Tuesday 23 January 2018

Miles of Mud & an Interesting Lark - 22nd-23rd January 2018

22nd January
I was a bit of a loose end yesterday and so ended up heading up into Essex in generally lacklustre way in the gloom of the early morning light. At a whim I decided to give Goldhanger a go although I had no idea of the state of the tide which was unfortunate as I got it completely wrong!

To make matters more challenging I had left my tripod at home so had to resort to some interesting scope juggling sessions using various bits of river wall furniture but although the light was somewhat in my face and the mud expansive and shiny, I actually had a pleasant stroll and enjoyed watching the Dark-bellied Brents coming into drink and bath in the freshwater stream flowing through the sea defences and out across the mud. No Black Brants were found and disturbingly I did not see a single juvenile either reflecting the evidence of a terrible breeding season noted by others.

The usual assortment of waders were scattered along the channels and flats and Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot and Oystercatcher were added to my year list while out on the Brent dotted water I counted three Slavonian Grebe, 26 Great Crested Grebe, 29 Goldeneye, Great Northern Diver and three Mergansers but all were distant and silhouetted.  The constant sound of bird scarers and overly energetic dogs eventually sent me back to the car to try my luck at Abberton without a tripod too!

Smew were instant visible from the Layer Breton causeway and I picked up eight females and three males, two pair of which were under my nose by their favoured reedy spot. A pair of Goosander loafed half way out and a pair of bathing Egyptian Geese kept me entertained.

Pair of Smew

Splash like an Egyptian

Onto Wigborough where a Great White Egret strode purposefully along the far edge and 29 more Goosander communally fed not too far away. The Layer de la Haye causeway was very quiet with no sign of the Shag or Scaup and just two more Goosander and with that I called it a day and headed south again lacking the energy to venture onto anywhere else...

23rd January 

And so to today which dawned even greyer and damper and there I was trying to summon up the enthusiasm to drive around the M25 to delightful Staines in search of the American Horned Lark that has been missing since the start of December I think. The traffic news was dire, especially on the west side of town so I headed up through Epping Forest and eventually escaped from the queues at Honey Lane Quarters where a walk was required to kill some time before the jams hopefully cleared!

I squelched my way in a circuit through the very damp woodland and although Hawfinches were lacking I did add some more species to my year list with Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Coal Tit along with  four Goldcrest and three drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Moss covered every branch and there were some superb bracket fungi to be seen and I must have been in stealth mode as I managed to get quite close to four Fallow and a single Muntjac before they bounded away.

A quick check and the roads looked pretty clear so it was out of the boots and onto the M25. It was fairly painless and seeing 11 Red Kites while circumnavigating the Capital is always gratifying and I was parked and getting those boots back on again in a little over an hour. I have not visited Staines for years – possibly getting on for 20 and I tend to avoid heading around to this side of town nowadays – even for a London tick but this was different. This Shore Lark was present at the end of November and immediately attracted attention from a London perspective but soon went national when some quality sluthing re-identified it as the being of North American origin – and therefore a Horned Lark and mind bogglingly rare.  I am not overly fussed about whether this form is eventually split or not. I just wanted to see it and make my own judgement especially having lacked any interest when it first arrived!

Staines Reservoir was as desolate as I remember it, a dog mess covered muddy causeway between two deep square basins with an spiky ‘keep out’ fence along both sides of the entire length but saying that I have seen some very good birds there over my early twitching years.

The lark played ball and by all accounts I was lucky to see it so close and so well as it grovelled along the shingle beach and mossy concrete slope below us. 

It was quite obviously a ‘shore lark’ of some description but the features that stuck out for me were the whiteness and broadness of the supercillium that almost gave it a juvenile Dotterel feel at times and the general almost pinky hue of the flanks, nape and rump. I also do not remember seeing one with so much breast spotting before. 

As the bird was close we even got several chances to hear it call and although I could not put my finger on how it sounded different there was certainly a different quality to it although perhaps I have not heard enough of these scarce little birds call before.

Wonderfully camouflaged like all larks

With the moment of filthy twitching safely expunged from the system I abandoned the salubrious confines and motored back around the M25 which was now largely devoid of traffic and 40 minutes later I was back in Epping Forest and ambling around Connaught Water

I am not sure when I last visited here but the same old birds were still to be found and seven Mandarin loafed on a traditional island hidden by drooping Holly branches and a pair of Goosander were busily catching small fish. I veered off into the woods in search of Hawfinches again but only got good views of both Treecreeper and Nuthatch in the same tree and a calling female Tawny Owl as my reward for going off piste.



Great Crested Grebe

It was time to head for home via a private site where with a little bit of guidance I was able to locate a solitary Long-eared Owl who stared at me from his chosen hedge with slightly surprised eyes.  It is always a privilage to see one of these lovely owls...

Long gone are the days of watching them roost at Dagenham Chase, Coppermill Stream, Seventy Acres Lake and Rainham Marshes on the Essex side and Joyce Green and New Hythe just into Kent.  Some winters we had up to 13 at The Chase – in the same clump - but it seems that disturbance and other pressures have stopped this happening and it is only by chance now that odd wintering birds get picked up and generally, for their benefit the news is kept quiet.  I wonder why the mass urban roosts of eastern Europe are not subject to the same pressures?

Anyway it was a good end to my two days off. I had promised myself to not waste my days this year and I seem to be good for it so far...

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