After seeing the New Year in with my family in Birmingham, at the break of dawn on 1 st January I am off to Long Eaton in Derbyshire. After coming off the M1, I pull in alongside some gravel pits and the birding begins. I am suddenly surrounded by a flock of long-tailed tits moving quickly through the scrubby bushes, blue and great tits also on the move and then a chiffchaff appears, great! My birding year has begun.
On into Long Eaton and I join Kathy, Alex and Pete my birding buddies for the day. Our first port of call is Woolaton Hall (Batman’s home in the film The Dark Knight Rises), this is a lovely surprise for me as it is one of my all-time favourite films. It is also a great parkland habitat for birds and as we make our way down to the lake, treecreeper and nuthatch are welcome woodland species. A variety of wildfowl on the lake include a pair of red-crested pochard plus a pair of Egyptian geese.
Red-crested pochard at Woolaton Park. Photo by Pete James.
Attenborough NR is our next stop, where we meet Jackie and Neil Glenn coming away from the tower hide (Neil is an author of bird books, a tour leader and a mad keen football fan). More wildfowl here including goldeneye and goosander and as we head to the visitor centre for a ‘cuppa’ we are stopped in our tracks by a very obliging kingfisher.
Back through Long Eaton we head towards St. Chad’s church, a roadside pull-in here was rewarded with a covey of 5 grey partridge (a species I rarely see nowadays). Elsewhere, we find 2 tawny owls roosting high up in the trees.
The next day sees the same crew out on an early morning visit to West Park in Long Eaton where the hoped for green woodpecker performed beautifully for us. Sadly Kathy and Alex had to leave us now and make the long journey back to Wales.
At midday, a dull, damp day was brightened for Pete and I in Darley Dale when a dozen or so hawfinches flew into the yew trees in the churchyard. We drove on through the damp conditions to Carsington Water, a quick dash to the hide and some cover. We didn’t have long to wait before willow tit and tree sparrow visit the feeders a few yards in front of us but a scope was needed to view the great northern diver way out in the mist. January 3rd my last day in the East Midlands and Pete and I are heading into Leicestershire. We arrive at Rutland Water on the aftermath of a storm that had blown through overnight. In the windy conditions birding was very difficult but from the shelter of the hides we were soon looking at one of our target species when a ‘redhead’ smew appeared in front of us, soon to be joined by 3 drakes and another female. Moving to the next hide and it wasn’t long before we found a fine drake American wigeon doing its best to hide amongst many Eurasian wigeon and gadwall. A whimbrel was a nice surprise as was the water rail that ‘scooted’ out from under the hide, a great white egret flew over to complete a good days birding.
A very wet drive back to Birmingham and after settling in at my brothers, the weather began to improve in the afternoon and I strolled down to the local park to see the Iceland gull that has decided to spend the winter here. The walk back gave me another surprise when a steam train 7812 EARLSTOKE MANOR passed me heading down the Stratford road on the back of a trailer, presumably heading for the nearby railway museum at Tyseley. A text from Neil Glenn on Friday and plans are made for the next day. Up early I walk down again to the local park to meet up with Neil and Richard (‘groundhoppers’, more about that another time) arriving from Nottingham. We spend an hour here but there is no sign of the Iceland gull, we drive on down to Gloucester and after standing for an age in ankle deep water in a grassy field the penduline tit finally appears and puts on a great show for us. Moving on south and over the Severn crossing into South Wales, our destination is a football ground somewhere in the Rhondda valley. Clydach Vale are playing Taff’s Well on a plastic pitch. The home side won 4-0 so most of the 48 spectators went home happy, as did we.
A bright but very cold Sunday morning on the 7th and I am driving back home to Anglesey. Being so close on the journey home I cannot resist making a slight detour to visit Burton Mere Wetlands on the Wirral. As I enter the reception hide my hopes of some good birds sink when I see that all the pools are frozen and birdless. I quickly head back along the North Wales coast and down to the beach car park at Llanddulas. Looking out to sea I am surprised to find 9 whooper swans resting on the water out near the windfarm then walking east along the coast and I find the glaucous gull on one of the groynes. Moving on again a short distance to Old Colwyn, I walk down the quarry road to find a gap in the trees from where I can search through the vast flock of common scoter. Luckily within a few minutes I locate a drake surf scoter and as I zoom in on the bird I see that a drake velvet scoter is alongside, brilliant! After having my fill of the scoter I move on and a quick visit to Conwy RSPB enables me to add scaup to my ever growing year list.
The next morning and I am heading south into mid-Wales and as I reach the Ceredigion border 2 red kites float over the road. I pull in to the car park at Ynys Las on the Dyfi estuary, it is blowing a gale and as I try to set up my telescope the lens cap blows off and races 50 yards along the shore and up into the dunes. Thankfully I find it and digging myself into the dunes to try and find some shelter I scan the estuary and find the female king eider roosting out on a sandbank ‘job done’. A flock of 17 sanderling plus turnstone, dunlin and grey plover are pushed in by the rising tide. A walk inland towards the boatyard and after an hours search I find the cattle egret near the farm, walking along the road to get a better view of the egret my luck is in when a ringtail hen harrier quarters the fields east of the railway line. I stay overnight in Aberystwyth with Kathy and Alex and the next morning the three of us return to the Dyfi estuary and although the king eider did not show we did see the cattle egret and were delighted when 15 pink-footed geese flew in. I said goodbye to my hosts in the early afternoon and headed back to Anglesey.
January 10th and I finally start my Anglesey list with Slavonian grebe and pale-bellied brent geese in Beddmanarch Bay, 13 Mediterranean gulls and 8 scaup on the Inland Sea before watching a water rail probing the wet fields at Soldiers Point. A kingfisher is perched on the harbour wall and a chough feeds on the rough ground at the start of Holyhead breakwater. Still suffering from the ‘bug’ I picked up over Christmas I just pay a short visit to South Stack on the 11th and was delighted to find 20+ guillemots back on the ledges. Black guillemot in the Holyhead fish dock and a visit to the Alaw estuary produced a greenshank, a female goosander and 2 wintering green sandpipers on the 12th before I drive down to Birmingham the next day.
A relaxing day watching the footy with my brother John on the 13th , no birding today. I am back on the road again the next morning heading to Long Eaton to join Pete and spend a few hours birding his local patch. A visit to Willington GP where we see kingfisher and Cetti’s warbler before spending time watching a marsh tit on the feeders near the hide. Grey partridge are again present near St.chad’s before we head off to Ambergate where some 40+ mandarin decorate the trees alongside the river.
Mandarin’s stacked up in a tree! Photo by Pete James.
January 15th and Pete and I are heading east moving through Leicestershire into Cambridgeshire and after 2 hours on the road we pull in to the car park at Eldernell. We are just in time to see 2 common cranes fly in and join the many whooper swans present and the 4 or 5 marsh harriers hunting the area. Rain is now falling so we move on and head into Norfolk, we call in at Titchwell to find out what’s about? The news we hear has us quickly back in the car and driving to the next village, Thornham. We pull in to Orchard Farm and after a fruitless search we are getting back into the car when Pete sees a bird fly up from the ground which is covered with fallen apples. Jumping quickly out of the car we are soon ‘grilling’ a waxwing! This is a great relief for us as a day or so ago there were 3 then 2 and this morning another fell to a sparrowhawk!
The remaining Waxwing! Photo by Pete James.
We return to Titchwell and as we walk out along the sea wall we encounter 13 species of wader including avocet. A look out to sea reveals a flock of 11 long-tailed ducks and as daylight fades a water rail squeals and 28 marsh harriers come in to roost, magic! Our 2nd day in Norfolk and we move inland to Leatheringsett in search of an arctic redpoll. An hour or more searching produces mealy and lesser redpoll, siskin and plenty of bullfinches but no sign of the arctic. We head further inland down to Santon Downham on the Suffolk border, the last time I was here red-backed shrikes were still breeding in the area. We are looking for a flock of parrot crossbills that have been present since last autumn. Today they refuse to show for us and we leave in the early afternoon only to hear later that 11 birds had dropped in to the car park to drink from the puddles 30 minutes after we left. Our luck does not improve as a flock of 70 snow buntings manage to elude us on the shingle ridge at Salthouse. Our final day in Norfolk and we start by driving down Lady Anne’s drive at Holkham, here we enjoy white-fronted and pink-footed geese amongst dark-bellied brent geese. Walking out to Holkham Gap we find the flock of 9 shorelark that are wintering out on the saltmarsh. Early afternoon and we are out on the sea wall at Thornham and below us are a flock of 15 twite feeding in the saltmarsh whilst a covey of grey partridge explode behind us. Our day finishes on a high as we watch a barn owl hunting the hedgerows near Wells-next- the-sea.
Twite and Barn Owl. Photos by Pete James.