Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Azure-winged Magpie

Every year, in the depths of winter, I sit and produce a list of the top ten birds that I would like to see, and photograph. Previous targets have been the Houbara Bustard and the Blue Chaffinch, amongst others. The list is prepared with a degree of reality, in that there has to be a fair probability that I can get to the location, the high Andes is not a place I am ever likely to visit. So, when I came across the Azure-winged Magpie I was taken in and it immediately went on the list. After two aborted attempts to visit the Coto Donana I finally made it and as Martin and I drove down from Seville towards El Rocio, amidst the Umbrella Pines on the Villamanrique road, three specimens appeared briefly. The cheer I let out was probably heard back in Seville.

I chose the title for this blog very deliberately, as the Iberian population of this stunning bird have been split off from the main population that stretches to the Far East. Back in 2003, taxonomists declared that the Iberian population would be henceforth known as Cyanopica cooki not Cyanopica cyanus, all based on a DNA difference of 6%. All very well, but no-one has come up with a common name yet. As Collins Bird Guide is my "go to" reference book for avian identification and in there it remains as Azure-winged Magpie  and so it is for me.

Now I wasn't leaving the photography of this bird to chance, there is a well known population of these charming birds at the visitor centre at El Acebuche. Furthermore they are fairly confiding, especially around the picnic area adjacent to the car park. So, armed with several loaves of bread we duly took station  at a picnic table and scattered some delicious morsels around - this resulted in - nothing, not a bird in sight. Somewhat disappointed we ventured into the reserve and the first birds we saw - AwMs, gliding through the trees, we gave chase and managed to get some reasonable records.  I commented to Martin that there must be at least ten birds present and at that very moment they took to the the air and I reckon they numbered thirty. Never was much good at estimating numbers.

Just admire that tail

We continued round what is a magnificent reserve, lots of hides and boardwalks, until lunchtime when the sun came out, an ideal time to return to the car park. This time a result, as our bread throwing attracted what can only be described as a voracious horde. Oddly enough "our magpies" meaning Pica pica - the black and white ones, weren't so successful as the AwMs were more than capable of driving them off.

Confident enough to come within a few feet - but lightning quick.

When food was available they constantly called to each other.

A voracious horde

The public drinking water taps were popular too.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Buzzard on a stick

Every year we make at least one journey to the New Forest; the main purpose being a search for a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Unfortunately our quest has only once returned a single sighting, lasting just a few seconds, with no photographs. So to say optimism was high would be economical with the truth.  Spirits were lifted however, just after entering the Forest proper we came across a Buzzard on a branch. Not really significant to most birders I know, but on our travels we see quite a few and invariably the cameras are in the back of the car, in fact probably not out of their cases. So when we spotted this specimen Martin skilfully reversed the car and we were able to prepare and make a slow approach with cameras at the ready.  The resulting pictures are not spectacular but at least they are better than previous attempts. Of course the end result was that we got a little closer and the bird decamped. 

I did a similar exercise on Mull a couple of years ago, driving along the narrow roads, chasing Buzzards along the utility poles. I noticed one habit the birds had was to evacuate when you approached - this was no exception. Oddly the bird wasn't bothered by passing cars or lorries, just humans. On Mull they had the habit of taking off, circling round the car and landing on the pole behind, they must have known that you can't do a U turn on those roads.

Next up was the LSW venue with the expected result, just a few half-hearted drummings at long distance and a very loud Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and calling. Plenty of Stock Doves mobile in the tree tops to provide some distraction, lots of calling too - much nicer than a Wood Pigeon's efforts. 

On to Blashford via several car parks where we stopped to listen, sadly the forest was rather quiet. So too was Blashford but I did manage to record some Scarlet Elf Cups, Sarcosypha coccinea,  well past their sell by date and during the winter I carry only one lens so they were recorded at great distance using the 300mm - I didn't even consider taking the 1.4 extender off - getting lazy.

The frogs in these parts have been pretty busy - spawn everywhere.

Eyeworth Pond at Fritham was the next venue, always good for some camera exercise. Same old subjects but a great opportunity to get close to some common birds in good surroundings. Just a bit of care and you can get shots without sunflower seeds or peanuts in the frame. Interesting to watch the behaviour of some of the birds when they are in close proximity to one another.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit

Some years ago the Mandarins here were flighty and reclusive, hiding amongst the trees on the island and far bank. Now they come and join the Mallard flock to be fed by the visitors - amazing what a handful of sunflower seed can do.

The onset of spring was obvious with the Mandarins - more males than females being one of the problems I guess. One individual was in full ceremonial dress, chest pumping, head bobbing and much grunting - all to no avail as the female he was displaying to was in fact a Mallard.

Pomp and Circumstance - full breeding regalia

This time we left the Forest with cameras at the ready, normally we find a Buzzard on the way back to the main road. Today, however, it was a pair of Mistle Thrushes that caught our attention and they were happy to come close.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

American Horned Lark

Prior to Christmas we made a trip to Staines Reservoir to see the American Horned Lark, the weather at the time was none too clever and we did eventually see the bird, at a range of 200+ yards. Of course no photographs, which meant a return visit but the bird disappeared before we could arrange a visit. However, this week the bird returned to its favoured place on the concrete bank of the reservoir and, judging from the photographs on Twitter, was somewhat closer.

This time the walk across the long causeway between the two sections of reservoir was made in pleasant sunshine. The greeting as we joined the assembled birders was much the same as always. "Flew off 15 minutes ago - not been seen since". Patience was rewarded a few minutes later as the bird flew back to a position just below where we were stood. Unfortunately the prevailing light conditions were not optimal - who cares? At least this time we got some reasonable record shots and I have the feeling that we could have stayed all day for no improvement.


Next venue was a new one for me, Stocker's Lake LNR at Rickmansworth Aquadrome. Target species here were the recently reported Red Crested Pochards and after Martin gleaned advice from another birder we were on our way, unfortunately on the wrong side of the lake. No problem, we retraced our steps and Martin soon found three birds skulking under cover of some sunken trees. Fortunately a passing  birder informed us that he had seen others and that these were out in the open. Well they were, just as we arrived at the spot they left the water and promptly went to sleep.

The walk back to the car park gave us another couple of year ticks but not decent  photographs. Ring-necked Parakeet and Siskins were high up in the bankside trees.

On the way home we called into Capel churchyard,  looking for the reported Hawfinches, nothing present. Oddly enough just before we entered the village I had spotted a small flock of ten or twelve birds high up in a tree. Stupidly we ignored them, confident that we would soon be snapping away in the churchyard. Never look a gift horse etc.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Jack Snipe, Black-necked Grebe and Smew

Phew what a title, but for me three great birds that deserve equal billing. The product of two days unashamed tick and photograph hunting. Jack Snipe has been top of both our lists for some time, a bird that I have seen before but never had the opportunity to photograph. Martin had been tracking this bird for some weeks and today was the right time to venture up to a most incongruous venue. The Greenwich Peninsular Ecology Park lies adjacent to the Thames and has to be the most unlikely place to find a Jack Snipe. The park is a small wetlands oasis in the middle of huge residential and industrial development. Anyway, we arrived just after opening time and the volunteers made sure that we were in the right hide. 

Scanning the reeds and bank resulted in a blank  and we sat down in preparation for a long wait. Presently one of the wardens arrived and asked "Have you seen it yet?" - three birders stared back and shook their heads. He then opened a side window, thrust out a finger and indicated the position of the subject. Now, I have pretty good eyesight for my age  yet I couldn't discern anything that looked remotely like a snipe, until I put my bins up and the best camouflaged bird that I have ever seen sprang into vision - binoculars down and yet again I could see nothing. Bear in mind that the bird was probably no more than fifteen feet from the end of my nose.

A queue formed and we took turns to record the bird in various poses, mostly of a sleeping and bobbing nature. Unfortunately at no time did the bird emerge from cover, even the close attention of a Water Rail failed to flush it to a more open location.

Some idea of how the reserve is located.

A "bijou" hide

Next tick was the easiest, the Black-necked Grebe at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, information gleaned at the visitor centre was spot on and we found the bird without effort. A tad distant but recorded for posterity.

The Smew were a result of the previous day's trip to Dungeness,  a venue we visit regularly to get the year list off to a good start. Targets for the day included the long staying Long-eared Owl by the dipping pond, unfortunately a no show, probably due to the very keen westerly winds that were chilling anything that ventured forth. At Scott hide we located the Smew but they didn't hang around long, being spooked by other wildfowl and decamping to the lake in front of Christmas Dell hide, where they remained at a fair distance.

On the way home we gave Horse Bones Farm, Scotney Pits and Pett Level the once over but failed to find any of the reported highlights. I think the westerly which was gathering sufficient strength to deter all but the keenest birder had something to do with it.

Final venue was Horse Eye Level at dusk, looking for any unusual raptor or perhaps even an owl. Sadly nothing save a perched Kestrel and a pair of squabbling Buzzards, one very pale juvenile had us puzzled for a while. The record shots of which were taken in appalling light.