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Stepping Out

In pursuit of my target to do twelve thousand steps every day in December I decided to walk home from work today. It was actually a bit excessive as I had already done almost six thousand at work and the walk would add around another twelve. I finished work at a quarter to two and stopped at my car to put walking shoes on. My route was to be along the old railway path up to the Old town then on pavement to Coate Water to rejoin the railway path south of the motorway. Most of the route is along national cycle route 45. I made good time reaching Coate Water pretty well on the hour. I allowed myself a ten minute stop at the first hide before tackling the slightly harder section to Chiseldon. I made it home in and hour and forty-five minutes and according to my tracker the distance was a touch under six miles and just under the twelve thousand steps. I did take the bins but as my main focus was breaking two hours not many birds were looked at. Most surprising bird seen was a Grey Wagtail along a small stream at the top of the path up to Old Town. Apart from that a couple of Great Spots and a Nuthatch amongst the commoner small stuff and a few Wigeon amongst the regular ducks at Coate. In all a most enjoyable walk and I am wondering why I haven’t done it before.

The small stream

A Couple of New Sites

Having only managed a couple of local walks recently and following a nice family Christmas it was good to have a birding trip planned. It was to be a back by lunchtime one with two target birds. I also had the luxury of someone else driving so a quarter to seven saw me being picked up by Richard and Nige. Our first destination was the old airfield at Weston-Super-Mare which a small number of Penduline Tits have taken a liking to. Now the site of an industrial estate, a caravan park the Helicopter Museum and a wetland nature reserve it was a new birding site for us all. We arrived just as it was getting light and on opening the car doors could hear Cetti’s and Starlings in the distance. Although it hadn’t yet started to rain it was certainly a waterproof coat and wellies kind of morning. After a quick play of the calls that we would hopefully be hearing we headed off across the bridge and along a muddy pathway. A good number of Starlings were moving around in the reeds and Canada Geese were noisily departing from their overnight roost. After a few minutes the Starlings departed en masse, for a short while the sound of their wing drowning out any the calls of any other birds. The area has a large amount of reeds which would have made finding Bearded Tits hard work, fortunately there were only a few fairly compact areas of Bull-rushes which are the preferred habitat for the Pendulines. I wandered the length of the reedbed and on my return Nige said that he thought he had heard a call. I started to scan the rushes and noticed some white fluff blowing in the wind. From previous sightings of Penduline I knew that this happened as they fed and sure enough I got a brief glimpse of a masked face on a Bull-rush. Too quickly and without pinpointing the exact location I called for the others to join me. Fortunately we all managed a glimpse of a single bird before it moved left and out of sight. Having seen some of the excellent photos of the birds I took a chance and moved along to the rushes that were closest to the path. I soon found a feeding bird an again called to the others. This time there was no problem with location as it could be seen with the naked eye. It was then joined by a second and then a third bird and we watched them for a few minutes until they again move on. We relocated them for a third time but just as we started to watch they flew up and away over our heads and the stream to another large area of reeds. Other birds seen and heard here were Teal, Wigeon, Cetti’s, Water Rail and Raven.

Happy with our sightings of a lifer for Nige and year-tick for Richard and myself we headed off to Barrow Tanks to try for our second target bird. I have passed this site many times in the truck but have never birded it. With viewing not being so easy here we weren’t too confident but our luck was running and we got fairly good views of a lovely male Long Tailed Duck. Another year-tick for Richard. From here we headed home, happy with our sightings and the fact that we hadn’t got a soaking.

A Tale of Two Halves

Another day out today and my choice was a morning in Weymouth with a couple of stops on the way home. The plan was to concentrate on the bay and the harbours with hopefully a few more gaps getting filled. The first hurdle was overcome as I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed at half-five, this saw me arriving in Weymouth at a few minutes past eight. First thing I wanted to do was to give Weymouth Bay a good scan. To do this I spent fifty pence for an hours parking in the Pavilion Car park. I have not birded from here before but it was an excellent choice. Several Great Crested and one Slavonian Grebe, two Great Northern Divers along with Shag, Cormorants (25+), Guillemots, Razorbills and plenty of gulls got the day off to a good start. Nothing was seen from a quick check of the sea from Nothe Fort car park so I then moved on to Sandsfoot Castle. Black-necked, and Slavonian Grebe, RB Mergansers, Great Northern and a very distant Black-throated Diver were all seen from here. Then it was a look from Osprey Quay area which gave nothing new. I had decide not to stop at Ferrybridge as I wanted to try for Cirl Buntings at West Bexington. I made a rookie error here. I hadn’t screen-shotted the location of the birds and as there was no signal had to work from memory as to where they were. Unfortunately I got it completely wrong and spent thirty minutes or so checking out the wrong location. What was even more annoying is that when I checked the location later it was almost next to the beach car park where I had stopped for a few minutes to eat. Maybe if I had checked over my shoulder instead of just looking out to sea. Hopefully a lesson learned. From here I had planned a diversion on the way home to go for a Snow Bunting just outside of Mere which is in the south western corner of Wiltshire. I have previously seen one in Wiltshire but the views were pretty poor, as this one had been very obliging I reckoned it was worth the extra distance. I found the track I needed easily enough and started to walk to the location that I had remembered to download on the phone. A lady in a car stopped and asked if I was going to look for the Snow Bunting, when I said yes she said that she had seen it just a few minutes ago and mentioned where I needed to look. There were two dog walkers ahead of me and typically they turned off of the track at the exact point the bunting had been at. When I arrived a minute or so later, nothing. Then a car arrived with three people and four extremely yappy dogs. These proceeded to put up all birds in the area, not a good start. I then spent the next two hours wandering up and down the track checking out the adjacent fields as with a continuous stream of dog walkers nothing was going to come near the track where everyone else seemed to have seen and photographed it. I managed to see every bird that had been reported except for the bunting. There were several hundred Starlings, dozens of Fieldfare and Redwing along with Corn Buntings, Skylarks, Mipits and Pied Wags. A couple of other birders came and went and then the nice lady returned. She again stopped her car and when I told her that I still hadn’t seen it, she very kindly showed me a couple of pictures of it that she had taken with her phone. Just on that gate she said pointing behind you , it spends a lot of time on there. I did manage to thank her with what I think was a smile. By now the light was starting to go and a light drizzle (not forecast again) was starting so I called it a day, walked back to the car and headed for home. I had been hoping for an hour or so on the Plain on the way home but there was no chance of that happening. So another good day with a good start and a slightly frustrating finish.

Trying to Fill Some Gaps

Today I had a drive out in Wiltshire hoping to fill a couple of gaps in the UK and county year-list. First stop was my annual visit to Westbury STW to try for the Siberian Chiffchaff that has been around. This is a regular site for them and I have seen one here before. Despite the forecast saying it would be dry I arrived in light drizzle. It was exceptionally warm though and there were clouds of small insects on the wing. Pied Wagtails were seen in good numbers, well over a hundred I reckon. There was one good candidate for White Wag but I just couldn’t get a good view of it. A single Grey was also seen. Checking out the hedgerows I found seven Chiffchaffs with two in full song. Unfortunately the Sibe was a no show but as always it was a worthwhile visit with masses of birds to be seen. From here I headed for the outskirts of Trowbridge hoping for more luck with finding Jack Snipe. This is another site that I visit once a year and as usual I was in luck with four Jack’s found along with a dozen or so of the common variety. Again there was plenty to be seen, a large flock of Chaffinches contained at least one Brambling and there were also a few Yellowhammer and Reed Buntings seen. It was an enjoyable trip out and I was happy with a fifty percent success rate. There was no more time for birds as I was heading for Marlborough to do a bit of Christmas shopping.

Local birding and an Unexpected Twitch

One common bird that I have managed to miss this year is Lesser Redpoll. Determined to find one I headed to Ravensroost Wood which is one of the remaining parts of the ancient Braydon Forest. Not an area I visit much so, despite it being only a few miles from home I had to get the OS map out to remind myself how to get there. I arrived to find an empty car park, always a bonus as it hopefully meant no dogs around. After checking the reserve map I headed along one of the smaller tracks and it wasn’t long before a few Long-tailed Tits appeared. As is often the case they were the leaders of what was a good-sized flock of birds. I soon added Great, Blue and Marsh Tit o the tally along with Goldcrest, Nuthatch, Chaffinch and at last a couple of Redpoll. With a couple of Great Spots calling in the background the wood was alive with sound. Then as soon as they had arrived the flock was gone and the woods were silent again. Moving on I added Blackbird, Wren, Dunnock and Song Thrush to the list. Three Nuthatches appeared, with seemingly each trying to outcall the other and again they all passed on. A lone Redwing was found along with two more Woodpeckers. Around the meadows were a couple of flocks of Fieldfare and Redwing numbering more than a hundred birds. I had intended to go on to Somerford Common but as I had been later than intended getting out gave it a miss as I needed to do some shopping on the way home. Back at home a check out of the front window found seventy or so Lapwing in the field opposite. Last week there were also Golden Plover but none were there today.

Just before bed I was checking out twitter and noticed that a Pacific Diver had been found on Eglwys Nunydd Reservoir which is adjacent to the steel works at Port Talbot. It is a place that I have passed often whilst driving on the M4 but have never stopped at. Unfortunately family commitments meant time wouldn’t be available to go. However an early morning phone call changing some times gave me a free five hour window and with the Diver already having been reported I decided to give it a go. A good run meant the hundred mile journey was done in just over an hour and a half. Then, with no obvious way onto the reservoir it was how to try and see the bird. I lucked in with a couple a other birders appearing who knew where to go. A trek over some fields and through a wood got us onto the reservoir track and then it was a good walk around to the far side where a handful of other birders could be seen. when we got there the Diver was pretty close in and gave great views although it was frequently diving. After twenty minutes or so a car drove up to us and a security guard informed us that we shouldn’t be on the reservoir without permission from TATA Steel. To be fair he was very pleasant and even offered a phone number that could be called to ask for permission in the future. Whether or not this would be given I don’t know. To be fair to us there weren’t any obvious signs saying access was restricted but to counter that the access route we used wasn’t exactly the most obvious. Later on in the day birdguides was mentioning an offsite viewpoint that could be used to scan the reservoir so I shall know next time. It was then time for the drive back home and another good run meant that I arrived back at ten past two, all but a few minutes inside my five hour window.

Where Are the Birds

This morning I did a circular walk from Axford which is on the River Kennet up to the northern side of Savernake Forest and back. There were plenty of House Sparrows in the village but not much else. Crossing the river there were a couple of Moorhen and three Mallard. In the surrounding trees were two Blackbirds, a few Redwing and a Great Spot. The ground rises sharply up to the forest and the path runs through a narrow section of woodland adjoining fields. Usually this section is good for birds but today the only bird seen or heard was a Pheasant. Reaching the top it opens out along a mature hedgerow that had a couple of Chaffinch, three Bullfinch and some more Redwing. Reaching the edge of the forest I stopped for a few minutes to eat my breakfast. In this time just a single Robin was seen. Moving on there were a couple more each of GS Woodpecker, Bullfinch and Chaffinch, a few Goldfinches and a small tit flock that was mainly Long-tailed with a couple of Marsh and one each of Great and Blue. There has been a lot of clearing and replanting going on in this area but the lack of birds was really noticeable. Coming out of the trees onto farmland it didn’t get much better with a couple of Red Kite and Buzzards the only new birds noted. Back down at the river a Nuthatch was calling and a Treecreeper seen. On the water were a couple more Mallard, a Grey Heron and another Grey Wagtail. Another Heron was on the bank and it appeared to be eating something, as I approached it flew off and I could see a good sized Trout on the grass. Presumably it was too big to swallow so it was trying to eat pieces of it.. Three more Kites were seen along with another Woodpecker. Back in Axford a small flock of Siskin were feeding silently in the riverside Alders. In all I saw thirty-four species but the total amount of birds was not good. Where have they all gone?

Later on in the day I had just finished my lunch when a message came through about a possible Little Auk on the Thames at Farmoor. However by the time it was confirmed it was a bit late to go. Maybe tomorrow if it stays. I had just started to do some clearing in the garden when another message came through. Gret Northern Diver on Pit 82 at the Water Park. This is at least the third year one has been on this Pit and with a good amount of Crayfish in it they tend to hang around for a while. But just in case I decided to go and thirty minutes or so later I was watching the diver. A nice year-tick. Also on the lake were a hundred-and- four Red Crested Pochard, several ordinary Pochard, Tufted Ducks, Wigeon, Teal and a single Goldeneye.

Sometimes I like the Snow

For the last few days I have been hoping that the Cleeve Hill Snow Bunting would hang around until I got a chance to go for it and today was the day. First of all I headed for Slimbridge for the sole reason of UK year ticking Bewicks Swan. I arrived at just gone nine and got the Swans straight away. I didn’t intend staying long but did visit the Martin Smith Hide to try for Jack Snipe. I managed to find a couple of Common but no Jack. A Crane flew past evoking recent memories of my trip to the Lac du Der.

Within an hour I was off and headed for Cleeve Hill. A new site for me and to be honest I hadn’t even known where it was until I checked it on the map. Pictures from yesterday had prepared me for the snow but the access road was pretty treacherous as the temperature had only just crept over zero degrees. The bushes along the track were busy with thrushes, several hundred were seen On reaching the car park it was a quick change into wellies and off across the common to the Dew Pond. The Bunting was obviously still there as I could, from the car see a small group of people watching it. Although I am not a massive fan of snow it was an enjoyable but short walk across. The bird was living up to its name moving around in the snow picking out food, totally at ease with the small group watching it. It was certainly less bothered by the staccato sound of a couple of cameras. I wouldn’t want to be sorting through the several thousand frames that must have been taken. After a few minutes it flew up onto a fence wire and then a post where it spent some time preening. The last time I saw one of these in the snow was when my son and I went up Ben McDui.

It was soon time to move on as I was due to be at Gloucester Airport for one o’clock to meet up for a drink with a friend. A couple of hours chatting and watching the planes with a nice pint finished the day of nicely.

Never Enough Time

Life has been pretty busy over the last few months and the blog has been one of the things that has fallen by the wayside. So this is an attempt to get things back on track. I shall try and do a catch up soon but in the meantime here is a look back at the last few days.

I was working on Saturday with a drive down to the New Forest to visit family when I finished. Fortunately I managed to finish at half-ten and as the rest of the family had driven down in the morning I had a bit of unexpected free-time. The Weymouth Little Auk sprang to mind as it was sort of on the way to Verwood from Swindon! I had a good drive down and parked at the Swannery car park. I gambled that two hours parking would be enough and headed for the harbour. There were plenty of birders around but all had the same thing to say, “it was very elusive” not what I wanted to hear. It was decision time, stay around where it was last seen or have a wander downstream to the lifeboat station. I chose the latter which turned out to be a mistake as it was seen again around the boats in the inner harbour. I spent another hour or so in that area and it was getting closer and closer to expiry of car park ticket time. I then spent some time trying to reactivate my Justpark app while keeping an eye on the harbour. I couldn’t sort the app but did manage to find the Little Auk as it broke cover and crossed an open channel. I managed three brief views totalling about ten seconds before it disappeared again. And unfortunately that was it but at least I had found it myself. To celebrate my thirteenth lifer of the year I treated myself to tea and cake at Craigs Farm Dairy in Osmington before heading to Verwood. Sunday was spent with the family and we walked a section of the South West Coast path. We started from Worth Matravers and did a circular walk to Chapmans Pool, St Aldhelms Head, Winspit Quarry and back. An absolutely stunning walk and makes me determiined to do some proper walking along this coast. There wasn’t a lot of birding done but a few Gannets, a couple of Ravens and plenty of Stonechats were seen.

On Monday morning I did a circular walk from home, along the railway path then up onto the Ridgeway to Liddington Castle and home again. About five miles and again it was more walking than birds. Meadow Pipits and Red Kites were all that I really noted. I was heading up to see my Mum and my Sister who was over from France in the afternoon and while I was eating my lunch I checked Birdguides to see if there was anything worth looking at on the way up. A drake long-tailed Duck at Staines had been reported so that was where I headed. On arrival I could see a small group of birders gathered at the top of the slope and a quick walk up and the usual is it still around? got the answer “yes and showing well”. The good thing at Staines is that there are plenty of Landmarks on the horizon and so I was soon able to get on the bird. I watched it for about five minutes before it flew, fortunately it came directly towards us and landed around a hundred metres away. It then drifted closer and ended up no more than thirty metres or so away giving superb views in the late afternoon light.

I stayed at Mums overnight and first thing my Sister and I set of for Bushy Park where we were hoping to get Dartford Warbler. We arrived just after the gates opened at eight and parked in the Pheasantry car park. It was a lovely morning with clear blue skies and quite a heavy frost. We headed for the bracken along Cobblers Walk but had no luck with the Dartford so then moved to the South East corner beyond the ponds. After several false alarms we eventually we got lucky and had brief but good views of a single Dartford. My first for the year and for the London area. A few Stonechat were seen along with twenty-three other species. The best of the rest was a Treecreeper which was the nice for my sister to add to her year list to go with her usual garden Short-toed version. We also saw plenty of deer including a striking white male.

The Right Choice?

On Thursday myself and Matt had decided to go for the Black-browed Albatross that has been gracing the cliff at Bempton for quite a while. It had been showing well all week but on Friday it didn’t put in an appearance and nor did it on Saturday morning. So we made the decision to instead go to Snettisham for the Western Sandpiper and then onto Frampton Marsh for the Pacific Golden Plover. The route to Snettisham is now around seventy-five percent dual carriageway and we arrived in the already busy car park at around a quarter past six. This was a new site for me so I was looking forward to exploring it. I have to say that it was not as I had imagined it to be. We set of on the mile or so trek to the sea with just over an hour to go to high-tide. We got to the sea to find the mud rapidly being covered by the incoming tide and several thousand waders in the air moving ahead of the rising water. A spectacle that I have seen on video which was truly amazing in real life. After watching Common, Little and Sandwich Terns flying about we spent a bit of time scanning through the flocks of Dunlin on the shingle spits but of the WP there was no sign. As the last of the birds flew in from the sea onto the old gravel pits we set up in the Shore Hide to enjoy the birds. The species count mounted but we soon realised that our best opportunity of seeing the target bird was as the waters started to recede. While we were in the hide news of the return of the Albatross came through making us wonder if we had made the right choice of destination.We were the last two people in the hide when one of the RSPB Wardens came in and he gave us an expert tip of where the Sandpiper was likely to be found. We were a bit concerned as we headed North back along the shore as the majority of birders were staying put at the Shore Hide end. Trusting in the advice we kept going passing several birders heading the other way. A Turtle Dove, the first of three, flew past and landed in the line of vegetation along the shore. It seemed a little strange as the only ones we had seen previously were at scrubby inland sites. It was good to see as I had only heard a single bird at Martin Down this year. The sea was receding and as the mud was uncovered the small waders started to fly in. Hundreds of Dunlin and Knot along with a few Ringed Plover were scanned through to no avail. The number of birders grew and finally the bird was found, after an initial panic we all got onto it feeding fairly close in on the mud. It had a really strange head down feeding action and with its short tail looked quite comical. The rufous tones on the head and the breastband were easy to pick out as it moved around in front of us. By now the number of birders had swelled considerably as we were joined by many of those who had been watching from the “wrong place”. The RSPB guy had turned up and I wandered over to thank him for his advice. The bird slowly moved away from us and after twenty minutes or so we decided to head back to the car to be towards the front of the line of birders that we had heard would be heading, as we were, to Frampton.

After skirting Kings Lynn we headed north into Lincolnshire on the A17, a road I haven’t travelled on for many years. To the best of my memory I haven’t birded in Lincolnshire before. It took just over an hour to get to Frampton and after spending a few minutes topping up the energy reserves with a sandwich we headed onto the reserve. Again some excellent advice was given by the friendly RSPB guys on site and it wasn’t long before we were on the sea wall watching the very obliging PGP which had just moved onto the seaward side of the reserve. Some further scanning got us our first Greenshank of the day, followed by sightings of hunting Marsh Harrier and Short-eared Owl. The Owl being constantly harassed by Lapwing as it drifted over the Marsh. After watching from here for a while we set of for a tour of the reserve. And what a fabulous place it is with a great variety of birds to be seen at every point. In all we saw twenty species of wader here, absolutely incredible. We stopped to a Corn Bunting singing, it seemed odd to hear in this habitat as it is a common bird for us near to home in the very different landscape on the Downlands of Wiltshire. A flock or apparently a Canteen of ten Spoonbills flew out from the Saltmarsh, the most I have seen in the UK. From the 360 hide we found another nice selection of waders including 2 Curlew Sandpiper, several Ruff and some Spotted Redshank. From here it was back to the car and after a drink and a bit more food we left the car park at three, twelve hours after I had picked Matt up in Swindon.

The journey home was obviously busier but with only a couple of delays I dropped Matt home at half-six. We covered three hundred and eighty miles, plus the walking in around seventeen hours and notched up eighty-nine species, in which for me were five year-ticks with two being lifers. So was it the right choice? Bempton would have been good but with the amount of birds seen today, even without including the two lifers it was a unanimous yes from us both.

A Busy Week

Started on Monday with a half-morning visit with Matt to the current local wader hotspot of Pit 132 which is just over the border in Gloucestershire. The morning started well with a Little Owl seen on the fence of RAF Fairford. 132 didn’t disappoint with ten of Green and six Common Sandpipers, five Little-ringed Plover, singles of Ruff and Snipe and plenty of Lapwing. Also at least twenty Little and three Great White Egrets.

On Tuesday it was a trip to Salisbury Plain with Ian who was staying in the area for a few days. Again fairly successfull with three Stone Curlew, Curlew, three Gropper, several Whinchat and many Stonechat seen. Also plenty of Corn Buntings, Yellowhammers and Linnets. We missed out on Tree Pipit and Great Bustard though which was a shame.

I also managed to evening visits to Liddington Hill area which gave me four and two Quail.