Tuesday, 30 January 2018

20 year anniversary of birding

The 10th January 1998, age 13, was the first day I went birding. As a child my Nan often carried a pair of pocket size binoculars with her when we walked her dog, and my cousins, siblings and I used to take turns in using them. Sometime in 1997 I saw a mouse running up a tree, upon using my Nan's binoculars and with my Nan and Mum's identification, this mouse turned out to be a treecreeper (well short-toed treecreeper, Common Treecreeper is very rare on Guernsey). For some weird reason this was quite exciting for a young me and shortly afterwards I asked for my own pair of binoculars for Christmas. A couple of weeks after receiving them that Christmas I went out on a walk and for the first time specifically looked at and for birds. I know this because I kept notes for all of a couple of months. I won't bore you and the preceding 20 years but it's fair to say it has shaped my entire life!

So 10th January 2018, 20 years on, I thought it was only right that I went out birding. Will Soar and I headed out to Cromer Golf course where an Iceland Gull and couple of Coues's Arctic Redpolls had been frequenting. The former was presented on a plate as soon as we arrived, right in front of us on the golf course, no other gulls in sight. Golfers were heading down the fairway so I took a quick, blurry shot and that was it, it then buggered off. The redpolls failed to show themselves and after an hours wait we went back to the car. Before leaving however, I thought we could quickly drive back up the road just to check they hadn't come in in the ten minutes since we started walking back to the car. It was worth the check, they had indeed, so we tucked the car in and saw the adult male briefly before a longer and poor view of the other bird. They weren't playing ball so we left them and headed west.
Iceland Gull, Cromer

Coues's Arctic Redpoll, Cromer

A quick stop on route got us poor views of a Dartford Warbler before we went to Salthouse to look at some Snow buntings. We then followed up on some more arctic redpolls that had been reported near Letheringsett. We found the flock immediately on arrival, 60+ redpolls, mostly Mealies and up to 3 Coues's Arctic-type. The identification features of these birds seems vague and it appears that a suite of features = Coues's, though not all need be present. One of the bird showed more undertail streaking then perhaps would be ideal, though everything else looked spot on. 

Birding in January part 1

As the month draws to a close I thought I'd sum up what's ended up being quite a birdy month. Spending New year's with the in-laws in the midlands, I returned to Norfolk a few days into January.

North-west Norfolk - 6th January

Water Pipit at Titchwell
Keen to get a bit of a yearlist underway, a plan was made to head up the coast and have a bit of a blitz of Titchwell and nearby sites. I'm by no means a crazy all-out year-lister but it's gives me a bit of energy to get out birding in the early part of the year. Without trying (and rather frustratingly) we tallied up 99 species for the day, including an impressive 85 species at Titchwell. 


Barny with Pinks at Thornham

Nothing unexpected to right home about, a Water Pipit, a Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Ducks at Titchwell, Twite and a Barnacle Goose at Thornham were some of the better things. If only we'd known we were on 99 species we'd have tried harder as we missed loads of common stuff feral pigeon, House Sparrow, Goldcrest etc. 

North-east Norfolk - 8th January

With a Hume's Leaf Warbler at Waxham, it would have been rude to ignore it, especially having only seen one before in Norfolk, and appallingly at that. So three of us planned to meet outside Will's house at West Earlham at 10:30am. As I left my house I messaged Will to put the kettle on, he'd been watching the flood all morning and only left his window at this point, cue Phil arriving at 10:29 and finding a Glaucous Gull right outside Will's window on the floods! Oops, sorry Will!

We eventually got out to Waxham and found the Hume's Warbler within a couple of minutes of arriving, though it quickly disappeared. It was another 20 minutes before we relocated it in the woods North of Shang-rila. Pleasantly the other twitchers weren't moving away from the garden where it had been regularly seen, and we weren't leaving the bird to go find them, so we had it to ourselves for a good 30 mins plus. Once we'd had our fill we went and got the other twitchers and put them on the bird before we left. Despite prolonged and good binocular views it was very difficult to photograph amongst the tangle of weeds it was feeding in just off the floor. It was only rarely calling while we watched it.


After some lunch and 6 Purple Sandpipers at Sea Palling we finished off at Stubb's Mill for the roost. 3 Hen Harriers (2 males) and 11 Cranes were the highlights.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

#Nocmig first results

After 2.5 nights (I accidently knocked the mic out of the recorder at 11pm last night) of "nocmigging" - nocturnal migration recording, I thought I'd post my results so far:

I've already recorded 1 (probably 2) species not previously recorded from the garden, Dunlin and probably Little Owl, a single call of one early evening on fireworks night (perhaps disturbed by fireworks?). Although not strictly nocmigging (as these were post-dawn) I'm also really pleased to have recorded Hawfinch and Brambling.

Dunlin - amazingly on 3 of 3 nights so far. Calls at 18:00, 23:10 & 04:00.

Little Owl



At this time of year winter thrushes are pouring in to the country therefore it wass not unexpected that the commonest/most vocal night migrants at the moment are of course Redwing, followed by Blackbird and then Song Thrush.

Other birds I've recorded in last 3 nights include:

Snipe (2)
Grey Heron (2)
Teal (1)
Mallard (2)
Fieldfare (1)
Chaffinch (1)
Mistle Thrush (1)
Robin (1 presumed migrant, unusual call + residents)
Tawny owl (resident)
Blue Tit (one called at 01:00, weird)

Tuesday (07/11/17) night was particularly busy with totals as follows:

17:08-18:36 – Dunlin  1, Redwing 5 (3.4/hr)
18:40-20:55 – Redwing 20 (8.9/hr), Blackbird 9 (4/hr)
20:55-23:10 – Redwing 217 (96.4/hr), Blackbird 62 (27.5/hr), Song Thrush 7, Mallard 2, Fieldfare? 1
23:10-01:25 – Redwing 160(71.1/hr), Blackbird 20(8.9/hr), Chaffinch 1
01:25-02:13 – Redwing 24 (30/hr), Blackbird 8 (10/hr)
02:16-04:30 – Redwing 90 (40/hr), Blackbird 43 (19.1/hr)

Totals RE 516, B. 142, ST 9, MA 2, DN 1, CH 1, FF1

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Life changes, birding adapts, #Nocmig begins

With the recent onset of fatherhood I have suddenly found myself more house bound. Less sleep and less ability to get out to the coast means I have had to adjust my birding to what I can do from home. In fact in the last few weeks I have become somewhat obsessed with recording the birds I can see and hear from the confines of my house and garden.

Last year our group of regular pub-going birding friends #Birdclub started up the "Norwich Garden Birds Year-list Challenge", it does what it says on the tin, we would casually note what birds we see from our gardens/houses and keep a yearlist.

This has, of course, escalated, and with the addition of whats'app we are now often sharing up-to-the-minute news on migrants passing over Norwich whilst shivering in our back gardens in our pants at dawn (@Jlowanwildlife), or staring from our upstairs windows with telescopes like well equipped peeping Toms.

So it is now, with my interest peaked at migration over my house, and at the same time with the rise in popularity of a new subsection of the birding community that I have decided to delve into the world of "Nocturnal migration recording" now popularly know as #Nocmig or occasionally #invismig.

What this really means is I get to know what's flying over my house at night without freezing my ass off.

Hopefully, if I keep on top of things you'll be able to keep up my progress.

#Nocmig Startup 

1. Equipment

It's pretty simple really, a digital recorder, a microphone and a computer with Audacity (free software) downloaded. Only days after I bought my equipment @joe_stockwell on twitter made a great video on his blog which would have helped me greatly had it come out earlier. As it happened it confirmed I was doing things right.

Digital Recorder

After asking around I decided on the Zoom H4n. It's not cheap at £172 (+£5.99 for mains adaptor & £7.99 for a 16gb SD card (records 16hrs) ) but after some reading up its what I thought would best do the job for my budget.

Other recommendations came in for:

Olympus LS-12. At £99, a much better entry price but there is no mains power option and when you're leaving it recording for long overnight periods charging AA batteries would get tedious after a while - even more so because according to reviews on amazon the batteries drain while the device is turned off and you have to remove the batteries to stop this.

Roland R-05 - came highly recommended but appears to be unavailable at the moment.

Marantz Professional PMD661MKII - at £425 not an entry level option.


As I'm just starting out, testing the waters, I plumped for an unbranded cheap and chearful shotgun directional microphone from ebay. At £16.99 for the microphone, windshield, 7m cable and tripod mount a real bargain. It's very similar in appearance to the Sennheisser ME66 that I've used before, but at a fraction of the price the results from this cheap mic are fantastic without the worry of leaving £500 of equipment outside to be stolen or weather damaged. If I get into this more I might fork out for a Parabolic microphone which should pick out more calls and be clearer.

The microphone I bought has two modes, normal and focussed, I stick it on focussed as recommended by @joe_stockwell. It uses one AA battery (£9 for 4x 2500mAh duracell rechargeables) which I dont know how long will last but it hasn't run out yet (2 nights). I have it set up on a tripod as seen in the photo, though I have it placed under an awning to protect it from rain. The cable then runs in through the back door to the comfort of my sitting room where I have the Zoom H4n plugged in to the mains.

So all in, my setup cost was £212 a fraction of the cost of a new lens for a camera for example.


Download Audacity, it's free. I wont go into any detail on software as @joe_stockwell 's video on his blog more than covers the basics.

I sometimes also use Raven Lite, to make prettier spectrograms if I want to publish them, or make them clearer.

Many thanks to @joe_stockwell@birdbrainuk and @sconebirding among others for their advice in equipment and setup.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A Royal Visit to Guernsey

Since the arrival of the enigmatic 1st winter Royal Tern (soon to be American Royal Tern) in early February on my home island of Guernsey I had looked into the various options of getting back to twitch it. Sadly however, there are no "last minute" deals to the Channel Islands, in fact it's quite the opposite with last minute flights approaching or even exceeding £400 return, meaning there was no chance of making the dream a reality, I gave up hope.

I was however planning to make a visit to the island in March (return flight £110) to visit family and friends...

With the Tern still present a week later, often accompanied by the wintering Sandwich Terns, was it a real possibility I could twitch it in over a months time?

With nothing to lose, and a glimmer of hope, my wife and I booked flights for mid-March to visit family. As the weeks passed by, many days would go by without the tern being seen and hope was all but lost when all of a sudden another sighting! This wasn't really surprising as the island is quite underwatched (especially during the week) and the bird was highly mobile, moving from one end of the island to the other in a matter of hours.

The week before my departure and excitement was brewing, it really looked like I was going to have my cake and eat it - combining a much overdue family visit with a top European rarity.

I arrived on the island on Thursday late afternoon. Picked up by my Dad, I persuaded him to take the scenic route back home so I could scan a few bays en route. We started at the Shingle bank, L'Eree and worked our way up the west coast finishing at Grandes Havres. The light was fading, no luck but tomorrow was the big chance.

Friday morning I woke early, this was it, I had the morning to nail this tern before my wife arrived on a flight in the afternoon and we had family engagements. I'd arranged to spend the morning with a local birding mate (@wayneturner4) to look for it. He'd spent several hours on Thursday morning trying to locate it before my arrival but sadly to no avail. It had been seen twice in the week but frustratingly at opposites ends of the island so we really had nothing to go on. We started at the North end of the island, checking out its favourite haunts, then again, then once more before heading down the west coast checking all the bays. Nothing.

Taking a break from the Tern hunt, we had a quick whiz round the headland at Pleinmont. With nothing but a stream of Meadow Pipits and a couple of hunting Peregrines we retraced our steps and did the whole islands west and north coast again. It was now 11:30, 5.5hrs since we'd set off, and we pulled into Pembroke Carpark. We scanned the bay once more, but this time, distantly right out in the bay I picked up a couple of terns, more importantly one of them looked to have dark in the wings! I grabbed my scope and sure enough, a distant large tern with some dark in the wings, feeding with a sandwich tern. It was it! Fantastic, I'd seen it. However it then headed around the headland feeding with the other tern. We jumped in the car and drove to where we thought we'd overtake it and pick it up on the next headland or in one of the bays. We got there, scanned left, scanned right, nothing! We waited, nothing! Had it gone through already? Had it doubled back? We'll never know as another hour and a half of searching was fruitless, though we did see a Short-eared Owl fly over our heads and out to sea.

Was that it? Was that my Royal Tern experience? A distant large tern, I couldn't see the bill, could barely make out anything apart from it was larger than the Sandwich tern and had dark in the wings. I was happy, but at the same time devastated. Such a great bird, such a shit view! My time was up for the day, but hope was not all lost, I had two and a half more days, an understanding wife and family who like to go for coastal walks...

The next morning I got up and had nothing planned for the early part of the morning. My parent's dog needed a walk and so we headed the 10 mins round the coast to Fort Doyle. Halfway there I realised I'd left my camera at home, but this wasn't birding, this was a dog walk, so didn't turn round. We got out of the car, the wind was a howling easterly and the sea was foaming at the surface. We walked 50m from the car before I saw a group of Sandwich Terns in the bay, battling against the wind and flying towards me. There it was, just like that, the stunning Royal Tern - carrot-beak and all! It was all over the place as it flew round the bay, blasted by the wind. I didn't have my camera so I just enjoyed the views. I ran back to the car to get my scope and try and Phonescope it, but by the time I'd found some shelter from the wind all I could find were Sandwich Terns. It had gone again, just like yesterday but at least I'd had great views! Satisfied, we continued our walk before going home.

About 10:30 I got a call from @guernseyguppy who'd had the Royal Tern again and it was heading south from Bordeaux. The next stop from there is Belle Greve Bay, the beach just 30 secounds walk from my parents house. My sister and nephews were due round in an hour so with nothing to lose I grabbed my camera and shot out the door. A few seconds later I was on the beach, a quick scan and there it was! I fired off a few shots and was glad to have something "on film" of my own. It had been feeding in the shallows but was flying south. The sun was in an awful position and if I wanted to get any decent shots of it I'd have to be seaward side of it...
First record shot of the Royal Tern
I sprinted off down the beach, waded through the water and clambered onto some rocks (hoping the tide was on it's way out!). I could see it distantly and hoped it would turn back and come back towards me, feeding once more in the shallows that would now be between me and the shore, with the light on my side, and hopefully within the next twenty minutes before I was due back for visiting family.

Thankfully, it did exactly what I planned and performed stunningly right next to me, sometimes too close to fit the whole bird in the picture, and even catching a fish. My photos aren't perfect but put that down to adrenaline shake and excitement. An American Royal Tern, to myself, on the beach I grew up on. Awesome!

Royal Tern between me and the shore

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Sun's out, adders out... as the old saying goes

With the sun shining and temperatures supposedly reaching 17oCJames Lowan, Will Soar and I couldn't have chosen a better day to go addering at one of our favourite spots in Norfolk for them. A Woodlark sang overhead, several Woodcock flushed out from the gorse and Common Lizards scurried away faster that you could react to see them.

We visited known favourite spots on the heath from previous years as well as searched the heath, in suitable sun-traps, for new spots. We encountered an incredible 17 adders including some tiny individuals, presumably last years hatchlings. I put this key down next to this adder to show just how small it was!

I'm learning that adders are surprisingly difficult to photograph, they're easily spooked, there's always bits of vegetation getting in the way and its hard to get a good angle.

Upon returning to the heath a couple of weeks later we again saw good numbers of adders and I got some better results (below).

Friday, 3 March 2017

The first signs of Spring

With Spring just around the corner, the first warmth and a little sunshine coaxes us wildlife enthusiasts (geeks) out of hibernation. Before the arrival of our avian summer visitors there are thankfully a few, now annual, excursions into the British countryside that break up the tedium that is February.

For those willing to wander, James Lowan's ( @JLowenWildlife ) excellent book "52 Wildlife Weekends: A Year of British Wildlife-Watching Breaks" offers up some great ideas for things to do in February (and every other month) up and down the country. However, with similar species on the agenda, I stayed within East Anglia and had some great days out.

The Brecks 

With the forecast predicting sunshine and little wind, it was pre-dawn when I picked up a mate and we headed down the A11 towards Breckland. An early start is preferable for our first target of the day, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers at Santon Downham. The area is one of the last haunts in East Anglia for what was once a widespread species. Sadly on this occasion, despite perfect weather, the species lived up to it's name and remained lesser spotted... We were however treated to two young otters foraging their way down the river while looking for them.

We moved on to another area in the Brecks, this time our target was Goshawks. A disarray of cars and a line-up of the latest and greatest tripods, telescopes, DSLRs and 500mm lens indicates you've arrived at one of Norfolks, supposedly "hush-hush", premier Goshawk watching locations. It was not long after we added ourselves to the melee of birders and photographers that we were witness to why this is THE place to observe Goshawks in Norfolk. Initially one, then two pairs circled and displayed distantly over the pines to the north. A cry from a splinter-group of birders fifty yards up the road had us all focused on a lone bird powering its way from the west towards us. A fly-by, right across in front of us, before starting to display, thinning its tail and puffing out its bright-white undertail coverts. From out-of-nowhere, as often the way, a second bird joined it. It was then we were treated to my best ever views of Goshawk, a prolonged fly-by by the two birds, one following the other like a ME109 being chased by a Spitfire, every move of the front bird mirrored by the bird behind. Fantastic to watch. The birds split up, one drifted back and a sparrowhawk came in to view at the same time as the Goshawk. We all assumed the Sparrowhawk was somewhat further in the distance until a dive of the Sparrowhawk proved to be it mobbing the Goshawk and it was in fact at the same distance. Never have I seen so obviously, the dramatic size difference between the two species, the full wingspan of what was obviously a small male Sparrowhawk being smaller than a single wing of this huge, presumably female, Goshawk. To complete the action we saw the close birds in full on display once more and then one bird drifted off into a blunder of woodpigeons, even briefly attempting a hunt. Top wildlife watching!

A brief search for Stone-curlews proved fruitless so bacon sandwiches were the next target. These successfully filled the gap before the planned evening roost of Hawfinches. As far as I'm aware, this year has been the best year for Hawfinches since I arrived in Norfolk 12 years ago. With over 60 being counted coming to roost at Lynford Arboretum on previous nights, it was there we had decided to end the day. On this day, we counted somewhere in the region of 40 arriving and departing the tall pines at the arboretum, though an accurate count was impossible due to their behaviour on this particular evening. Though they were not particular close, it was great to hear them calling and see small flocks moving around the treetops. A great finish to the day.

I'll be back for them peckers.

Hawfinch high in the pines at Lynford