It was an extremely cold January afternoon and Dom and I were heading for a sighting of another rare bird – the Siberian Chiffchaff – and a likely sighting of Goldcrests, perhaps a Firecrest and waders. We we going to Dorney Common, near Eton Wick, in Berkshire, to try and add a few ticks to my year list). I’m beginning to talk more like a twitcher every weekend! To think of all the times I smiled with pity at train watchers when I passed them at the end of the platform. Hmmm.
I had prepared myself for another dip after the Pallas’s Warbler trip, but sensed when we arrived that this was going to be different. Very few others and positive sightings – a helpful point gave me my first glimpse of movement amongst the bramble across from a brook.
Just a few minutes in to the visit and I had photographed the Siberian Chiffchaff. A new tick! Nope. What!? Dom explained that the Siberian cousin of the European (more common) Chiffchaff was not recognised as a regular visitor in any number and was therefore not on the Berks Birds list. Damn!
To be continued…
I knew that I favoured the larger birds like the kites, buzzards and owls – perhaps less of a challenge finding them through the lens and a great subject when cropping the photos (maintaining the sharpness of the images).
Dom suggested we go to Moor Green Lakes, a gravel pit near Eversley in Berkshire, to try and find a rare bird: the Pallas’s Warbler. Now, let’s just put this in to perspective for a moment. I was new to this twitching stuff and had only just started my 2013 list and populated it with a few of the most common species. I didn’t know what a warbler was, let alone a subspecies (I thought was called a Palace’s Warbler!).
On reflection there were a few questions I should have asked Dom before we drove off:
1. How big is it?
2. What does it look like?
3. How’s does it differ from other warblers?
4. Just how rare is it?
5. Will others be looking for it?
6. Are we likely to see it?
All good, sensible questions, to which the answers might have been:
1. Tiny – like a Wren.
2. Brown, like a chiffchaff (that wouldn’t have helped me).
3. There’s a thin yellow stripe on its rump, but it’s hard to see with the naked eye.
5. Absolutely. Loads.
On the basis of these responses, I would have found something else to do with my time.
I sensed that we had arrived when I saw a board in the hedge with “Pallas’s Warbler Car Park” and a helpful arrow pointing into a field where a steward wearing a hi-vis jacket was standing with a bucket. “Two pounds please”. Now, I’m not mean but as soon as I start paying to see birds, I want to think that I’m going to see birds. Hmmm. If only. We drove past around 30 cars and parked at the end.
Making our way down the footpaths towards the gravel pits I felt quite pleased with myself as I could see a few others with large lenses and hear stories of sightings.
We eventually rounded the corner, walked over the bridge where the conveyor belts carry sand from the new extraction site, and saw what I can only describe as a scrum of twitchers. I was taken aback.
There must have been 50 men and women (mostly men of at least middle age, admittedly) stood two to three deep on a path no wider that six feet peering through binoculars and camera lenses, occasionally pointing (helpfully for me) which would cause a wave of movement towards the bird. Well, I say “bird”, I couldn’t see a thing. It was freezing cold too, so my enthusiasm was waning, fast.
We stayed for about 30 minutes, but it didn’t show itself, to me at least. I was the informed that this experience was known as a dip. Dipping, I would come to learn, was a frequent experience.
There was one good thing about the visit though; I was shown a barn owl box and told that there have been frequent and regular sightings of barn owls at Moor Green. Would I add to my now growing list of owls? Hmmm.
So, by now, my interest, reward and enjoyment of twitching was, thanks to Dom, developing at quite a pace. I was delighted with the photos that I’d managed to get at Gigrin Farm and was keen to get introductions to other raptors and owls.
It was January 2013 and I had been encouraged to create a Berkshire Bird list on http://www.berksbird.co.uk (at the time of writing this in April 2013 I had managed a total of 82 species, but more on that later). Although my next species wasn’t going to benefit that list (it was just on the Middlesex side of the Berkshire / Middlesex border at Staines) I was delighted with what happened.
There had been reports of short-eared owls at Staines for some time and we were confident that we could locate the field and spot one. We followed the muddy path for around 10 minutes until it opened into a large grassed area, the size of a small common (perhaps 10+ football fields). Within five minutes we saw one, quartering in the distance. Too far to take a photograph but we could watch through the binoculars and Dom’s newest purchase, an 80mm spotting scope.
We walked around the edge of the field. Another five minutes and an arm came across my chest signalling me to halt. I followed the pointing finger to see a short-eared owl perched on a branch about 10 metres from us. Now, this was within the range of the 500mm lens! I got a couple of shots before it flew off. What a treat. I’d never seen this bird before (don’t forget, I’d only ever seen a Little Owl at this stage and heard the call of a Tawny) and was really excited – this was a real treat.
We looked back across the field and saw two other short-eared owls – so we were going to have plenty of opportunities to capture them. The light wasn’t good though, so I knew it wasn’t realistic to get shots of the birds in flight. Instead, I looked for them to perch. We were being reward with quite a few chances to get the photos, but these were nervous birds and would fly soon after perching if I moved towards them (despite stepping stealthily through the long grass naively thinking that I was being so quiet that the owl wouldn’t hear me!)
The photos below show the shots I was pleased with.
My introduction to the Little Owl and Peregrine Falcon fuelled my interest in the raptors. So much so that when I was holidaying near the Brecon Beacons in August 2012 I spotted signs for a Red Kite feeding centre nearby and was keen to see them close up. Unfortunately, with three children to entertain and another family we were with to accommodate, I knew it may not be possible to get a visit.
I’d left it to the last day, where the plan was to visit after a lengthy morning ‘waterfalls walk’. I’d not anticipated the amount of time we would take and, to cut the story short, we ran out of time. I was disappointed but vowed to return soon, with friends who I knew would be as keen as I was to see the kites being fed.
The trip came in September – I didn’t want to leave it too long. Four of us went, including Dom. We camped over night. We were all excited.
A short walk and we were paying our £10 for access to a hide that was better suited to photographers. I had bought my 500mm lens two months before and was keen to try it out against my friend’s cameras – the usual compacts and even a film camera, which I thought was very brave.
At the scheduled time (3pm I think) the tractor came along with its trailer of beef. The driver hopped out and started scattering it across the grass in front of us. We could see some kites circling already and plenty seemed to be in the nearby trees. Then we just waited, quietly.
The first few kites were beaten to the beef by jackdaws and crows. Then, they came. One by one, swooping down and grabbing the beef strips with their talons and feeding in mid-air or a nearby tree. Around 20 perhaps in the first few minutes, then more, and more, until around 100 at least were surrounding the feeding area. We were in awe of them. Buzzards tearing at the meat, much more calm than the kites. A raven too, that was a bonus.
We even saw a white kite – which I understand now is a rare sight (but common at the feeding centre).
We were in the hide for around two hours. Money well spent. I had taken around 200 photos of the birds. I was quite impressed with the lens; it was performing well against the compacts.
This was a stunning place. I had never experienced anything like it, nor have I since. I would go back in a flash.
I had developed an immediate interest in the owls and it was only natural to extend that to the raptors. But, where was I going to find a “hawk” (that’s what I used to call all birds of prey when I saw them gliding or hovering above). Little did I know that we had a guaranteed shot of one (photographically speaking) in the centre of Bracknell.
Dom was seeing signs of my understanding growing. I had at least dropped some, but not all, of the naive terminology. He was keen to introduce me to the fastest of the fliers – the Peregrine Falcon.
There is a monstrosity of a building in the centre of Bracknell once owned by 3M. The company has long since moved out, leaving the building vacant and exposed to the perils of vandals and the weather. It was all locked up, so we couldn’t go inside (nor would I have wanted to), but we could strain our necks and stare up at the 13 floors. I couldn’t see anything. Some pigeons perhaps (I assumed). Then Dom said “There.” and I squinted a little harder and could make out a slight difference in shape. Yes, that was the Peregrine Falcon. One of a pair that nests (and has done for many years apparently) on the 3M building, well out of the way of any threat.
I quickly wound my lens to its full 250mm capacity. An example of the shot I could get is shown below. Another life tick for me. I was impressing myself now!
I’ve been back quite a few times since that first visit and used my 500mm instead. Quite some difference as you can see.
When Dom asked me whether I’d like to see a Little Owl I thought he meant a little owl. They say size matters (depending on who you talk to) and I was sensing that I wasn’t going to be impressed. I was wrong. My first ever sighting of an owl in the wild. It was sat on the branch looking down at us, seemingly unworried by our presence. Its tree was in a fenced garden, well away from predators (human or animal), which meant that this could become a regular sighting.
It was beautiful and simply fuelled my interest in birds - not least because my list had just increased by one.
I learned that it wasn’t just a little owl, and there were other owls too: tawny, short-eared, long-eared and barn that I might one day get a glimpse of.
There was a time when I thought a hide was what you got from an animal, nothing else. Late last year I took a trip to Dinton Pastures, being escorted by Dom (who will feature a lot in my musings). I’d lived in Berkshire for more than 20 years yet hadn’t heard of the place. Apparently it would give me a good opportunity to get some bird shots.
I was an overcast day and the first time I’d ventured away from the lake at South Hill Park. To be honest, I was comfortable with filling my “Down at the lake” album. I couldn’t really see the need to go somewhere else to see more ducks, geese and gulls. Still, it wasn’t raining.
We took the path alongside the lake and I was shown tufted ducks, gadwalls, goldeneyes and a little egret (I was wondering if there was a big egret too). I was being bamboozled with bird facts – too much information Dom! I should point out that my good friend is a genuine birder (you know, life lists and annual challenges). I was Daniel to his Mr Miagi. Left turn, right turn, left turn, right turn (or should that be tern?)
“We might see a kingfisher” I was told. “Listen. A nightingale”. I could hear a bird, but couldn’t see a thing. Dom could, but then he seems to have the eye of a hawk and spots things before I can even focus on what’s ahead of me.
Then we were approaching what appeared to be a shed. We cautiously opened the door (I didn’t know what to expect. Tools? A mower?) and stepped inside.
It was a shed with flaps for windows. I learned that this was Teal Hide. By the way, it wasn’t until months later that I realised why the “Teal” was relevant.
What we saw surprised me. A heron close by. Rabbits playing on the bank. Ducks of many colours. There was something cosy about this. What do “they” say about men in their sheds? Well, it’s the same for birders in their hides, let me tell you.
We strolled to another hide (it wasn’t a shed by then) – Bittern Hide (still not making the connection with the names of the hides). This was larger and had views on to a feeding station. Now it was time to be introduced to the finches and tits: chaff, gold, blue, great and long tailed. Beautiful birds, close up and uninterrupted. Plenty of shots to be had. Even a pheasant stopped by.
So, the hides had expanded my bird list. I didn’t realise I was creating a life list, but it was there, just like it’s there in all of us.