Thursday 25 February 2021

Thirty years ago this month... February 1991

2nd February:

The month started well with four Waxwings near the A12 in Harold Hill as they grovelled around on the ground picking up the few scant berries.  I seem to remember that these were found by Colin Jupp on his local foot circuit.  Over the years this little stretch of the A12 and the surrounding estates were always a good bet if there was a chance of these Scandinavian punks, a bit like the end of my road in Strood is nowadays.

3rd February

An American Bittern had been found near Blackpool but there was no opportunity for me to go at the weekend so Pete Gurr and I headed down to the south coast to have a look for a couple of Penduline Tits at Farlington Marshes in Hampshire.  I am not sure what car Pete had at the time but many of my days out in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were with him in one of his trusty home maintained vehicles.  When I first knew him and his wife they had a hand painted gold VW Beetle with the front passenger seat removed so that it was easier to sleep in and I have a distinct memory of my trips out in it sitting in the back seat with all that space between me and the front window and a toilet roll hanging on a bit of string where the glove compartment should have been.  A small grey van definitely followed before a couple of Fiestas I believe.  I have fond memories of those days out with Pete who always had his trusty little stove and cooking kit so that we could have a brew up wherever we were and forcibly introduced me to the joys of classical music although I seem to remember him clearing the causeway of birds at Abberton with some especially vibrant Rachmaninoff piano concerto 2...

Anyway, back to Hampshire where the Penduline Tits eventually showed very well in the main reedbed where they were feeding on Phragmites heads in the absence of any Reedmace.  My notes mention that I had now seen seven in just three years – the Rainham Marshes run of records was still 13 years away... and in fact the reserve was still nine years away from being born.

Penduline Tit

From here we went to West Wittering which was at the time a good bet for the still scarce Little Egret and we did see one distantly before continuing east to Selsey Bill where the regular wintering adult Glaucous Gull cruised up and down the beach and perched up on a roof with a fine adult Yellow-legged Gull for company.  A couple of red-eyed Slavonian Grebes were seen close in at Church Norton after which we headed north up to Frensham Common where Dartford Warblers and Stonechats obliged.

GBB Gull, ad Yellow-legged Gull, four Herring Gulls and adult Glaucous Gull


7th-13th February:

Snow arrived and lasted a week although in contrast to the mid ‘80s where birds piled into the gardens to escape the weather, my garden diary did not yield much out of the ordinary bar a Reed Bunting and male Blackcap and the odd thrush and Chaffinch.

A pop up to High Beech in Epping Forest on the 10th gave great views of ten Bramblings on the mast and a flock of over 100 Lesser Redpolls contained at least two Mealies and all six Tits were easily seen...

14th February:

A morning pop to Victioria Park to look for a male Ferruginous Duck revealed only a weird hybrid that looked more like a Baer’s Pochard. Rather bizarrely, while typing this I have remembered that I did a U-turn somewhere near the park and was then paranoid that I broken some sort of motoring law and would be in trouble and confessed my misdemeanour to my Policeman Dad when I got home who assured me that I would probably be ok!

We spent the afternoon at my grandparents in Felixstowe in Suffolk (passing seven Waxwings in Harold Hill on the way) where there was always the opportunity for some birding too.  Back then the adult Iceland Gull was still a regular wintering favourite and he was seen patrolling the seafront near the Pier and at the other end of town the adult Glaucous Gull was sitting on the sand bar from the Ferry.   

Iceland Gull

Glaucous Gull - I think this is my shot but if not I apologise - it was a long time ago!

Easy south-east and East Anglia white-wingers are certainly not that nowadays with no regular returnees to brighten up a winter day.

15th -17th February: A Northly Twitch

This trip will probably always rank as one of the craziest winter expeditions that I ever undertook. My journal left out some of the more interesting anecdotes of those two and a half long days and I may just recall a few more details this time.

The plan was to leave Watford (I think) just before rush hour on the long route north to Wick in search of the first mainland Harlequin Duck since two at the same site in 1965.  With time on my hands I spent the afternoon in salubrious Uxbridge where the adult Ring-billed Gull performed excellently around the tiny Rockingham Recreation Ground. I can’t remember how many years this bird came back but in the last 20 years they have become incredibly tricky to see anywhere away from west coast Ireland.

Ring-billed Gull

I bundled into the car (a Laguna I think) with Lawrence, Brendon (both built like rugby players) and Graham (who I always thought looked like Bill S. Preston Esq – apologies if you ever get to read this) and off we went.  We stopped at a pub somewhere in Penrith where the lads had a pint and we played darts for a while and then passed Avimore at just after four in the morning.  The last part of the A9 was in daylight and I remember Rock Doves, Merlin, Hooded Crows and Red Grouse as we continued north.

The news was negative upon our arrival but we did not have too long to wait until the Harlequin Duck flew in with a large party of 75 Goldeneye.  This first winter bird may have been a little brown duck with a white face spot but it was still of near mythical status and we had managed to see it!

Harlequin Duck

We watched her actively feeding in the river for a couple of hours before exploring the harbour and beach where we added Purple Sandpiper, Iceland Gull, Black Guillemot, Puffin and a smattering of sea duck to the list before heading back down the coast.


Iceland Gull

We made our way to the south side of Loch Fleet for the chance to get close to the wildfowl at Embo Pier.  There were yodelling Long-tailed Ducks displaying and cooing Eiders and a good mixed Scoter flock while 40 Snow Buntings blew like paper along the beach towards us and landed on the concrete pier.

Long-tailed Ducks

Snow Buntings

I first visited here back in early April 1988 when I found the occasionally reported drake King Eider on Loch Fleet on my 16th birthday.  This was my first BBRC rarity with my name on it.  At the Pier back then there were hundreds of all the different sea duck present and a flock of 52 Slavonian Grebes if memory serves. 

Back on the 16th February 1991 there were Rock Doves on the tideline with a mixed flock of Linnets and Twite but with the light already fading it was time to start the journey back to England and the other side of the country with glory in Blackpool the following morning on our minds.

We reach the glowing edifice that is Blackpool at 9pm on a Saturday night and the lads decided to hit the town for the night. Now I was a naive, terrified teenager at the time and not exactly the most socially active of souls and the sights and sounds of the stag and hen parties parading along the Prom were somewhat intimidating.  I had been basically awake since early on the Friday morning and I do not remember having anything to eat anywhere that evening but I do recall a pint of shandy (please don’t judge me), loud music, a sweaty, smoke filled pub and a young lady wearing not much more than a large yellow python parading up and down the actual bar before I escaped with the keys back to the refuge of the car parked around the corner.  I was so tired that the rest of the night was, shall we say, a little blurry around the edges, suffice to say that ‘somehow’ we ended up parked in the car park of Blackpool Zoo at Marton Mere.

Some hours later a knock on a frosty window at dawn from a charmingly polite member of the local constabulary resulted in Graham having to get out and have a ‘chat’ with said Policeman and after he left (without Graham) I slithered out of the car and headed off down to the Mere in search of the American Bittern, leaving the other three to sleep off their excesses.

It was bitterly cold with thick frost and a bright blue sky but the Mere was totally frozen so myself and another crew set about checking along the ditches instead but we must have walked right past the bird as a shout went up behind us as it flew out of cover and right by us en route to the lake showing the dark flight feathers, contrastingly plain buff forewings and light crown.  It perched up on the lakeside (an island if I recall) and preened in the sun for a while.  The lads had by now appeared and managed good views before it disappeared into the reeds.  

Oooo - look at those remiges!

A Cetti’s Warbler had survived the cold and we found three Long-eared Owls roosting up in some bushes (as you did back then!) and a very obliging Short-eared Owl perched up just in front.  I have two sounds in my head from that morning; the persistent ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ as thousands of Pink-footed Geese streamed overhead in the blue and the roar of the Tigers in the Zoo that you could see at the top of their highest platform overlooking the Mere.

Southbound again with a stop at Chorlton Water Park in Greater Manchester where a male Ferruginous Duck was seen dozing on the ice with a young male Scaup and an Aythya hybrid.  There was no news to lure us onwards so we made our way home although we did apparently stop off at the Seven Stars in Lawrence’s village (in Shropshire I think?) for a pint and more darts! Different times...

Ferruginous Duck on ice

I have not seen Lawrence or Graham for many years now – in fact this may have been the last big twitch we did together but I still occasionally bump into Brendon including at the Bushchat in Norfolk last October.  

As you go through your birding ‘career’ you find yourself moving between regular crews all with different motivations for the big day out or mammoth twitch and each with its own set of intriguing characters to share the cramped back of a car on a long overnight journey.  I am sure you shall meet a few more of them along the way.

24th February:

Pete and I had a day out in the Brecks that began at the then private sailing only Lackford Lakes.  Pete had got to know the ringers otherwise you would not even have known it was there.  We saw a flotilla of 13 Goosanders before moving onto Mayday Farm.  This was still the place to go in the Brecks and was traditionally where everyone would go to look for Goshawk in the spring. 

The attraction that February was still the Crossbills and during the course of the visit we saw several good flocks of Common and at least four Parrots while down at the clearings there were numerous singing Woodlarks and Skylarks and a Great Grey Shrike was busily devouring large beetles while holding them on one foot.

Great Grey Shrike

I can’t recall the year off hand but on one YOC trip there on a March day we had four Great Grey Shrikes visible at once across the main clearing.

The Brambling flock that we saw in late January was still at Brandon and the males were now in fine plumage but it was harder work with the Crossbill flock at Lynford Arboretum where the female Two Barred was only seen a couple of times briefly with the main group of birds.  Many were coming down to drink in the gutter of the house and the males were especially vibrant.  Willow and Marsh Tits were seen well as usual but Hawfinches are actually easier now than they were back then at this site.


We finished our day back at Lackford where the local guys took us on a back path to some more pits were four male and a single female Smew and a male Red-crested Pochard rounded up a fine late winter day out.

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