Average Birding

Coal for Christmas

A low key Christmas is successfully negotiated, and passes without incident. Well, a small incident: I slightly overdo some chips. Oh well.

Pronoun guidance: AB1 overdid the chips; unbelievable. This post covers the events of Winterval 2018 (yes, we're still fighting in the War on Christmas, ho ho ho).

There might be an opportunity to add a final tick or two to the year's total during the post-Christmas family-a-thon. Any visit to Dad gets us in range of Burwell, Wicken and Welney. Attenborough or Church Wilne might turn up something unusual (a shrike, perhaps) too.

It's a Cambridgeshire, er, day after Boxing Day?

We start in Cambridgeshire. A walk around another nameless fen (actually, a heath, Cavenham Heath, to be precise) kicks us off. Nothing but pigs, and one Marsh Harrier. In the warmer months you might find Stone Curlew here, but now? Dead as a doornail. Probably not helped by bringing the entire clan (nearly twenty people) with us.

We try a trip to Burwell the next day. We successfully navigate there along some agricultural-looking roads to find its mostly just a car park rather than an actual reserve. The signs, however, are more promising. There's a group of Red-legged Partridge waiting in a field by the road to the carpark. A giant flock of 150+ goldfinches is assembling in three tall trees next to the car park. This necessitates a lot of time spent ruling that small flitty birds anywhere near the flock are also goldfinches. Grassier fields nearby are grazed by winter thrushes. In general, many, many more signs of life.

We're here for slightly larger fare though. Once we're parked, we cross over a cut (contents: several coots, and two overexcited dogs, intermittently). We stop on the bridge's far end - it provides one of the best viewing angles of the fen.

The fen takes up our entire field of view. Burwell village is just about visible on the far left. A line of trees provides the terminator on the right. Both boundaries are probably a good kilometre away; you'd probably be able to pick out a bird of prey hovering over either, but anything smaller would be invisible. Behind us, the view to the horizon is obscured by a much nearer tree line; beyond that lies Wicken Fen. In summary: much more manageable than Stubb Mill, but still a wide area.

It's not long before Short-eared Owl #1 appears. It quarters the fen, carving up the air. Soon, another joins it. And then two more. They could share, we suppose - a quarter each? Etymologically pleasing, at least. This doesn't convince the birds, who get into multiple two and three way spats over specific parts of the fen, squeaking at each other as they go.

We receive two sets of talkative visitors as we watch. The first is clearly an old hand; he's seen up to twenty(!) SEOs here when it's been good. That must be one heck of a Short-eared Owl fight, given their predilection for feistiness when there are just four here.

The second are less proficient, a couple who are doing an excellent job of not listening to each other (this is obvious to us only as we are ourselves past masters of the technique). They at least agree that a Kestrel is a Kestrel, and not a shorty; not totally hopeless then. We quietly shamble over and point them in the direction of the owls we can still see (one is handily having a sit on a mostly visible fencepost), and the cheer it brings them is a delight to see.

We consider hanging about to wait for Harrier roosting time, but we've further festivities to attend, no ticks are likely, and the shortest circular route we can decipher is at least an hour long. Back to the car; as ever, a good viewing of SEO is all you really need to make a decent day out.

On the way: Welney

We do have some tick opportunities on our transition day. White Stork and Tundra Bean Goose have been reported at Welney. Online sleuthing has discovered a Long-eared Owl roost that may be worth a visit also.

Neither of these excursions is exactly on the way, but each diversion is at most half an hour added to the route we'd be taking anyway. Our first stop is Welney WWT. Actually, it isn't; we spy two serious-looking birders looking seriously from the bridge at Welney village, so we park up there to see if they're on to either of our two targets.

Either we've breached some unknown birder etiquette rule, or these two are antisocial. Our appearance on the bridge is roundly ignored, even after a cheery hello. Hard to know how to proceed when "hello" is blanked. We try instead to work out what they're after by looking where they're looking. Nope, nothing. Even when they're describing a bird in flight, we can't grok precisely where to look, or even what they're looking for. Soon, both agree that it's time to move on; that last flight has probably taken it onto the reserve proper. Aha - a way in! "Ah, did you just have White Stork, then?". The nearer scope-wielder manages to ingest this and reply: "yep; very distant though. We think it might be visible from the reserve now". "OK, thanks - we're heading there now. Good luck", and off we go again.

Welney car park. One AB2 is inappropriately-footweared, and uses it to switch into something a bit more mud-capable. This gives me time to find yet another Great White Egret. What is that, the fifth of the year? The sixth? I've lost count. Clearly a bird on the increase in the UK. This gives us a bit of birding currency; we exchange it for knowledge that the White Stork has been recently viewed from the Southernmost hide of the reserve, and that absolutely no-one has seen any interesting geese. Oh, no, there were some Pink-footed at the North end earlier. Bean goose is clearly another bogey species for the year. "They don't exist. I don't care about them" claims AB2.

We take a brief rest in the large (also, heated) hide and give the horde of wildfowl there a good look at. There's always the possibility of Green-winged Teal, say the pro birders of Welney. Well, yes. It depends on how long you're prepared to look - there are thousands upon thousands of standard Teal to be checked if you accept this mission.

We grudgingly head north to check if we can find the White-fronted Geese. Perhaps they were misidentified. Or just completely imagined; they are absent according to our search, and that of a few others. We perform a u-turn and head South in hope of finding the White Stork. At least that'll be obvious, if we find it.

We've been warned that the path South is flooded and impassable without wellingtons. A brief look at AB2's feet. Walking shoes. My feet: the same. Fortunately, we've been here before, been given the same warning, and know we're able to skirt the flood using the steep bank next to it (the bank survived, no birds were scared, our feet were dry: no harm, no foul). Do not attempt this at home (or with weak ankles).

The hide has two serious-looking birders within. Thankfully though, they are of the sociable sub-species, and cheerfully greet us as we arrive. "Are you looking for the stork?" they ask. "Indeed; have you seen it?" "No, not yet. It has been seen towards the telegraph post over there within the last twenty minutes though." "Alrighty then - we'll get set up and add some more eyes".

This is a much better birding experience - we exchange our Great White Egret knowledge to confirm our credentials "ah, excellent, I'll have a look on the way back" and we are part of the gang. One chap has come a good 100 miles for stork, but has the joviality of someone who has very low expectations; a true mark of experience.

Unsurprisingly, it's the same chap that finds it. His directions are also excellent; we've got the scope on the bird within a few seconds. And, honestly, White Stork is so big, and so white, that once you know where it is, even at range, you can see it without optical assistance.

I've not seen a stork of any variety in the wild before, and this first encounter brings with it several surprises. #1. The brutality of the beak. If you've ever looked at herons and felt mildly frightened, White Stork should have the same effect. The beak is a chunky red dagger of doom. The slightly gothic black eye detail gives the bird a look not of parental affection but of assassin's cool. #2. The flight - it almost looks like a bird of prey. In fact, it gets mobbed by corvids just as a bird of prey would. #3. Did I mention it was big? I mean, it's no Jabiru, but it's on the way.

We spent a while tracking the stork as it makes its way right along the back edge of the water we can see. This temporarily takes it out of view as it goes behind a birchy island. Our long-travelled expert takes his leave "now, here's hoping it doesn't turn out to be an escapee", he utters, on the way out.

We wait enough time for the bird to turn up again, put a couple of new arrivals on to it, and then head back to the visitor centre (once again dodging the flood with great agility) for some lunch. Next stop: Deeping Lakes SSSI.

On the way: Deeping Lakes SSSI

The drive there is a reminder of why I will not be able to live in fenland. There is no relief! The land is pancake flat, as far as the eye can see. The roads often follow drainage cuts (do not drive off the edge) for miles and miles before making abrupt ninety degree turns, or requiring a tight s-bend to hop round a railway.

The arrival at the reserve immediately requires a bit of attention - the track to the car park consists entirely of potholes, finding a smooth path among them for the car is a bit of a challenge. We park up (suspension still intact), take a quick picture of the reserve map, and head out to where we believe the internet thinks we should go - a hide looking out on a tree covered island.

We find the hide and the island. We probably have half an hour of actual light to find an owl. We do not find an owl. A small child briefly barges into the hide making loud noises. This provides some entertainment, at least. A shushing parent then appears; unnecessarily - we are birders, but there are no birds other than pigeons out on that island, from what we can work out, and the Tufted Ducks roaming the water don't appear to be fussed about the interruption.

After a few more false owls, it's basically dark. We give up, and head back to the car. Deeping Lakes Long-eared Owls have defeated us. Although the reserve itself seems most pleasant - we'll definitely drop in the next time we head past... but potentially early in the morning, as that's when I've tended to have better luck finding a napping owl.

We reach our destination, and I start updating the bird spreadsheet to include the stork. The departing remark of the long-distance birder comes to mind, and, just as his and our luck would have it, on birdguides, someone has chimed in that our White Stork is in fact an escaped bird that's been around in the area for most of December. Two days of grey weather bring nothing of note to the Nottinghamshire area, so it turns out that our single Fochabers Waxwing is going to be December's only tick; we reach the end of the year on an entirely satisfactory 214.