Tuesday, 14 December 2010

My New Birding Books and CD

I treated myself to some early Christmas presents this week - well no-one else was going to get them for me so I might as well buy them myself!  I started with an audio book companion to 'How to be a Bad Birdwatcher' by Simon Barnes which I've mentioned in a previous post and which thoroughly enjoyed reading.  This is not just the book read aloud by the author but contains his description of 50 common British birds along with their calls and song.  Now I can enjoy this book in my car as I drive to and from work everyday!

My second choice was 'Bearded Tit' by Rory McGrath, another humorous book on birdwatching and life at university, subtitled - a love story with feathers.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

My Garden

I recently decided to make an open bird table for my garden similar in size to the ones in the Bunting Hide at Pennington Flash and today I finally got round to doing it.  I'd got some metal legs off a broken school chair that was being thrown out and I found a suitable board with a lip around it from an old wardrobe shelf in my garage.  All I had to do was drill some holes to attach the board to the legs and hey presto, an instant bird table - it didn't take too long.

When I'd finished I positioned the table in amongst some vegetation whilst still being in view of my back window.  I put a variety of bird food and seeds out on the table including sunflower hearts and kernels, peanuts, tangerine segments (don't know if birds will eat those), hazel nuts and mealworms.  As soon as I'd done that my pesky cats got interested and even started eating the mealworms.  It was then that I realised that the table was a little low and the cats could easily get on it - ah well, I'll have to see how it goes.
Just after I'd finished and was clearing up, my sunflower seed feeder was visited by six Goldfinches, which is a record for my garden.  Firstly, Goldfinches don't usually stop off in my garden although they do fly over and into neighbours gardens fairly often in the spring and summer.  And secondly, I've never had more than two at once when they have been on rare occasions in the past.
My wife Sarah and I spent quite a while looking them through binoculars, and it was only when they seemed to be stopping for a while that I decided to try and take some pictures.  Of course, as soon as I got my camera out they were off and I only managed to get a few blurry pictures of a group of four of them. Later a single bird did return for  a brief visit and I got some slightly better shots but they were still far from perfect. Nevertheless it was a pleasing sighting.

Other birds in and around my garden today included:
  • Blackbird
  • Blue Tit
  • Great Tit
  • House Sparrow
  • Robin
  • Collared Dove
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Starling
  • Gulls (over)
Can't wait to see what might be on the bird table tomorrow - I'm keeping my cats indoors for the whole morning.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Rindle Road -2 degrees Celsius

Just a quick list of what I saw today so I don't forget:
  • Fieldfare
  • Redwing
  • Tree Sparrow
  • Dunnock
  • Robin
  • Blue Tit
  • Great Tit
  • Long-tailed Tit
  • Chaffinch
  • Greenfinch
  • Kestrel
  • Greater Spotted Woodpecker
  • Jackdaw
  • Carrion Crow
  • Magpie
  • Blackbird
  • Starling
  • Woodpigeon
And boy, it was cold.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Waxwings and all that Jizz

I've just finished reading the book called 'How to be a Bad Birdwatcher' by Simon Barnes, a funny and often philosophical book about the joys of birdwatching and what it can bring to your whole life.  In a recent chapter I read about jizz, which is a word used to describe the general characteristics of a bird and it's behaviour.

Birdsong is probably the best all round ID characteristic but also the hardest with which to get to grips.  Visual ID of size, colour, shape and form is also obviously very good for many birds, and what we all hope to do, but there are many birds which look similar (particularly LBJ's - Little Brown Jobs) or which are difficult to get a good sighting.

Jizz can help identify a bird even when you don't get a clear view of it or hear it's song. The origin of the word is a little unclear, but I favour the explanation that it comes from the term GISS, which the military use to describe the General Impression of Shape and Size, in relation to spotting enemy targets such as aeroplanes, tanks and other vehicles.

In birding terms jizz also includes it's behaviour and that's where today's Waxwing come in.  When I met Charlie Owen last week he explained how the Waxwing fly around in a tight flock for a while looking for a tall tree in sight of some berries, often the red or orange berries of the Rowan tree.  Whilst in the air they look quite like a flock of starlings and it's hard to tell the difference.

Then they congregate on a suitable tall tree top, sit in it for a while and from this high vantage point eye up the tree with the berries.  When the coast is clear of other birds such as blackbirds and thrushes defending the berries, they descend rapidly and raid the berries for 30 seconds to a minute, before returning to the tall tree.

This behaviour as well as their stocky body shape, distinctive head crest and coloured wing tips are all part of the bird's jizz. Fortunately, Waxwing are easy to identify if you get a good look at them and there is no need to rely on jizz, it just helps in understanding the bird's behaviour and how they live.

And today I saw exactly what Charlie meant as I returned to Ramsbottom Road in Horwich to try to get a decent photograph of the Waxwing which have been here for well over a week.  The birds followed the routine mentioned above at least three times whilst I stood in the freezing cold with Adrian Dancy and Ivan all trying to get a good shot.  Both these chaps were dressed in camouflage gear with tripods supporting large 500mm prime lenses on their DSLRs, and so I felt quite inferior standing next to them with my physically smaller second hand 500mm Sigma zoom - yes, I know - lens envy! Ray Ashcroft of Hope Carr Nature Reserve fame also showed up a little later but didn't stay too long after the birds flew off the first time.  We did have time for a quick chat though, which was nice.

The locals must have got used to all this fuss by now and indeed one bloke confirmed this to me as he took his supermarket shopping out of the car and to his house.  Unfortunately there was no-one offering cups of tea and toast today (as reports in the past week have suggested) on a day when really could have done with some.

My photographs are quite disappointing in spite of having some good views of the Waxwing.  It was a very bright, crisp and sunny November day, but the houses on Ramsbottom Road shield the low sunshine from the berry trees.  Therefore they were all in the shade in the morning, and nearly all my photographs are too dark and shades of blue.

I struggled with various exposures, trying to cover as many variations as possible so that I would get a least one good shot, but a combination of the cold weather (I can't operate my camera in gloves and I thought my fingers were going to fall off) and time constraints (I had to pick up Robert and Adam from badminton at Bolton Arena) led to less than satisfactory result on the photographic front.  It was only when I got home that I discovered that I'd had the wrong white balance setting due to fiddling in the dark last night trying to take pictures of Jupiter and it's moons.  Ah well, it's all part of the learning curve I suppose.

That said, I had a very pleasant hour or so chatting with other birders and seeing the Waxwing again.  The trickling chorus made by the 50 strong group of birds whilst sitting in the tall tree before descending to the berries is a favourite memory of the day. Maybe I'll pop down again a little later in the day and try for some more photos.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Waxwing in Horwich

Earlier in the week I'd posted a tongue-in-cheek message on the Manchester Birding Forum asking if someone could tell me where the elusive Waxwing would be appearing next in Greater Manchester so that I could be prepared, knowing full well that predicting where some would turn up is nigh on impossible.  They definitely like berries and those of the Rowan tree in particular, and they seem to go shopping at a supermarket somewhere at least once a week!  But as to where they'll make their next appearance, well it's anyone's guess.

However this week the Waxwing seem to have been spending a lot of time in Horwich near Bolton, and somewhere along Ramsbottom Road more often that not, and so I decided to go and have a look for myself this morning.  Before I left I checked the Forum and sure enough there was a sighting here at 9:30am about half an hour before I set off.

When I arrived I met a small party of other birders who had seen them in the trees near the junction of Ramsbottom Road with Victoria Road, but at that moment there were none about.  After chatting to a couple of people for details of their sightings today. I set off towards the Leisure Centre but here I only came up with a Thrush and a few Tits in the trees.

So I headed off back down Ramsbottom Road where I could see two other birders looking into the trees.  On the way down I met two more people who were looking for them and they asked me if I'd seen them, to which I'd replied, "No not yet, but I'm still hopeful."  At this juncture the lady pointed up into a  tree at the end of the road and said, "Aren't they the Waxwing?". I looked through my binoculars and replied, "Oh yes" being most embarrassed not to have noticed them, as I thought they were leaves.

I approached the tree slowly and took a few distant photos just in case they flew off.  One of the other two birders had a scope whilst the other was just using binoculars.  I approached a little closer and took some more shots - the light wasn't very good and I was looking straight into the sky, so the birds were more like silhouettes.  And then the whole flock suddenly took off and flew around in formation that could easily have been a flock of starlings.

At first I thought it might have been my movement that had spooked them, but then we noticed a raptor high in the sky above the tree - it was a Kestrel and the Waxwing had obviously seen it.  I took several shots of the Waxwing in flight as they passed overhead and then, all too soon, they were gone.  Well at least I saw them and got some record shots - another one for the list.

I started talking to the two birders who had been watching them - one of them turned out to be Charlie Owen, a very well known and respected birder round the Leigh and Pennington area.  I talked to Charlie about all sorts of things as we walked back up the road towards the Leisure Centre.

He told me about his Canon cameras and lenses (he doesn't do digital you know) and the hide he operates for birders to take closeup pictures of birds such as Jays and Nuthatches.  He's a very interesting bloke with a lot of birding experience and I know he is thought of very highly by people such as John Tymon and Dennis Atherton.

Charlie and I then headed back down Ramsbottom Road. We didn't find anymore Waxwing today, but I'm sure they'll still be around for a while and I probably come back next weekend for another look.  Nice meeting you Charlie, see you again sometime.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Pied-billed Grebe at Hollingworth Lake, Rochdale

This little darling has been creating a lot of fuss in North West England this week.  It's a Pied-billed Grebe and only visits us here in the UK once in a while, the last one being reported in 1999.  It's a North American bird which has been blown off course and has ended up in Rochdale at Hollingworth Lake. Being such a rarity it's been exciting birders and twitchers alike, many of whom have travelled long distances just to see it.

So today my wife Sarah and I became twitchers for the day and we went to see it too.  It only took about half an hour to get there from our home in Tyldesley and when we arrived at the lake we drove straight into a parking place - we were even given a free ticket to park for a couple of hours by another birder called Sarfraz Hayat who was just leaving.  Thanks Sarfraz.

The Pied-billed Grebe was showing very well in the nature reserve pond which is well away from the main boating lake. At first it was on the far side (from the footpath) sheltering in the water weeds and then moving along the reedy edge of the far bank.  I thought these distant shots might be the best I'd get today, particularly with all the commotion of birders and twitchers on the path all eager to get a good look.

But then it came across the water to the near bank and was happily catching fish just underneath our noses for five to ten minutes.  Unfortunately the tall reeds and branches often obscured our view, but every now and then it popped out into a clearer patch of water and the cameras fired away.

After this feeding spree the grebe went back into the water weeds for a quick preen and nap following Sunday lunch.  At this point Sarah and decided to go off and to a spot of geocaching at a cache near to the sea cadets premises a little further round the lake, in the hope that it would show again on our return, this time a little nearer to the path  We weren't to be disappointed.

When we got back there were even more birders on the footpath and the grebe was doing another circular tour of the nature reserve pond and came close to the nearside bank again.  This time it was being closely eyed-up by a group of Black-headed Gulls which were waiting to mug it, probably for the fish it was catching.  Whilst they didn't exactly mob the grebe, their presence was quite threatening particularly as there were five or six of them.

This behaviour eventually forced the grebe to swim towards the small hide at the end of the pond nearest the main lake.  I thought I'd just pop in for a quick look, and although it was quite full of birders inside, I fluked a convenient spot by the window just as the grebe was swimming past, not three metres away - what a spot of luck!  As soon as that happened there were squeals of joy from everyone here and the noise of the camera shutters clicking was like a burst of machine gun fire!   The grebe stayed around for a good few minutes and most of us were pretty happy with some of the shots we got.

It was here in the hide that I met Dennis Atherton again and I started to introduce myself just whilst he was concentrating on taking pictures at the moment that the grebe was in the best position - sorry about that Dennis, I do hope you got some good shots in spite of me!

I'll remember that moment in the hide for quite a long time and today I can say that I've bagged a Mega, seen a UK and County Lifer and been twitching for the first time.  What a day!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Moss Lane and Rindle Road

When I got up at 7:30am this morning it was quite light and the weather looked good, so I decided to go out birding.  I considered going to see the rare Pied-billed Grebe at Hollingworth Lake in Rochdale which has been all over the Manchester Birding Forum and even NorthWest Tonight on the BBC.  However that would take a bit longer and as both the Manchester United and England Rugby Union games were on TV this afternoon, I decided to leave that until tomorrow. So I settled on visiting my local patch at Moss Lane and Rindle Road near Astley Moss to see what was about.

Just before I left I checked my garden to find the usual tits, blackbirds and starlings about.  The Jay I've recently spotted also did another flypast and a skein of well over 100 Pink-footed Geese also flew overhead in a long wavy line heading eastwards. I'm getting to see these more often nowadays.

When I got to Astley Moss I first went down Moss Lane and was pleased to see there were a lot of birds about.  The recent high winds had cleared a lot leaves from the trees and the fields had been either ploughed or cut recently making the birds much easier to see than in recent months.  

I parked at my usual spot on the bend near the end of Moss Lane and walked back along the tree-lined lane.  I was about to start taking some pictures when I found to my dismay that I had no memory card in the camera - I'd left it in the computer whilst downloading my last lot of photos, damn!  As it was a good day for photos, I briefly thought about nipping back home to get the card but eventually decided to stay here with just my binoculars.

Whilst on Moss Lane I saw the following birds:
  • Common Pheasant (male and female)
  • Robin
  • Wren
  • Dunnock
  • Chaffinch
  • Blue Tit
  • Carrion Crow
  • Woodpigeon
Later on I drove round to Rindle Road where I encountered a mass of birds on the floor at the feeding station, the most notable of which were the Fieldfare which gave me a good closeup view being only a few metres away this time. At the feeding station there was also a Robin, various Tits, Starlings and I was almost certain there were some Tree Sparrows.

Just as I was about to leave and go home for breakfast when another birder turned up a the feeding station.  It was Geoff Hargreaves, a name that I'd seen many times on the Manchester Birding Forum especially recording sightings at the Wigan Flashes.  He'd popped in here to see if there was a Merlin about on his way back from seeing the Pie-billed Grebe at Hollingworth Lake and I told him that I was thinking about going tomorrow. Geoff kindly let me look through his scope and helped me to positively identify the Tree Sparrow whilst also pointing out a Yellowhammer which I'd missed.

We went on to have a quick walk through Rindle Wood to look out for Treecreepers following flocks of Long-tailed Tits (apparently a useful thing to look out for) and then along Rindle Hedge where we got a beautiful sighting of a Kestrel hovering low over the fields looking for a meal.  On the way back to the car Geoff pointed out the familiar call of the Jackdaw as several flew over us, but unfortunately there were no Merlins or Treecreepers to be seen.

Thanks Geoff, nice meeting you.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Saturday Morning in My Back Garden

One day last week I'd seen a tiny little Wren flittng around two potted christmas trees that I keep in my back garden. However as it was a workday I couldn't watch it for long and so I decided to have another look for it today. I got up at 6:15am and waited for the dawn to break on a cloudless sky.

The birdlife slowly began to appear as the sun rose from behind the houses and over the course of a couple of hours I saw the following birds in or around my back garden:
  • Robin
  • Dunnock
  • House Sparrow
  • Blue Tit
  • Coal Tit
  • Blackbird
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Starling
  • Collared Dove
  • Magpie
  • Jay
And then I heard the distinctive sound of geese way up high in the sky.  I looked up and saw my first skein of 50+ geese flying in a fantastic V shape eastwards.  The sunlight made them all look slightly golden but I'm pretty sure they were Pink-footed Geese.

So the Jay and the geese were the two highlights of an interesting mornings birdwatching from the comfort of my patio windows, but I never did get to see the little wren.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Collins Guide

At last I'm a proper birder - well nearly! My copy of the bird watching bible arrived today- the Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition. Until now I've been using a selection of bird books including my trusty old Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe and the Collins Pocket Guide to Birds.

But as I'm starting to take birdwatching a lot more seriously, I decided to get the book that everyone talks about in the birding world.  Here are some short reviews of it from www.amazon.co.uk.

'The best just got better' Birdwatch / 'The richest, most comprehensive of the current guides.' The Times / 'This book will surely become our standard guide for many years to come.' BBC Wildlife / '!buy this book, read it in the bath, keep it in the car boot and use it.' Bird Watching / '! this book is a must for every birdwatcher.' Country Life / 'If you want to have only one guide to British and European birds, this is the one to get.' British Wildlife / 'As essential as binoculars for those who take birdwatching seriously' New Scientist / '!go on, buy it and enjoy it -- it really is a very good book!' RSPB Birds magazine / 'One of the most talked about and fervently anticipated bird books of the past decade has finally arrived ! The wait has been worth it.' Birding World.

Now I've got it at least I feel more like a proper birder !

Birds on TV

What a week it has been for BBC4 TV programmes about birds. Here's what's been available:
I thoroughly enjoyed all the programmes from the totally mad twitchers, through the wonderful David Attenborough's narration about the cuckoo to the slightly eccentric Johnny Kingdom's amazing nest-box full of 18 wrens, which was actually my favourite moment.

If you didn't see them, look out for the repeats or catch them on BBC iPlayer for a while. I'm sure they'll come round again as they usually do on BBC4.  The BBC iPlayer links will eventually become unavailable, but they'll probably remain on the main BBC4 website for longer.

Can't wait for next week's programmes.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Pennington Flash

The Spit in Sunny October

Following yesterday's somewhat disappointing birding trip, I went out to Penny today in bright autumn sunshine.  I had agreed to meet Dave Broome at Horrocks Hide because he was getting rid of some old birding magazines and had said I could have them.

Redwing Eating Berries

After meeting up with Dave and talking to David Wilson, I carried on round the hides, meeting various other people along the way including Jon Taverner, John Tymon and two other very nice birders whose names I don't know.  I spent a good half hour with Jon trying to photograph the elusive Redwing which were eating berries in several locations - I did manage to get some shots, but their quality isn't that great.

A Closer View

A kestrel also flew over as we waited patiently for the Redwing.

Kestrel hunting for food

Bidding farewell to Jon, I moved on to Teal Hide down a wooded path I haven't tried before.  It was clear from some of the holes in the trees that Woodpeckers feed in this area.  At Teal Hide my first encounter was with a Robin that just had to be photographed.

Please take my picture !

And then I concentrated on the drake Goosander which had been forced closer t the hide than usual due to the high water levels.

Drake Goosander with duck behind
Drake Goosander in the water

I also had a fleeting glance of two Snipe which I only identified by looking at this photograph later.

Two Snipe flashed by

From here I went to the feeding station at Bunting Hide to try to get some better pictures of the Nuthatch.  Instead I got some more of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker and Reed Bunting as the Nuthatch wouldn't keep still for long enough.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker
Reed Bunting

I finished off a very pleasant day by talking to John Tymon back at Horrock's Hide about cameras - he's sold all his unused camera gear and got a new hybrid camera toy to play with - naturally he was keen to tell me all about it.

In summary today I saw:
  • Redwing
  • Grey Wagtail
  • Kestrel
  • Goosander
  • Cormorant
  • Snipe
  • Teal
  • Gadwall
  • Shoveller
  • Tufted Duck
  • Grey Heron
  • Lapwing
  • Greater Spotted Woodpecker
  • Sparrowhawk
  • Goldfinch
  • Nuthatch
  • Bullfinch
  • Willow Tit
  • Chaffinch
  • Dunnock
  • And various Gulls
I was also told that there was a Siskin present at the feeding station and although I heard it, I didn't actually see it.  One to look out for in the future.
Yep, we should have taken Grandad Bob to Penny to see the birds - I counted over 30 species here today compared to a rather paltry seven at Mere Sands Wood.

P.S. Thanks for the magazines Dave, they're much appreciated.