Archive for the ‘smew’ Tag

Late December 2016 – early January 2017 – The Festive Season   Leave a comment

It’s a bit late in the New Year to be reminiscing about Christmas but as usual I’m running late with blog updates, so here is a short account of our activities over the ‘Festive Season’.

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Don’t we scrub up well! The first and only formal Christmas party we attended this year was on the 17th in Bournemouth with the Phoenix Organisation (formerly Nexus), the organisation through which Margaret and I met. I had been ill for about a week beforehand so we did little more than enjoy the meal, have a token dance and leave.

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For Christmas we all went to Margaret’s daughter Anita and her husband John’s place in Maldon, Essex. Kara was already there, we arrived on the 22nd and Janis and Amber arrived on the 23rd. On Christmas Eve we all went for a rather chilly walk near Bradwell-on-Sea at the mouth of the Blackwater Estuary. L-R Kara, Amber, John, Margaret, Janis and Anita.

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Birding-wise it wasn’t too exciting with just this flock of Brent Geese near the car park and a few common waders along the shore ….

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…. but there was an interesting chapel built in 654 AD by Cedd a bishop from Lindisfarne in Northumbria using stone from an earlier Roman fort.

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The rather sparse interior is still used for regular services.

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Many houses and gardens near Anita and John’s house in Maldon were suitably (over) illuminated for Christmas ….

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…. but we had to laugh at this illuminated snowman that appeared to be about to jump to its death …..

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…. compounded by fact that the inflatable Santa below had already hung himself.

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On Christmas morning it was time for the grand present opening ceremony. Janis looks particularly delighted with hers.

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Amber was given some goggles that convert your mobile phone into a VR experience. Kara is clearly enjoying her sister’s present ….

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…. and so for that matter, was her grandmother.

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Having turned his double garage into a ‘man cave’, John was most pleased to receive this sign for Christmas.

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For Christmas dinner we were joined by John’s sister Lois and her family for a slap-up feast in the ‘man-cave’. Clockwise from the left: Amber, Margaret, John, Anita, Lois, her husband Gavin, their son Lyle, Lyle’s girlfriend Heather, their daughter Shan, Janis and Kara. This must be the first year when I haven’t eaten any turkey over the whole Christmas period.

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As they were almost hidden in the last photo here is a better shot of Lyle and Heather.

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And here Shan assisting Janis’ with a selfie.

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Usually after a large Christmas dinner everyone falls asleep during the Queen’s speech, but Anita kept us busy with a series of party games such as this ‘card blowing’ contest where the object was to get the card to balance on the edge of the table without falling to the floor – much harder than it sounds.

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…. but one of the funniest games was the ‘twerking contest’. Small baubles were placed in a box with a hole and tied to your waist. The aim was to knock out as many baubles as possible just by hip action.

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On Boxing Day morning I went to nearby Abberton Reservoir to see a drake Ring-necked Duck (on the left), a rare visitor from America.

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I was pleased to see four Smew on the reservoir including this stunning drake. They occur occasionally as far west as Dorset but the majority of wintering Smew are found in the south-east of the UK.

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This Ring-necked Duck probably hatched in Canada or the northern USA, the Smew in Scandinavia or Siberia and the Pochard from eastern Europe or western Russia yet all come together in one photo in Essex.

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On the 27th we headed north to my brother’s in Derbyshire, an early start helped us to avoid the traffic. We stopped at my University friend Di’s place in Breedon-on-the Hill (centre of the photo with her husband Steve). Her daughter Hannah, husband Karl and daughter Mai were staying and it was great to see Hannah who I haven’t had a chance to speak to for many years and meet Karl and Mai for the first time.

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Over five year’s ago Hannah’s dad, my University housemate Clive was tragically killed in a motorbike crash. I was surprised how like her father she now looks, which of course brought back how much I miss Clive.

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I came to Beeley, a small village in the Peak District, in early December to see a Dusky Thrush, a very rare vagrant from eastern Siberia. The thrush was still there on so I took Margaret to see it.

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The residents of Beeley have been praised by birders for their warm welcome, something that doesn’t always happen when a rarity is found in a residential area. The bird is now showing just outside the village and the number of birders arriving is much reduced but even so residents will probably be glad when it migrates in the spring.

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There have been a reasonable number of Waxwings turning up this year, but very few have reached the south. We managed to catch up with one some ten miles to the north of Beeley but if we had got there five minutes earlier we would have seen a flock of 40!

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On the way back to Poole on the 29th we detoured to see another vagrant thrush – a Blue Rock Thrush, a bird with a wide distribution from the Mediterranean to the far East. This beautiful bird has taken up residence in a housing estate at Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire and is using roof tops as a substitute for its usual rocky mountain or coastal cliff habitat.

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A few birders are denigrating this bird, considering it an adult and therefore less likely to be a true vagrant, and saying wintering in the middle of the UK rather than the coast points to captive origin. These critics seem to mainly be twitchers who saw the Blue Rock Thrush on Scilly some 20 years ago and don’t want all these newbies catching them up – ie they are doing a bit of list protection. There is debate about its age, some consider it a first winter, and vagrancy can occur in adult birds and nobody criticised the Dusky Thrush because it was found in the middle of the country!

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When the Blue Rock Thrush was seen from certain angles its lovely blue hue faded to a dark grey. As I said before twitching rarities in urban areas can be difficult, photographing a bird on someone’s roof is one thing but on their bedroom windowsill is a different matter entirely.

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Now if Starlings were rare vagrants from Siberia then birders would go crazy for them, just look that blue sheen. But they were just considered something to photograph whilst we waited for the thrush to appear.

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We did nothing more exciting than watch TV on New Year’s Eve. The planned boat trip around Poole Harbour on New Year’s Day was postponed to the 2nd so we paid a visit to Longham Lakes before the rain set in. The first quality bird of the year was this Great White Egret, one of three that are wintering at Longham. Once a true rarity, there has been a huge increase in numbers in the last few years and now they even breed in Somerset.

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The 2nd was a much better day for our boat trip, kindly put on by our friends Mark and Mo Constantine, but compared to previous years there were relatively few quality birds in the harbour.

IMG_4383 Daniel, Ginny and Chris

There was one last event that fits in with the broad definition of the ‘Festive Season’, the annual bird race. This year I opted to do the race with my three ringing trainees L-R Daniel, Ginny and Chris. I think it would be fair to say that my team has had less birding experience than the members of the other teams, but they did extremely well and we ended up with 117 birds seen/heard during the 12 hours of the race and actually came second out of the four teams participating.

East Anglia and London: 23rd February to 1st March 2016   Leave a comment

We spent a few days in late February at my step-daughter Anita’s place in Maldon, Essex. Regular readers of this blog may remember that a wildlife cruise I had booked around the Russian Far East was cancelled at short notice in 2015. Well I’ve rebooked for this year, so that means a trip to London to be fingerprinted for my Russian visa (even though they have my fingerprints on file from 2015!). Rather than go to London from Poole we opted to wait until we were in Essex as that was a much shorter journey also we could spend the rest of the day sightseeing.

 

 

IMG_3882 The gerkin

We caught the train from Chelmsford to Liverpool St Station and were surprised to find how close we were to ‘the Gherkin’.

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We walked to the Russian visa centre in Gee Street, passing some interesting murals on the way. You have to say one thing about the Russian visa system, once you have spent a day filling in the forms and have actually got to the visa centre, the process only takes a few minutes, so we were done by 0930 and had the rest of the day to ourselves.

IMG_3941 St Paul's

We chose to go to St Paul’s Cathedral which was in within walking distance. This photo was taken later in the day from Ludgate Hill.

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Between the early 7th C and 1666 at least four different St Paul’s Cathedrals stood on the site, the fate of the first is unknown, but numbers two and three were destroyed by fire in 962 and 1087  respectively. This drawing of the old cathedral as it appeared around 1561 was taken from Wikipedia.

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The fourth St Paul’s was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The current cathedral with its iconic dome was built by Christopher Wren starting in 1669 and was consecrated in 1708. The cathedral was almost destroyed when a bomb hit it during WWII. This photo of S Paul’s taken on 29/12/40 by Herbert Mason during the blitz has to be one of the most famous photographs ever taken. Copied from Wikipedia.

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Photography within the cathedral is prohibited so I have taken this photo from www.grouptravelorganiser.com. Looking eastwards from the nave to the choir and the high altar.

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This stunning fish-eye view was taken from www.hdrone.com and shows the dome and the nave.

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It is possible to climb up into the dome and view the ‘Whispering Gallery’ Here you can look down directly into the nave. All sounds from the far side of the gallery are amplified by its curved structure – hence the name. Photo from www.planetware.com

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The spire above the dome is 365 feet tall, one foot for every day of the year. Spreading the load of the dome was a problem, Wren’s solution was to create a dome within a dome supported by the brick cone seen in the diagram. It is possible to continue up from the Whispering Gallery to the lower ‘Stone Gallery’ and then up a narrow spiral staircase between the brick cone and the outer dome to the ‘Golden Gallery’. Picture from Wikipedia.

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One place in the cathedral where you are allowed to take photos. Here the brick cone supporting the weight of the outer dome can clearly be seen.

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At the top of the inner dome you can look through an oculus to the floor of the nave far below.

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From the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery you get a wonderful view over London. Light conditions changed rapidly hence the lack of clarity in some of the following.

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Paternoster Row and the Temple Bar

IMG_3900 The Shard

At 306m The Shard is Britain’s tallest building.

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Unacceptably wobbly when first opened – The Millennium Bridge.

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Looking east towards the Gherkin and other tall skyscrapers. Tower Bridge is just out of sight to the right of the photo.

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Looking north-west to the Post Office Tower.

IMG_3925 The Globe

On the other side of the Thames, The Globe, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s famous theatre.

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The London Eye.

IMG_3928 Templar Chapel

After St Paul’s and some lunch we walked to the nearby Temple Church.

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Whilst hardly matching the magnificence of St Paul’s, the Church has an interesting history. Built in the 12th C by the Knights Templar as their English HQ, in the reign of King John it served as the Royal Treasury, making the Knights Templar early examples of international bankers.

IMG_3938 Templar Chapel

The Knights Templar were originally formed to protect Christian pilgrims on their visit to Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple after the first crusade in 1099 . They grew to be the wealthiest and most influential of the Christian military orders. Although the peak of their power only lasted for 200 years, they bankrolled much of Christendom (inventing aspects of the modern system of banking) and became a feared fighting force in subsequence crusades.

IMG_3939 Templar Chapel

Modern day stories or should I say myths, involve the Templars in the whereabouts of the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and the origins of Freemasonry and they have of course been highlighted in such influential books as the ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’ and the Templar Church itself featured in the film ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

IMG_3812 John, Lois, Gavin

We hurried back to Maldon in Essex as we knew that Anita’s husband John and his brother-in-law Gavin wanted to go out for a drink as it was Gavin (R) and his wife Lois’ wedding anniversary. Some of the pubs in Maldon are more like someone’s front room than a typical boozer.

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This one in particular is smaller than the typical living room, you have to wait for someone to leave before you can squeeze yourself in.

IMG_3944 Blackwater estuary#

On the Saturday I popped out to the nearby Blackwater estuary to do some birding but a strong easterly wind was blowing and it was bitterly cold.

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The tide was coming in pushing the Brent Geese towards to me but they still remained too far away for good photos.

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A flock of Avocets in flight with Black-tailed Godwits feeding on the water’s edge.

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As the tide rose further many of the geese headed for the nearby fields.

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To make matters worse I had left my gloves back at John and Anita’s so when I heard that Margaret and Anita were enjoying tea and cakes at a nearby cafe I abandoned the birds for a bit of warmth.

IMG_3986 Smew female

On Sunday I drove to Abberton Reservoir, a 30 minute drive to the north. I had not expected too much, so I was pleased to see three female/immature Smew.

IMG_3990 Smew drake

We have had a female Smew in Holes Bay near to where I live in Poole but its been a long time since I saw a drake in the UK, well 2004 to be precise.

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The beautiful drakes seldom turn up west of London except in very hard weather when more easterly lakes and reservoirs freeze up, so I was delighted to see two of them here.

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Less exciting was this Egyptian Goose, an introduced species that is slowing spreading westwards from it’s East Anglian stronghold. It is now quite numerous in the Avon Valley on the Dorset /Hampshire border but is still rare around Poole.

IMG_3821 Anita, M, John, Gavin, Lois

So on Sunday evening we said goodbye to the family and headed for Cambridgeshire to stay with my old friend Jenny. L-R Anita, Margaret, John, Gavin and Lois, with me making a guest appearance in the mirror!

IMG_4019 Jennie & Margaret

I have known Jenny since 1972 when she came to Leeds University to study for a PhD. Along with three others we shared a house from 1973-76 and have kept in touch since. Now that we visit Essex on a regular basis, calling in to see Jenny has been so much easier.

IMG_4014 Wicken Fen

Jenny works as a volunteer at Wicken Fen, in Cambridgeshire, mainly doing botanical work and demonstrating wildlife to visiting children The core part of Wicken Fen is a fragment of the original fen habitat that once covered much of East Anglia. With almost all of the fens drained and turned into agricultural land, there is a move now to recreate some large areas of former fen for wildlife. Areas like this on the edge of tWicken Fen have been bought up and are slowly being converted back to their former glory.

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The National Trust has a long term plan to restore an area of fen stretching from Wicken Fen in the north to the outskirts of Cambridge, a distance of 25 miles, although they have set a time span of 100 years in order to achieve that.

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The marshes are grazed by Konik horses from Poland, morphologically and genetically closest to the Tarpan, the original wild horse of Europe.

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Tarpans went extinct in 1909 although they were probably extinct in the wild for some time before that. Their ability to survive unaided in wetland areas and lightly graze the area to deduce invasive vegetation makes them ideal for the recreation of lost fen habitats. As nice as Wicken was, at this time of year it wasn’t great for birds, so after lunch we headed north to the border of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk to look for wild swans.

IMG_4039 Whooper Swans

From wild horses to to wild swans. In the fields around the WWT reserve at Welney large numbers of Whooper Swans and a much smaller number of Bewick’s Swans were grazing.

IMG_4045 Whooper Swans

We used to get flocks of 100+ Bewick’s in Dorset and just over the border in the Avon valley, but these days they are very rare, just one has turned up this winter and that was only after we visited Welney. Whooper Swans have always been rare in the south. All of these birds are the larger Whooper Swans from Iceland with the triangular yellow mark on the bill. The smaller Bewick’s from arctic Russia have a rounded yellow patch on the bill. Bewick’s numbers have decreased noticeably across the UK in recent years, this may be due to climate change allowing them to winter on the (now much milder) continent ,but hunting on their migration routes must be a contributing factor.

IMG_4067 Whooper Swans & Pochards

The Welney reserve is part of the Ouse Washes, a twenty mile long embanked area where water from the River Ouse is pumped in winter to prevent the surrounding farmland flooding. This results in a haven for wildfowl in the winter and grazing marshes favoured by breeding waders in summer. This type of ‘sacrificial land’ could well be adopted in other flood prone areas, rather than the current system of channeling the flood water away ASAP to the detriment of those downstream.

IMG_4056 Whooper Swan

Around the margins of the flood were many Lapwings, Golden Plovers and the odd Ruff, whilst in the open water we saw many Mute and Whooper Swans and other wildfowl.

IMG_4069 Whooper Swan

The triangle yellow patch on the bill which separates this Whooper Swan from the smaller Bewick’s can be seen well in this photo.

IMG_4077 Pochard drake

Among the many ducks on the reserve where good numbers of (mainly male) Pochard. This species has declined in Dorset in recent years, probably because they are now wintering father east than before.

IMG_4085 Mute & Whooper Swans

At 1530 the swans are fed and the Whooper and Mute Swans come right up to the hide giving excellent views. There was supposed to be both White Stork and Great White Egret on the reserve but they could not be found during our visit.

IMG_4095 Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans migrate from Iceland as a family unit and remain together over the winter. Here an adult pair are accompanying their four cygnets (one is out of shot).

We returned to Jenny’s that evening and headed home the following day with nothing more exciting than a Red Kite seen on route. As before our trip to East Anglia was to see family and friends but its great to combine this with birding in this outstanding part of England.


2nd – 7th January 2014 – a bird race that wasn’t and other weather affected events.   Leave a comment

In early January several of us usually do a bird race. The idea is to form several teams of up to four birders and then on an agreed date try to see or hear as many species as you can within Dorset. You can start as early as you like but you have to be at the finishing point by 1830. Bird racing is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. It’s detractors say its not real birding, rushing from A to B seeing each species for a mere second or so; but we only do it one date in the year and its a lighthearted competition between friends that ends with a social gathering to welcome in the New Year. Bird racing involves several skills, not only the ability to pick out birds quickly by eye and ear, but detailed planning to optimise  the route and accurate time keeping to overcome the inevitable temptation of  ‘lets give it another minute or two’ when the target fails to materialise.

The trouble this year is that the weather forecast for the allotted date, the 4th of January, was diabolical and most teams cancelled. Team leader Nick Urch and I opted to try on the 2nd, the only dry day of the week. One of our group had already defected to another team and another was at work so we hastily replaced them with Paul Harvey, my friend from Shetland here visiting his parents and Marcus Lawson who holds the UK winter bird race record of 137 from Kent in 2009. In spite of including these ornithological heavyweights, we didn’t do that well as we had planned to spend the whole of the 2nd and 3rd of January in doing a recce of the route. Starting at 0430 in Poole Harbour we picked up a number of waders in the spotlight beam that would be difficult later due to the tide times, we then went on to get Barn and Tawny Owl but dipped on Little Owl and Woodcock. We arrived at Lodmoor at dawn and were surprised to see the Glossy Ibis that has been hanging around a playing field near Radipole in flight, it must roost on Lodmoor. Visits to Radipole, Portland Harbour and Portland Bill followed but we were already running late so we quickly headed to the Monkey’s Jump area, then Thornecombe Woods and Tincleton Cress Beds before heading to Poole Harbour about midday where we spent the rest of the day.

Although we kept the pressure up and worked hard we only saw/heard 114 species, well short of the Dorset record of 129. We had a lot of bad luck failing to locate common species like Pheasant, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Long-tailed Tit, Fieldfare and Jay but we were hampered by high water levels that caused some species to relocate and the mild conditions that meant some winter birds just hadn’t arrived.

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The only photo taken on the Bird Race. The birders were enjoying the range of divers, ducks and auks in Portland Harbour, whilst the kite surfers were enjoying the continuing gale.

As none of the other teams that usually partake have taken part so far, it can hardly be called a race, a better description would be a ‘big day’ but it was enjoyable all the same. As Shetland in winter has very few species, Paul commented that it was the most birds he had ever seen in the UK in a day, but maths teacher Nick  said that if it was a school report he would have commented ‘tried hard but was let down by a lack of preparation’.

The rest of the week has been hampered by continual heavy rain and high winds which resulted in extensive flooding. North America may be suffering from record low temperatures but here it is a very balmy 12c but very wet as depression after depressing sweeps across the Atlantic. After several attempts I did get to see a Smew that has taken up residence in a flooded field at Lytchett Bay, a bizarre occurrence as it is a diving duck that usually requires deep water, a Yellow-browed Warbler at Studland and a few waterfowl and woodland birds at Blashford Lakes in Hampshire, but access to other areas and other birds has been prevented by closed roads. Even the Baker’s Arms pub which we visited with Paul at Saturday is partially closed due to flooding.

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Leaden skies, wind and rain dominated all week. These fields at Lytchett Bay are usually grazed by cattle, Water Buffalo would be more suitable now.

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You normally come across Smew on a deep gravel pit or a reservoir, but this one is catching fish on a grassy field!

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A female or immature Smew, the so-called ‘redhead’. Photo from grc.forum.blogspot.com

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‘Red sky in the morning, ringers warning’. Surprisingly there was a short weather window on the morning of the 5th and Paul Morton and I tried to ring a few birds in his garden. Due to the mild conditions and the abundance of natural food ,few birds are coming into gardens and our catch of three Goldfinches and a Blackbird confirmed this.

I know I bring this up year after year but the 6th would have been my first wife Janet’s 67th birthday. It’s nearly ten years since she passed away and so much has happened in that time.

Janet Lewis - Hawaii 2003

Lest we forget.

On the 7th I finally had my ingrowing toe nails removed, so that’s me out of circulation until it heals. Lets hope there isn’t anything really rare that needs boots or wellies to get to in the next week or so!

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‘Sticks out like a sore toe’

Posted January 7, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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