Saturday 4 February 2023

Thirty Years Ago - January 1993

1st January:

After a typically quiet New Year, Jon and Ad came down at about 11am and we pottered over to scenic smelly Rainham Barges.  It was fairly disappointing although the Water Pipits performed as desired. The Thames was quiet although two Gadwall were a surprise [Eds: Oddly is has since become a local hot spot for the species].  There were six Dunlin and a lone Jack Snipe came up from the shoreline with three croaking Commons. Small birds other than Reed Buntings, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were scarce but it was good to see three Tree Sparrows.

After this we headed over to The Chase where I soon found two Long-eared Owls snuggly tucked into a small Sallow in the reeds.  Two Short-eared Owls quartered the Travellers Field while both Teal and Shoveler numbered about 40 each. The journey back home was enlivened by both a female Sparrowhawk and a female Merlin hunting Sparrows through the rooftops. [Eds: At this time seeing an urban winter Merlin was not that unusual and I had a few encounters ‘in town’. Most winters several wintered in the Ingrebourne Valley].

2nd January:

Back to The Chase where it was very murky with thick ice everywhere.  I primarily went Jack Sniping and consequently circumnavigated the whole area. I failed but did put up six Common Snipe. The LEOs were nowhere to be seen but the Shorties performed amazingly well allowing a very close approach.

Short-eared Owl

A fine male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker occupied the bushes on Crowfoot while the Firecrest had moved into the copse behind the farmhouse. It was as bright as ever and in the company of four Chiffchaffs while the cold conditions brought out several Water Rails.

3rd January:

A bitterly cold morning with Roy W at -7c. The frost at Fishers Green was stunning and everything was covered in a thick coating. The main hide was not open so we walked to the Grebe Hide and back.  It was not as good as it could have been although Kingfishers were numerous as were the scuttling Water Rails with their feet-a-pumping and legs-a-whirring. The only duck of any note were 12 Goldeneye which included some smart drakes.

Amwell was our next stop but like Fishers it failed to produce any Smew. The male Red-crested Pochard was still there but a male Pintail was new. To make the day a little more interesting some pillock in a Nissan rammed me – further denting poor EMU’s already crippled wing.  [Eds: I honestly have no recollection of this!] To round off a fairly eventful day we called back into Fishers where one of the Bitterns performed well as it lurked in the reeds.

9th January:

An afternoon pop out in the drizzle for the Bitterns at Fishers did not disappoint and three were seen. Two definitely do not get on and were chasing each other all over the place. Three Water Rails and three redhead Smew added interest.

10th January:

A day to remember with Adrian Wander and Stu Lambert but more for the weather than the birds.  The overnight drive down to Highbridge on the Bristol Channel was rather wet but not as wet as we were going to get when we ventured out to get the Spotted Sandpiper that had been frequenting the banks of this tidal tributary.

We saw the bird immediately as it flicked off down river and we tracked it in the increasingly heavy rain but it only seemed to be going away from u so we stopped and waited for it to return.  Over an hour later we were still standing ankle deep in the mud and water getting battered by the icy rain.  To make matter worse I succeeded as per usual to fall over twice and jeans are not the best form or lower body attire in such circumstances.

Hundreds of Dunlin, Redshank and Lapwing were wheeling about along with a few Curlew and Oystercatchers but the Spot Sand still had not returned. With that we trudged back to the car only to find the little bugger bobbing around within ten yards of it.

Spotted Sandpiper

Al the salient features were noted and it was good to hear the single note ‘pwit’ call and if anything the flight also looked more fluttery. After ten more minutes we retired to the warmth of the car and then headed to the nearest Little Chef for a Big Breakfast.

The Weymouth area was where would spend the rest of the day but the weather only ever got worse and once at Ferrybridge we received a heavy battering from the wind and salt spray mingled with the rain.  The Kentish Plovers were being very difficult and it needed me to get out of the car and creep up on the flock of Ringed Plovers to find one crouched down amongst the stones.

A few Dunlin were getting blown about for a while two Grey Plovers, the Brent Geese and a windblown Gannet were all year ticks.  We visited Radipole more for the chance to use the warmth of their heather that the bird life.  We could not be tempted back outside by the prospect of a wet bedraggled Cetti’s Warbler and so headed down to the ferry terminal where the superb adult Iceland Gull was quickly picked up and two diving Slavonian Grebes rounded off the day.

16th January:

A Red-breasted Goose had been supressed in the Old Hall area for a week or so warranted a look with Neil M and Simon S on the Saturday morning.  We walked in from the Salcott end to save the long walk from Tollesbury.  I hoped the Brent Geese would be preening and bathing on the fields closest to us, which they were and Simon very quickly located this smart little goose amongst the 1000 Dark-bellied Brents.  This was surprisingly only my second record.

Red-breasted Goose

Also using the area were many Curlews and 13 Ruff while huge numbers of Lapwings moved about as they were disturbed by a male Hen Harrier. It was pleasing for a plan to work for once. Shortly afterwards I got something in my eye that dampened things.  Mersea was our only other stop but it was pretty quiet although there were plenty of Black-tailed Godwits in the flooded fields with Snipe, Golden Plovers, Brents and some Corn Buntings.  Five Twite came down to drink in a puddle [Eds: whoo hooo!]. The Colne was almost birdless but we did find two adult Yellow-legged Gulls.  After watching the Rugby back at Neil's, I went home and ended up in Moorfields to have the horrible little bit removed from my eye.

17th January:

An afternoon trip to Amwell with Dad to sort out some photos to go with the accident report [Eds: which I still don’t recall].  No sign of the Red-crested Pochard although two female and male Smew were a nice bonus. A Ringed Plover flew around calling which was unusual for the time of year.  The journey back down towards Fishers was enlivened by a male Goshawk cruising across the road.

Fishers was crowded with birders but two Bitterns and Water Rails still performed to the crowds. A little later I popped over to The Chase to help Adrian K and Tony W find the Firecrest and LEOs but we found neither which was disappointing. Four Chiffchaffs were scant compensation.  I checked the fields on the way out and was pleasantly surprised to find a 2w Yellow-legged Gull amongst the other gulls that also included several dark Common Gulls and British Lesser Black-backs.  This as it turns out was the first record for The Chase and only a day after they were officially split from Herring Gull.

23rd January:

I had been holding my breath all week, hoping that the Ross’s Gull at Fraserburgh would still be around and so I ended up meeting Steve Bale on the A1 [Eds: no idea where] at 10.30pm before heading north to pick up Stuart Read and Rob Wilson.  The journey up to northeast Scotland was rather uneventful save for a little snow on the Kielder pass and as we approached Fraserburgh small parties of Pink-feet and Barnacle Geese were seen.

Once we found the site at the harbour we settled in for what we hoped would be short wait.  It was not to be and in the ensuing five hours I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching the other birds in the area. Gulls were everywhere and amongst the usual species there were various white winged lovelies. I clocked up three 1st-winter, a 3rd-winter and two adult Iceland and one each of 1st, 2nd and adult Glaucous Gull as well as two Viking Gull hybrids in 1st-winter plumage.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Offshore Black Guillemots, Razorbills and Guillemots patrolled up and down with Long-tailed Ducks, Mergansers, Eiders, three Red-throated Divers and a few Gannets and Fulmars.  I counted 70 Purple Sandpipers and a few Turnstones on the rocky shoreline along with Redshanks and Oystercatchers but there was still no sign of the pesky Ross’s Gull.

At about 1pm I wandered off back to the sluice where only one Iceland was present but for some reason I suddenly felt the need to get back to the harbour and I almost jogged back to where the others were watching the Ross’s about half a mile out to sea but the distance was irrelevant as it glowed a vibrant pink.  It was difficult to keep tabs on amongst the waves but gradually a Ross’s Gull came closer until it was drifting around the rocks in the small cove in the company of a 1st-winter Little Gull, many Kittiwakes, several Goldeneye, a Guillemot and a couple of Shags!

Ross’s Gull! Honest guv!

Ross’s Gull

A delicate and graceful bird and a bit larger than the Little Gull with pale grey white wings and upperparts with a white trailing edge.  The white, obviously wedge shaped tail was used very effectively as a rudder.  It had a grey nape and half collar with a dark smudge behind the eye and a dinky dark bill.  The legs were bright red and the underwings were smoky grey with contrasting  salmon pink underparts although birders noted that it seemed far brighter when way out at sea [Eds: the two bird theory at play here and indeed there were at least two in the area later in the week].

Ross’s Gull - no idea why the life list total changed again but at least it was up!

Ross’s Gull had always been right at the very top of my birds to see list after Stella’s Sea Eagle that is! [Eds: Still on my wish list!]  The relief on the faces of those birders who had made the long trek was wonderful.

The weather was closing in and time was pushing on so we jumped into the car out of the light rain and headed south towards Aberdeen and the various wildfowl in the area.  As we progressed the rain turned to snow and then the snow into a raging blizzard by which time we were ten miles inland and sliding around the lanes around an invisible Loch Skene.  Consequently only a few roadside Greylags were found and unsurprisingly there was no sign of the Snow Geese or Cackling Canadas and the other accompanying geese species although we somehow had some quality roadside Bramblings.

With almost no light left and terrible road conditions Steve decided to go for the American Wigeon at Loriston Loch.  It was officially dark by the time we reached the tiny loch and in the wind and rain we somehow picked out this drake bird amongst the flock of Eurasians.

With that we headed homewards with Steve driving from Aberdeen to Dundee and then I took over driving of the Nissan Primera Twitchmobile. I just about managed to stay awake to Perth and then the weather got incredibly nasty.  A huge bank of fog was followed by 100mph winds and driving horizontal rain.  This excitement was followed by getting stuck in traffic on the horrifically swaying on the Forth Road Bridge. It was especially bad if you were positioned over a join in the road.  It felt like you were being pulled in every direction at once.  The delay was caused by a coach that had been blown on to its side about half way across and was in the process of being winched back upright.  Some of the side windows were neatly wrapped around the upright girders of the bridge. We were certainly glad to reach the other side safely. 

We had the radio on and the bridge was closed shortly afterwards after a tanker lost control in the wind just before the bridge and just stopped in time.  I continued on to Newcastle and the rain had ceased but the wind was still very gusty but the only other travel incident was finding one of the roundabouts on the A1 under over a foot of water with the road missing on one side! To cap it all Emu refused to start when we got back to Barnet and with Steve’s help I eventually got home at 4am. But was it worth it? Of course it was!

30th January:

A rather forgettable day in Felixstowe although a 1st-winter Med Gull was seen from the car at Levington.

31st January:

A pop out to Old Hall with Eamon and his dog Frisky for the Red-breasted Goose drew a blank amongst the huge flock of Brents but the Ruff numbered 60 and a Spotted Redshank was nice winter bonus.  A ring-tailed Hen Harrier quartered the marshes but Mersea was a dead loss while the Heybridge Little Owls performed surprisingly well.


  1. Good read Howard, especially on the Ross's gull at Fraserburgh. I also saw the species last ye at Fraserburgh and really enjoyed the experience. Here's a short account.

  2. I dipped those Ross's Gulls at Fraserburgh. Still, a lovely adult down to 10 feet at Sunderland, a breeding adult at Greatham Creek and another adult at Boulmer have all been enjoyed since. One of my favourite birds, I cant wait for my next!