Monday, 13 June 2016

MULL 2016

 On Friday 7th May Carol and I set off for our annual visit to the Isle of Mull in Scotland. We stayed in the small Hamlet of Knock in the centre of the island just outside the small village of Salen.

 The river Ba runs through Knock and the small amount of through traffic is carried over the river by an old stone hump backed bridge. In previous years we've watched Dippers from here as they carried food to their nest hidden among the tangle of roots and stones along the river bank. This year we were considerably earlier than usual and I think this is a pair still in the throes of courtship. 

 We struggled to find them after this, maybe they were nest building somewhere else along the river this year.

 It goes without saying that the weather in the Northwest of Scotland can be unpredictable, if not downright horrible. This year though, our luck was in and the sun shone bright and hot almost from the start. Even this Chaffinch, just along from our cottage, was pleased about it and took in some rays, seemingly oblivious to our presence. 

 Eager to take advantage of the good weather we booked a boat trip to Staffa and Lunga on the Treshnish Isles for our first full day on Mull. Our pick up point was the tiny harbour at Ulva and luckily we had enough time to stop en route along the shore of Loch na Keal to watch this superb White-tailed Eagle soaring against the blue sky. Sorry it's a bit distant but it does set the scene. 
Staffa is the smaller of the two islands and is home to Fingal's Cave, famous for its fractured columns of Basalt rock and Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture' which was inspired by his visit there in 1829. 

There wasn't too much to see on this small island but the views are terrific and it's always nice to see Eider ducks, even if they are a bit sleepy.

Next stop was Lunga and a spot of Puffin therapy. On the way though, we made a short diversion to see a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins after a tip off from the skipper of another boat. This was a brilliant and exciting few minutes of wildlife magic as the Dolphins surrounded our boat and rode the bow wave so close I could have reached out and patted them. The only slightly cropped picture below makes my point.

And so to the island of Lunga where the Puffins welcomed us with open arms.

It's very easy to get carried away by these charming little birds and indeed we did, spending too much of our limited time on the island with them.

I've limited my self indulgence to just three Puffin pics. Here are just a few of the other inhabitants of the island further down at Harp Rock.



Great Skua, aka the Bonxie

Did I mention Puffins? I think they were sad to see us go.

Sunday, 3 April 2016


It's been a couple of months since I last posted about New Hythe Lakes. To be honest there wasn't much happening as Winter drew slowly to a close. But now things are changing and on a warmish, bright, last day of March, Spring seemed to have arrived at the lakes.
I hadn't seen a Water Vole for some time in the narrow ditches that skirt the east and west scrubs. So I was really pleased to see this very young individual feeding in the edges and showing little concern about the humans and dogs who passed by every few minutes. 

On the bird front, things are changing too with the arrival of the first Summer migrants, notably the Chiffchaffs. There have been a few on site right through the Winter but now numbers seem to have risen and the air is full of their monotonous but very welcome song. More melodious was the first Blackcap song of the year from the individual below who was singing from the area around the NW corner of Brooklands lake. Further round the lake, close to the NW corner of the sunken marsh, was where a Ring-necked Parakeet flew by me and over bucket wood. That was a surprise and although not a site tick, was only my second ever in the area. Buzzards deserve a mention too. I lost count of how many I saw that day, but a minimum of nine in the air all at once was bordering on a flock. Good to see, even without all the other individuals and pairs and trios also drifting over during the morning. 

Yesterday morning I got a text from Glenn to sat he'd just had a probable Short-eared Owl from bucket wood. This has now been confirmed by his own pics that he managed to take and is a great record for the site, especially as it came across the river and over to the sunken marsh. Am I jealous? I sure am. That's why I visited this morning in the very faint hope that it would return. Of course it didn't, it was probably just passing through. But I did manage to find my first Sedge Warbler of the year, singing intermittently right alongside the Blackcap who was also still in full voice.  

On the first of October 2015 I drove down to Dungeness to see and take some pics of the Firecrests and Goldcrests who had arrived to spend the winter here and were feeding up before dispersing into the wider countryside (including New Hythe as it happens).  On the first of April 2016, exactly six months later I went back down to Dungeness to see their return.  

I was a bit late to see them in the numbers that were there a few days earlier but I probably got to see half a dozen or so as they fed incessantly, along with a few Goldcrests.

Unfortunately the sun shine was a bit patchy and the breeze didn't help, but I was quite pleased with some of the pictures that I managed to take when they stopped for half a nano second!

Here's a Goldcrest who wasn't too shy.......

.......and here's another who was.....

.....and here's another who looked a bit odd posing on the grass.

The RSPB reserve was a bit quiet. I did spot this rather distant Gt White Egret. But apart from that it was mostly Reed Buntings really. Although just before I reached the approach to Dengemarsh hide a pair of Bearded Tits flew straight over my head. Somebody a bit sharper than me (no pun intended) might have got a quick shot of them, but my 'birds in flight' skills are notoriously poor. Must try harder.

I don't know who was more surprised when this Stoat ran across the path in front of me and disappeared into a patch of Gorse. When I tried to call it back it surprised me again by popping up behind me. Just as well I wasn't a Vole in distress or I'd have probably been lunch.

Anyway, realising he'd been duped, he left the scene double quick. 'A clean pair of heels' I think this is called.

On my way round the reserve I'd heard and seen a few Marsh Frogs. And at first I thought this was one. But it was crossing a wide track away from the water and it was walking, not hopping. Must be a Toad then..........

Friday, 18 March 2016


Calm, sunny mornings are about as rare as hen's teeth lately. So when one dawned last Thursday I headed to Elmley for a slow drive up the track and an even slower walk down to the hides. 

The Redshanks were very obliging and I stopped a few times to snap them in the nice light as they fed along the margins of the various new scrapes either side of the track. 

Lapwings called and displayed all around, and a single Black-tailed Godwit and a few Curlews stabbed the grass in search of food like the Redshank above, Skylarks sang unseen, high against the sky, Buzzards circled on the thermals, a Sparrowhawk and a couple of Kestrels were all searching for their next meal and a couple of Marsh Harriers showed more than a little interest in each other. The male, below, often flying low over a particular area of reeds where the female called to him constantly. 

My plan to walk to the hides however, was thwarted when I happened upon a young man who had broken down along the track. It turned out to be my nephew. Isn't life strange sometimes. Unsurprisingly, he was a bit pleased to see me. I borrowed some jump leads from the farm buildings but they failed to get him mobile again. So it was off to Sittingbourne to buy a new battery which got him going but left me without enough time for my walk.

As I sat in the car deciding what to do next this Brown Hare appeared, possibly one we had seen earlier while sorting the car. I was able to get some half decent views and at one point watched as it appeared to practice its boxing skills.

I stayed put for some time after the Hare had disappeared and after a while another, or the same one, suddenly appeared in the grass right alongside the car. I managed a couple of close ups before it crossed the track in front of me, so close that I couldn't see it over the bonnet of the car. A good Hare day indeed.

I bought a new lens this week, it has more reach than my other one so a trip to Dungeness with Alan Roman the following day gave me a chance to try it out.

To be honest there wasn't much to point it at. But these Common Gulls sitting on posts near the dipping pond on the RSPB reserve were obliging enough to be my first targets. Unfortunately the Long-eared Owl was either absent or sheltering further back in the trees to keep out of the bitter wind.
On the main lake most of the birds were sheltering in the lee of the wind over on the far bank. But we did see several Goldeneyes and a drake Smew accompanied by three females.

On the way to Denge marsh hide we spotted this ragged Peacock butterfly, my first of the year and a welcome taste of things to come. The only surprise from the hide itself was the arrival of seven Barnacle Geese, nice to see whatever their (dodgy) provenance. We tried the mound but the evil NE wind quickly got the better of us and we retraced our steps back to the visitor centre. The return trail is still shut due to flooding. The surprise of the day happened just as we approached Scott hide....

...a Badger crossed the path in front of us and ran up the bank to the right of the hide. It stopped at the top and turned to look back for a couple of seconds. Having decided it didn't like the look of us it ran back down the bank, across the front of the hide and over the shingle to the lake side.

I have never seen a Badger out in broad daylight like that and maybe never will again. The thing that struck me, looking at the hastily taken pics, especially the top one, was how Bear like it looked as it ran away.

From Dennis's hide these gulls were having an almighty bust up. Other birds gathered around the fight. Their screeching and squawking reminiscent of the playground punch ups of old when all the kids would gather around shouting 'fight, fight,' as a couple of boys (or girls) wrestled on the ground. It probably wouldn't happen now.

At one point they appeared to be trying to drown each other. But after what seemed an age they broke up, only to begin all over again a bit further out in the lake.

A brief stop at the ARC side produced a very distant Gt White Egret, a singing Chiffchaff, a solitary Tree Sparrow and a Goldcrest.

Friday, 12 February 2016


 A last minute, weather related decision saw myself and Marianne, whose super Wild Side blog can be visited here, heading for the Isle of Sheppey. 
Sheppey is a great birding area and there were several different locations on our agenda for the day. After some deliberation and at least one u turn involving both Sheppey bridges, we decided on a drive up and down the Elmley track, or a car safari as it's sometimes called. We hoped for Brown Hares, maybe a Merlin, or possibly even a Hen Harrier. None of these species were seen, but more on the Hen Harrier later!

The first bird we did see was this super Little Owl who watched us intently, with suspicion and a little curiosity, in true Little Owl fashion. He sat on the side of a farm building at the entrance to the reserve as if he owned the place, which of course he does, and soon after we had taken a quick snap he disappeared inside. We hoped we would see him again on the way back.

We did expect to see Lapwings and we certainly weren't disappointed on that score. The morning sun lit their plumage nicely and some males were practising their best courtship moves; heads down, tails in the air showing off their orange-brown rump, they know how to impress the ladies.  There had been a hard frost the night before and some of the scrapes were covered in thin ice. Those that weren't were hosts to Coots, a few Ruff and a solitary Common Snipe. 

 There were a couple of pairs of Stonechats present along the track and this female obliged by perching fairly close by and on my side of the car. I assured Marianne that it would be there for her on the way back. Which of course it wasn't.

 I've said it before and i'll say it again; there is no other song which reminds me more of summer than that of the Skylark. They sang all the way along the track and i've no doubt that with the windows shut, the sun shining and eyes closed you would have thought it was summer. I didn't shut my eyes and the windows were open and it was quite chilly. But you get my drift.
Several Marsh Harriers were criss crossing the marsh in search of prey and in the distance two Buzzards circled low, wings outstretched but appearing to struggle to find the lift to carry them higher.

As we approached the exit from the reserve we could see the Little Owl perched on the side of his barn. But as we approached he got shy and retreated inside and out of sight. We waited for a couple of minutes and curiosity got the better of him. A quick shot and then we left him in peace.

 Our next destination was the Capel Fleet raptor viewpoint. But disappointingly the raptor's viewpoint was that they'd rather be elsewhere most of the time we were there. Fortunately the reedbed in front of the mound provided ample entertainment in the form of Bearded Tits who pinged temptingly from deep within and only allowed the briefest of views as they moved quickly from one stand of reeds to another identical stand of reeds, for whatever reasons that these nice little birds decide to do this. Cetti's Warblers, Reed Buntings and strangely, a Robin seemed to be the only other occupants. Apart, that is from a Water Rail which stepped out and began to preen in front of me. I was so surprised that instead of lifting my camera, I called to Marianne (too loudly) and it shot back in the reeds leaving her with a fleeting glimpse of its tail and me with no picture.
 A little later, from the mound we did see a couple of Marsh Harriers and a couple of Buzzards. And then we both heard the unmistakeable call of Ravens and eventually spotted them on distant fence posts, too far away for even a record shot.  

And so to Minster. Don't you just hate crowded beaches.
We were here to try and see the long staying Shore Lark, but the first things to look at were the waders, lots of them, including, Dunlins, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers and Sanderlings all pushed higher up the shingle by the rapidly rising tide. 

Two other birders told us they had been watching the Shore Lark right where we were standing which was good as it is a fairly long stretch of shingle and it's just a small, well camouflaged bird. As we spoke it dropped in a few yards away but before we could say yippee, it was gone, seeming to fly away across the road. While we watched and waited for it to come back Marianne found several Med Gulls flying along the shore, frustratingly for her, each one was flying away from us offering rear view pics only, it's never easy is it. 

Eventually the Shore Lark returned and we spent some minutes in its company as it fed non stop among the shingle. The two pics above show the bird standing still and alert after a passing wader sounded an alarm call. It was a false alarm.

Our final stop was Shellness car park where we hoped to see another long staying Sheppey bird, the Richards Pipit, which I believe is over wintering for the second year?

We made our way along the raised, grassy sea wall where said Pipit resides when all of a sudden I saw a bird, low over a field in front and to our right which turned out to be a male Hen Harrier. We were both amazed and delighted to see, for me anyway, one of our most exciting and most endangered Raptors. I only usually see these after a 600 mile trip to the Isle of Mull. So to see one here on the island in Kent was a real treat.
I'd like to say that we then found the Pipit, but we didn't, you can't have everything and there was still time to come back before it leaves these shores. And anyway, the White-fronted geese grazing on the marsh and a probable Peregrine, or maybe two perched on a post in the distance helped to ease the disappointment. 

Time was getting on, but we still wanted to get to Shellness beach to see the waders there, so we made our way, with some difficulty along the flooded path (it was a very high tide) to the shore, watched over by this Kestrel, which if it had lips would have been smirking i'm sure. I did have a pair of wellingtons in the car and suggested that we wear one each and hop across, but this proved unnecessary in the end. 

It was bitterly cold on the edge of the Swale and I didn't envy the small birds like this Turnstone who followed the now receding tide to find a last minute meal before the long winter night arrived.

But the stars for me were probably the Brent geese, I don't get to see them very often and they seem so much smaller and much more elegant, not to mention less raucous than the Greylags and Canada Geese that populate the inland freshwater lakes where I spend much of my time.

As the Brents flew over in never ending skeins, to wherever they choose to roost, and the light started to fade as the sun dipped below the horizon, we left for the car park. It had been a super day birding on Sheppey and I had added some excellent birds to my floundering Kent list. Even the crater ridden (pot hole just doesn't do it justice), Shellness track didn't seem so bad on the way back.