Monday, June 28, 2010

Suffolk and Minsmere

After successful birding in the RSPB's Rutland Water, Titchwell Marsh, Snettisham and Cley Marshes along the North Sea coast and wildlife trust Hinkley Broads in Norfolk it was time to move on the meet with birding friend, Malcolm Richards, and his wife, Angela, for a weekend of birding at Minsmere RSPB.

Departing Norfolk on Friday morning for our 10:00 am meeting with Malcolm and Angela, our route took us to a chain ferry to cross the Yare River.  By taking the Reedham ferry across the Yare we cut 30 miles off the bridge route for the river crossing and drove through many rural villages and along narrow roads that where just light gray lines on the map.  In the photo above, you can see the chains pulling the ferry across the narrow waterway - clever ferry design for a narrow crossing.

People live on boats and boat recreationally along the Yare River.  It was early on a gray, cold morning but the people on the boat above to be heading somewhere.

Finally, we arrived at Minsmere RSPB shortly after 10:00 am to meet Angela and Malcolm Richards in the Minsmere cafe.  I met Malcolm in Michigan in September, 2008 when he was visiting Angela's brother who lives in South Lyon and was looking for a birding partner for a Saturday outing.  He returned for another visit this past May and we went to Point Pelee and to Magee Marsh to see spring migrants.  My 5/18 and 5/23 blog entries focus on the birding we did those weekends. Malcolm also birded with others during these visits and thanks to another visit he and Angela made to Florida in 2009, he has quite a nice North American list.  After coffee together, Joy and Cliff left to return to Leamington Spa and Angela, Malcolm and I started birding.   

At Minsmere I finally got a fairly close photo of a Magpie (Pica pica). These birds are everywhere and, like our common Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), they are spectacular.  However, also like our Blue Jay, they are not greatly desired birds secondary to their aggressive and carnivorous reputation.  I'm not sure there is a discernible difference between this bird and our Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).

Yes, that is a bird in the photo above.  Two [Eurasian] Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) were reported in one of the Minsmere ponds, but by the time we got to this location they had already departed.  Later in the day we were in a different hide and watching a Marsh Harrier hunting over, what else, the marsh, when suddenly a large, long, white bird flew by.  I yelled out, "hey ... what's this?" and others got on the bird as well.  A review of the range map for this bird in the newly released second edition Princeton Field Guide Birds of Europe suggests that the Spoonbill may be the most uncommon bird we saw at Minsmere.      

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) was seen again, much closer this time, at Minsmere.  Unfortunately, another silhouetted raptor photo - a specialty of mine.

At some point on Friday afternoon, we came upon this perched Kestrel and I was able to see the bird up close, especially to see the differences with our American Kestrel.

On Saturday morning I was awakened with daylight and the sound of a Cuckoo calling.  Angela, Malcolm and I had arranged to meet for breakfast at 7:30 am and I wanted to get out before this to look for a Barn Owl.  I thought it must surely be 6:00 am at least, so when I checked the time I was shocked that it was only 4:00 am.  I knew that daylight arrived much earlier there, but I didn't know that it was as early as this!  The Cuckoo called continuously (more about this later), and thinking that it might be perched on the easily viewed utility wires, I had a quick, but unsuccessful, look out over the open area of the inn parking lot before returning to bed.  I finally got up for good around 6:00 am and out to explore the village of Eastbridge and to look for a Barn Owl.  

The village of Eastbridge is very small and completely charming.  I apologize for my cliched description of an English village.  As for the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) - I flushed a largish, pale bird from some weedy trees growing against a barn along the roadside - but never did see the bird.  Later, at breakfast, an elderly couple who are annual visitors to the village, described seeing the Barn Owl hunting in a field when they stopped to talk with one of the villagers they were acquainted with. I felt a pang in my stomach.  I knew I should have tried harder to chase that bird. 

After an English breakfast in the Eels Foot dining room, we departed again for Minsmere, but this time to a different area nearby called Dunwich (pronounced dunich) Heath.  Target birds:  Dartford Warbler and Stonechat.

We saw both birds well.  With the Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata) there was absolutely no chance to get a photo.  The first bird we saw was a male, perched on the heath vegetation and singing.  Later in the day we saw a family group moving through the heath and there were a couple of other brief sightings.  This was a bird I had wanted to see, but honestly did not really think I would.  It is a completely beautiful and unique little bird.  The above photo is the backside of the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata).

Stonechat is another bird I had hoped to see.  Late in the day we saw another flycatching in the late evening sun even as a Hobby (Falco subbuteo) was hunting nearby.  Above is the distant evening Stonechat.

This is one of the final birds of the day - Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrenella).  This bird was perched and singing up high on a large conifer tree.  This was the only Yellowhammer I saw the whole trip.

Saturday evening we had dinner at a pub, The Ship, in the village of Dunwich.  At one point, I think we were the only diners in the pub without a dog.  Our plan, hatched early that morning, was to remain out late enough to see Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus).  In England this is going to be very late, because it does not get dark until very late. Earlier we had spoken to a fellow who told us where to find them.  He also told us where we could find Stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), too, but if we found the right field, we did not find the bird.  It was not quite dark yet, but getting colder.  We found our field and walked along a farm fence to a corner where we could also scan for Stone-curlew.  It got colder and duskier, but still not dark.  Finally, Malcolm said, "I hear one."  The bird called again and he said "there," pointing in the direction of the vocalization - a completely unique sound described as churring.  We heard it over and over but no birds were leaving their perches to fly over what appeared to be a perfect field for their hunting. It was also hard to tell exactly where the vocalizations were coming from or even how far away the birds were.  We felt certain there was more than one.  Finally, we were all freezing.  We left our spot to see if we could get closer and possibly see the birds.  We hiked back out on to the heath.  The birds were vocalizing and seemed very close, but we never did see them.  The Nightjar churring is linked here.  It was 10:30 pm when we left and there was still light in the sky.  We walked quickly to keep warm and also because we had last call on our minds.  We arrived back at the Eels Foot just in time to order a much anticipated nightcap.  We suddenly remembered to inquire about the score of the World Cup USA vs. England game.  The game had been played to a 1-1 tie (I think the English might say draw) while we had been out birding. A great end to a great day!       

Sunday morning began at a more leisurely pace (see The Eels Foot Inn and the Cuckoo) and we birded Minsmere for our final day there.  This is the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), a bird that is most often heard singing rather than seen - indeed, the very bird that so inspired Milton, Keats, Wordsworth and many others with its song. In our case, we saw the bird but did not hear it.  A nightingale nest in the center of a bush was found near the trail and both parents were actively working to feed the begging young.  I took three dozen or more photos of the bird while it came back and forth to the nest and perched reliably on the same branch.  I ended up deleting all but about five.  In an arbitrary decision, this is perhaps my best.

We first saw Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) at Rutland Water RSPB and again at most other marshes, but they are fast and disappear into the grass quickly.  This bird at Minsmere was singing vigorously on perches along both sides of the marsh trail.  It was a pleasure to photograph this cooperative little bird.

I had brief views of Bearded Tit at a couple of locations, but none that I felt were really satisfying.  While photographing the Sedge Warbler, I was distracted by a male Bearded Tit carrying a fecal sac flying toward me just over the top of the marsh grass.  I thought it might perch.  No such luck.  It steered itself to a bush in the marsh and dropped into the center.  Watching the bird fly across the marsh was the satisfying view I had hoped for.

Malcolm wanted very much to try again to find Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus).  This is a bird he knew was around, but we could not locate it on Friday.  Spending Saturday on Dunwich Heath allowed no time to look for it, so this was our last chance.  By this time we had visited all the hides.  Finally, about mid-morning, in the birdiest pond, Malcolm was finally able to pick out two Mediterranean Gulls. He let out a shout of relief.  Each year, apparently two to three pairs will breed at Minsmere.  Surrounded as they were by hundreds of very noisy Black-headed Gulls (Larus ridibundus), the pair stuck close to each other.  It is a beautiful gull reminding me very much of our Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla).   

By this time on late Sunday morning, we had spent most of the past 72 hours birding.  We paused for a welcome moment of relaxation and Malcolm and Angela posed for this photo in the dune grass at the edge of the North Sea surf.  

Like our Semi-palmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), their Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula). Curiously, we saw none of the more widely distributed Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius).  The uncommon Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) would also have been possible, but unfortunately there were none around for us.

Against the gray sky, this photo of a closely perched Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) is not great, but it was a fun bird to see.  One of our final sought out birds of the weekend, we watched this bird displaying in the sky before coming down to perch on this thorny perch.  Typically a common bird, this is the only one we saw all weekend.  After watching this bird, we reversed our direction on the path and came up to some birders lounging in the dune grass who asked what we saw. When I responded Meadow Pipit, they shrugged their shoulders and continued to sit.  Walking on further, we saw another bird land on the dune trail ahead.  Malcolm said it was another pipit.  I said it was a sky lark. Later, when he had time to review the data on bird sightings for Minsmere, Malcolm suggested that it may have been a Woodlark (Lullula arborea).  We'll never know for sure.

Minsmere and Dunwich Heath was a perfect weekend of birding.  I feel so fortunate to have received Angela's and Malcolm's invitation to spend the weekend with them at Minsmere.  Never having met Angela before (who made me laugh when she described herself as "only half a birder really") I had no idea what to expect, but the whole weekend was great.  

Next:  The Eels Foot Inn and the Cuckoo   

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Norfolk is flat, very flat"

Just as I began working on my England and Wales blog entries, I had a computer catastrophe!  My motherboard shorted out, but at first I didn't know that and I thought I may have lost all of my trip photos.  Now my laptop is in the shop and my photos have been dowloaded to a new hard drive while I wait for my laptop to be repaired.  Fortunately, I had these photos already downloaded for a blog entry, so here it is.

I've been home nearly a week and I have dragged my feet, probably secondary to travel fatigue and work being busy upon my return.   I've also not been able to think of a clear narrative with which to write about my birding in England and (later) in Wales.

I think this may be because it was a non-birding trip that had a lot of birding.  I visited friends who were not birders.  In fact, I clearly recall an early email to discuss planning where my friend, Cliff, reminded me that, under no uncertain terms, he and Joy were not birders.  I recall responding that I knew this and that was perfectly fine.  So, with this out of the way early, then plans began to be made and, well frankly, our travel included visits to many wonderful Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) sites in Norfolk, Suffolk and Wales.  I think Joy and Cliff must have finally thought - well, she wants to go birding, so let's take her birding. Indeed, we turned out to be on a birding trip after all. The title of this blog entry comes from a comment Cliff made several times.  "Norfolk is flat, very flat.  We don't like flat." 

We spent the first three days in Leamington Spa where Joy and Cliff live.  I caught up with my jet lag, took some photos in their backyard (see my earlier blog posted during the first couple of days) and we visited local walking and birding places.  We had lunch out at a nice pub on Sunday and I had my first pint of bitter in nearly 20 years.

Tuesday morning, June 8th, day one of our drive to Norfolk, arrived with plenty of rain.  We sort of dillydallied getting out the door.  Not much point in rushing to an early start when it's pouring.  Despite the rain we finally did get our the door.  First stop: Rutland Water Nature Reserve in Rutland County.  For most English birders the draw here are nesting Ospreys which have been recently reintroduced to England.  The pair at Rutland Water have been successful and currently have nestlings which has pleased everyone.  As we know, the Osprey is a  beautiful bird.  The visitor center had a scope focused on their nest.  I'll make another observation about this in a later post.       

The one decent photo I got at Rutland Water was of the Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) above.  This is, I think, the most common bird in England.  Initially, I had difficulty finding them, but the male bird sings all day and they became easy to see once I figured out their habits.  At least at this time of year, they are far more common than the house sparrow or starling (I don't know what it's like in late summer and fall when Chaffinch stop singing and starlings begin flocking).  As you can see from the photo above, a completely charming and beautiful bird - wonderful to have as the most common. 

The bird on the wire is a Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus).  While I saw this bird many times, including once very close at Hinkley Broads when I did not have my camera (?!?), this finally is the only photo I got of the bird.  It was probably also one of my favorite birds.  As I write this, I am still kicking myself at not having my camera when I was all alone with a singing Reed Bunting only twelve feet away.

At first, the identification of the bird above confused me.  It is a Dunnock - formerly known commonly as the Hedge Accentor.  I was using two field guides, one old and one new.  Turns out that Hedge Accentor and Dunnock are one and the same, Prunella modularis. Another clearer photo is in my first blog post.  I include this particular photo for the more natural habitat and because I like the rain drops that are clinging to the thorn branch.  Did I say it was raining this day?

Tuesday night we stayed near Rutland Water at the Barnsdale Hall Hotel, an old country estate converted into a hotel and resort, and departed Wednesday morning for our next stop, Titchwell Marsh RSPB in Norfolk.  For mid-week, I found Titchwell quite crowded with birders. We all liked this RSPB very much.  

Sky Lark (Aluada arvensis), Sky Lark, ah beautiful Sky Lark!  Common in their meadow habitat of which there seems to be plenty.  Even in this terrible silhouetted photo above you can see the beak of the bird open in song - the very song that captivated Wordsworth, Shelley and so many other poets of the great age of English poetry.  

While I like all birds, those who know me as a birder, know that I like little birds best.  Songbirds and shorebirds.  So, when I see a little bird, like the common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) above for the first time, I find it thrilling.  And, to get such a photo of a bird that was not all that close; well, this is the icing on the whole experience for me.  They fly around in little flocks, like our goldfinch and redpolls (same genus), and I became familiar with recognizing them on the wing and hearing their little twitters.

Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is, arguably, one of the more difficult birds to see in England.  It has a small range and, of course, being a bittern, is naturally difficult to see. Word got out about this bird and soon people were lining the trail just across the marsh from this bird on the hunt. The bird was not deterred by the presence of so many people and did, indeed, catch a fish which my friend, Cliff, caught on camera. 

The [Pied] Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) also has a limited range in England.  Like our avocet, it is a pleasure to see.  It is essentially the same size and has the same sweeping foraging habits.  We saw many of these at Titchwell and later, with young, at Minsmere RSPB.

Finally, this hunting, graceful [Eurasian] Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) was seen hunting over Cley Marshes Nature Reserve on Thursday, 06-10-2010.  We went here to see if we could find Bearded Tits, which we had seen very distantly at Titchwell.  It was too windy on this day for finding Bearded Tits, but this kestrel hunting over the marshes was the first good look I got at their kestrel.  We also got our first good look at Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) here.  We never did see Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), despite reports of one hunting at Titchwell.  Our Northern Harrier, or their Hen Harrier, (Circus cyaneus) is seen only in winter in this region of the country.

Finally, an anecdote to end this blog entry.  To end the day on Wednesday, 06-09-10, we visited Snettisham RSPB and, even as it threatened to rain (and did rain), we hiked out a long path to the North Sea.  At the beginning of the hike, Joy noticed a new bird with just its head and neck visible and asked, "Oh, what's that?  It look's like some kind of goose."  Cliff responded, "No, it's a shelduck.  I saw this bird at Rutland."  I didn't know what it was and took a photo.  After dinner, and back at our hotel, the Heacham Manor, I was reviewing my photos and decided to delete the photo of the unknown bird.  I didn't know what it was and besides I had only the head and neck - which is all we saw of the bird - in the photo.  Delete.  Still later that same night, I was reviewing my field guide and came across Egyptian Goose.  The bird we had seen was an Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus).  Though an introduced species from Africa, it is a breeding bird just in this corner of Norfolk.  I had deleted my only photo of the one Egyptian Goose we saw the whole trip.  The description in the old Larousse Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland describes the Egyptian Goose this way - "more like a shelduck than a goose."  The next morning at breakfast I shared this discovery with Joy and Cliff and we all had a good laugh.    

Next:  Suffolk and Minsmere RSPB.  

Monday, June 7, 2010

West Midlands: field, garden and pond birds

Again, apologies, Google Blogger is giving me trouble with font size.

I arrived at Heathrow Airport at around 7:30 am on Saturday and after waiting approximately two hours in the passport line, I walked out to greet my friend, Cliff, who had been waiting all that time for me to have my passport stamped.  We had coffee from Costas and then were in the car and on our way to Chilterns to see Red Kites.  The weather was warm and muggy and the roads were heavy with traffic.  

As above, the Red Kites (Milvus milvus) did not disappoint us, but they were just a bit too high up with a lot of haziness in the sky to photograph.  Here is a silhouetted bird that flew quite low over our heads.  Red Kites are a reintroduced bird in the England and Chilterns is a location where the birds were traditionally known to be.

The Red Kite photo above - a real Red Kite photo - was taken by my friend, Cliff Young, about three weeks after our first visit to the Chilterns area on 06-05-10.  Is this a beautiful bird, or what?

To start the process of overcoming my jet leg my plan was to stay awake the whole day - I did not sleep on the plane - and was reasonably successful with this.  Joy had lunch prepared and we ate on the sunny patio.  Cliff put out mealworms for his garden birds and, while we enjoyed our lunch, we watched the birds come boldly up to his feeders - with their greatest interest being the meal worms.  The following are the best photographs I could get from this.

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocta)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula), iconic bird in England

Great Tit (Parus major)

In Cliff's yard there are also Magpies, a Blue Tit and a Green Finch pair all of which I am still hoping for better photos.  When I think about this, and compare Cliff's yard birds to our yard birds, he has an amazing diversity.

Additionally, he also has a couple of the birds below.  Note that I write a couple.  They do not overwhelm his feeders, do not fight and are said to be in decline.  I think we have a few we can send over if they run out.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that they are not so irritating over here. Incidentally, there are also Starlings out with their fledglings (cuter than I recall when home) but I draw the line at adding a photo of a starling.

Later Cliff and Joy took me to Brandon Marshes which is a very popular National Wildlife Trust preserve that surprised me by being full of bird song in the late afternoon.  There were many other birders walking around and there were also photographers.  The passerines were easy to hear, but difficult to see in the fully leafed trees.  The fun bird, and one I never did see, was the Chiffchaff with its squeaky repeated singsongy, chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff.  Easy to figure that one out. The "hides" that are located in this birding spot and that look out over ponds or marshes are the best and really only way to get a look at the birds in the water or around the pond edges.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)

Oystercatcher (Haemaatopus ostralegus)

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

I am waiting for a better, i.e. less distant, chance at photos of Tufted Duck, Common Redshank and the like before adding. 

Today we went to Coombs Abbey where we saw Jay, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Great Cormorant, Grey Heron, Coot and the birds below - again, because of the distance, none are great photos - nevertheless, here they are.

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos); terrible photo, but red alert (in great decline) bird in England!

 Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Tomorrow to Rutland Water Preserve and then to the county of Norfolk.

Next:  "Norfolk is flat, very flat."