1st May. After a cracking days birding the previous day, it was a total change of environment with a trip into the New Forest, yet again looking for little woodpeckers in Denny Wood. Yes I'm a glutton for punishment! Arriving around 6am, I saw a group of Hampshire birders doing a bird race and asked for them for LSW info. They pointed me in the general direction although they'd not seen or heard one that morning. Walking through the woodland was a magical experience with a superb dawn chorus full of life. Redstart were plentiful and even though they kept up in the trees, I got wonderful sightings of little red flashes as they flitted and sang from the canopy. I wandered though, led by me ears for half an hour before being sidetracked by the ever increasing volume of a Cuckoo relentlessly calling. I followed the call to the woods edge and emerged onto the heathland for a scan of the area. I soon caught sight of my first Cuckoo of the year followed by another. The male bird was very active whilst a female kept very distant. I watched for quite some time, learning about its behaviour and then slowly made my way over to its favourite haunt, grabbing a nice flight shot on the way. Inching closer to its favoured tree, I stationed myself, lying down on the heather, behind a rotting log and after quite some time was rewarded with the Cuckoo performing brilliantly on the branch I'd wished it on to! It was wonderful to watch it in such detail, noting the tail moving from side to side as it sang and the distinctive "below horizontal" wingbeats as it flew. Both birds were constantly mobbed by Meadow Pipits for the hour and a half I watched, very plucky pipits indeed! After the bird had moved to a different tree and knowing that I'd got some nice pictures, I moved away back into the woods, passing a few scrapping Redstarts into a small clearing which was laden with Stock Doves. I've never seen such a concentration of them and the sound of their song was virtually constant, such a pleasant change from Wood Pigeons! They were always at the tops of the trees but I still got a few shots. Much more difficult was my perennial bogey bird, Green Woodpecker! They kept on waffling away but only one bird showed itself distantly for another distinctly average picture! Still being led by my ears and wandering often in the direction of singing Redstarts I eventually arrived back near the car but not before hearing both a Blackcap and a Garden Warbler singing almost side by side. A great comparison with the shorter song bursts of the Blackcap and its "minor sounding" song contrasting nicely with the more melodious "major sounding" long passages of rich flutey warbling of the Garden Warbler. After grabbing a quick snack from the car, I headed off in the opposite direction still looking for Lesser Spots. After 10 minutes I heard a call which sounded good for one so quickly marched off towards the sound. Scanning intently I looked for the source and didn't see anything obvious. The call came again and I was soon watching a Nuthatch in the top of a tall oak tree! Grah! Foiled again! I then went deeper into the forest, into an area more dominated by conifers seeing where it would lead. I didn't see an awful lot but a few Goldcrest and a Coal Tit entertained me for a while. The woodland opened up again and I headed along what I hoped would be a circular path, passing through some clear fell with some Siskin at the very top of the trees. A single Crossbill sat atop a pine tree briefly but soon whizzed off not to be relocated. I then found myself in some great habitat and thought this looks good for Tree Pipit. No more than 30 seconds later I was watching one singing away and after observing it for some time worked out a good vantage point. To say I was blown away with the views I then got would be a massive understatement. The bird came at times within 20 feet, seemingly unperturbed by my presence, singing away and feeding on the ground yards away from where I had sat down. After grabbing some great images and with the bird having relocated back to another of its singing perches I moved on this time missing a nice Cuckoo shot as one sat on a wire fence, moving out of view just as I was raising the camera. I then headed back along the path still hoping for my LSW but on rejoining a familiar part of the wood, I heard the unmistakeable sound of a Wood Warbler vigorously performing both of its songs. Never one to miss out on such a performance I located the bird and eventually got a few nice shots of him as he sung and fed in equal measures. All around was the sound of bird song echoing back off the canopy so I did well to pick out to pick out a "different" call and was rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of a Hawfinch as it whizzed past. Another equally brief view followed 10 minutes later by which time the skies were darkening so decided it was time to move on. Not before a great Garden Warbler distracted me and had it not been for my waterproof jacket would have got much wetter than I did whilst I tried for another picture. Getting into the soon to be steamy car I headed off to my Wood Lark spot hoping to add to another New Forest special to my weekend's list. It was busy at the car park when I arrived but the rain hadn't stopped so most people hadn't ventured far from their cars. Not me! I headed off to where I'd seen them the previous year and sure enough found just one singing male in a similar spot. I imagined that any other birds would either be feeding young or have possibly fledged their broods so wasn't too disheartened to see just the single bird where I'd seen several on my previous visit. The sound of a Woodlark is a wonderful noise, one that wouldn't be out of place while watching the Masters from Augusta - you could imagine the sound coming from in amongst the azaleas! The bird had been sat right at the top of a tall pine tree but moved to sing from the ground amongst a cleared bracken area. I managed to get pretty close with the bird still singing away all the while taking numerous shots. It did perform a few local song flights, showing the short stumpy tail well but never went too far. I left the bird to its territory and went looking for others but only found a distant Great Spotted Woodpecker and Buzzard. Retracing my steps I found myself back at the Wood Lark spot with the bird still faithfully singing away at more or less the same spot, 25 minutes after I'd left it! I inched closer and closer until I was no more than 25 feet away, with myself and the bird just checking each other out, the Wood Lark still giving short bursts of song. It was a special moment and I felt a little sorry for him, hoping that his song was just defining his territory and not trying to attract a mate, this late in their season. I moved on leaving him to his world and to continue in mine with the sound of Wood Lark filling my heart. By this time it was 1:30 and I'd flagged. The rain got heavier so headed back to the car, exhausted but thoroughly invigorated by my second great days birding.
3rd May. After a very soggy Sunday off, I had a morning to myself so headed back to Keyhaven for dawn, primarily for a stab at the Dartfords but also, as is always the case there, to see what was about. A few mixed plumage Black-Tailed Godwit were in the bay near the car park and as I walked along the sea wall, started noticing plenty of Linnets, noticeably more than the a few days previously. So began the game! As I approached the Linnets, it didn't matter which of the dozens there were, I raised the camera for a picture and they flushed a further 10 yards away. If I went with the camera raised and stopped they did the same, if I came to the slowest stop imaginable they still flew. It was almost funny in the end but frustrating for such a smart little bird to consistently elude me. This is beside the fact that I have trouble picking them up in the first place with my colour blindness! Continuing along, a pair of Shelduck, pair of Lapwing, a single Oystercatcher and several Rabbits were grazing in a field but with grey light the shots were nothing special. I reached Keyhaven Lagoon and quickly located the Long-Tailed Duck but this time it was right over the far side preening. Feeling a little smug with the photos from the previous visit I watched her briefly before moving on. The wind had shifted to the north-east and was cold. I had three layers on, a hat and gloves - typical Bank Holiday fare, so thought there wouldn't be many migrant arrivals. When I got to Fishtail, the first few Sand Martins of the day were on the wing, hugging the ground for the lowest of flying insects for breakfast. A few Gadwall were present along with a single deer but nothing exceptional so continued my Linnet game along the sea wall. A different call alerted me to something and I noticed a flash of white outer tail feathers as a bird flew from the sea wall onto the salt marsh. It's a Yellow Wagtail I thought to myself, so after locating the fairly distant bird on the sea grass took a few record shots. Zooming in via the camera screen to have a closer look, it certainly was a wagtail but not a standard one. The head looked a bluey-grey and there was a distinct white throat with the more common Yellow Wagtail features evident from the head down. Not knowing my flava sub species I was baffled so tried to relocate the bird with no luck. After 15 minutes searching I still couldn't find it so knowing time was pressing on wanted to head over to find some Dartfords before the dog walkers took over. As I passed Butts and Pennington lagoons the Linnet game became a Yellow Wagtail game with two Yellow Wagtails constantly feeding and moving. They were typically unapproachable as I remember always staying the little bit far away as I crept up on them, the skittish Linnets feeding amongst them not helping I'm sure! I managed a few reasonable efforts before the numbers of joggers, cyclists and dog walkers increased, flushing the birds constantly. I then headed towards Oxey Lagoon, noticing a drake Red-Breasted Merganser preening distantly on Butts, with a few Common & Little Terns battling the persistent cold wind. Once round at Oxey Marsh I had another go at the summer plumage Spotted Redshank in the "Spotshank spot". It's amazing how they favour that one particular area - I guess the water depth must be just right. I'd hoped to see or hear a Dartford as I'd seen a couple there on the pervious visit but after 45 minutes I still couldn't make the Whitethroat there into a Dartford! I followed the loop back, noticing a very smart Greenfinch trying its best to perch on top of a gorse bush in the wind. Back on the sea wall I caught up again with the Yellow Wags and got a few more shots before finally locating a singing Dartford Warbler. It was doing well to be heard with the strong wind and was in gorse right next to the footpath. I could have approached to a few feet and of course it being a Dartford Warbler would have never seen it, so hanging back I waited and watched. Eventually the bird gave itself away and watching it as it fed and sang, I got some great, if brief, views. Eventually the bird gave me a break and sat atop the gorse so I snapped away. Sensing the bird was comfortable I manouevered a few feet to my right to get a yellow gorse background and then snapped away getting some great shots despite the wind buffetting me. The bird eventually dropped back into the gorse and I moved on, attempting hirundines in flight over Butts Lagoon. Not easy at the best of times but when it's cold, blowing a gale, grey light, and you're handholding a sizeable lens, it's a real challenge! Back to Fishtail and I saw a few other birders with cameras. Nosing in to see what they were shooting, I soon picked up a fairly obliging cracking male Yellow Wagtail but they'd been photographing a summer plumage Black-Tailed Godwit. It was only when I pointed out the wagtail 50 feet away that they changed targets! Separated by the canal the bird must have felt more comfortable and gave some nice views allowing me to finally get nice images. I stationed myself around the end of Fishtail for a while hoping to catch up with the odd wagtail again and eventually after an hour or so, found it again on the saltmarsh. I fired off a few more record shots and some ropey flight shots as the bird flew across Fishtail to the shingle bank where it was again lost to sight. I persisted in trying to relocate the Ashy-Headed but came up blank but not before getting a chance encounter with the male Yellow Wagtail. It had wandered close to the footpath and with some stealthy approach work I managed to get pretty close and grabbed a few nice shots through the gaps in the fence. Time was against me so I yomped back to the car park, stopping briefly to have another look at the Long-Tailed Duck on Keyhaven lagoon. Another very productive trip to Hampshire, I can't wait to go back!
5th May. Back in Wales and having checked out the local sites, it was inevitable that I was going to head to Cefn Cadlan to hopefully improve on my one lousy shot of a passage wader. With work and family commitments, my only opportunity was to get there for first light so getting up just after 4 and arriving at the cattle grid above Cefn-Onn Reservoir before 6, I trudged up to the summit. It was quite nippy so I was wrapped up warm but I was hopeful that the rising sun would break through the clouds, as long as the birds were there! A singing Redstart, Meadow Pipits and Skylark accompanied me on the ascent and as I neared the top, a pair of Wheatears was very active with the male singing frequently. No sign of any waders though, other than the distant call of a Curlew from down below. Other than the species mentioned it was pretty birdless and after 10 minutes, I noticed a Buzzard sat on a rocky outcrop. I raised the camera for a look and the bird typically took flight. Following its flight, I noticed two small fast flying shapes flushed from far below and fixed on them. Two waders and they were coming my way! Amazingly they circled back round and landed no more than 80 feet from me. There they were, the pair of Dotterel I'd hoped to see and what stunning birds they are. The male made a beeline for me and walked over in its typical plover like way, a quick burst of running followed by an abrupt stop, taking an upright stance to look around. The more brightly coloured female kept in tow heading in the same general direction, getting ever closer. It was 6:10 when the birds alighted and by 6:30 I'd taken a few hundred images with the birds, at their closest no more than 20 feet away. I'd heard they are approachable but the fact that they approached me was magical. Other than staying for better light there was no reason to linger and I wanted to leave the birds to their own devices so headed back to the car and was back at home and dialled into work just after 8! There's always something special about an occasion only you experience and being there on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere with the Dotterel, the sound of a Skylark and the dawning sun was just one of those moments.
12th May. An unusal find just down the road in Wentwood Forest looked like it was staying so taking a big gamble, I left the house at dawn on my son's third birthday and hoped for a new bird before he woke up! Parking the car at Cadira Beeches and heading down the hill towards Nine Wells, I soon heard exactly the same song I'd been listening to the night before on the computer. A slightly flat sounding Chiff-chaff-Chiff-chaff followed by a trill at the end meant that the Iberian Chiffchaff was still there. I soon found it and it was a typical phyllosc, constantly moving as it fed and sang. Over the 70 minutes I was there, it hardly paused for breath and with Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler & a single Wood Warbler singing, it was obviously a different bird. The song hardly varied at all, with maybe only 1 in 50 songs bursts bearing any resemblance to a normal Chiffchaff. The bird was unphased by me or another birder who had come to see it, and I later learned that another birder saw it down to 8 feet that afternoon. I managed a few reasonable shots but other than the song would never have been able to physically distinguish the bird from a bog standard Chiffchaff, certainly not with my colour vision anyway! Other birds of note were a party of 15 Crossbill flying overhead, upto 3 Cuckoo singing and after taking a wrong turn zooming back home, 2 Hobby flying over the car at Llanfair Discoed! Most importantly I got back home at 7:50am, later than anticipated but still before the birthday boy woke up and with plenty of time to prepare for his treat of a visit to Bristol Zoo! Yes I did take a few bird pictures there but only of House Sparrow & Collared Dove - I don't think I can count the captive Inca Terns (which are truly stunning) in the Penguin enclosure!
15th May. Fortunately for my family, days like today are few and far between! With mad May migrants scattered around the country, a week in work resulted in a pent up yearning to be out there. I got up before 3 but I had to complete this mission of getting 250 for the website. Heading North-East I arrived just over 2 hours later in Ilkeston, Derbyshire at the Straw's Bridge Ponds Nature reserve. I was first there but only by 1 minute but walked the short distance under the railway bridge and on rounding the corner heard a belting noise. From over 300 yards away I could clearly hear an Acrocephalus warbler singing, drowning out the resident Song Thrushes & Blackbirds. On getting nearer the noise was spectacular and eventually I managed to locate the Great Reed Warbler as it moved from reed to reed. I knew it was going to be big but only when it flew did I realise the size of it. Massive for a warbler, being almost Redwing size and unlike any warbler I'd seen in the UK before. Its main territory was the small patch of reeds at the far end of the pond but being a reed warbler it was typically difficult to get a clear view. In fact for 99% of the two hours I was there, I had many views but just about all obscured by numerous reeds. To be expected I thought and after getting a few acceptable shots through the vegetation I thought it time to press on. The bird had flown to a tree on the other side of the pond and headed that way back to the car just for a look-see. I heard the bird singing in the trees as I walked through and was incredibly fortunate to locate the bird sat up in the tree in clear sunlight! I snapped away for 10 seconds until the bird flew back to its patch but thanking whoever was looking down on me for such a great view. I got in the car feeling very smug and set off East. The next destination was around 60 miles away but I knew this one would be busy, not the dozen or so birders that were viewing the Great Reed Warbler. On arrival at the RSPB reserve at Frampton Marshes in Lincolnshire it was evident that something was about! Well over 150 cars were present full of birders looking for an exotic vagrant. I headed first to the centre and was glad I did to have a glimpse of a distant drake Garganey. It was too far for the camera and I didn't want to waste time getting my scope out to attempt a picture, having taken a sneaky peak through a fellow birders scope. I set off in search of my, and everyone else's focus. After 15 minutes and asking various birders, I headed off in the direction of the sea wall, doing an about turn on heading to the 360 hide, realising the sun would only lead to silhouette views. I then caught my first distant glimpse of the Oriental Pratincole as it hawked for insects several hundred yards away. I grabbed the most appalling of record shots before trying for a better vantage point. I got to the sea wall where the bird had been seen well and there was no sign. I waited a while and then worked my way along to the east hide. When I got there, the bird eventually was seen, but back over at the sea wall! It dropped down so I then marched back and the game of cat and mouse was on! I did this several times, only succeeding in having a nice stroll in the windy sunshine. On arriving back at the East Hide for the third time and having watched the singing Corn Bunting I was just about to photograph flushed by a heads down birder blissfully unaware of it and me, I decided for a brief change of tack and noticed a crowd of birders beside one of the pools. Ambling up I enquired what was about and they all said Temminck's Stint. I could hardly see the ruddy thing with my colour vision! I eventually managed to pick it out and grabbed some terrible record shots which aren't worthy of putting up on the site. I then tried digiscoping it (after some nice scope views) which was equally as hopeless with the bank too high to set the scope up properly for digiscoping. I should really have spent a little more time attempting but it was another life tick anyway! Moving back to the East Hide I saw a flyover Yellow Wagtail and noticed the Pratincole by the sea wall again. Here we go again and this time was no different! I headed back to the East Hide, spotting a Hobby high overhead but this time was better. The Oriental Pratincole decided to give me and us all there a break by hawking fairly close to us all, giving great views of its distinctive languid flight and showing the birds distinctive features. At times it was too close to follow with the camera and with a fast moving bird in sharply contrasting light, photography was a challenge. I got some reasonable efforts, certainly worth the effort and watching it for half an hour do its thing was a superb experience. A first summer Little Gull was a nice addition along with the common waders and a large flock of Brent Geese. Heading back to the car I'd hoped to catch up with a Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper or even the Corn Bunting again but no sign of those. Can't complain though! With my 250 now in the bag I thought the show must go on so got back in the car and headed south, just into Norfolk and the WWT reserve at Welney. The staff there were very helpful and had marked on the map, locations of the star attractions! I had a quick scan from the main hide for the Garganey but no sign, just a smart Yellow Wagtail, several Shoveler, Gadwall, Avocet, Redshank, a Common Tern and plenty of hirundines with a Swallow perched on the side of the footbridge. Moving on I noticed there were dozens of Orange Tip butterflies but as none immediately settled, carried on looking for the main attraction. No sign of the Great White Egret reported that morning and nothing out of the ordinary by the time I reached the final hide. A few photographers were there so I asked them what the latest was. It had been seen on and off but wasn't performing well. I waited 10 minutes and heard a brief snippet of an unusual song. Surely enough it was the Bluethroat and after peering over the side of the bank, there it was! Just as I got the camera on it, it flew and vanished. I did get a lovely picture of the reeds where it had been singing from though! An hour passed with no further sign and was wondering if that was going to be it and my good fortune had finally run out. A group of us had assembled by a small hide leading up to the hide near a swans nest and had been one of the most profitable spots earlier in the day. We finally saw it again in front of another hide and the bird then flew closer before disappearing again. About 2 minutes later we noticed it displaying on a flattened patch of reeds, agonisingly obscured but posturing with its head and tail raised skywards, showing the amazing blue, red and white on its throat. It perched briefly on a reed and I finally managed to get some shots before it nipped off again. 5 minutes later it appeared right in front of our noses for two seconds, again posturing but before I could get the camera on it, it went. I was gutted! We then waited and the crowd of a dozen thinned to just two and while we chatted, heard the call again followed by the song. I hurried over to the opposite bank and located the Bluethroat sat in clear view singing away. I fired off a load of pictures, finally getting some good ones, with my only gripe being slightly difficult light but I could hardly complain with cracking views of a White-Spotted Bluethroat in the UK, yet another new species for the website. We beckoned some other birders over for a view and eventually half a dozen others got great views. That was my cue to head back, stopping briefly in the main hide for another dip on the Garganey. Just as I was about to pack up on reaching the car, I heard the now distinctive song of a Corn Bunting and eventually managed to locate two birds, perched on the wires along with ten Collared Doves. With my family credibility in shreds I pointed the car west and set off home, arriving back 18 hours after I'd set off but after one of the most fantastic days birding. What a month!
17th May. A pre work quickie for the Iberian Chiffchaff again!
31st May. One last blast for May and I took another drive, this time heading east into Hertfordshire and specifically to the Wilstone reservoir near Tring. I arrived just before 6:30 to find disappointingly grey conditions, not like the beautiful sunrise I'd witnessed further west. Nevertheless I set off to search for my target and on ascending the bank up to the reservoir met the only other soul on site who was the finder of the original bird. He was watching the first summer Red-Footed Falcon which had just been flushed by some corvids and was distantly flying over the other side of the water. I didn't pick it out before it headed out of view so we both set off in the direction it was last seen. We both stopped on hearing an odd sounding sylvia warbler, sounding more like a Garden Warbler than a Blackcap but which we eventually located and found it to be the latter. On the far side of the reservoir and into much more farmland habitat, a cracking male Yellowhammer perched on a fencepost with a sizeable amount of breakfast for its young family - sadly enough my first Yellowhammer sighting of the year. We carried on round and eventually arrived back near the falcons roosting tree where a few birders had their scopes trained. The bird had completed a full circle unnoticed by us but at least I was on it! I fired off some record shots of a small blob in the tree and then set up the scope for a better view. Through the scope the views were very nice. The eye ring was visible as were the red feet but the bird seemed intent on roosting and spent much time with its head buried under a wing. I managed a few digiscope shots, yet again cursing the dark art for being so difficult! If only I could transpose the wonderful images my eye was capturing directly to a memory card! After an hour or so the crow mob returned, latched on to the falcon and moved it on. It tried to get back to its tree but was flushed again and again by the Jackdaws. It eventually moved to a tree fairly close to the road and I followed suit, hugging the verges to avoid the building traffic and keep out of sight. I spotted it but it was mostly obscured and after two minutes watching the bird was flushed again by crows back to its tree. I stayed put hoping the bird would come back and after 25 minutes it did; 25 minutes of odd looks from passing motorists and a few comments from walkers about me standing on a grass verge with a camera with a large lens looking at a tree! Anyway, the bird flew into the same general area and I managed to get a clear line of sight, firing off some shots of the bird which was still distant but clearly recognisable as the RFF. With the challenging light I'd experimented with the exposure bias to get more detail and got some better results than with the standard setting. I was just reassembling the scope when the bird moved on again, a real shame as hopefully the scoped shots would have been very nice. I then moved back to the field again to watch the bird from there before it moved on to feed. It hawked insects over the water, right in the middle of the reservoir, following a pattern in which it never deviated from a 60m˛ area - always too distant for photographs. Its wingbeats were slower than I thought they would have been and when a Hobby turned up, their flight behaviour was quite similar, certainly for their hawking insects over the water. With the falcons remaining out in the middle I tried snapping the hirundines which with the light as it was very difficult. There were certainly plenty of choices to photograph with dozens of House Martins, Sand Martins and Swallows mixed in with the several hundred Swifts and I only managed a few reasonable shots from quite a few attempts. After watching the hirundine and falcon display for over an hour it was apparent that I wasn't going to improve photographically on either so headed back to the car and home.