Friday 14 June 2024

Harry's Wood, Bedfordshire & Ouse Fen :: 01 June 2024

I've struggled to find any wood warblers this year, and my regular site in the Wyre Forest appears empty, with almost all birders reporting no sightings. So, on Friday night it was good to agree with @kev07713 to visit a site near Corby where an individual had been singing and showing well for a number of days. This male wood warbler had been found in Harry's Park Wood which is an interesting piece of woodland between Corby and Oundle.

It is an interesting forest writes Marian Pipe, a historian, as Robin Hood once had a narrow escape in Rockingham Forest. According to Marian in her book, in part of Rockingham Forest, Harry's Park Wood, there is the Bocase Stone, which is near Brigstock. "It marks the site of an ancient oak tree, which was blown down in a gale in the 17th century". On the path bisecting Bocase Farm and Harry’s Park Wood is a rectangular limestone slab, leaning backwards at 30° and inscribed at the top, in crude capital letters, “In this plaes grew Bocase tree”. The Bocase tree, believed to have been a large hollow oak, stood on the edge of a clearing in Rockingham Forest, marking the intersection of parish boundaries.

This location is steeped in folklore and tales. One story tells of a fairy princess who enchanted an elderly man, temporarily restoring his youth. Other legends suggest that this site was where Saxons gathered to "read out the Bocas Calendar" or where foresters and archers met for practice. The most popular legend, however, claims that Robin Hood used this tree to conceal his famous bow and arrows to evade capture. Who knew!

We would plan to make more of the day, but this would be our first stop, ignoring breakfast to get there early. We parked in the narrow lane and met another birder coming the other way who confirmed the presence and ongoing performance of the wood warbler. We walked down the footpath and even before reaching the left turn, we could hear our bird calling. We entered the trees to find two birders already in position and joined them in enjoying our bird flitting from perch to perch, singing almost constantly. We've never seen a wood warbler quite like it, so confiding and unconcerned in our presence. We snapped photos and Kev took some video on his phone, the bird so close that the magnification of a large lens or scope wasn't required - the sound was terrific.

The wood warbler is a migratory songbird known for its distinctive trilling song and bright plumage; the trilling notes are often described as sounding like a spinning coin. They prefer deciduous woodlands with a good ground cover of brambles and other shrubs where they forage in and within the canopy above, for insects and spiders. Having wintered in Africa, they return to the UK in late April and early May. Unfortunately, this bird is unlikely to encounter a mate in this wood.

Wood warbler
Wood warbler
Wood warbler
Wood warbler
Wood warbler

Eventually we thought we should leave the bird in peace and made our way back to the car, making sure we avoided any outlaws looking to rob us on the way. As we made our way out of the wood and onto the lane we came across a lovely lesser whitethroat, blackcap and a garden warbler – we noted how good a little spot this is. We wondered if it is birded regularly - presumably someone visits given they picked up the wood warbler.

Lesser whitethroat

Looking at where we were, we decided that we'd make our way to a site in Bedfordshire where we were likely to be able to see turtle doves - we hadn't seen or heard of any reports, but the site is generally not publicised and so that wasn't a surprise. We remembered where to park and were soon on the spot where we'd watched from last year. We listened and scanned but couldn't locate our quarry.

The population of turtle doves in the UK has dramatically declined over the past several decades. As of the latest estimates, there are only about 2,100 breeding pairs left, which marks a 98% decrease since the 1970s when there were approximately 125,000 pairs. Despite efforts, the turtle dove remains one of the fastest declining bird species in the UK and it is always special to be able to see them.

Kev strolled along a track, listening for any sign and after a few minutes I followed having failed to find anything in the opposite direction. There were some trees ahead that looked like they needed investigating - we listened, and I turned to look back up the track - a bird flew across between the two treelines that was just the right size, colour and flight. We finished checking ahead and turned back to investigate and soon had a view of a single bird, perched right behind two woodpigeons. We snapped a few photos just in time as one of the woodpigeons hopped directly at the dove, flushing it further along the treeline. We caught up, and passed, having great views of another confiding bird.

Turtle dove
Turtle dove
Turtle dove
Turtle dove
Turtle dove

We spent a while admiring the bird and chatted briefly to three birders that sidled up, before the bird took to the wing and disappeared into a dense area of bushes. We'd had great views, and it was time to leave the bird in peace.

We stopped for some breakfast and planned for our next target - the great reed warbler had been reported again at RSPB Ouse Fen and so we travelled to the car park we'd been to for the singing little crake last year. We stopped for a coffee before realising we were on the opposite side of the site from where the bird was. We drove round and parked in a much better car park. We set out and met a few birders coming the other way who confirmed the bird was there and showing.

The great reed warbler, typically found in mainland Europe and Asia, is occasionally spotted in the UK, although it is a rare visitor. It is one of the largest warblers, measuring about 19-20 cm in length. This would be our third of this species, our first being at Langford Lowfields RSPB in 2022 and another at RSPB Ham Wall in 2023. Ouse Fen is known for its extensive reed beds, providing an ideal habitat for the bird during its migration.

We joined a dozen or so people waiting for a view - the bird having disappeared from view. A few part calls confirmed the bird was out in front of us, but it took a good 20 minutes before we saw it perch at the far side of the front area of reeds. A tick and views but partly obscured for a record shot. We waited after the bird dropped from view and went awol for another 15 minutes or so. It popped up again, further left but still very much on the back side of the front reeds. Again, it dropped from view.

Now we heard the bird again but this time on the front of the back reeds and in better view.

Great reed warbler
Great reed warbler
Great reed warbler
Great reed warbler

At the Ouse Fen RSPB Reserve, the bittern population is doing remarkably well. The reserve has recorded up to 12 booming male bitterns, indicating a strong presence of this secretive bird in the area. This success is part of a broader conservation effort that has seen bittern numbers rise significantly across the UK, with 228 booming males counted during the last breeding season. We saw long flights from distant bitterns as we waited for the warbler, until one and then two birds circled out in front of us. Another bird flew across and so we were sure we had three separate birds.

Bittern
Bittern
Bittern
Bittern
Bittern
Bittern

We returned to the car and looked across the water on the other side of the car park seeing Egyptian geese, redshanks, lots of hirundines, amongst others. A Cetti's warbler called but refused to show. A couple of hares cavorted to our left, one appeared to think it was hiding behind the grass, but it was effectively out in the open.

Hare

Considering the number of hirundines we were surprised not to see any hobbies across the reed beds. A cuckoo called over the fields behind.

It had been a long day, we'd covered a bit of distance around multiple sites, and so it was time to head home after a successful day's birding.

Year list: 208.

Friday 31 May 2024

North Wales & Wyre Forest :: 19 May 2024

Kev was away on a birding holiday in Scotland and so I would be on my own for the weekend's birding. One of our friends Mark Ribbons had suggested joining Kev and I to experience a black grouse lek for the first time, and as it is a difficult trip with three, this was an ideal opportunity to take him. The best time to see black grouse is during their breeding season from late March to May. Also, early in the morning just before and at dawn to witness their lekking behaviour - a top wildlife experience. It is best to arrive at the site before dawn to settle in and minimise disturbance; the birds usually start their display before first light. The females are very elusive and are seldom seen. The nesting period generally starts in late April, with most females on the nest by early May. The exact timing can vary depending on the weather and location; the incubation period lasts about 25-27 days, with chicks typically hatching from late May to early June.

So at 01.20am I was up and preparing to collect Mark from his house at 02.00am - the journey is usually around 2h15m from Banbury at that time of the morning. We stopped just short of the site and got out the car for a swig off coffee and to arrange ourselves in the front and back seats on the right side of the car - with all our kit and provisions beside us to avoid the need to get out at any point. The car would be our hide for viewing the lek from a roadside layby. We'd had a number of pockets of fog along the way, but these had disappeared (thankfully) as we got close to the moors.

North Wales before sunrise

In place we could instantly hear the presence of black grouse as they bubbled and hissed - a cuckoo could be heard calling further along the valley. The light started to rise, and we could see 12 strutting males, fanning their tail feathers, and making bubbling and hissing sounds,then confrontational displays and occasionally physical clashes. Another two cars joined us, but we were in pole position and loving the spectacle.

Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse
Black grouse

After a couple of hours what at first appeared to be a sparrowhawk approached and flew through, scattering the grouse - it quickly became apparent that it was a ringtail hen harrier. It passed through and within about 15 minutes all 12 males had returned to the arena. Initially they seemed to have lost some of their purpose, but in the next 10 minutes they struck up again, tails fanned and picking fights with one another. We picked out a wheatear feeding at distance, and a male stonechat even further away. Meadow pipits and skylarks fed at closer quarters and both a raven and curlew flew through.

Raven
Skylark

A fourth car appeared and partly blocked the track - fortunately for them no one wanted to get through. After another hour we'd seen as much as we could see and edged out and moved the extra car on, our spot being rapidly claimed by the car behind.

A couple of hundred yards ahead we pulled into another layby and got out to stretch our legs after hours curled up in the car. We spotted a red grouse and then a second, but both were restricted in photo opportunities. A couple of curlews fed a hundred meters away. Soon we climbed back into the car and set out to see if we could get some better red grouse views - it wasn't long before I spotted one perched on some heather by the side of the road and we edged to get an angle for photographs. A very confiding bird.

Red grouse
Red grouse
Red grouse
Red grouse

On we went spotting red grouse and meadow pipits as we made our way to a layby by the trees. Last year I'd had seven cuckoos around here and this year managed to see two distant, being chased by meadow pipits as their nests were raided.

Cuckoo

We scanned along the valley and took in the vista - fantastic, and we could still see pockets of mist at the foot of the slopes. We scanned and had good views of male and female stonechats, and a lesser whitethroat that announced its presence by calling loudly. We turned to return to the car and as we did, I spotted a male whinchat on top of a bush, then the female lower down. They flitted around but stayed distant. My previous whinchat this year (at Greenham Common) had managed to escape before I got a photo and so this prolonged view was most welcome.

Welsh moors
Stonechat
Stonechat
Whinchat
Whinchat

We stopped to have our breakfast rolls we'd brought with us and has a wander up a higher track watching whitethroat, willow warbler and chiffchaff sing and flit around the tree line. A mistle thrush also passed through stopping on a more substantial bush out on the moor. Buzzards and a red kite cruised and circled in the distance. Eventually we returned to the car and made our way back along the track, stopping from time to time to watch stonechats and red grouse. On one occasion we were lucky enough to see the whole red grouse family, chicks (3) and all.

Red grouse
Red grouse
Red grouse
Red grouse

We scanned the slopes and Mark came across a buzzard perched in the distance, off to our right. Shortly after I spotted a raptor perched on a post in the very far distance, near a single male black grouse. I was excited for a while as to what it might be but from the photos it appears to be just a very pale common buzzard.

Buzzard
Buzzard
Buzzard

Soon we reached the lekking arena and found that all our males had departed and there was just a single car in residence in the layby, ever hopeful. It was more than five hours since we'd arrived and we decided that we'd drop into the Wyre Forest on the way home - sort of on the way - to add some forest birds to Mark's year list and as Mark is also keen on his butterflies, we'd look for pearl-bordered fritillary. I was also still short of a wood warbler.

An hour or so later we arrived at our usual car park to find it full but there was a space in the lower layby (holds three cars). We ascended the slope and onto the main arterial track through the forest. As we walked, we saw a couple of good candidates for our fritillary butterfly, but they didn't stop, then one did and result. Some may say I don't know my butterflies from my elbow but Mark does, and he pointed out the key features.

Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly
Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly
Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly

We walked on and heard a tree pipit calling to our left and found it atop the same tree as Kev and I had seen it the week before. It stayed put and again I was only able to get a record shot - but a year tick for Mark. A handful of birders stopped to see what we were looking at; one had already picked up the call.

Tree pipit

We stopped again at a spot where I'd seen a pied flycatcher the week before, around a couple of bird boxes and within seconds Mark called a female - result, I hadn’t seen one the week before. It wasn't long until we were joined by a male. Another year tick for Mark - now five for the day. We retuned onto the main track and heard the male pied flycatcher singing above us and to our surprise it flew out from the trees and onto a wire cable running alongside and crossing the path, just as spotted flycatchers do.

Pied flycatcher
Pied flycatcher
Pied flycatcher
Pied flycatcher

We dropped down onto the path leading to Dowles Brook and came across another male pied flycatcher feeding lower down and just to our left - unfortunately sitting in challenging light for photos but great to watch. It stopped there for a minute or so and then set off again, as they often do.

Pied flycatcher

We continued down to try and find a dipper - another species that would contribute to Mark's year list - and it was Mark that spotted one preening at the foot of a tree on the edge of the brook. We watched and it continued to preen and stayed put, while we moved on. By the bridge across the brook, I was able to spot another in exactly the same spot as the previous week.

Dipper
Dipper

We continued back to the car and ate a late sandwich lunch. before setting off for home. It had been a great day and special to see a black grouse lek, one of nature’s true spectacles.

Mark and Kyle

Year list: 205.