Thursday 26 January 2017

The Joy of Apples

RSPB Rainham Marshes 26th January 2017
Thursday dawned gloomy and grey but there was no frost but the wind more than made up for it keeping temperatures below freezing today for anyone brave enough to linger outside.  Just how the boardwalk work party stuck at their task today is beyond me... hats off.

My first job this morning was to top up the feeders and water and put out the 14 apples I had brought in.  I have found over the years that birds are more likely to attend apples poked up in a tree if they are at least slightly opened up so I cut my ones in half and impaled them on various bits of Willow and Hawthorn in the wildlife gardens on both sides of the centre.

I had not even made it inside before the first Blackbird and Fieldfare came down to investigate and I had the pleasure of watching these along with Redwings, Starlings and a female Blackcap all day as they took charge of their own particular segment. 

Blackbird - Helen Mathias

It was nice to be inside in the warm watching the dominance swing back and forth between the thrushes in particular. One of our female Blackbirds was especially stroppy and would see off any Fieldfare within four feet but it was the posturing of the Fieldfares that captivated me.

They were already fluffed up against the cold but when disputing some fruit they would droop their wings, raise and expand their lavender grey rump and spread and flick out that solid black tail whilst holding it vertical so that the other bird was in no doubt as to the meaning and all the while ‘chacking’ and rattling at each other.

Fieldfare - Helen Mathias

Obviously there was one other bird that I was hoping to entice down and it took no time at all for ‘Punkzilla’ the first winter male Waxwing to come down to sample the fruity delights. He obliged for the more hardy punters all day and even I was tempted back outside to get some apple shots.

I think the colours compliment each other nicely! Probably the best Waxwing shots I have ever taken
 It was a great day for engaging with the visitors – not too busy and having plenty to show them from the inside over a coffee is always a bonus. I have been amazed at the number of regular birding visitors over the last week who had never seen a Waxwing and delighted at the huge smiles that have ensued. There were plenty of finches and Sparrows around the feeders and a party of Long-tailed Tits moved through while a Cetti's Warbler once again showed very well.

Scanning around today gave views of the Marsh Harriers and plenty of bewildered Snipe that are obviously at a loss as to what to do with the marsh still ice locked. One of the Ravens, the big male I think, flew back towards its Kentish territory with a full crop and a beak full so I suspect that they already have hungry young despite the weather.

Seventeen Avocet were picked out amongst the Lapwing, Dunlin and Curlew and three Grey Plover were indeed just that today.

I have been steadily checking gulls behind ships heading up and down the Thames since I have been back but have seen nothing of note but that changed today with Caspian, Yellow-legged and an adult Med during the course of the day on the far side and then this afternoon a chap ambles in to have a look at the Waxwing and asks if I had just seen a first winter Glaucous Gull go up river behind the last ferry... umm...  no...

I was sure that it had not come right past the centre as I was glued to the gulls behind that ship and so I set about scanning everything on the river floating out with the tide and loafing on the Kentish bank. Much to my delight fifteen minutes later I picked up a 2nd winter Glaucous – not a 1st winter – well to my right motoring into town. It was very pale and patchy and clearly not a biscuit coloured bird but it was gone before I could even get a shout out. 

Pleasing but frustrating at the same time so I resumed my scanning and suddenly there it was – a monster rich tea 1st winter Glaucous Gull sat on the mud by the Darent Barrier.  This time I was able to muster the troops and over the next 30 minutes before we shut up for the day everyone (who was vaguely interested in a huge gull at huge range) saw it parading around and even making a few short flights after getting repeatedly poked by a Great Black-backed Gull.

So from no Glaucs to two and nine Larids for the day without leaving the centre... so, many thanks to James Litston for the initial white-winger shout!

Glauc with Herring to the right and below and Commons behind
And to round my day off a Woodcock flipped from cover as I left and headed into Purfleet becoming my second of the day after one on a roundabout in Lakeside whilst I was having a coffee before work!

Happy days...

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Dunge and the Levels - 24th January 2017

A day of rest? It did not quite pan out like that and by just after six I was out the door and on my way to Dungeness and by just after seven I was ensconced in the ARC screen hide overlooking a grey and gloomy pit dotted with large white objects. 

I had heard nothing on the walk down but now the Bewick’s Swans started to wake up and call and the rather melancholy trumpeting carried in the still air. A quick scan revealed nearly 20 along with 14 Mute Swans but I could hear others behind the reeds to my right and slowly the number climbed closer to 30. 

As the light vaguely improved I picked up my first Great White Egret flopping towards me before veering off towards Boulderwall allowing me to go for a top drawer 'essence of' picture.

The ultimate essence of Great White Egret

Nine more were soon picked out hunched along the eastern side of the pit and then they too took flight but at the same time I noticed a skein of geese coming in high from the east and although it was still very dull they felt like Russian White-fronts and that is indeed what they were. I followed them into the pit where the facial shields positively blazed white but this flock of 17 did not linger and were soon off inland again. In the meantime I had forgotten about the approaching Great White and just got outside as seven of them purposefully headed towards Lydd. 

Essence of five more Great White Egrets

The other two dropped in with the swan flock in front and were then joined by two more making a superb 12 for the morning and I still had surprisingly not seen one Bittern!

Bewick's Swans and a Great White Egret

Bewick's Swans and a Great White Egret

Cetti’s Warblers and Bearded Tits called in the reeds and amazingly a Dartford Warbler appeared just outside and then bimbled into the brambles.

I had expected the Bewick’s to have left by now but to my surprise others were dropping in in ones and twos and by the time I got around to the Hanson Hide there were 39 just off the ice cover and becoming more vocal by the minute and before too long the word went up for departure time and the whole herd lifted off and followed the same line as the Egrets and Geese to the north. 

Reflective view with lots of white blobs

Bewick's Swans

Off they go

Two of the Common Gulls on the ice were certainly bigger and darker than other present - right hand CG in this shot and before you ask, no Danta I did not get any open wing shots!

Water Rails were vocal and Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and Tits were in the willows but there was no sign of the hoped for Woodcock.

As I got back to the car two Egyptian Geese flew over and were certainly the first time I have ever encountered the species here and the Tree and House Sparrows were starting to awaken around Boulderwall Farm.

Time for the sea, so I drove straight to the power station expecting that there would be a few people around but there was still not a soul in sight and I had the place to myself. Rather bizarrely the two Egyptian Geese then flew past the sea watching hide and then over the Obs. I do hope that it is on their list already...

The Patch was lively so I walked down to the beach adjacent to it and spent a good while absorbed with gulls.  The usual five were augmented by several Kittiwakes, a second year Med Gull, two Yellow-legged and a 2nd winter Caspian but the prize was the Iceland Gulls with two quite different 1st winter birds seen in the throng. One was darker than the other (even on the wing tips) with a dark tipped bill while the second paler bird had a more uniformly dark bill. Both were magic as they ghosted in and out of the other birds fighting for whatever had been boiled up in the maelstrom of frothing water.

Pretty sure that these three are Iceland Gull number one

And that these three are Iceland Gull number two

The Patch

Towards the Lighthouse

A full adult drake Eider was in amongst them and caught me off guard when it first popped up and further out there were dozens of Great Crested Grebes, Red-throated Divers and both Guillemots and Razorbills. Gannets and more divers could be seen further out and a Bonxie was purposefully pursuing the former while a Fulmar almost snuck past me by flying over my head!

Adult drake Eider

Back to the RSPB reserve now where a pair of hunting Peregrines greeted me upon arrival as I stopped to check the Boulderwall pools. They spooked  vast flock of Wigeon along with Lapwing, Golden Plover, Snipe and two Ruff and the pair made a concerted effort to take out one of the plovers with a series of spectacular dives and switchbacks but somehow it escaped their attentions. 

While all this was going on two Marsh Harriers took the chance to harry the duck and the flock seemed in two minds as to what to do. 

Marsh Harrier

Down at the centre I quickly bagged a nice Slavonian Grebe and three Littles on Burrows Pit but I could not find the Ring-necked Duck amongst the Pochards and Tufties. Great Black-backed Gulls were once again the dominant loafing species. My subsequent walk round was quite productive with several more Chiffchaffs and six ‘kipping’ Water Rails and almost continuous Marsh Harrier activity with at least six different birds seen including a bit of pre-nuptial sparring

Cormorant City on Burrows Pit

Two female Smew were seen from Christmas Dell and two more were tucked over with the Greylags and Wigeon on Denge Marsh where my Dungeness Egyptian Goose tally suddenly increased when fifteen birds flew in from the fields and began a typically robust punch up in open water. I wondered where they might have come from and have now been told that there have been some around Scotney for a while.

The view from Christmas Dell

And a rather distant Smew
Denge Marsh

And new comers...

Down at Hookers there was still a dearth of Bitterns but some Bearded Tits showed nicely in the phragmites and 200 or so Stock Doves were still creating the lavender carpet that I saw on the 2nd. The first Great White since early doors headed back towards the entrance road and a Stonechat popped up on top on the walk back.

I was updating the board in the centre when a chap asked me to add the Ring-necked Duck which was still on Boulderwall after all so I decided to have lunch there and was watching it in the furthest corner where the only open water was within a few minutes but no photos this time as it was just a little distant for that.   

There is a Ring-necked Duck in the top right hand corner

The Marsh Harriers were still causing pandemonium and a Common Buzzard decided to get in on the game and even caused the Great White to take flight. The Tree Sparrows were noisy around the farm but they were skittish and tended to keep to cover..

Female Marsh Harrier

Lunch over and time to head west along the coast. I parked up at the west end of Scotney and was very quickly put onto five Pink-footed Geese on the closest edge and after a short while the Russian White-fronts with the Greylags on the far side were spooked onto the water and one of the Tundra Bean Geese was instantly seen as it landed with bright orange legs outstretched. I have a feeling that both these were also new to the Dungeness area for me.  

Pink-feet and Greylags with an annoying fence line that I could not avoid...

A flock of piebald Barnacle Geese mechanically grazed and thankfully there were none of the funny Barnie Emperor crosses amongst them to spoil the appearance of wildness!

A fluffed up sleeping Black-necked Grebe took me to four species for the day and a very slight ring-tail Hen Harrier was energetically putting up Skylarks and Starlings from the fields beyond.

And so I was now on for a Five Grebe Day and just west of Camber I soon had the Red-necked Grebe in the bag and although it was stuck over the back with Great Crested and Little Grebes due to the ice, the light was superb and the views excellent. Little Egret and Grey Heron lurked around the edges and a Kingfisher whizzed through.

The Red-necked Grebe lake
And the Red-necked Grebe taken by Andy Luckhurst earlier in the month but it looked this good in the scope!

One stop to go so I continued on through Rye and then turned off for Pett Level where I soon found the large goose flocks behind the roadside lagoons. I am not sure when the Taiga Bean Geese were last seen but I could not find them but there were three White-fronts with the Greylags and Canadas.  Marsh Harriers and Buzzards were creating the same havoc as at Dungeness and countless Curlews, Lapwings, Snipe and Starlings were enjoying the thawing grasslands in the sunshine.

Behind me the sea was flat calm with rafts of Great Crested Grebes and Red-throated Divers dotted across and 40 Common Scoter were spread out but actively feeding. One looked very wedge billed and box headed but the light was appalling but it may be worth a look if you are passing in better light.

Gannets bobbed around with the gulls in a completely disinterested sort of way and food must have been close to the surface as the Common Gulls were plunge diving. Perhaps the Gannets were replete with Sprats!

Dunlin, Grey Plover, Oystercatchers, Redshank and Curlew dotted the muddy tideline; the bubbling calls of the latter once again making me smile before I headed homeward across the rolling Kentish countryside.

Monday 23 January 2017

Neither Upnor Down - 23rd January 2017

It was a long weekend at work, I awoke to a seriously foggy morning in north Kent and it took a while to persuade myself to venture out into the cold. I headed first to the top of my road but the Waxwings seem to have stripped all the Rowan berries and there were none to be seen. The trees were covered in a blanket of hoar frost so I decided to head down towards Upnor with a view to visiting the castle and getting some frosty shots.

My drive there did not reveal any other Waxwings although I did go via almost every Rowan and Cotoneaster I know. Unsurprisingly the fog was thicker down by the Medway but I perserved and was soon in the castle car park. I have lived for 15 years now in Kent and this is the first time that I have ever actually made it down here so I was slightly disappointed to discover that the English Heritage site was closed for the winter. It is a real pity as I do not want to visit these special places in the school or summer holidays when they are busy and parking is difficult so I resigned myself to having a nose around to see what I could discover.

The outer tower of Upnor Castle

I started right down on the river foreshore where the tide was partially out and two Oystercatchers, two Redshanks and a solitary Dunlin were feeding on the mud. The Oiks were pushing their entire heads into the gloop before extracting a lug worm and without a trace of mud on their plumage.  


Hold your breath time!

Plump House Sparrows were fidgeting in a Privet and seemed to be taking the little frozen black berries while from the towering Ash trees above came a steady shower of ice crystals that glimmered in the weak sun as they spiralled to the ground. It was all quite magical and reminded me of those October gossamer days when spiderlings decide to seek new homes.

Frozen Privet berries

As I could not get into (or even really see) the castle I retraced my steps up the High Street and onto the Saxon Shore Way which took me initially inland around the Castle and House through a wooded area that held a flock of spherical Long-tailed Tits, Blue and Great Tits, Goldcrest and Great Spotted Woodpecker before descending some steps into Lower Upnor and the boatyards.

Spherical Tit

Female Great Spot

A bird flew into the front gardens of some flats and I managed to creep up on a fine Common Snipe as it tried to remain hidden under a trimmed Beech hedge. It did not stay long and soon zig-zagged up and over the trees.

A very dark, heavily marked Snipe

The river was very calm with many yachts moored in rows mid channel and Cormorants sat with wings outstretched and Black-headed and Common Gulls plodded along the edges with several more Redshank.


St Mary's Island just becoming visible

Running away...

Both Grey and Pied Wagtails bounced along in front and two individual Mistle Thrushes were standing guard over their respective trees containing big clumps of Mistletoe.  There were not many white berries left but it did not stop them giving Robins and Blackbirds grief for venturing too close.

A rubbish Grey wagtail  - but I just love them


Frozen Turdus
The entire wood inland of the village was completely bedecked with frost making it look like a very corny Christmas card but the only birds I could see up there were some Jackdaws and big fat pink-bellied Woodpigeons. The path began to peter out and only muddy beach remained so after a scan down river towards where an WWII Pill Box had collapsed into the mud, I turned around and then diverted back onto the Saxon Shore Way and headed inland and upwards and into the woods of Beacon Hill.

One of several enormous old mooring chains

The end is in sight..

White Trees, War Remains

At this point it started to rain although it was only falling from tree top height as the sun started to loosen up the large ice particles adhering to the branches. I emerged from the trees into a clearing to the sound of heavy rain fall all around but with none of it now falling on me. It was a most odd sensation.   

Roving tit flocks contained the hoped for Treecreeper and Chaffinches, Redwings and Song Thrushes fed in the leaf litter under a brace of huge Holm Oaks while a Grey Squirrel was searching for acorns. A Sparrowhawk flashed through and Bullfinches called plaintively.

I continued on a loop back into the trees and then came down through a belt of Turkey Oaks towards the road. I was hoping for a Woodcock but had no joy and was soon retracing my steps to the car.

A plump Squirl

... and equally rotund Rabbit

Turkey Acorns

As I came back past the walls of Upnor Castle House I noticed what appeared to be an old ‘cat’ flap positioned in the base of the wall with a thin sheet of metal as the flap. As I approached for a closer look a little ginger Bank Vole poked his head over the lip and then dashed through to my side and disappeared in the litter!

Although the sun had not fully burnt through, I was gently steaming upon my return to the car and I was pleased to shed some layers after a most enjoyable venture into the unknown on my doorstep.