mrs Caley that we probably had the worst seats in the hide since our view of where the Purple Heron was so obstructed. Despite the handicap of not being able to see the channel well, I had a distinct feeling that we would see the bird at some point if we stayed patient. For once I actually felt lucky!

And then it happened. We had been in the hide for maybe thirty-five minutes and, despite the constant whinging from Mr Motor Mouth, had thankfully stayed put although a big part of us wanted to leave. I've never been a big fan of birding from hides, the noise does my head in but sometimes it's necessary. Somebody shouted, "It's flying!" and indeed it was. I was vindicated in my decision to remain focussed in the hide. Our year list moved up to 189 which was pretty good by the end of May considering the various restrictions that had been in place at times. The Purple Heron was airborne but hadn't emerged from the channel by the hide but from another patch of reeds almost two hundred metres away. The information we'd been given on arrival was clearly duff and I wondered how the Heron had managed to move so far undetected but I guess that they are the masters of stealth so it must have just stalked its way through the reeds unseen by the multitude of birders that had been looking for it. The Purple Heron disappeared behind a small copse and I feared that that was that but it then sailed into view again, still as far away, and flew to the opposite side of the main lake where it landed in reeds. It was way too far away for any proper photos but a record shot is always required if only to illustrate this blog.

Purple Heron

Not that I needed to worry about taking a record shot of the distant bird since the following five minutes will go down in the Old Caley hall of fame of fantastic bird experiences alongside such highlights as finding a male Capercaillie in a tree just metres away and the amazing Lammergeier soaring overhead. The Purple Heron, under duress from a couple of agitated Black-headed Gulls was up again and flying the length of the lake which actually favoured our viewpoint, I could hear the hide moaner, "Where is it, I can't get on it" followed by some pretty colourful language. Now virtually everybody else in the hide was having to crane their necks in our direction and peer through the gaps between us. The Heron was still too far away but again I took a few shots just in case it disappeared.

The contrary was true though because still under the annoying hassle from the Black-headed Gulls the Purple Heron began to traverse back across the lake and appeared to be flying back to the channel in front of the hide. I knew we'd get lucky at some point during the day and this was the moment. When the Heron had travelled about halfway across I started taking photos and soon the camera was just constantly clicking. To the ire of the other folk in the hide, nobody except us and one other chap on the same side of the hide, could see the bird approach. I knew that because there were several now shouting, "Where is it, where is it?" which must have been incredibly frustrating for them. In their position, I'd have been tearing imaginary lumps of my hair out.

The Purple Heron, or to be more exact the Black-headed Gulls then did me an even bigger favour by turning away from a small island and flying almost directly towards our window in the hide and then turning again so that they all flew alongside us. Add to that the fact that the Heron was probably only ten metres away meant that I was not going to miss with the camera which rattled like a Gatling gun as the bird passed. I was laughing!

Better was still to come when the Purple Heron decided to stall its flight by drooping the wings and lowering its legs in readiness for a landing in the reeds in front of us. The rainbow type of colours, not really purple at all but a mixture of yellows, umbers, blue-greys and blacks were striking as the large waterbird dangled in the air so close that we could almost have touched it. We were both making those "wow" sounds of people so enthralled. This was no distant view of a juvenile and muted plumaged bird but a bang-in-the-face adult brightly coloured Purple Heron. The rancour of ten people in the hide not so happy with their own views was just a muffled noise in the background. To think, I thought we had the cheap seats!

The Heron attempted to land right in front of the hide but the Gulls that had relentlessly chased it all the way across the lake were not about to give up their harassment of the much bigger bird so it altered its course again and flew across the channel to the reeds on the other side. Only then did the bird emerge into full view of the Toggers at the front of the hide but by the time the unhappy chap spotted it, the Heron had landed and was melting into the lush reed growth, which caused another volley of swearing.

Once in the reeds the Purple one looked around for a few seconds, the Black-headed Gulls were happy that they had gotten the Heron out of the way and returned to their mates, and then just vanished. Even a bird that stands the best part of three feet tall can soon disappear into a reedbed. I think we'd been in the hide for about forty minutes and the show, slow starting but ending in a thrilling finale, was over. We laughed all the way back to the car, I excitedly showed some back-of-the-camera shots to the Wildlife Trust officer, and drove home very happy after a pretty fantastic day in the end. 

Three terrific birds all seen in flight and close views of all three made for a great day. Although as good as I thought the edited photos were, they still didn't win me Photo-of-the-Week on Birdguides. No change there then!

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Catch-up #4, Woodland Birding in the Rest of May (mostly) 2021

Sunday 16th May

We were in a wood not far from Worcester to attempt to see a bird that we'd not seen in the UK for almost ten years. The small carpark at Monkwood nature reserve was, not surprisingly, rammed with other birders that shared the same hopes so we had to park on the narrow road outside. As soon as we exited our car we could hear the lovely rising and falling melodic song of the Golden Oriole that we hoped to find. We used to make an annual pilgrimage to Lakenheath Fen to see and hear these beautiful birds but recently, in line with a national decline, they have disappeared from there so any Golden Oriole sightings these days are now subjected to fairly keen twitches. We spent three hours searching in the mature woodland on a grey and drizzle filled morning but I at least was successful when I obtained a five-second view of the bird, a first summer male, high in a tree. The Oriole was pursued by a pair of Mistle Thrushes that had taken exception to it being there. I photographed a tangle of leaves and twigs. There was also a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nearby which called regularly but remained unseen. We did manage to see a Chiffchaff pair taking food for their youngsters in a nest concealed in grass beneath a small sapling.


Tuesday 18th May

An after work stroll to our local go-to place to see recently arrived Spotted Flycatchers. It took us longer than we expected to see a Spot Fly but eventually one showed in a tree above our heads.

Spotted Flycatcher

When we got back home we were surprised to see the return of a leucistic House Sparrow that we'd first seen in our garden a year ago and had thought that he'd gone since we hadn't seen him for some six months.

(partially) leucistic House Sparrow

Saturday 22nd May

We went twitching, to the RSPB reserve at St. Aidans in Yorkshire. We were hoping to see a Franklin's Gull, a rare visitor from North America, which had been gracing the reserve every day for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately the Gull had obviously read the Old Caley's success rate in twitching birds in Yorkshire booklet because on the day we visited, it was nowhere to be seen. Predictably, the Gull reappeared the following day when we were back home. 

Luckily though St. Aidans has a lot more to offer so there were some good birds to be seen while waiting in vain for the no-show Gull. Next to the visitor centre and carpark is a huge old and disused mining machine which was formerly used in the extraction of coal from the former mine that the reserve is built on. The contraption is now home to several species of breeding birds, most notably a pair of Little Owls, but also Kestrels and Stock Doves. After taking direction from one of the volunteers on site, we watched one of the Little Owls but after ten-minutes got tired of waiting for it to move. When we looked again on our way out the Owl was still stood in exactly the same place, in almost exactly the same pose, and I wondered if it might actually be a statue although I did see it blink once so I guess it must have been real.

spot the difference Little Owl (photos taken 6 hours apart)

The main stars amongst the resident birds of St. Aidans are a small breeding colony of Black-necked Grebes. By mid-May the eggs had hatched and the young humbug-faced Grebelets were on the water and being fed by their parents. It was difficult getting clear views of the birds owing to bank side vegetation and I never managed an unobstructed, and desired, image of a youngster riding piggy-back on an adult. The red eyes of the adult Grebes wouldn't look out of place in a horror movie.

Black-necked Grebes

There were hundreds of Swifts tearing around above the various lakes and reedbeds and I imagined that my Dad was flying around with them. I took a few photos in between bouts of searching for the Franklins Gull. I never could resist a Swift.


Sunday 23rd May

A bird that we love to see but so far this year had failed to do so is the Wood Warbler. The various lockdowns had prevented us from travelling into Wales to our traditional site to look for them and we had failed to find any in the Wyre Forest on a previous visit at the start of the month. Since then I had done a bit of homework and had learned exactly where to go for them so on another dull and dreary morning, all of our visits to the Wyre Forest seem to be made in less than ideal weather, we parked up as usual in a quiet carpark and made our way along the disused railway line that is now the main trail through the woods. This time instead of walking into the designated nature reserve that hangs onto the steep hillside above a brook, we continued on for another half a mile. Soon we heard the unmistakeable trill of a male Wood Warbler. Because the land falls sharply away from the old track on the northern side, the Wood Warbler, one of three that we saw but by far the showiest, could be watched at eye-level and thus neck breaking viewing upwards was thankfully unnecessary.

Wood Warbler

When a male Wood Warbler sings, the tiny bird (not much bigger than Wren) shudders with the effort. They can be surprisingly hard to follow through the trees owing to their bright yellow and greenish plumage blending in well with the foliage and they rarely stay still for long, a quick trill or two and then they are flitting to another perch or pursuing a tasty fly to eat.

A search of the nature reserve that we'd found Pied Flycatchers in three weeks before, turned up almost nothing except for a couple of elusive Spotted Flycatchers very high up in the very high trees and a pair of Chiffchaffs busy attending to their brood.