2nd January. The New Year always heralds an exciting time to be birding. Even your first Woodpigeon of the year even raises the smallest amount of excitement! So with a reasonable forecast and also returning to work impending the following day, I managed to escape and headed down to Cosmeston CP to hopefully grab my first images of 2012. The forecasters had been a little optimistic about the sunny intervals as it was cold and windy with big grey clouds whizzing past but nevertheless there were birds to be seen and immediately on seeing the Mute Swans near the visitor centre there was the tame Whooper Swan that had been present for a few days. I thought I'd wait until the light improved for hoping to get some photos so went off in search of the drake Lesser Scaup which after some searching I eventually found roosting in amongst many Tufted Ducks on the East lake. As long as I watched, it wouldn't rouse itself, swimming slowly round in circles, occasionally opening an eye to check things out but always just that bit too far out for a decent shot. I noticed that it was getting darker rather than lighter and all of a sudden the sign next to where I was standing flashed. Three seconds later there was a loud rumble of thunder and I checked the skies. It was a no brainer to head back to the car park but even then I wasn't quite quick enough as a massive hail storm passed through. The birders all huddled by the buildings waiting for it to pass and when it eventually did, all headed back out to resume. This time Hovis the Whooper Swan was in better light so I took a few pictures, trying to avoid getting one the numerous Mute Swans in the frame. Another planned look for the Lesser Scaup was interrupted by a male Sparrowhawk flying directly over my head and landing in a tree nearby! Finally a Sparrowhawk perched and at fairly close range! It was a shame the light was difficult as the views were superb and he remained in the tree for a few minutes allowing me to pick up a few different angles and poses. Once he flew off I headed back out to the lake to re-find the Lesser Scaup which was in a similar position to before but a little more alert. One minute after I had arrived he took flight with half a dozen Tufted Ducks towards the West lake not to be re-found by me. I repeatedly scanned the West lake but with no success and another very dark cloud arriving decided to head back to the car. It was still early enough to do a little more birding so after a quick Ikea visit and driving through another ice-out hailstorm in Cardiff I drove down a very dark M4 to Slimbridge to have another go for Lesser Scaup and also hope for the Bittern. I checked out the Rushy pen and there was no sign of the female Lesser Scaup just the great sight of plenty of Pintail and a few Bewick's Swans. One photographer in the hide was exceptionally annoying taking bazillions of shots of anything that moved. Considering the light was terrible and he was photographing Woodpigeons and Canada Geese doing mundane things with his full on camo gear 600mm Christmas present whilst he and his wife took up the entire hide, he didn't endear himself to me much so I moved on! Checking out the other hides on the Dumbles the usual winter ducks were present with only a Shoveler and a flypast Greylag Goose making the memory card. A female Pheasant under the feeders also got a shutter moment purely due to having not taken one before! No sign of the recently reported Water Rail either so after seeing a few distant White-fronted Geese from the Holden tower I headed off to the Zeiss hide. I gave it 90 cold minutes in which time I saw a brief Water Rail, heard a Cetti's and had a few glimpses of Reed Bunting but not a sniff of a Bittern. Foiled again so I headed back to the now much emptier muddy field to get in the car and return home. Still, I'm off and running for 2012!
7th January. Having been further tantalised by great images of Bittern appearing during my week at work I was determined to see one and with a nice day forecast it was straight to Slimbridge again for my umpteenth attempt at getting a decent image. The started off badly as on arrival at the Rushy Pen hide, a minute later in walks "mister clicky" and his wife from the previous visit who began to set up. I was in his spot and he inched closer and closer to me obviously wanting "his spot" so I didn't budge even though there was little I wanted to photograph in the low light. Eventually I decided to do some birding and having not seen the Lesser Scaup moved out to the Dumbles hides seeing a carpet of birds but with the light still not quite right and having had a chat with the warden who recommended me moving to the Zeiss hide, did exactly that. I'd realised 10 minutes after setting off from home that I'd left my coat at home, a rather silly thing to do in the middle of the winter, so with only my "hoodie" cardigan to keep any warmth in I started my vigil. This looked a little more promising even if I was shivering with the wind coming straight into my face as after seeing a brief Cetti's Warbler an hour in another birder caught a very slight glimpse of a Bittern although I could only see the reeds moving where it was. Still we knew one was there and after another cold 30 minutes waiting, I saw it emerge from the reeds and walk across the clearing in sunlight! Finally!!! I snapped away getting some nice shots as it walked from one patch of reeds to another. 30 seconds of a Bittern in view was better than none and after reviewing the shots, realised that the bird was unlikely to emerge any time soon, so headed back towards the centre, partly to get the blood flowing again and also to see if I could find the Lesser Scaup. Walking back I took a few close shots of the tame Woodpigeons and Jackdaws. I scanned the Rushy (from the indoor hide!) and couldn't see any sign. I wandered down to the in Focus shop and quickly spotted a female Blackcap which I eventually managed to get a few shots of before it scooted off over the fence. I checked my phone and Twitter and was soon on the move! The Lesser Scaup was showing well in front of the Martin Smith hide so one quick yomp later I was in a busy hide searching the female Tufties for the Lesser Scaup. Once on the bird it was quite easy to distinguish with a different jizz to the Tufted Ducks. Unfortunately for me it was roosting similar to the Cosmeston bird so I took a few shots of it to be safe and focused on the other ducks close in. Quality duck birding to be had with Mallard, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Pintail, Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon as well as the Lesser Scaup all close by giving good views. The Dumbles were covered with Lapwing, Golden Plover, Bewick's Swans, Greylag, White-fronted, Barnacle, & Canada Geese with a few smaller waders such as Dunlin, & Redshank amongst Curlews. The restless Wigeon occasionally flushed from their grazing to the water in a flurry of wingbeats which is always a spectacle. Meanwhile the Lesser Scaup had roused itself but went to feed on the far side of the water away from the hide so I continued to enjoy the whole vista of birds. A true quality day at Slimbridge. After 10 minutes feeding the Lesser Scaup made its way back towards the hide so I moved into a better position and was soon looking at it from a range of no more than 25 feet! Obviously this allowed some great views and the peaked appearance of the head was very evident. As were the white wing bars when it stretched its wings and the (obviously) Scaup-like bill. It stayed close in for a few minutes which allowed for numerous pictures to be taken. Eventually she drifted away back to the original roosting spot and again her bill ended tucked up under her wing again so it was time to head back home, finally with both my Slimbridge bogey birds laid to rest!
13th January. Sometimes you've just got to do it! Friday 13th and all that but what the hell?! Two rares twenty minutes apart and a perfect sunny day in prospect meant that after getting a last minute holiday authorised it was in the car down to Hampshire for a full on twitch. I arrived at the little village of Calshot twenty minutes before dawn and as I drove down to the car park, passed the junction of Calshot Close where there were already thirty plus birders, all looking cold but full of hope. I parked up, grabbed my gear and donned all the clothing I could find, prepared for a wait. By the time the Sparrows were stirring there were at least fifty people present, a single woman amongst them! Dawn came and every House Sparrow glimpse was greeted with a flurry of raised optics and murmuring. Just having the camera, I tended to use my eyes rather than optics to hopefully spot the foreigner amongst their increasingly visible ranks. 20 minutes after sunrise, the Spanish Sparrow was spotted near the legendary Bruce's garden (A legend for organising the twitch and opening up his house for all and sundry on repeated days). It was seen briefly on a yucca tree before dropping down into the garden to feed. No chance of a photo so I hung back, although a few minutes later the sparrows seemed to fly out and down the road. A few minutes after that, I noticed a few Sparrows flying over the road towards the village hall and then noticed one that seemed to have more colour to its underparts than the others. A few cries of "that's it" immediately followed and the twitcher flock moved their attention to the roadside hedge. We all picked it out amongst the ivy and there was much muffled rejoicing by the assembled tickers. A few birders moved into the grounds of the village hall and I followed and set up on the green from where the Spanish Sparrow then revealed itself, although never totally clear from the tangled hedgerow. Through the camera I could clearly see the speckled flanks, describing it to myself as a super male House Sparrow where the chest markings had extended round each side of the bird. It was noticeably different from the House Sparrows with which it was clearly associating. I manoeuvred myself into a better position and managed to pick up some decent shots, considering the bird never came into clear view and kept from the sun. After a five minute mosey along the hedge it flew off into some buddleia on the other side of the green. A few of us could hear chirping and eventually one chap managed to find the Spanish Sparrow preening. I managed to get the lens on it and got some close shots although partly obscured. I watched it for a few minutes before it moved on again and reviewed my pictures. I decided that even though I'd been there for an hour that with the pictures I had, it would possibly be a waste of the day to hang around to try and get better ones so after a brief visit to Bruce's kitchen, paid my dues in the bucket and headed back to the car seeing some fellow Welsh birders en route. I drove the twenty minutes or so in to the New Forest and soon found myself at a smaller scale but equally well behaved twitch at Hawkhill Inclosure. After arriving at the clear-fell site and assessing the area, I heard a singing Woodlark, always a pleasure, and also noted the presence of Common Crossbill with birds calling persistently. After five minutes or so I caught my first glimpse of the Dark-eyed Junco which was associating with a good sized flock of Reed Buntings and Chaffinches. The glimpses were brief and distant but it was clearly a Junco with its longer tail with white outer flashes visible as it flew. Once alighted it had a neat appearance with a pale belly and slate grey back. I managed a few record shots before the flock moved off and were lost to view. Whilst we waited for their reappearance we contented ourselves with nice views of Common Crossbill including some cracking coloured males in the tree tops. A Fieldfare flock flew overhead giving another year tick, but it was a cold hour before the Junco reappeared. Again it remained similarly distant apart from one time where it fed on a seeded area just out of my view fairly close to the path. I remained in distant view for five minutes or so mostly along the trunk of the large fallen pine so I picked up some slightly better shots but was still not satisfied. Again the flock moved on and I was starting to shiver a bit so decided on a brief walk to get the circulation going again. I headed down the track adjacent to where the flock had flown and joined a few birders watching some Crossbills in the pines. One had just drunk from a pool and was only half way up a tree which allowed me to finally get some nice shots of a Common Crossbill. As I was watching several Crossbills, the chap next to me picked out the Junco and after getting on it, I tried to pick it up through the camera but only managed a blurred silhouette before it moved deeper in to the forest. Cursing missing the Junco and with the Crossbills having moved on I headed back to the twitch spot, where there had been a changing of the guard where many of the original crowd had been replaced by newcomers. I found a spot next to a few other photographers by a fallen tree and waited. After twenty minutes or so the Dark-eyed Junco appeared again agonisingly almost straight up from me at the top of a very tall tree. It eventually dropped down very near to one of the togs but obscured from my view. I saw it as it flew off and thought to myself that it may well work its way to the close spot where I'd missed it earlier so immediately moved myself into position. Fortunately no one else was in the spot so I set up and within a few minutes the Dark-eyed Junco was in front of me and the camera! I managed to pick up some good shots through the low vegetation, although they'd have been perfect if someone had taken out about a dozen pieces of long grass! Still I was there and enjoying great views of my first UK Dark-eyed Junco. Not a life bird for me as the Spanish Sparrow was after seeing one in Ohio the previous year but still the same buzz from picking up another species for the website and getting 2012 off to a great start. The Junco flew up after a minute or so and relocated back to its favoured pine trunk so after a few typical view shots of it on the trunk I decided that I'd be fortunate to get better shots without a long wait and headed back to the car. After warming up I punched in Walpole Park, Gosport to the great Google Navigation app on my phone and after an hour or so I was in the Gosport Morrisons buying a 47p loaf of bread. It turned out to be a good deal as the park one minutes' walk away was heavily occupied with gulls. Scouring the Black-headed and Common Gulls for something with an American accent eventually paid dividends as after a few minutes searching I'd spotted Waldo the Ring-billed Gull, Walpole Park's oft returning visitor. The light was still good and after getting the balance right on the camera I started snapping away and with the aid of my 47p purchase getting ridiculous shots of the pristine adult Ring-billed Gull. Nice to be able to shoot comfortably using 400ISO for a change after an eternity stuck on 800. The resident Mute Swans were obviously used to being fed and were snatching the bread from my hands which made "teeing up" the Ring-billed Gull for photos a little tricky but by taking turns with other birders feeding the gulls we all managed good pictures, even with hand held and mobile phone cameras! Nice chances to get Common Gull pictures too and I was so impressed with the light conditions that I even took a few of Feral Pigeons! I stayed in the park for an hour or so hoping to get a decent flight shot but unfortunately the other birders had left and I needed more arms to subtly extract bread from the bag, throw the bread (with the gulls being far enough away to need to fly), raise the camera and find the RBG! I only managed one good shot but then that was mostly obscured by one of the Black-headed Gulls (which managed a direct hit on my jacket!). Never mind, it had been a cracking day out with some good pictures obtained. If only all days turned out this well!
13th January. After the success of the previous trip I didn't anticipate getting out so soon. That changed late on Saturday night when I caught a glimpse of Rich Andrews great set of images of a bogey bird which had been showing really well on Cheddar reservoir. I planned my Sunday to get as many chores done early on as possible to be able to get there for early afternoon. One house vacuumed, wife's breakfast made and children the fed, brushed, scrubbed and entertained my stock was high enough to leave at lunchtime and with another perfect winters day to enjoy. I arrived at the reservoir in good time and immediately made my way up to the gravelled path surrounding the reservoir, starting on the eastern side and heading clockwise to where my quarry had been seen previously on the south-western corner. There was plenty of bird life on the water with a huge raft of Coots being the most noticeable but Mallard, a few Tufted Ducks and good numbers of Pochard also being seen. Pied Wagtails fed down by the water's edge and I picked up my first Meadow Pipits of the year flying overhead. I checked all the dozens of Great Crested Grebes for anything out of the ordinary but it was after I'd passed the Coot herd that I first picked up what I'd come to see. In the south-west corner and fifty yards out from some fisherman was the juvenile Great Northern Diver. The bird had been present for some time but had got into trouble, getting tangled in fishing line and only being able to open its bill slightly. Some fishermen managed to land it in their nets and cut the line and since then the bird has been very tame, even taking the bait from the fishermen! Perfect for me having not photographed one before and so it proved to be as I set up with the sun at my back and waited for the bird to drift closer. It did very obligingly, approaching to 30 feet at times as it fed lazily in the shallower water . The bird seemed healthy and it was a real treat to watch it at such close quarters. Its movements were notably slower than similar sized Cormorants and it seemed to slip below the water with minimal effort on each dive. The distance it could travel underwater was impressive as were the dive lengths, sometimes approaching a minute. The light was excellent and the reflections from the water gave an extra dimension to the images. The bird stayed close by for 10 minutes or so with only a few personal relocations required to keep favourable light but all good things come to an end and the bird drifted out further away. Very happy with my images I decided to circle the reservoir and see what else was about which turned out to be a good idea as near the yacht club a drake Red-Crested Pochard was trying its best to rest on the choppy water. Being on the opposite side of the lake the light was difficult with a real glare and with the bird pointing into the wind, tail on, I struggled to get any really decent images. Still a few were usable and an improvement on the ones I'd obtained previously. After the Red-crested Pochard became a silhouette I moved on, picking up my first Grey Wagtail of the year on a small stream before walking all the way round to the South West corner again for another go with the Great Northern Diver. With the sun an hour or so lower in the sky, the light had a slightly warmer quality to it and again the bird drifted in closer to allow me to pick up some more breath-taking views and some great images. I almost had to pinch myself that I was getting head shots of a species that I'd only ever seen before as a scope speck! A rapidly moving wind surfer eventually put pay to my views as it moved the Diver to deeper water, and two dozen Great Crested Grebes took flight. Time to head home but was a great weekend - one of my best in the UK for some time! 286 Species for the website now and 89 species for the year.