Saturday, 28 March 2015

Middle March - to April and beyond

March marches on towards Spring & Summer and some warmer weather hopefully. Trips out continue apace due to me having more spare time than expected.  Make the most of it!

Thursday 5th March - Fox Covert, Therfield Heath, Royston.

Reports of Bramblings coming in thick & fast so a first visit to Fox Covert, a very nice woodland area edging the heathland.  After parking in the layby I set off through the woods, a few Great Tits chasing around and Song Thrushes going through their repertoire, always makes me smile, they sound in so much of a hurry!  Not much else about which was a bit disappointing, through the woods and along the edge of the heath, a few Long Tails in the shrubs but nothing else.  Chatted to a fellow "birder" and then discovered I wasn't in Fox Covert at all - that was the other side of the road!

Plenty of tree felling going on, apparently Natural England want to chop down the trees and make the area "natural" again - I always thought trees were natural but apparently not!  Chainsaws were the chosen weapons of the day for the team felling the trees, and white paint the response from locals and nature lovers who have left their messages and advice throughout the wood walking up to the Covert.

It looks like a small wood, which I suppose it is, but there are plenty of criss-crossing paths and hills aplenty.  Walking quietly I spotted a Goldcrest, a Nuthatch, a Buzzard flying overhead (which put Rule 1 into operation perfectly as soon as it saw me point a camera in it's general direction!), and a gate which was on the edge of the heath, standing alone with no fence either side.  I thought about taking a walk across the heath, but the gate was locked so couldn't progress, here's a picture of the gate, and the Nuthatch, - is there a more pointless gate anywhere in the UK I wonder?

Later that day . . .

After a rather large lunch of Liver & Bacon in Moreno's Café in Royston  I arrived back in Ware at about 2.30, didn't want to go home so went to Amwell instead - there's a surprise!

Nice afternoon so thought I'd have another go at Barney.  Headed, more or less, straight to the White Hide. Good views of the usual birds, plenty of Gulls & Waterfowl but this one gull stood out from the crowd and clearly demonstrates our direct affect on the wildlife of this country and, no doubt, further afield. I assume this poor bird had visited the local landfill site at some point recently.  The circulation in one leg had clearly been affected - the leg looked very dark and dead.  Maybe it will survive - but it's only a gull right?

Fortunately there were better sights to see, and I had been joined by Warden Bast and Dave "The Photo" Haylock.  We all saw & photographed the gull, we also all took part in one of the most surreal (and panic ridden) moments I can remember.

We were watching a Male Sparrowhawk (spotted by the warden!) in one of the trees on the "Heron" island, and we'd been watching it for about 15 minutes when it suddenly dived and flew straight at us.  It crashed into the grasses right in front of the hide, looked up bemused and flew on to one of the rafts which had drifted into the hide area, sat there for a few seconds and headed back to the island - but it didn't get it's tea as far as we could see.  We all got some photos, some better than others, the whole incident was over in probably 10 -15 seconds - on our parts, pure mayhem!  I got two pictures - which I didn't keep - one of the patch of sky the hawk had just left, and another of the ground it hadn't yet reached!  I also got these 2 which at least show a Male Sparrowhawk!

 Laugh? I thought my trousers would never dry!  You can't beat a moment of pure, good natured panic with a couple of mates!

 Anyway, once the chaos had died down we settled in to wait for the Barn Owl - which was why we were here after all.  Thankfully it did put in an appearance, albeit brief.  Here's some proof.

A short walk back to the Bittern Pool and home. 

I checked the Bittern Pool but no Bittern and after 10 cool minutes I headed home, after taking this snap of the Swan bookends.

Friday 6th March - Mistley / Manningtree, Essex

Having checked the weather and the tides I decided to make the long promised trip to "The Walls" and the Quay, at Mistley.  Mistley is on the Essex side of the Stour Estuary, a small village with open access to the river and its mudflat restaurants (strictly for the birds).  I parked up on the roadside, checked with a couple of locals that I was OK to park there and grabbed the camera and binoculars.  Wow! what a selection of birds, maybe not rare but certainly different to those commonly found on a Hertfordshire Gravel Pit!  Some were familiar to me, Redshanks, Egyptian Geese, Rooks and Canada & Greylag Geese, but plenty of less well known (to me) species - Avocets, Pintails, Knot, Black-Tailed Godwits, Curlews, Red-breasted Merganser.  I'm not going through the day save to say that if you do find yourself there make sure it's 2-3 hours before high tide (which pushes the birds in to the shoreline), and if you want a bite to eat you can do worse the Mistley Craft Centre Café at the back of the Quay.  Here are a few shots. Oh nearly forgot - the famous Mistley Swans!


Egyptian Goose





The Mudflats Restaurant

Pintail Ducks

Red-breasted Merganser - male

and Female




and the  famous Mistley Swans
 Tuesday 10th March - Tollesbury Wick (Essex Wildlife Trust) & RSPB Old Hall Marshes

After a couple of days resting up, Tuesday's forecast looked OK so another trip to the home county of Essex, this time to Tollesbury.  I haven't been anywhere close to this area since I was growing up in Chelmsford and me and my mates used to cycle to Maldon for the day - happy days!  Anyway, the trusty SatNav did it's job again apart from the last few hundred yards to the parking area, which I drove straight past and found with the help of one of the local workers.  A word of warning, if you come here don't be tempted to park close to the reserve in the roads - it floods when the tide comes in!  I saw a car the same as mine, up to its axles in sea water when I returned from my walk, and the tide wasn't fully in yet!

Tollesbury Wick is a large expanse of flooded wetlands and "fleets" - inlets, on the Tollesbury arm of the River Blackwater.  There is a circular walk along a raised sea wall to the estuary and back round the marshes - it's about 6 miles I'm told and no, I didn't! There's a decent enough hide in the centre of the wetland area giving decent views over a "lagoon". 

Lovely day, bit of a breeze but sunny & warm.  I was hoping for a Marsh Harrier and did see 3 in total - though it might have been the same one 3 times! - but always too far away to get any photos.  There were plenty of birds about including the usual ducks plus Curlews and a solitary Spotted Redshank, and a flock of about 1500 Brent Geese. 

RSPB Old Hall Marshes is on the other side of a large inlet from Tollesbury and is another huge area of marsh & wetlands, by car a 10 minute drive.
Similar area, long "short walk" - 3.5 miles, and a long walk of 6 miles, again, No, I didn't!  Another word of warning, the reserves gate is locked at 5.00pm, and, in there 'ere parts, tales are told of cars locked in!

As I pulled up to the gate a male Sparrowhawk flew out of the hedgerow and settled on the gate, and seemed quite at home until I got out of the car, needless to say I didn't see it again, oh well.  Drove through the gate to the car park and as I pulled up I saw a Red Kite flying low over another hedgerow, probably 20 yards away.  Out of  the car, into the boot, grabbed the camera and ... no sign of the Red Kite!  Considering this is a wide expanse of open land where did it go?  Again, I never saw it again.

I did go about a mile into the reserve before playing it safe and getting out well before closing time to be on the safe side.

Pictures weren't great but here are a couple of the more acceptable ones from the two venues, the Curlews are from Old Hall, the others from Tollesbury.

Brent Geese

Curlew fly-past


Spotted Redshank
Friday 13th - Sunday 15th March - Chearsley, Bucks, RSPB Otmoor, College Lake (Tring) & Wilstone Reservoir.
I had booked a workshop just outside Oxford on Saturday so took the opportunity to have a weekend away and visit a couple of different venues.  College Lake is a Berks, Bucks & Oxon WT site just outside of Tring.
I let the works traffic get out of the way and left home about 9.30.  I'd decided to go "cross-country" rather than M25 / M40, which turned out to be a good decision except for Aylesbury which I think I went round twice after taking a wrong exit at a roundabout!  Finally having cleared Aylesbury I knew my route to RSPB Otmoor was more or less straight along the A41 so was surprised when the lady in my Satnav piped up "In two miles turn right", "What? are you sure?" No answer, then "In one mile turn right", "Eh?", then "Turn right to Cuddington", "Where the hell is Cuddington?" Anyway, I did as I was told and "turned right to Cuddington" - I learned long ago not to argue with a lady navigator even if the next instruction is inevitably "Well stop and ask someone then!"  This time I didn't get that, I got "At the end of the road turn right and then first left" OK, I did and went from a narrow country lane to an even narrower country lane, and about a hundred yards in saw this sign - t'riffic!
After a mile or so, and thankfully not meeting any traffic, I came across a lovely village, Chearsley, Bucks apparently.  I spotted a large Oak tree straight ahead with two birds sitting in it - Red Kites!  I pulled into a lay-by, opened the boot, got the camera out and walked slowly, so as not to disturb the two Kites, towards the tree.  All I'll say is maybe I should've walked even slower!  Sure enough, as I got to the tree they both flew off.  I hung around for 5 minutes and noticed a single Kite just above the roof of a nearby cottage. then another and another, in 10 minutes there were seven of them all circling just above the roof tops.  Snappers heaven!  I chatted to a local lady, taking a small horse for a walk on a dog lead, who was completely unimpressed with the Kites "We get them all the time here, they were a novelty but not now", "They are for me" I said.  She told me to drive down the road, and at the bottom of the hill "there's a farm where they tend to congregate".  I was going that way and at the farm there were probably 20 Kites and up to 100 Rooks & Crows, nowhere to park so I kept going - happy!  Here's why - shame about the sky though.
and here's another lady with her small horse!
(It's not actually the lady I spoke to as far as I know)

English Mastiff
So, on to RSPB Otmoor
Another huge reserve in Oxfordshire comprising woodland, reedbeds, marshland, farmland, lakes and wetlands.  Apparently they have a winter Starling roost of in excess of 50,000 Starlings but at this time of year that's down to a couple of hundred.  It's a good walk to the main hide which overlooks wetlands and hedgerows mainly.  I was pleased to reach the hide and be able to get my bearings - and give my legs a rest!  Looking out I was rewarded with a hedgerow full of Linnets & Reed Buntings mainly, with a few Chaffinches thrown in for good measure - oh, and a Sparrowhawk putting in regular appearances to keep everything on it's toes.  It only came close enough to photograph once, and then did "Rule 2" as soon as I pointed the camera in it's direction!  A walk along some of the wetlands gave views (albeit distant) of usual waterfowl and a large flock of Golden Plovers doing a very passable imitation of a smaller Starling roost, they flew right overhead at one point and the sound of their wing-beats was absolutely fantastic!  Nothing seen around the reedbeds or the lake although I was assured Bittern and Marsh Harrier are present - just not today it seems!  I was due at my B&B for 5.00pm and it was already 4.30, so with a 20 minute drive and a 30 minute walk back to the car I set off - the wind was doing it's best to get me back to the car park a bit quicker but I was delayed at the feeders where a couple of GSW's were flitting in and out.  Here are a few pics
Golden Plovers

Sunset at Otmoor
I reached the B&B at 5.45 to be greeted with a cup of tea & biscuits - just what the doctor ordered!
That evening, meal in The Gardiners Arms, and a couple of pints of ale - thankfully B&B is within easy walking distance!
Anyone thinking of doing a workshop with EOS Magazine then do.  I did the Canon 7D Mkii workshop and thoroughly enjoyed it.  We made so many changes to the camera set-up (all of which seemed like a good idea at the time) that when I got back to the B&B after the workshop on Saturday evening, I couldn't get my camera to focus so had to "Restore Factory Settings" and then reconfigure it to how I wanted it - which I did in about 20 minutes so I guess I must've learned something!  Another pub meal and a couple more pints of Abingdon Bridge ale and I slept well that night!
Sunday 15th March - from B&B to home via College Lake (BBOWT) & Wilstone Reservoir
More fun & games with the lady navigator but I eventually arrived at College Lake, Tring. 
Large ex-chalk working pits, with woodland & heathland.  It is possible to walk all the way round - which I did - but you are above the water level by some considerable distance all the way round, and it's 2 miles I'm told.  There are 11 hides - only one at water level - all functional but of variable standard.  There is a Visitor Centre with adjoining café which serves hot drinks and snacks - mainly sandwiches.  Plenty of good parking on site with a donation suggested.  I'm telling you all this because there wasn't much to see.  I got good views of a Redshank from the one water-level hide and that was about all, mind you it was a cold and windy day.  There were a couple of Oystercatchers and a Water Rail along with the usual "gravel pit" waterfowl.

After a coffee & sandwich, and an opportunity to warm up again, I headed off to Wilstone Reservoir.  The wind continued to blow and it did eventually rain a little.  All in all it was a dreary sort of afternoon, the light was virtually non-existent to the camera, and photos were few & far between.  I walked all the way round - another couple of miles - without seeing anything of note except a few Sand Martins skimming the lake and trying to avoid the "white horses" being whipped up by the strengthening wind.  A Great Crested Grebe was displaying, but his partner wasn't having any of it, can't say I blame her in that weather!  He gave up - I went home.

Up to the end of March - at Amwell 
"This week I are bin mostly visiting Amwell in the afternoon" - in attempts to get  some decent Barn Owl pictures I've started to visit Amwell more in the afternoon than the morning.  I can't decide if this is just me being lazy or if I'm doing it because it's a better time to visit than mid-morning to lunchtime - I'll opt for the second reason!
A bonus for these visits has been sightings of a couple of Water Voles on the old River Lea between the two hides.  My thanks to Darren Bast (Volunteer Warden & Rescuer of Beanbags) for putting me "on them" in the first instance. I have now seen at least one Water Vole on four separate occasions.  Recently I've also spotted a Stoat in the same area, hardly surprising, but hopefully they can manage to avoid each other.

Great to see these here at Amwell, hopefully they will be able to avoid this fella.

The evenings have proved to be quite decent, weather-wise, cool maybe but the light has been pretty good  - the "golden hour" has proved to be exactly that at times.

Mind you, by the time the Barn Owl has been appearing, the light has definitely deteriorated but has been just about good enough to get some recognisable shots.


Toward the end of March, spring had definitely got its feet firmly under the table and the birds and bees are doing what the birds and bees do at this time of the year.  Bring it on!

See you all in April



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