Category Archives: Migrants

Springtime Fenland birdlife

After my last post, my long time blogging friend, Scott, mentioned in a comment that he was reading a book set in my part of the world, viz the fenland of East Anglia. And that reminded me that during the Covid lockdown we’ve beeen allowed to drive a few miles to exercise outdoors, and back in April I ventured over to a local fen for a walk with my camera.

The Fens are a unique ecosystem characterised by lakes, reed beds and low scrub which create habitat for a wide range of wildlife and they’re a great place to see flowers, birds, mammals and reptiles. It was a glorious sunny day when I was there and the wildlife was abundant, including this male reed bunting who posed beautifully for his portrait:

Reed bunting Ouse Fen 18 Apr 2020_3015Reed bunting (Dansk – Rørspurv, Latin – Emberiza schoeniclus)

Cuckoos (Dansk – gøg, Latin – Cuculus canorus) were cuckoo’ing all around the Fen – it’s apparently a good year for cuckoos here in the UK, and I heard one for the first time ever in the village a few weeks ago – and bittern (Dansk – rørdrum, Latin – Botaurus stellaris) were booming. The bittern is a smallish brown heron which lives and breeds in reedbeds and is extremely rare in the UK, only 191 males were recorded in the UK by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in 2017. Their booming call is an amazing sound and it can carry for over a kilometre. It’s difficult to find a recording that really does it justice but if you click on the link this one hopefully gives you a good idea of what they sound like. Even though when they boom they’re very disticntive and easy to hear, they’re not easy to see unless in flight as they blend in perfectly with the background of the reedbeds. But one of these days I hope I can post one of my own pictures of a bittern to show you.

However, one bird that is easy to see is the marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier Ouse Fen 18 Apr 2020_3040Marsh harrier (Dansk – Rørhøg , Latin – Circus aeruginosus)

The marsh harrier is another one of the British birds of prey whose numbers have recovered significantly since the 1960’s presumably after the pesticide DDT was banned, and this one is a male hunting small mammals or birds over the low scrub of the fen.

The marsh harrier is a constant on the Fen, and it seems the bittern may be coming one too, which is fantastic. But the cuckoo isn’t, they’ve laid their eggs for the host species to rear and will soon be heading back on the perilous journey to the rainforests of sub-Saharan west Africa, hopefully to return to the UK next year to fill the spring air with their wonderfully distinctive call.

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds – the next instalment

Following on from my little rant about crap marketing by a well known purveyor of sports equipment at the end of December last year, I thought I’d check and see if the same gloves were still on sale and if so, whether the sales pitch had changed.

Imagine my disappointment to find that the offending text was still in situ in an unabridged form:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Either they didn’t actually pass on my comments to the relevant people within their organisation, in which case they fibbed to me. Or they did, and it got lost in the ether – in which case they’re incompetent, or they did and then decided not to change it, and in that case they’re scumbags.

Suffice to say I shall be voting with my feet and my credit card and source my sports kit elsewhere. Bastards.

But that’s enough of that and I hope a picture of a spring butterfly will lighten the mood a tad…

This is a holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) which is usually the first butterfly I see in springtime when it emerges in March/April; after which it disappears for a while. But it has a second emergence in June – August (the technical term  is ‘bivoltine‘), and this image was taken in the summer in my garden. And it makes me smile when idiot marketing people conspire to ruin my day!

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds

I try to avoid too much political comment and opining in this blog, but just occasionally I stumble across a piece of corporate loopiness which makes me spit feathers and has to be commented on… . So apologies in advance, but here goes.

I’ve never had much respect for marketing, it seems to me it’s simply a way to convince gullible people to part with their hard earned cash for something they don’t need and may not even want. And today whilst looking for some gloves I came across this description for a pair of convertible mittens on the website of an internationally well known purveyor of sports equipment:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Also suitable for hunting migratory birds. Really?! I’m sure I won’t be alone in finding this piece of marketing nonsense completely bonkers. Will someone really read that and think to themself “I must buy those because if I don’t I’ll be less well equipped to shoot a willow warbler”?

And to illustrate my point, here is a small selection of our migratory birds:

Migratory bird 1 – waxwing

Migratory bird 2 – fieldfare

Migratory bird 3 – short eared owl

Frankly, I’d rather have cold hands.

But in the interest of fairness I must point out that I contacted the company to voice my disquiet and they came straight back to me to say they had passed on my concerns to the relevant people within the organisation. So now I’m waiting see if anything changes… . I’ll let you know what transpires.

A northern hemisphere bird of paradise?

Driving around the countrside at this time of year the hedgerows are full of red haw berries and rose hips, which in turn means that they’re full of our Scandinavian visitors, redwing and fieldfare. But every now and again, when the winter weather’s particularly brutal  in Norway we get a visit from the most spectacular visitor from that part of the world, the waxwing…

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale)

Last year, they were here making the most of a long hedgrow full of rosehips, at least it was full of rosehips when they arrived, but after a couple of weeks the hips were somewhat diminished.

A pair of waxwing harvesting rosehips on the Cambridge Science Park


I think of these birds, with their prominent crests and beautiful colours  as being our birds of paradise and there are few that I enjoy photographing quite as much, and not least because they also have a distinctive song, particularly when they are singing together in flocks.

And the inevitable consequence of a diet consisting solely of bright red rose hips

The mighty osprey

As well as the ducks in the previous post, other water birds were in abundance at Rutland including the coot (Fulica atra, Dansk – blishøne):

A coot returning to the nest to incubate its single egg

And the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk – toppet lappedykker):

But the one Rutland migrant I really wanted to see was the osprey (Pandion haliaetus, Dansk – fiskeørn). The osprey makes the monumental migration from sub-Saharan west Africa every year to breed in the UK and one of the locations it regularly breeds at is Rutland Water. And I wasn’t disapointed:

The osprey takes 3 weeks or so of flying time to get from west Africa to the UK and according tho the BTO can cover up to 430km in one day. It stops off en route for a couple of weeks to refuel on its way south, but only for a few days when heading north to try to arrive early at the breeding grounds. It’s a fishing eagle which plucks fish out of the water of lakes, rivers or coastal seas, but alas I wasn’t lucky enough to see one hunting. Despite the lack of hunting activity, as this was the first one I’d seen in England (I’d only ever previously seen one at Loch Garten in Scotland) this was very special indeed!

The great grey shrike

Back in January there was a report of a great grey shrike at Wicken Fen and I’d never seen one before so I decided to go and have a look.

A distant tree across the reedbeds through the thick early morning mist

It was a very grey morning and not really one of those that gives me high hopes of seeing much wildlife, but the shrike put in the very briefest of appearances, probably less than 2 seconds, so short I couldn’t photograph it, but it was a striking bird! It was bigger and paler than I thought, and with its piratical black eye stripe it was completely unmistakeable. And despite my initial pessimism there was lots of birdlife around that morning.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

The Tower Hide at Wicken Fen is usually a good place to survey the area and see the local birdlife, and as the shrike had appeared very close to it I climbed the stairs to see if it would reappear and pose for a portrait. Unfortunately it didn’t, but all the following pictures are from the top of the Tower Hide:

Redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel)

The redwing and the fieldfare are winter visitors in the UK, making the flight here from Scandinavia as the weather turns cold there for the winter.

A pale male bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

This male bullfinch may have appeared a little more washed out than he actually was. Or he may have been a youngster or waiting for some warmer weather to change into his sumptuous breeding regalia.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

And finally…

A kestrel (Falco tinnunculus,Dansk: tårnfalk)

The drops of condensate clinging to the twigs around the kestrel give a fair indication of the prevailing weather – it was very cold… and very damp!

Conder Green

A few weeks after the outing to Norfolk I wrote about in the last few posts, I found myself in a place called Conder Green, which lies on a small tributary of the River Lune in Lancashire, with Morecambe Bay to the west and the Lake District to the north east. I stayed in a hotel which was on the Lancaster Canal and surrounded by farmland, and there was lots of wildlife in the immediate vicinity.

Little egret at dusk on the Glasson Branch of the Lancaster Canal (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre)

The little  egret, or indeed egrets in general, were birds I had always associated with more exotic  parts of the world. The first time I saw them in numbers they were perched on fish stalls in the market at Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles. Their numbers have been steadily increasing in England after they first began to colonise here in 1988 having moved across the water from France, where they had also been expanding their range northwards. But to see one in Lancashire reminded how far north and west they have migrated compared to the location of my first sighting!

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne)

Goldeneye female on the Lancaster Canal (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The moorhen and the goldeneye were on the canal adjacent to my hotel, and in the field next to that was a hare which appeared at first sight remarkably unfazed by my presence, until I got just a little too close, and then common sense prevailed and it did what hares do best, and ran:

The European brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

I was pretty happy with these two shots, I’ve previously got some good pictures of hares by creeping up on them very slowly when they’re sitting tight, but I’ve never got a good picture of a hare in full flight before.

The hare is a member of a taxonomic group called ‘Lagomorphs‘ along with rabbits and pikas. It’s a group that has been around for 90 million years, so hare-like creatures may have been running around with dinosaurs. The modern version evolved in central Europe but only since the UK split away, geologically that is, from mainland Europe. So it is thought that it was introduced to these islands around 2000 years ago by the Romans.

Wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand)

Just a short walk from the field where the hare was is the River Lune, which appears to be tidal as it’s so close to the coast of Morecambe Bay, so when the tide’s out there are extensive mudflats for waders and ducks including these wigeon, and I’ve also seen teal and curlew here:

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

This bird, with its unfeasibly enormous beak, was one of a flock of around 100 curlew, and that’s an extremely unusual sight these days.

More ducks and more waders at RSPB Titchwell

This is the final instalment from my trip to Norfolk when I ended up at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Even though it was in the middle of January and it had been ferociously cold at 6.30am before the sun rose and warmed the earth, by midday it was a bright, sunny and warm day. Perfect conditions really for a trip to the coast to see the wildlife.

A raft of shovellers (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

The reserve at Titchwell consists of two fresh water lakes separated from the sea by a high dune. And to the west lies an expanse of scrubland which provides more space for wild birds and animals to exist unmolested. Consequently, and because of its location on the north Norfolk coast, it’s a very good place to see  many water birds some of which can be rare sightings, such as the spoonbill.

There were no spoonbills to be seen on this trip but there were plenty of other species including shoveller, whose Danish name ‘skeand‘ translates as ‘spoon-duck‘ for reasons easily divined. Another of my favourite ducks, because of it’s gorgeous colours, is the diminutive teal:

Male teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is about half the size of the chunky shoveller and there are around 2000 pairs breeding here in the summer. I like etymology, so the collective noun for teal – a ‘spring‘ (because of they they rise en masse almost vertically when flushed) – is a fun one. Both the teal and the shoveller, which has 700 breeding pairs in the UK, are amber listed. But a ray of hope for these threatened water birds is that huge areas on the east coast of England have been opened up to the sea and allowed to flood as a mitigation of the worse ravages of the effect on the oceans of climate change, and this will hopefully create homes for hundreds of thousands of resident birds and migrant vistors throughout the year.

Ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula, Dansk: stor præstekrave)

There are 110-180,000 pairs of ringed plover in Europe and around 4% of them breed in the UK, but the numbers and range of these have been steadily declining, so this species has earned red conservation status in the UK, although it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole. Hopefully the new coastal habitats being created here will help to reverse this trend.

The next four pictures are of birds which appeared in the previous two posts and were photographed at Snettisham, but one of the great things about Titchwell is that it’s possible to get close to the wildlife. And as they were there too I’ve included these images in this post because I like them:

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe)

Black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

I really like the ripples and the reflections of the godwit in this image.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

Another thing that I like about this collection of pictures is that it demonstrates the importance of mudflats for these birds to find the molluscs and crustaceans they need to refuel. It doesn’t make for the most interesting background for a wildlife portrait, unless there are some photogenic reflections, but I guess it focusses the eye on the subject!

There was no image of this small seabird in the previous, at least not on it’s own, but there may have been significant numbers mixed in with the huge flocks of dunlin:

Knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle)

The knot is another of those truly magnificent creatures that breeds in the northern Arctic (a real feat of survival in it’s own right) and then migrates to its winter feeding grounds as far as south Africa, south America and Australia. And then a few months later they do the same journey in reverse. I wonder how many miles one of these little birds can cover in its whole lifetime – and all under it’s own steam? I can’t help but have immense respect for them!

Ducks and more waders

I wrote a couple of posts a while ago about a trip to the north Norfolk coast in the depths of winter, but I didn’t get round to completing the story. All the wader (‘shore birds’ in N.America) images in that post were taken on the beach at Snettisham, and as I was leaving there at around half past nine in the mornng to head along the coast a short hop to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, the sun had risen and more birds were discernible on the previously invisible small lakes immediately behind the beach.

A handsome male goldeneye (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The goldeneye is a diving duck which has recently colonised Britain and there is an annual breeding population of around 200 pairs but it’s also a winter visitor when around 27,000 individuals arrive here to seek sustenance on lakes, rivers and tidal mudflats.

A lone redshank poking around for molluscs and crustaceans in the tidal mud (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben)

Also prominent on tidal mud flats is the redshank, or ‘the sentinel of the marsh‘ as it’s often the first bird to raise the alarm when a disturbance occurs, is amber listed in the UK although there are 24-25,000 breeeding pairs and up to 130,000 winter visitors. As with many other birds, encroachment by humans and habitat destruction has limited their range and therefore numbers in the UK. But despite their struggle with humans I always expect to see redshank when I visit the coast, and the other wader that I’d be very concerned if I didn’t see is the unmistakable oystercatcher:

A few members of a big flock of oystercatchers passing overhead (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade)

Despite high expectations of seeing some of the 340,000 wintering UK oystercatchers their conservation status in the UK is amber, the European status is ‘vulnerable’ and globally they are ‘near threatened’ due to recent population decline. But there are still good numbers of them in the UK so I hope their numbers can be stabilised.

Another amber listed wader in the UK is the grey plover:

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

The grey plover is a truly global bird, it breeds on the Russian tundra and in northern North America but can be found as far afield as southern Asia, Africa and even Australia – it has a huge annual range! So it’s remarkable to think that this little guy came from Canada or northern Russia to feed on a Norfolk beach – and also that some of its relatives may be in Australia. It seems that many of our birds are struggling, including the statuesque black tailed godwit which is faring even less well than the grey plover and is red listed in the UK.

Black tailed godwit taking flight (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

According to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) the taxonomic name derives from the Latin word ‘limus‘ meaning ‘mud‘. In order to name such a handsome bird ‘Muddy muddy‘ I can only imagine that particular  taxonomist was having a bad day. It deserves better! The black tailed godwit also breeds in the north and like the grey plover can also be found in southern Asia, South Africa and Australia. Another accomplished globe trotter.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

The largest European wader is the curlew which can be easily distinguished by it’s enormous downcurved beak and it’s equally unique call. Alas for the curlew, it is also red listed in the UK with 66,000 pairs recorded by the BTO in the UK in summer 2009. Even though it’s numbers are declining it’s still not unusual to see one or more on an outing to the coast.

At this point, between 9 and 10am, I decamped along the coast to Titchwell, pausing mid way where another iconic winter visitor was patrolling an adjacent hedgerow:

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

It’s pretty depressing to report that the fieldfare is also red listed, but fortunately this is a local UK phenomenon and it is a species of least concern in Europe and globally. It’s our most colourful thrush and visits the UK from Scandinavia in the winter when it can be seen in large flocks in fields and hedgerows, often mixed in with redwing – another Scandinavian thrush which overwinters in the comparatively warmer climes of the UK.

Winter in the Wash

One of the ‘must see‘ natural events in the UK occurs in the winter when hundreds of thousands of ducks, waders and, in particular, geese spend the season on the mudflats of the Wash. The Wash is a huge bay on the east coast of England into which the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse all drain into the North Sea.

When the tide recedes, like Morecambe Bay in the previous post, enormous areas of mudflats are exposed which provide sustenance and a roost site for colossal numbers of birds. Every morning at dawn thousands of geese take flight to head inland to feed, and the geese are what everyone goes there to see.

Multiple skeins of pink footed geese at Snettisham at dawn (Anser brachyrhynchus, Dansk: kortnæbbet gås)

I arrived at the coast at Snettisham on the north Norfolk coast around 6am when it was just starting to get light. Already sizable flocks of geese were in the air and I was concerned that I’d missed most of them. But then as the sun rose higher gargantuan flocks started to pass overhead and it was a truly incredible sight!

I don’t know how many thousands of geese were there but at the end of the day I went back to the same place to see them return. It was getting dark and all was still, so, as in the morning, I thought I’d missed them. And then they appeared, quite suddenly in their tens of thousands. I tried to estimate the numbers by counting small numbers of each wave and multiplying up, and I estimated there were between 30-40,000 birds returning.

Skeins within skeins, I like this formation

And if you’ve ever spent any time near geese you’ll know that they’re not afraid to announce their presence, so the other thing that I hadn’t expected, but maybe I should have done, was the noise. It was a magnificent cacophony! And not just the squawking, but the sound of them flying when they came over lower to the ground.

These birds breed in the summer up in the Arctic, in Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen and then head south to the relatively balmy conditions of the UK coast in winter (!).

Another skein of pink footed geese passing low overhead

It’s unknown why geese fly in skeins, but it’s thought to provide an aerodynamic advantage to the ones behind as they slipstream in turbulent air generated by the bird in front. Which makes me wonder if they constantly switch the pacemaker or if the biggest and strongest bird is always the one at the front.

I estimated there were around 500 birds in this huge flock, but even that was a tiny proportion of the total

To see this meant getting up and out at 4am which is never my favourite thing to do, and it was ferociously cold, but it was worth it to see such a unique spectacle. And as the sun rose and it got lighter, it soon became apparent that the geese weren’t the only seabirds in the area:

A shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach past a lone dunlin in the foreground

Small flocks of shelduck and dunlin were mingling and feeding close in to the shore

The Wash is now not the only significant area of coastal mudflat in East Anglia. In order to attempt to mitigate some of the anticipated ravages of climate change, flood defences protecting areas of farmland on the coast further south in Essex have been deliberately breached. This has allowed the land to be reclaimed by the sea and to regenerate the tidal mudflats that were there before humans originally interfered. The new habitat  was created with the millions of tons of earth removed the ground under London in order to build the Crossrail tube train tunnels. And as soon as this happened the wildlife started to recolonise, and even though it is still fairly barren in comparison to established habitat, I hope that in the near future it will also provide refuge to hundreds of thousands more birds, and lots of other wildlife too.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But more of dunlin in the next post, and plenty more species of sea birds both at Snettisham and after that at the RSPB coastal reserve at Titchwell.