Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Kings Norton Nature Reserve 25/10/15

On Sunday afternoon I made my way for the second time to my new local patch, Kings Norton Nature Reserve. Having spent most of the weekend seeing some of my favourite bands at Simple Things Festival in Bristol my birding time was limited but nonetheless I managed to grab an hour and a half at the reserve in the failing light!

I saw 30 species in total (again) and of these, 8 were new since my first trip:
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull flying over - a common sight in Birmingham, especially at this time of day in winter when they are heading somewhere to roost, in this part of Birmingham most likely Bartley Reservoir.
  • Great Spotted Woodpecker.
  • Buzzard - heard but not seen.
  • Jackdaws - a good-sized roost (maybe a hundred or so birds) along the Rea Valley route.
  • Sparrowhawk.
  • A few Starlings flying over.
  • Chaffinch.
  • The hoped-for Teal on Wychall Reservoir. In the terrible light it was hard to tell but there were at least 10 present.
Inexplicably I still haven't seen any Canada Geese! There were lots more Goldcrests about than last time, I guess at least some originated from continental Europe and by now have filtered through from the east coast after the recent influx. Also, in a strange coincidence, since I grumbled slightly in my last post about the lack of views into some of the habitat along the Rea Valley route, several vistas have been cut into the vegetation adjacent to the path!

Terrible photo in the crepuscular gloom, of a newly opened-up view.
I also had a first attempt at HDR photography having wanted to try this for a while and after being encouraged by my bro. I used Luminance HDR to process the images and I'm still getting my head around it! So here are some initial efforts, I'm hoping to keep learning and experimenting to produce something a bit better.

Blackbird Goldfinch Moorhen
Black-headed Gull Great Spotted Woodpecker Mute Swan
Blue Tit Great Tit Redwing
Bullfinch Grey Wagtail Robin
Buzzard Jackdaw Sparrowhawk
Carrion Crow Jay Starling
Chaffinch Lesser Black-backed Gull Teal
Coal Tit Long-tailed Tit Tufted Duck
Coot Magpie Woodpigeon
Goldcrest Mallard Wren

Monday, 19 October 2015

Kings Norton Nature Reserve - my new local patch?

Now I have a bit more free time after finishing my degree, I have been thinking about getting into patch birding. I haven't really properly had a local patch since 2007/08, when I used to spend one day a week at St Nicholas Fields in York. This was when I was first getting into birding and I had many memorable formative bird experiences there! My birding at St Nicks was actually a volunteer role, they wanted someone to record the species present in a more systematic way than had been done previously as they didn't have much of an idea what was around. For an urban reserve surrounded by housing and industrial estates I had some nice sightings - Willow Tit (now sadly no longer present), Lesser Whitethroat, Linnet, Grey Wagtail, Kingfisher, Garden Warbler..... Since then, although I volunteer at RSPB Sandwell Valley, I don't really go often enough (~once a month) to regard it as my local patch. Plus while I am there my voluntary duties are foremost in my mind so looking for birds sometimes comes second!

I picked up a leaflet about Kings Norton Nature Reserve at an event a while ago, and filed it away to investigate at a later date. That date came on Saturday! If I was going to find myself a local patch, it had to meet a couple of criteria - it needed to be close to where I live, and it obviously had to have some potential for interesting birds. Kings Norton Nature Reserve is both of those things, being a 20-minute walk away from our house, and having a range of different habitats spread over a fair-sized area. Here is a helpful map from the Friends of Kings Norton Nature Reserve website:

Purple & blue = boundaries, green & yellow = paths.
Much of the reserve follows the River Rea corridor, and there are also a couple of water bodies - Merecroft Pool and Wychall Reservoir. Here are a few pics of the various habitats I encountered:

Open parkland with hedgerows and mature trees.

Closed canopy maturing woodland.

Small bits of reedbed.

The River Rea path.

Apparently there are some scrapes somewhere beyond here!

Wychall Reservoir, which presumably has more water in it when there's been more rain.
Young woodland along the River Rea.
The River Rea.

A bunch of planted Rowans, maybe good for Waxwings in winter?

Horse paddocks.

Merecroft Pool.

Woodland and grassland.
A nice range of different habitats which will hopefully host various interesting species throughout the seasons! My only gripe was that walking along the main portion of the Rea Valley path (F - E on the map) it was not possible to see very far into the vegetation to the north - I could only catch tantalising glimpses of interesting-looking reedbeds and wet woodland. It would be good if a few gaps could be cut into the trees by the path to create vistas into these areas - the maps on the helpful information boards dotted around showed that there were wet scrapes and marshland in this area so it would be nice to be able to see a bit of it!

In total I saw or heard 30 bird species on my 2-hour walk around. The highlights included:
  • 4 Fieldfare in the open parkland of the westernmost area of the Rea Valley.
  • A Skylark flyover, heard from the same area.
  • As expected for the time of year, Jays aplenty caching their precious acorns.
  • At least 24 Redwings.
  • A Kingfisher in Wychall Reservoir.
  • A Water Rail skulking around in the undergrowth at the north end of Merecroft Pool.
  • Grey Wagtail flying over at the south end of Merecroft Pool.
  • A mixed tit flock in the same area, with Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits plus Goldcrest.
Amazingly there weren't any Canada Geese on Merecroft Pool, a situation which I'm sure will be rectified on future visits. I also didn't see or hear any woodpeckers or raptors. The information boards told me that among other things I could expect more waterfowl in winter, including Teal and Goosander, so I'm excited to see how my list will expand over the coming months.

I also spotted a few plants:

I think this is some kind of Aster, but I'm not sure which....
Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus).
Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis).
Hopefully I'll be able to visit the reserve around once a week, although that will probably vary a bit depending on how busy I am at weekends (at least over the winter when I have to spend the precious hours of daylight during Monday to Friday at work). I am really looking forward to building up a picture of what can be seen in this area, demonstrating the importance of green corridors and spaces in urban areas, and honing my birding skills.


Mute Swan
Black-headed Gull
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Grey Wagtail
Carrion Crow
Coal Tit
Song Thrush
Long-tailed Tit
Tufted Duck
Water Rail

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Top notch autumn birding at Gibraltar Point!

This post is slightly tardy as I wanted to first finish a job application I'd been working on. Now I've completed and submitted that (first job I've applied for since finishing my degree last month, eek!) I can relive the fantastic day of birding we experienced on Sunday!

I was off once again with the West Midland Bird Club, and it was my first outing with them for a while having missed their September trip due to being in the Lake District. We were heading to Gibraltar Point, one of my favourite destinations, and I'd been looking forward to it for a while - anticipating getting a strong start on my autumn/winter birding! The easterly winds that had been blowing prior to our visit created very promising conditions. Things started very well with a completely unexpected sighting from the coach; we were driving along the A16 somewhere between Peterborough and Spalding when Carl and I spotted a very large bird up ahead, flying away from us parallel with the other side of the road. This meant we had some time to observe it, but the combination of the restricted view (we could only see it from the back) and its unexpected true identity meant we were stumped for a while. Could it be a Swan? Too grey. Some kind of massive goose?! As the coach drew level with it, it wheeled around and people on the other side of the coach got a full faceful, confirming that it was actually a Crane! Probably my best ever 'from a moving vehicle' sighting :o)

The birding action started immediately upon arriving at Gibraltar Point! As well as the steady trickle of Yellow-browed Warblers that had been arriving over the past few weeks, there was major excitement at the news of a Rustic Bunting, spotted along the cycle path beyond the plantation. As we made our way through the plantation, there were Goldcrests everywhere - there had been a huge fall overnight thanks to the easterly winds and as a result the trees and bushes nearly everywhere we went on the reserve were stuffed with Goldcrests. We kept our eyes and ears peeled for Yellow-browed Warblers but they proved elusive; however on our way down the track to look for the Rustic Bunting another small stripey-faced fellow was to be found - Firecrest! The first time I have seen one in the UK, having previously only spotted them in France. I also saw my first Redwings and Fieldfares of the autumn. We loitered awhile in the area where the Rustic Bunting had been seen by a lucky few, but there were increasing amounts of disturbance from passing dog walkers and joggers and the Bunting, if it was still around, stayed hidden. While we were waiting a large flock of Pink-footed Geese wheeled around several times above the adjacent field - more heard than seen due to the thick hedge between us, but still a nice sighting.

We headed down to the hides overlooking Tennyson's Sands, where we had nice views of Spotted and Common Redshank, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, and a few distant raptors - Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Kestrel. We also saw a lovely big flock of Golden Plovers flying about - one of my favourites. Then it was over the road to the dunes and saltmarsh to see what we could find there. From the hide overlooking the Mere we found a Snipe; otherwise things were fairly quiet. The Sea-buckthorn was in fruit and its orange berries were everywhere, ready to provide a feast for incoming birds - we saw a few Blackbirds tucking in, and even a Moorhen partaking. We sampled a few ourselves but they were slightly on the bitter side. I've heard you can get Sea-buckthorn ice cream in some places though which I would love to try!

Sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides).
Down at the viewpoint overlooking the beach we found more waders - Grey Plover, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover - as well as Herring and Black-headed Gulls. Out on a sand bar we could see large numbers of Grey Seals chilling out! The tide was quite far out so seawatching was a bit of an effort, but we did find a couple of Gannets. We then bumped into a couple of other members of our group who'd seen a Great Grey Shrike from the other viewpoint next to the beach so we walked down there pretty quicksharp! I always enjoy this walk as there is an expanse of low-growing, stressed vegetation that reminds me of tundra, and that I'm sure must be stuffed with Snow Buntings and Shorelarks just a bit later in the year.....

View from the viewpoint.

Tundra-like landscape, with some kind of Glasswort (Salicornia) alongside various other plants that probably looked a lot better earlier in the year.
We couldn't find the Shrike from the other viewpoint, so Mike decided to try again for the Rustic Bunting back near the plantation, and also Brambling which had been reported on the feeders. The birders who'd seen the Shrike had also said they'd been shown a Firecrest in the hand at the ringing station, so Carl and I took a brief detour over there to see if there was any ringing still going on. It turned out the ringers had packed up, but we found the Great Grey Shrike - hurrah! Excellent views were to be had from the viewpoint by the ringing station. We then went to catch up with Mike, swinging by the feeders first to see two Bramblings, then spotting a Firecrest (maybe the same one as earlier?) again in the same place as before. Mike hadn't had any luck with the Rustic Bunting, and time was running out, so we went back to the coach. However the day was not over yet, as a few others from our group had found a Black Redstart around the building site that will become the new visitor centre, so we all went and grabbed a look at that before jumping on the coach for a well-earned snooze on the long journey home.

This post has been conspicuously light on photos and drawings - I didn't take my zoom lens as it's rather weighty, but I wish I had as I was probably close enough to a few of the birds we saw to get some good photos. I need to rethink my gear carrying strategies - I think maybe more pockets could be the answer!

We'd had an excellent day, probably my best at Gibraltar Point, and it's got me all fired up for wintery birding after having a bit of a lull over summer and early autumn. Despite the disruption it would cause I'm privately hoping for a really epic winter (like 2010/11, good times) with loads of snow, sub-zero temperatures, Waxwings, Short-eared Owls and Snow Buntings....we'll see how things pan out though!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Sandwell Valley - October 2015

On Sunday I was back at RSPB Sandwell Valley for my monthly volunteering stint. Although the forecast had been for sunny spells, the day ended up being one of blazing sunshine and cloud-free skies and I felt a bit overdressed in my woolly jumper (I am ready for winter!). The calm conditions meant that there wasn't much out of the ordinary around but we had an enjoyable day nonetheless. 

Alf and I started the day with our usual walk around the reserve. We began by heading up to the horse paddock as I thought I'd spotted a Fox sunbathing there (as they often do) from the car on the way in. When we got to the paddock there were no signs of life, so we turned around to walk down to the river, only to see a bushy russet tail whisk away into the undergrowth on the other side of the road! The sneaky fox had probably been watching us the whole time! So I was unsuccessful in my attempts to get a Fox photo, but here are a few other photos of the reserve looking splendid in the early autumn sun.

The woodland around the path leading down to Kingfisher Corner.
Not 100% sure but I think this is Prickly Sow-thistle (Sonchus asper).
A very shiny iridescent beetle on some Nettles. My identification efforts only got me as far as some kind of leaf beetle, can anyone else identify it more conclusively?
Forge Mill Lake.
The new nature-themed screen looking over the marsh.
We saw a pair of what we were 90% sure were Ravens flying down the railway line near the bridge - they zoomed past us so we only caught a glimpse, but their apparent large size, longish-looking tails and the whoosh of air against their powerful wings gave us definite Raven vibes. Along the River Tame we saw Grey Wagtail and Meadow Pipit, some nice views of Snipe on the far side of the islands, several Buzzards up and enjoying the clear skies, and there was lots of Jay action, unsurprising for the time of year. We saw a fair few busily ferrying acorns around, causing us to ponder the mutualistic relationship between Jays and Oaks, and also between other species of jay and tree. I then started thinking about jays generally and how awesome they are - I have only seen three jay species (Eurasian, Siberian and Blue); how amazing would it be to see every jay species in the world!

From the hide Teal had increased in number since my last visit and there seemed to be plenty of Gadwalls quacking around, but only a few Shovelers and one Pochard. The Kingfishers were putting on a good display once again, they seem to have become used to using the numbered posts around the Lake edge as perches. We also heard the squeal of a Water Rail which remained typically hidden in the reeds, and the Lapwings were very jumpy indeed, all taking flight at the slightest provocation. Our best sighting of the day was a  Mediterranean Gull roosting with the Black-headed Gulls; it was preening its snowy plumage with one hefty bill! I enjoyed playing with my new camera once again; here are some of the results:

A Coot enjoying Alf's apple core.

A Coot reflecting.
Due most likely to the pleasant weather, the hide was very busy so I sadly didn't have much time for drawing. Here's what I produced; I think it's probably my best attempt yet at a Snipe (previous efforts have been pretty terrible!):

Snipe and aborted Gadwall sketches.
Finally, back in the centre, I picked up a copy of the new RSPB Sandwell Valley Flora produced by SandNats. Looking forward to getting stuck into this!

Essential reading for Sandwell Valley fans.