Monday 2nd found me at Bramfield in search of the Hawfinches seen there recently. Good to have "The Bearded Tit" (TBT) along for company, neither of us had seen a Hawfinch - yet!
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We arrived at about 10.20, about 8 - 10 others already on site. Quick check of current state - no Hawfinches seen so far today. (I think it was Linda Smith sharing this information but I'm not sure!). We hung around the churchyard for half an hour or so and then decided to take a walk towards the wood at the back of the cricket field. We'd both heard of a little owl in the area. Half way across the field we looked back and saw someone beckoning us back to the churchyard. Ah! must be Hawfinch! Back at the churchyard, a quick enquiry and Yes! a Hawfinch had been seen, flew in, landed in a fairly distant tree for 20 seconds, and flew out again! Damn missed it - but then so did most of the people in the churchyard - the live ones anyway!
Hung around for another 30 minutes, hoping for a view but nothing materialised. We decided to take a walk along an adjacent lane - despite the "No Access" and "Private Property" signs. Along the lane we spotted small birds flying around the trees and shrubs, mainly Tits & Chaffinches, then "What was that?" "Dunnow" "Looked like a Nuthatch" I said - at this point I didn't admit that the only Nuthatch I'd seen in my 61 years was in a book! "Yep, Nuthatch" confirmed TBT, "No two" both round the other side of the tree - typical. TBT wandering through someone's garden in search of them. We found them, I tried a few photos and only when they flew off and I reviewed the photos did I realise that I'd seriously under-exposed the pictures due to the fact that I'd been playing around with my camera settings and hadn't returned them to my normal settings, which would have been OK for the Nuthatch. Anyway I managed to rescue a couple of them so at least I have a record of my first Nuthatch - a "lifer" as advised by TBT!
Red Kite flying overhead, plenty of Jackdaws (like these two) in the area, Starlings visiting a hole in the Oak tree in the garden opposite the churchyard - surely they're not breeding already! More Chaffinches & Tits and a couple of Goldcrests in the churchyard, a Coal Tit and a small group of Long Tails moving from tree to tree and a Robin sitting in the sun at the top of a Yew tree singing it's little heart out, but No Hawfinches!
1.00 ish we decided to call it a day, at least I'd had a decent morning with the Nuthatch. Dropped TBT at Amwell NR and went home for to prepare for my hospital appointment (and what a waste of time that turned out to be!)
NB. Return brief visit to Bramfield on Wednesday 4th resulted in a good sighting. TBT was also there and spotted a group of 6 Hawfinches in the trees bordering the churchyard but forgot to take any photos! I managed to hold it together and got this one.
Arrived at the Bittern Pool, no Bittern unfortunately. Then a meeting with another recognised but unknown birder, we headed off to the White Hide to see what was tucked away round the back of the island. Short answer to that - not much. Some Widgeon, Teal, Shovelers and Gadwall taking shelter, out front of the hide mainly Coots.. Did manage to find a solitary Snipe on the scrape outside the hide but it wasn't going anywhere - was it frozen to the spot? Oh, No it's moved a bit, now the sun has started to breakthrough, better light but as you know you can't see anything form the White Hide when the sun shines!
I tried a few "flying" shots of Cormorants and the always "lively" Coots, they came out OK.
My colleague left mumbling about a sausage sandwich in the café in Stansted Abbots, as much a ritual for him as the coffee & flapjack healthy option is for me at Rye Meads. I stayed on for a while and then decided to head back to the Bittern Pool and off up to the Dragonfly Meadow and the feeders. Nothing in the Bittern Pool - simply not good enough! and a group of casual birder ladies heading my way too! A couple of Redwings in the trees leading up to Tumbling Bay Lake which was also frozen over (as you can see)
but did have a Water Rail picking it's way along the reed beds. I could hear a Woodpecker drumming and calling but couldn't spot it anywhere. Nothing on the walk to the Dragonfly Meadow except a Siberian wind coming across the meadow on the left - coat zipped right up! Arriving at the Dragonfly Meadow the resident female Kestrel was sitting at the very top of the "feeder" tree and flew off as soon as I raised my camera! The usual suspects on the feeders, the highlight being a Coal Tit which made a couple of quick visits. The casual group arrived led by a man with a scope he pointed out the birds using the feeders while the ladies froze around him. When they left a couple of the ladies were watching a group of noisy Blue Tits and Great Tits in the bushes, I pointed out the female Kestrel which was some way off but visible at the back of the meadow, a Red Kite soaring over the tree ridge to the left and a couple of Buzzards accompanying it along the ridge. "Thanks" they said, "I wonder what else we've missed today?" Scope man hadn't seen them. I gave them a few minutes start and then set off back to the river.
The sun was trying hard now and, having drawn the third blank of the day at the Bittern Pool, I set off over the bridge and into the woods. Plenty of wind and some birdsong but not close. Further in I came a across a mixed group of Goldfinch and Siskin feeding high up in the Alders, and a few Redwing in the leaf litter in the clearing by the boaters campfire site.
As I approached everything, and I mean everything, panicked and headed for the safe water beyond the goalposts, surely I didn't look that scary did I? I couldn't see any obvious cause of the panic so assumed it was me! After a few minutes some Coots started to come back closer to the shore as did gulls and Shovelers. As I said at the beginning, birds in flight was my objective today and nothing was flying, at least not close enough. I kept thinking about the sausage sandwich and I knew there was hot soup and crusty bread at home, tempting. I stayed for 15-20 minutes and did finally get some flight shots of Black-Backed Gulls and
Shovelers which I'm very pleased with, and more rubbish ones which I no longer have!
Lunch was too much of a temptation, I headed for home happy that I'd seen a few Redwing close up, and had achieved my goal of some half decent flight shots too. Positive news of the long johns and hand-warmers too, both will get more outings I have no doubt.
Friday 6th February found me at Burwell Fen for the afternoon with my driver, Seymour Birdies - thanks for the invite.
The trip arose from my plea for help to get some decent "in flight" shots, although some might consider the above shots of Shovelers may make this a strange plea. Believe me those photos are the very few successful ones from the, probably, hundreds I take. Mr. Birdies on the other hand is more successful so why not pick his brain! We left Hertford just after midday, our target species was the Short Eared Owl (SEO) - yet another first for me. Good chat on the drive up, discussing camera settings and the effect of AV, TV, ISO, Extenders, filters, tripods and techniques, all good stuff for me as a relatively new picture taker - I hesitate to use the term "photographer" to describe my standing in this area. Anyway, good weather, busy roads but moving well, saw us arrive at about 1.10, quick stretch and cup of tea in the car park (there's something nostalgic about the taste of tea from a flask that takes me back to my teenage years roaming the fields around Chelmsford with fishing rod in hand to spend a day at some small pond in the middle of nowhere!). Right, tea done and layers in place, the wind is blowing a proper hooley today, across the fens with absolutely nothing to stop it until it hit us!
Quick reccy of the fen - a huge area - from the footbridge over the river, and were off to the area of an old barn roughly in the centre of this windswept wilderness. Underfoot it's muddy and slippery on the path by the river, good job I'd spent the previous evening cleaning & waterproofing my boots then! About 300 yards into the fen and wallop! I'm on my arse, camera embedded in the mud, lens smacking into the bank, awful cracking noise, binoculars underneath me, what the f... happened there! To his credit Mr. Birdies was concerned that me and my gear were OK, I think if the roles had been reversed I might well have been wetting myself! Getting up, more damaged pride than physical damage, I checked my camera fearing the worst and thinking "Great, hours drive and two minutes in I've busted the camera". Quick check showed some mud and that's about all, it was still taking pictures thankfully. Quip about an insurance claim but felt such a twat!
We carried on toward the barn, spotting Redwing & Fieldfare en route, and a few Roe Deer in the adjacent field. Arriving at the barn we had a look around, only about 1.45 so about an hour or so the SEO time. Plenty of Kestrels up, often 4 at a time, and plenty of deer in the fields.
Both Kestrels & Roe Deer moved away as we moved toward them, we managed a few shots but not what we were looking for. A Marsh Harrier & a Sparrowhawk went by quickly on the wind and Fieldfare continued to hop around the fields.
Time check - 3.00, getting near SEO time, then there it was, a Short Eared Owl flying in low across the field in front of us. Keep coming fella, keep coming, no not that way.
Damn, we're off legging it to the next field where the SEO is quartering in the distance. I should say these are not normal fields, they are very, very big and with the underfoot conditions, the walk takes us a good 5 minutes at a good pace. We managed to keep and eye on the SEO but it was still a long way off. We stopped at the corner of the field more or less diagonally opposite the area where the Owl was actively hunting low over the grass. It did all of the field except the area close to where we were standing - they're not daft these birds! It was favouring a corner were there were a few cattle grazing, we set off along a wet, grassy and in places muddy track. We got as close as, it turned out, we were going to all afternoon. We both rattled off a load of shots but the distance made it more in hoe than expectation for me.
We followed the Owl as far as we could but he covered the fields far quicker than we could and we eventually lost sight of him despite "yomping" three large fields.
Kestrels were still up and I tried a few shots but they were facing us with the sun at their backs so pictures were hopeless.
We'd heard about a Barn Owl which hunts near the footbridge and decided to head back that way to see if we could spot it. We did, but off in the distance, much too far away for cameras. Then, the wind came to our aid for once and it cruised towards and past us in about 10 seconds flat, got some nice shots of the sky! It did eventually hunt over the field alongside us, but again the sun was directly in our eyes, we tried a few shots with varying degrees of success but no 10/10's unfortunately.
After a thoroughly exhausting and enjoyable afternoon (apart from the "flat on my arse" incident!) of speed walking, climbing over gates & fences and looking into the sun & wind, we headed back to the car - it took us a good 15 minutes on made-up paths.
We reached the footbridge just as the sun was setting, I stopped on the bridge to try to get a picture but wasn't too successful
but did manage to capture part of a huge flock of Starlings which flew across maybe 30 yards away.
Nice way to end a most enjoyable afternoon. I slept well that night!
Publish and be damned - more from February later.