31 January 2010

Insomnia has its benefits...

I’m not sure whether I’d had too much fresh air on Saturday morning or whether a couple of beers and a bowl full of Pringles were to blame, but I did not sleep well at all last night. I managed to see every single hour on the alarm clock during the night and by 6:00am I gave up on the idea of sleep and got up, had breakfast and headed off out birding. Overnight there had been another heavy frost and it soon became clear that the council hadn’t gritted any of the roads, it was very icy even on the main roads and dual carriageways.

At just before 7:00am I arrived at Shipley Park and the moment I switched the car off I was aware of a Tawny Owl calling not too far away, a new species for my year list. As I opened the car door a second Tawny called back to the first one, this then set the first bird off again! This carried on for a couple of minutes whilst I was pulling on my coat and walking boots and then, all of a sudden, one of the calls became a lot louder - one of the Tawny Owls had landed in a tree less than 30 feet away! As this point I’d like to thank Leica for making such amazing optics - my 8x42 binoculars were pulling in more than enough light for me to get great views of the owl!

Sunrise over Shipley.

As the sky was now starting to show a little more light I headed off in search of my target species, a Short-eared Owl. The SEO had been reported at daybreak most mornings for almost a week so I was reasonably confident that I’d be able to locate it. The owl had other ideas and didn’t show at all. I did manage to get good views of two more Tawny Owls though, so the morning wasn’t without its highlights. Once it became clear that the Short-eared wasn’t going to show I briefly checked the lake and scrub area around the old American Adventure theme park. In total I managed to record a total of 24 species before heading back to the car.

Although I didn’t make any counts, birds of note included Great Crested Grebe, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Green Woodpecker, Pied Wagtail, Bullfinch and, of course, the 3 Tawny Owls. I was starting to feel the cold, I was tired, but I was also very happy! At 8:45am I was back in the car enjoying the warmth from the heater as I headed back towards home.

As I left Shipley the plan was to drive straight back home and spend the rest of the day inside, perhaps trying to catch up on some sleep. Just a couple of miles from home and I changed my plans. I decided to try, once again, for Whooper Swan at Ambaston. I spent a further hour checking the River Derwent here and still didn’t locate the swans. I’m slowly starting to think that they may well have left the area. Birds I did see included 9 Mute Swan, 4 Goldeneye, 2 Goosander, a male Sparrowhawk, a Buzzard, 1 Snipe, 12 Fieldfare and a Jay.

With the time now 10:00am I was really starting to feel the pull of a warm house and a large mug of coffee, but chose to delay both just a little longer and checked Ambaston Gravel Pit. This proved to be good decision as the very first bird I put my ‘bins on turned out to be a stunning male Red-crested Pochard, another new bird for my “10-Mile List”. I did manage a couple of record shots of the bird but they, unfortunately, didn’t turn out too good. Either I was too cold and shaking the camera or the duck was equally as cold and shaking as much as I was. The result was a number of slightly blurred photos!

Red-crested Pochard.

Sharing the water with the pochard were a Little Grebe, a Great Crested Grebe, 2 Mute Swan, a pair of Wigeon, 2 pairs of Gadwall, 22 Tufted Duck and 60 Coot. A female pheasant was skulking about at the edge of the reed bed, a couple of Black-headed Gulls and 5 Stock Dove flew over. Wood Pigeon, Blackbird, 12 Fieldfare, a Blue Tit and a couple of Magpie were also noted. At 10:45am I set off for home and that mug of coffee, complete with a tot of whisky!

Tawny Owl and Red-crested Pochard move the “10-Mile List” on to 77 species.

30 January 2010

Saturday stroll...

A relaxing morning’s birding kicked-off at Swarkestone Lake today, with a gorgeous, clear blue sky and a light covering of frost on the ground. It was cold, around -4°c, but that was just another plus as far as I was concerned - I’d much rather have a cold winter's day than a very hot summer’s one. Just so long as it’s dry that is!

A frosty approach to Swarkestone Lake.

One of the very first birds I came across was a stunning male Smew. The bird had been around for a few days and was the main reason I’d decided to start the day here. After missing out on this species last weekend I was rather pleased to find this one so quickly. Unfortunately, the bird kept its distance and I was unable to even attempt photos.

Other birds of note, of the 27 species recorded here, included 1 Little Grebe, 2 Great Crested Grebe, 65 Canada Geese, 4 Teal, 92 Tufted Duck and 2 Goosander. Away from the water a Buzzard, 1 Kestrel, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, a few Redwing and 4 Bullfinch were the pick of the bunch. Just a short distance from the lake a group of 64 Greylag Geese were feeding in a field alongside the entrance to the sailing club.

Swarkestone Lake.

A quick scan of the fields and river by Swarkestone Bridge revealed a large herd of swans grazing. The total count was 85 Mute Swan, but not a single Whooper again. I’ve still not given up on finding Whooper within my 10-mile zone but they are proving to be rather tricky so far!

From Swarkestone it was just a short drive to Willington Gravel Pits where I spent a couple of hours just enjoying the day and unwinding after a none-to-enjoyable week at work. A steady stroll along the lane to the viewing platform at the end, an hour or so viewing the two main pits, and the walk back to the car resulted in a total of 46 species, plus one fox.

Flyash Pit, Willington.

Birds noted in the lane included Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Great Spotted Woodpecker, 8 Redwing, 2 Willow Tit, 2 Goldfinch and 4 Bullfinch. A Song Thrush kept me entertained for a while as it smashed it’s way into a snail shell and sightings of Treecreeper and Goldcrest were both noteworthy for this site. The Treecreeper is the first I’ve seen here since 2002 and Goldcrest is a species I only tend to see around once a year on the reserve.

On the water, which is now ice free, were a Little Grebe, 9 Mute Swan, 1 Pink-footed Goose, 74 Greylag Geese, 68 Canada Geese, 2 Shelduck, 60 Wigeon, 1 Gadwall, 30 Teal, 1 Shoveler, 30 Pochard, 12 Tufted Duck, 4 Goldeneye and 8 Goosander. Mallard were also noted but once again I failed to do a count. Birds in flight included 2 Buzzard, 2 Lapwing, a small number of Black-headed Gulls and a single Jackdaw.

Sleeping Wigeon.

The addition of Smew and then Greylag Goose takes my “10-Mile List” on to 75 species.

27 January 2010

Two missed, four gained...

I set out for my morning’s birding on Sunday with just two target species in mind, Whooper Swan and Smew. After 2½ hours moving between various sites in the Trent Valley I gave up, the swans and Smew were nowhere to be seen. The morning did however provide some rather good birding with a total of 52 species being seen.

Highlights from a brief visit to Aston-on-Trent gravel pits were 3 Shelduck, 4 Gadwall, 30 Pochard, 6 Goldeneye, 2 Buzzard and 2 Kestrel, 1 Peregrine and 1 Kingfisher. The three raptor species proved to be the best part of the day with some great views of all 5 birds interacting with each other. Watching the Peregrine being mobbed by the other birds more than made up for the missing Smew!

Next stop was the River Derwent at nearby Ambaston village. Here, I had hoped to catch up with a small group of Whooper Swan that had been in the area since early in the month, again I missed out. My hour-long search wasn’t without some small reward though with 2 Pink-footed Geese, 5 Goldeneye, 2 Goosander, 3 Stock Dove, 6 Pied Wagtail and 80 Fieldfare being amongst the 20 species recorded.

The next hour or so was spent driving slowly around the Swarkestone/Barrow-on-Trent area in search of another Whooper Swan that had been reported, on-and-off, for a few days leading up to the weekend - once again, I failed.

With a little over an hour left before I needed to be heading home for lunch I decided to spend the time birding an area that I hadn’t visited for a number of years, the canal and river at Weston-on-Trent. The mix of habitat here - the canal with it’s wooded banks and the river and flooded fields - gave me a total of 30 species, the highest of the morning. The walk from the church, along the canal and then up onto the bridge over the river, gave close views of Little Grebe, Grey Heron, Tufted Duck, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Marsh Tit and Goldfinch amongst the numerous other more common birds.

Retracing my steps back to the car took a little while longer than the outward walk due to spotting a feeding station placed on the edge of a garden, high up on the wooded bank. In the short time I stood and watched the feeding station a total of 14 species visited it. If only my own feeders were so busy. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Jay all put in an appearance but were overshadowed by two species that were new to my “10-Mile List” this year - a male Brambling and around half a dozen Tree Sparrow. The Brambling was the first I’d ever seen within my 10-mile zone, my first in South Derbyshire and my first in the county for almost four years. Maybe I should get out more?

On the final part of the walk, from the canal back to the car, I came across 12 Fieldfare and 24 Redwing. One last scan over the flooded river revealed a total of 44 Mute Swan - but not a single Whooper!

With four new species located during the morning - Shelduck, Marsh Tit, Tree Sparrow and Brambling - the “10-Mile List” now stands at 73 species.

23 January 2010

Stepping up a gear...

With the milder weather continuing over the past week I’ve been able to up my game a little on the cycling front. Now that the cycle paths are ice-free my average speed, for the daily commute to and from work, has risen from a little over 10mph to almost 17mph and I’ve once again been able to choose my route based on mileage and not safety.

Since Monday morning I’ve covered a total of 80 miles and my mileage for the year now stands at 180 miles, 26 miles more than this time last year. The week hasn’t been without the odd hitch though; on Wednesday morning I had to stop and fix a rear wheel puncture, six miles into a nine-mile commute. The ride home from work today involved having to ride through a flood that was about 30 feet long and 2 inches deeper than I had pedal clearance for. With hindsight, choosing another route may have been easier and would certainly have meant that I didn’t arrive home with two rather damp feet!

All in all, not too bad a week for the cycling, and we didn’t even get the extra snow on Wednesday!

16 January 2010

Riding out the storm...

It’s been tricky at times but I may just have come through the big freeze relatively unscathed! Right now, locally, all the snow and ice has gone and the temperature has reached the dizzy heights of 6°c. And about time too, I reckon. The snow had been fun to ride in but when it all started to turn to sheet ice it took on a rather more dangerous side.

On Wednesday morning the ice caught me out and I found myself sliding down the road on my backside again. Luckily, this time I was moving at a lot slower speed and the fall was rather more graceful and a lot less painful too! Getting back to my feet and then on the bike proved to be a little tricky though as the ice was rather extensive. One lesson I have learnt from this latest fall is don’t tell any one at work! If you do, then expect ridicule!

Someone I work with thinks they're funny!

All the ice has meant that I’ve been choosing my routes to and from work based on safety and not mileage this week, so I’ve only covered 40 miles. With 100 miles now covered since the start of the year I’m a little behind this point last year, but that can easily be pulled back. There’s a long way to go but that 4,000-mile target will be beaten... once we get the heavy snow forecast for next Wednesday out the way that is!

10 January 2010

Ice, snow, bikes and birds...

I don’t know about you but I’m getting just a little bored with the weather so far in 2010. Ice, snow, sleet, slush and even a touch of rain today, I’ve put up with it all over the past week and I’m ready for a change! Problem is, it looks like we’ve got at least another week of it to come. Great!


My cycling year started off steadily and then got even more steady. The roads and cycle paths on Monday, and again on Tuesday, morning were very icy. By Tuesday evening I was cycling home in snow. On Wednesday morning things had deteriorated to such an extent that Lynda didn’t like the idea of driving to work - we both chose to walk.

The walk to work.

Lynda, enjoying the snow!

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday I was back on the bike and actually starting to enjoy the adrenalin rush from riding on packed snow and ice. The minor roads were not so good but the cycle paths were not only smooth but offered a surprising amount of grip from the packed snow. By the end of the week I’d clocked up 60 miles. It’s not my best mileage for a week's commuting but at least I’ve been able to get a few miles under my belt.


This morning I was faced with a decision - get out birding for a couple of hours or stay in the warmth of the house watching the snow fall and the freezing cold wind batter the trees, and anything else in it’s path. I rather enjoyed my walk, even if it was cold and a little thin on the ground bird wise!

As pretty much all still water is now frozen solid in the Trent Valley I decided to spend a little time in search of woodland species. With the roads still not fully free of ice in places I chose to head to Elvaston Castle - it’s close to home and I could reach it easily on roads that had been gritted. In a little over 2 hours of birding I managed to locate a total of 31 species, five of which were new for the year.

Elvaston Castle, and the frozen lake.

With the two lakes being almost completely frozen over, as expected, waterfowl were very thin on the ground with just Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Teal and Mallard being recorded. Sparrowhawk, Buzzard and Kestrel each gave brief views but didn’t hang around for long and the only gulls were a group of 36 Black-heads that were roosting on the ice of the main lake. Robins were much in evidence with at least 12 being noted; no doubt making the most of the food that people put out around the woodland paths here. A number of Redwings also showed well as they feed in small groups around the woods and allowed much closer views than usual. Three Treecreeper were busy searching for food until they all met up on the same tree. They then seemed more interested in the territorial battle that ensued than finding food to help them survive though yet another freezing cold day and night.

On reaching the bridge over the main lake I set up my own mini feeding station for the birds and put out a mix of seed and crushed peanuts. Within moments the birds were queuing up in the trees waiting for me to retreat to a safe distance. In total, 11 species came for food - Wood Pigeon, Dunnock, Robin, Blackbird, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Nuthatch, Chaffinch, Jay and Magpie. A single Goldcrest was flitting around in the trees here and a small flock of Long-tailed Tits moved through without stopping. The nature reserve within the park was a little quiet but it did hold 2 Grey Heron, 6 Teal, a single Kestrel, a pair of Pheasant and 3 Bullfinch.

The nature reserve.

The addition of Coal Tit, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Jay and Nuthatch takes the “10-Mile List” onto 69 species.

Something's out there!

03 January 2010

2010 - Here we go again!

On New Year’s Eve, I posted here that I had not yet decided on my approach to birding in 2010. By the time I’d dragged myself out of bed on New Year’s Day it was all sorted. The “10-Mile List” is underway once again! To anyone reading this for the first time, that means I’ll be recording all the bird species I come across within a 10-mile radius of home, which is on the southeast edge of Derby. Just like the past two years, I expect a good proportion of my birding to take place at Willington Gravel Pits but I’ll also be making the effort to try and get to a number of other local sites too.

The new year kicked off in traditional style, a mid-morning start to the day after the previous evening’s food and drink. Lynda and I then went for a walk around Alvaston and Elvaston to clear our heads, and also to get my bird list underway! By the time we returned home, after a walk of just under 5 miles, I had a year list of 30 species. The pick of the birds seen included 2 Little Grebe and 3 Goosander on the River Derwent, a Sparrowhawk, 30 Fieldfare, 50 Redwing and 2 Goldfinch as we walked through the centre of Alvaston and a Great Spotted Woodpecker as we entered the grounds of Elvaston Castle. Meadow Pipit, Mistle Thrush and Long-tailed Tit were noted close to the new Alvaston by-pass.

The River Derwent.

Walking back towards home gave us an opportunity to check on the progress being made with the new industrial park that is being built alongside the Alvaston by-pass. Although I cycle this route most days it has been during the hours of darkness for a while now. Seeing the site in daylight revealed the progress being made... very little! Apart from a few new access roads, and the associated street lighting and signage, nothing much has happened in the past 16 months.

September 2008.

January 2010.

September 2008.

January 2010. Not a lot changes!

On 2 January I added another four species to the list with Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Dunnock and Jackdaw all being seen from the garden at home.

This morning saw my birding year get into full swing with a visit to Willington Gravel Pits. I was awake by 6:30am, loading my things into the car by 7:30am and in the service area on the A50 eating a full English breakfast by just after 8:00am! In my eyes, there is no better way to start a morning’s birding than with a plate full of sausage, eggs, bacon, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms. Two slices of toast and a large mug of coffee just topped it all off! By 8:45am I was walking down the lane at Willington. The ground had a covering of frost, the sky was a beautiful, clear blue and the temperature was a refreshing -5°c. It had the makings of a nice day!

Breakfast awaits!

After walking just a few feet from the car I had my first new species of the year, a Kingfisher. The bird was perched just a couple of feet above the small stream that runs alongside the lane, looking somewhat put out by the ice that covered it’s hunting grounds. Moments later and it was flying off up stream, no doubt in search of open water and the hope of a meal.

A rather frozen Willington.

Lapwings at Willington.

The gravel pits themselves were, as I expected, rather quiet due to much of the water being frozen over. What was lacking in quantity was certainly made up for by the quality of the birding. Ducks were represented by 30 Wigeon, 6 Gadwall, 10 Teal, 110 Mallard, 4 Shoveler, 4 Pochard, 8 Tufted Duck, 1 Goldeneye and 1 Goosander. A Sparrowhawk, a Buzzard, 2 Kestrel and 2 Peregrine took care of the raptors. The wader list was made up of 700 Lapwing (yes, I did count them all), 49 Golden Plover and 3 Snipe. A Green Woodpecker spent a while perched in a small willow tree in the middle of the reed bed and a Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard calling, but not seen. Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Willow Tit, Reed Bunting, Goldfinch and Bullfinch all added to the interest but couldn’t quite make the cut when it came to trying to pick “Bird of the Day”. The three species I short-listed were Bittern, Pink Footed Goose and Stonechat.

The Bittern really should have taken the award for best bird, but it just didn’t want to show itself well enough! For around half an hour it sat in the reed bed giving us views of it’s bill, head, wing, back and even a leg. It point blank refused to show all of the parts at the same time - a point lost.

The Stonechats, there was a pair, showed very well and in some of the best light I’ve birded in for years. Although they never came overly close, the views were superb both with the bins and the ‘scope. But, they lost a couple of points (one each?) due to them not being the scarcest of birds. Harsh, but true!

So, the Pinkies get my choice as “Bird of the Day”. Yeah, I know, “How the heck?” Well, it was just one of those moments... the weather, the light, the sound, the vision, the unexpected. There were 30 geese and they had formed a perfect V formation, they were heading north-west and so I guess they were moving between feeding grounds on The Wash and the Lancashire coast. The sound of a Pinkie calling is one of the true sounds of winter birding for me and that, added to the perfectly clear blue sky and the stunning light made for a truly stunning sight. For me, at least, bird(s) of the day!

By the end of the morning my “10-Mile List” had reached 63 species but there was the possibility of just one more new bird, Bewick’s Swan. A short journey back along the A50 and I arrived at Church Wilne, a small village between Sawley and Draycott. After a very slow drive around a couple of narrow, and ice covered, roads I managed to locate a small group of swans. Sure enough, there was the Bewick in with about 12 or 14 Mute Swan. Another tricky species safely ticked off.

After just one short walk and a separate morning’s birding the “10-Mile List” stands at 64 species.

"You lookin' at me?"

A rather cheeky fox at Willington!