Friday, 28 December 2012

My top 3 birds of 2012

Looking back over my birding year and trying to pick three personal favourite birds wasn't an easy task, not because there was so many to choose from, more because making my top three took more than just rarity value, other considerations had to be taken into account - location, views, and the whole birding experience on the day.

Before revealing my top three here are a few birds who made my shortlist but didn't quite make this years podium - a bit biased towards the south-east side of England but still not a bad collection!

  • Desert Wheatear: Worthing - a cracking confiding male along the promenade
  • Baillon's Crake: Rainham - it took me three attempts but great views in the end
  • Little Bittern: Rickmansworth - two attempts this time, but again stunning views
  • Buff-bellied Pipit: Queen Mother Reservoir - more amazingly close views 
  • Melodious Warbler: Leyton - a truly urban setting for this displaced Hippolais Warbler
  • Blyth's Reed Warbler: Warham Greens - not the best views or looking bird but an extraordinary song from this singing Spring male
  • Snow Buntings: Salthouse - a big single flock of over 100 birds in off the sea
  • Bonaparte's Gull: Barking Bay - this diminutive Gull was another first for London

In 3rd place and just pipping the Desert Wheatear into Bronze medal position was the Short-billed Dowitcher at Lodmoor. Having driven for over three hours to be on site for first light, this bird showed and performed amazingly well (despite hearing it could be difficult) in perfectly still conditions in the bright early morning light of Autumn.


In second place and picking up a well deserved if not slightly biased Silver was the Wryneck I found on Wanstead Flats - seeing other peoples birds is OK but finding your own is surely what it's all about! This bird stayed loyal to the small group of Hawthorn bushes in the SSSI area for six days - elusive at times but giving rewarding views to many who persevered and was joined by a Common Redstart and a Pied Flycatcher at one stage only adding to Wanstead's draw at the time.


In this years prime position and the 2012 Gold medallist just has to be the Spring adult Cream-coloured Courser - what a bird, what a setting! This near mythical bird was the perfect 5 out of 5 Chili's for me! There may well be one or two other records in the next decade but I doubt there will be another adult spring bird for a very long time and sharing that experience with Jono, Shaun and Tim in the evening sunshine on the hilltops of Herefordshire will live long in the memory - which is why the CCC earns its rightful place for me on top of this years podium.

Gold - pure, pure gold

You may have a differing opinion or have seen better birds but that's what makes birding the great hobby it is...experiences and opinions! 

Have a great bird-filled 2013 and if it's half as good as 2012 we are all in for a cracker!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Meopta MeoPix iScoping Adapter - Part 2 review

As promised here is part two of the review - The Field Test

The set-up: Swarovski ATM 80 scope with a 25-50w angle lens with Meopta MeoPix iScoping adapter and iPhone 4S.

The series of four images below of a Grey Heron (an easy subject which comfortably fills the frame) were taken early morning on a bright day at a distance of 15-20 metres and are an example of what can be achieved with the set-up. Overall the images are relatively sharp with a little bit over exposure in the whitish-grey area around the head and neck of the Heron - due in part to the low level of the Sun on the subject.

  • The first image has been taken at x25 magnification and shows the dark edges or vignetting which can occur.

  • The second image is the same as the above but has been cropped using the iPhone's software to loose the vignetting.

  • The third image is at x50 magnification without the need for any cropping.

  • The fourth image is at x50 magnification and cropped slightly.

As you can clearly see the results are quite impressive and remain sharp even at x50 magnification and some additional cropping. They are more than passable for anyone who wishes to post images on-line or just for your personal records.

Conclusion: As previously mentioned in Part one of the review the idea behind the adapter is not to replace or supersede any DLSR camera and lens set-up, as the photographic results are not comparable, but instead to use as part of your birding experience in the field - especially if you are already carrying a scope and Smart phone. The build quality and fit of the adapter are excellent and at less than £50 has been priced competitively without the need to bust open the kiddies piggy bank or feel like you've wasted a fortune if you upgrade your phone.

Overview: This lightweight and portable birding tool will surely became part of most birders natural set-up and for anybody who has been thinking about digi-scoping I would happily recommend the Meopta MeoPix iScoping adapter to enable you to capture that moment you previously thought was just a memory - you can't fail to be impressed with resulting images. And for anyone who hasn't yet experienced the joys of wildlife photography this could open your eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.

The Cowboy Birder rating of 4.5 out of 5 Chili's.

Friday, 14 December 2012

London's very own 'Buff-bellied Pipit'

All week the weather has been cold and sunny, but the day I get to go birding the heavens open - oh well it's still good to get out!

News of a relatively close (not Scillies or Shetland) Buff-bellied Pipit showing extremely well on the west side of London on the margins of Queen Mother Reservoir, had me circling the M25 in what were treacherous driving conditions. Just over an hour later and having survived that roller coaster thanks in main to some go-cart style driving and Heart FM Christmas tunes on the radio keeping me nice and relaxed, I was at the entrance to the Sailing club being courteously greeted on arrival by Mr LGR Evans who was putting in a shift on the gates and collecting £2 for the day permits - small price to pay for a quality bird.

Having reached the banks of the reservoir it was obvious by the small distant crowd that the bird hadn't yet done a bunk, I was surprised by how much further round the reservoir the bird was - usually I wouldn't mind the walk but with today's weather not improving it was a case of head down and onwards, all the time trying to protect the optics from the elements.

I wasn't to be disappointed and the views of this North American Pipit for the next hour were crippling, no need for a scope today or even a pair of bins as the bird showed to within 10ft, continuously hugging the bank of the reservoir, always on the move, never stopping - it definitely kept me on my toes and the small group of birders following its movements.

The only downside was trying to capture that pin sharp image that every photographer craves for, made more difficult by the weather, poor light and the incessant movement of the bird - better photographs by better photographers are probably to be had, especially if the bird sticks for the next few days, but here are a couple of OKish ones from me of London's first ever Buff-bellied Pipit.

I had hoped to see Red-necked Grebe or Long-tailed Duck whilst on site but to be honest I was happy to head back to the dryness of the car and a few more of those wonderful Christmas songs!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Meopta MeoPix iScoping Adapter - Part 1 review

That's some title - to you and me that's phone scoping!

With the ever increasing popularity of photography and blogging as part of most birders make-up the chance to add to the tool kit without breaking the bank has come in the form of a lightweight piece of moulded plastic - just in time for Christmas. As someone who already carries a DSLR camera and lens around but at times needs a bit more reach for that distant Wader on the foreshore or Grebe on a reservoir - this could well be the answer. There is many a time I can think of when I've tried to balance my iPhone on the end of the scopes eyepiece in hope of recording a photo of a bird - which ended in either a terrible photo or nothing at all because the bird had flown before I found that all important pin point alignment.

The MeoPix iScoping adapter from US company Meopta has been designed and created as the perfect tool for you to carry in conjunction with your Scope and Smart phone - I might add at this point the model I purchased is compatible with a Swarovski 25-50w eyepiece and a iPhone 4/4S. 

I've been aware of Meopta's phone scoping capabilities in the US for about a year now but it was at this years Birdfair 2012 at Rutland when I first got the chance to have a look at the product in the hand and try out the tool in the field, with surprisingly good results. Since then (August) I've been waiting for this product to hit the shops in the UK. Then news reached me that the guys at CleySpy Norfolk had them in stock - a quick phone call later and £49 lighter in the pocket and the item was on its way to me in the post.

First impressions were very good, nicely packaged with quick and easy instructions to get you started straight away and because the adapter is made of plastic it's very light, making it easily portable in a jacket pocket without the worry of thinking about having to lug another piece of equipment around all day in the field, but on the flip side this may make the adapter more susceptible to breaking if used heavy handedly or even accidentally sat on - only time will tell.

The iPhone slides effortlessly into the holder, firmly holding the phone in position without the slightest chance of any movement, with easy access to all the icons on your screen, the camera and its settings. The adapters housing is then pressed snugly over your eyepiece, and as the surround of the eyepiece is rubber, the grip and position feel firm - I would happily carry it in this position out in the field safe in the knowledge it wouldn't detach - although taking a private phone call would be interesting! It's worth checking the circular attachment which connects to your scope is fully pressed into position, if not the images will show dark edges or vignetting - these can be cropped using the iPhones own software if necessary. Once in position you are ready to photograph or maybe video at your leisure, focusing on the iPhone is quick and finer adjustments are made to the focus of your subject on the scope itself as you would normally.

The quality of the images are never going to compete with any DSLR camera setup but at 8 megapixels and a magnification of up to x50 on my scope I was more than happy with the resulting images (read Part 2 of this review to see those). I basically now have a handy long lens at my disposal without the huge cost or the additional weight of a large telephoto prime lens.

To remove the adapter from the scope you simply pull it off, although I found a small half twist as I pulled the best way to do this quickly and without putting any additional pressure on the adapter - with more force this could possibly snap breaking the plastic housing.

Read part two of the review next week - The field test and discover how this product rated on 'The Cowboy Birders' Chili Rating.

Click here: Part Two of the review

Monday, 3 December 2012

'TOWIE' Waxwings

After hearing eight Waxwings had been seen in Buckhurst Hill just down the road to where I live - it would have been rude of me not pay them a quick visit! So late in the afternoon and with the light starting to fade I dashed to the location and quickly found them silhouetted high up on a Poplar tree.

Thankfully they did come a bit closer to feed on the last of the remaining berries to enable me to get a couple of half decent photos in low light levels, I counted 14 birds in total before they flew off - probably into some lucky locals garden.

Based at their current location and with immaculate looking crests, guyliner and buffy orange tans - these little stars wouldn't look out of place on an episode of TOWIE!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Bombycilla Rainhamus

A Friday afternoon visit to Barking Bay was somewhat spoilt by misjudging the high tide by around an hour! Thus ruining any hopes I had of seeing a few waders feeding on the last of the exposed mud - scant consolation were five Snipe flushed from the edge of the saltmarsh, so I decided to give the surrounding scrub a bit a of a bash.

Circling the scrub it was evident winter Finch numbers were looking healthy with over a hundred flighty Linnet in the area joined on the periphery by a couple of calling Redpoll - all of which were being kept on their toes by a rather striking male Sparrowhawk.

I hadn't seen a great deal else when I received news of a Waxwing just down the road at Rainham Marsh feeding on the Hawthorn berries adjacent to the RSPB visitors centre, having not seen any locally this year as yet I was on site within 15 minutes and greeted at reception by Mr Vaughan who directed me straight onto the bird - magic! It doesn't matter how often or how many of these birds you see they simply ooze star quality.

I timed my arrival perfectly and managed to get a couple of phone scoped images before the bird flew off but judging by the number of berries around the car park and woodland area I'm sure a few more of these winter favourites will arrive in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland

There is definitely something quite special about Bird Observatories... or maybe it's just me?

As a young birdwatcher in my teens with no real cash or means of transport other than trying to persuade my dad to give up his Saturday to drive me and usually a mate to some far flung coastal location in search of new birds - Bird Observatories became the answer to my problems!

Ob's were typically found in great locations on obscure peninsular's and back in the day they were great value to stay in - all I had to do was get there! They gave you the chance to mix with like minded people who were always vastly more knowledgeable about birds than you were, and someone was usually on hand to I.D a distant Finch or put a name to a flyover Pipit or Bunting call you didn't recognise, which helped to advance and add to your own set of birding field skills. I always enjoyed observing and assisting with the bird ringing under the guidance of a BTO trained ringer, watching the birds being processed and seeing them in the hand at close quarters, learning about ageing and sexing of different species, moults and trying to understand wing-formulae (I still haven't mastered it) - whilst always hoping the mist nets would produce something a little bit special! Lastly it gave me the chance to ultimately see new birds I wasn't familiar with back home, all this whilst experiencing and observing bird migration in full throttle (my visits were always planned in the spring or autumn), that's not to say some visits were somewhat flat with no movement or birds to speak of - but that's birding!

The evenings were also entertaining with the chance to go down to the local pub with whoever else was staying at the Obs - even if I might have been just under the legal age to drink! Listening to stories of great autumn falls and passed rarities whilst getting an early taste for the local Ale - and then you would get up at first light next morning with a slightly fuzzy head (no change there then) in anticipation of what birds had arrived in the area overnight on the back of some favourable weather conditions and the merest hint of an easterly wind (you always prayed for an easterly - well I did)...and at my age then, all this stuff seemed quite magical.

It's been along time since I've stayed in a Bird Observatory but by all accounts they haven't changed too much - if anything the accommodation has vastly improved, with Fair Isle leading the way if the pictures are anything to go by (more Hotel than Hostel these days) - I'm yet to visit the 'magic Isle'...but I'll get there one day!

So for any young birder or for that fact any birder worth their salt and wanting to improve their knowledge of birds, I whole heartily recommend the Observatory experience - just as a day trip or even if you stay for one night!

If you are interested? There is a tab at the top of the blog Bird Observatories of Britain and Ireland with a map and all the information and links you need to help you decide which of the 19 Observatories of Britain and Ireland you might like to visit...start planning your trip for next year now - I am!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Hooded Merganser - plastic?

It's not every day you find a 'rare' duck on your local body of water - and a female Hooded Merganser no less! Shame this particular rare duck was just an escape, which I've learnt has been knocking around Connaught Water, Epping Forest and one or two other sites in the area for at least a year.

Still - there's no shame in enjoying the qualities of the bird, especially as this individual was acting like a wild bird and not the least bit interested in the bread my son was feeding to the other ducks and geese...mmm - I'd better just run the 'Wildfowl Origin' test to be on the safe side!

Wildfowl Origin test
1. Bread test...Pass
2. Time of year...Pass
3. Rings - None...Pass
4. Birds general condition...Fail (the bird is a corker and doesn't look like it's just flown the Atlantic on the back of hurricane Sandy!)
5. Any reports of an escaped bird from a local collection...maybe ;-)

3.5 out of 5 not bad!!

With only five previously accepted records of this American Sawbill and a sixth record this year in Kent at Whetsted currently under review by the British Birds Rarities Committee, the chances of this bird actually being wild is virtually none...oh well! But just to add a little spice into the equation 'Rare Bird Alert' have been reporting another bird at Pagham Harbour in West Sussex today - could this be the start of an unprecedented influx??

...just an after thought, does an escaped bird ever stop being 'plastic'?

This bird has obviously survived a least one British winter without any outside assistance and was regularly diving for food and fending for itself when I was watching it...this bird is basically wild then! But to answer my own question, unfortunately its 'origins', which matter most, let it down!

Monday, 5 November 2012

The arrival of winter in North Norfolk

North Norfolk - there's no better place to spend half-term with the family. You definitely don't go for the weather at this time of year but if you're lucky and get a couple of cold, crisp, sunny days it can be quite magical!

My young boys love exploring the wild beaches on its coast line, Mrs B appreciates the farmers markets and fresh local food on offer and dad enjoys the beer and of course the birds! What better time to visit than the end of autumn and the start of winter with the mass arrival of all those wonderful winter birds.

Apart from over indulging on the great food, beer and cosy log fires (old git) we did manage to visit a few of the usual birding haunts, whilst discovering one or two decent birds along the way...

Wells Wood - Waxwing circling and trilling over the woods, Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Coal Tit and good numbers of Goldcrests and Redwing amongst the pines.

Salthouse - I missed the Shore Lark but did see my biggest single flock of Snow Buntings with over a 100 birds flying in off the sea, going west towards Cley. The sea also held Red-throated Diver and Guillemot both hugging the shoreline with close views.

Titchwell - highlights on a miserable day weather wise were three Bramblings on the RSPB feeders (it should be a good year for seeing these birds, with excellent numbers already streaming onto our shores from further north, with every chance of one or two birds showing up in a few lucky gardens as the winter progresses). Big flocks of Pink-footed geese flew over the reserve and up to 100 Golden Plover circled the fresh marsh, and with winter numbers of wildflowl starting to build up particularly impressive were the Northern Pintail. The reed bed held up to three Marsh Harriers, pinging Bearded Tits and a couple of noisy Cettis Warblers.

Holme Dunes/Gore Point - Sanderling in their wonderful white winter plumage ran up and down the tide line, Brent Geese flew along the coast and a flock of 25 Snow Buntings flitted around the salt marsh.

South of Wells/B1105 near Brant Hill - hundred's of Pink-footed Geese were holed-up in a couple of farmers fields.

Cley coastguards - seawatching produced a Little Auk on the sea, Arctic Skua, Red-throated Diver, small flocks of Common and a single Velvet Scoter, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and numbers of Gannets, Guillemots and Kittiwakes and also a couple of big flocks of Fieldfares coming straight in off the sea.

We're all counting down the days until we visit again...

Friday, 26 October 2012

Desert Wheatear - up close and personal

There's no better way to brighten up a wet and miserable day than with a spot of Twitching! So when I received news that the male Desert Wheatear was still in Worthing giving great views along the promenade (another excuse to try out the new camera and lens set-up), I decided to go on a south coast jaunt to try and see this showy bird for myself - and I wasn't disappointed!

This Wheatear which should have been on its way to its wintering grounds in the deserts of north and central Africa performed wonderfully well to the small group of watchers, flitting between the wooden posts on the pebble beach and the large wave break rocks, often landing only a few feet away.

I know I won't be alone when it comes to having some great images of this obliging bird but here are a few personal favourites out of the several hundred photos I took on the day.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Wanstead Flats - "Golden" moments

I'm fully aware that when it comes to birding over at Wanstead I'm quite low down in the pecking order (bad bird pun) in terms of the amount of hard hours put in watching and walking the Flats or the Park, but since a change in fortunes in regards to work, my opportunities to go birding locally has significantly increased and although I've found little of local interest to write about - apart from finally catching up with an autumn Ring Ouzel and six possible Northern Pintail (distant views in poor weather) today I had a change of luck!

Nick had already scored early with Hawfinch again over the Esso garage copse and Brambling in with a flock of Chaffinches and just when I thought I'd missed the days best birds, out of the mist three Woodlarks virtually flew over me, calling softly to one another - to quote Jono "Patch Gold!" and then within a few minutes standing in the same spot I was looking skyward (thanks Mr Lindo) at the steady stream of Finches and Thrushes going over when I picked out a lone wader heading north-west! "Bloody hell a Wader" as the brain started to go into overdrive, I followed its path in my bins and then a second bird came into view and without doubt I was briefly watching a pair of Golden Plover flying high over the flats and out of sight....double "patch gold" - move over Mo Farah! It was at this point I remembered that I had new camera and lens hanging over my shoulder!!! Next time...

In time and with a new mindset I hope to bring one or two quality images of any future finds or sightings but until I get my head around the fact that I now have an additional birding tool to share my exploits -  you will just have to do with a Robin from my garden :-)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Short-billed Dowitcher - performs!

I finally caught up with the long staying Short-billed Dowitcher at Lodmoor today after finding myself with somewhat extra leisure time - lost my job!

Having first been found at the beginning of September this juvenile bird has lost its warm rufous tones and in a month is now showing its greyer, colder looking winter plumage - but it's still a cracking bird to look at!

When I turned up at Lodmoor around 8am after a three hour drive, the bird was quickly located along the muddy fringes of the scrape, asleep with its head in its wing - one or two of the local birders suggested that this may be the best view I would get, as the bird often spent a large part of its day asleep or out of view.

But after around half an hour the bird started to feed along the muddy margins along side a couple of Snipe - result! And for the next hour I was rewarded with stunning views, less than 50 feet away in great light conditions with the sun behind me - perfect.

With both Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard knocking around it wasn't long before the bird was spooked and taking flight it showed off its white cigar shaped pattern on its back - not unlike Spotted Redshank. It then circled the scrape before plonking itself down even closer to where I was standing, giving some rather crippling views - with the ID clinching tiger stripped tertials in full evidence.

Seeing a new bird always gives you a buzz but when you see it 'well' this really does make the early start, long drive and earache from Mrs B seem more than worthwhile.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Sabine's Gull 0 - Tea and cake 2

The weekend started with bright and sunny conditions (how that would change!) and an early morning walk around Wanstead Flats, a single Whinchat was still knocking around the open grassland near the ‘Golden Fleece’ pub and a Little Egret flew over head but not a lot else of interest early on. Stonechat had been seen in the far west of the Flats near the Jubilee pond, so I headed in that general direction across the football pitches picking up a few Swallows heading south along the way. As I reached the Gorse bushes south of Long Wood, two Whinchat’s sat up high on the gorse, joined by a Wheatear and then a Stonechat – three members of the ‘Chat’ family in one small patch of Gorse in the middle of East London you can’t fail but be impressed with that! But was this the same Stonechat from the West side of the Flats? Probably not - this was later confirmed when both birds were seen together.
With news of Yellow-browed Warblers scattered along the east coast on the back of some encouraging easterly winds - and one bird seen as close as Rainham, the next couple of hours were spent circling the Long Wood and scrutinising every small movement in the trees but despite seeing healthy numbers of Chiffchaff’s with a least 20 birds in the area, there was no sign of any of these ‘eastern gems’.
With rain forecast for Sunday afternoon and strengthening easterly winds, many predicted watching the Thames could be fruitful – wrong! Well wrong if you were watching from Rainham as I and many others were. My sum of a four hour river watch was a single Sandwich and Arctic Tern, several Common Tern, Greenshank and some rather distant Turnstone and Sanderling on the Kent side of the Thames and very little else - whilst at Canvey Point they were seeing Sabine’s Gulls, Gannets and later a Leach’s Petrel, none of which had ventured further up the river to Rainham - although frustratingly a Sabine’s Gull was seen from Gallions Reach even further along the river from us! This had somehow slipped through the net of at least a dozen watchers; maybe this bird took another route? – I suspect not! It must have passed us at some point – probably when the RSPB tea and cake was being warmly consumed.

Weather conditions looked promising!
Anyone seen a Sabine's Gull?

With the great and good heading in the direction of Shetland or the Scillies in the next week or two (the
Northern Isles are already 1-0 up and scoring with Britain’s 2nd ever record of Magnolia Warbler). I will have to be content with mopping up any goodies on the mainland – let’s hope there are a few birders left to find something!
*Today (Monday) a juvenile Sabine's Gull has been seen flying up and down the river from Rainham - typical!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Baillon's ache!

It's Friday evening and I'm on the way to the monthly East London birders drinks in Hornchurch (which is a long, long way on the District Line - it's probably actually in Essex) and news breaks of a Baillon's Crake at Rainham!

Hatch a plan! I can't go early on Saturday morning - Mrs B is doing a boot sale (Mrs B never does boots sales - ever! Actually this will be the first boot sale she has ever done! What are the chances that it falls on this day - Plan A: scuppered!

Plan B: Saturday PM - an early evening visit, 3hrs standing in a hide (no seats available) until dusk - no sign, dipped!

Plan C: Sunday AM - return to scene of previous days dip, waking up in what feels like the middle of the night to get to the hide and in position before sunrise - done!  

Proof of my early start!

As the sun rises above the marsh and the first shapes and figures of birds are made out on the shadowy light a call from the left goes up!

"I think i've got it!"


"There in the channel"

"Where in the channel?"

"About half way down - in the reeds at the edge of the water" (It's never easy giving directions to a bird without any decent interest points to focus in on)

I'm now frantically trying to get onto the bird (along with the rest of the 50+ bleary eyed birders in the hide) but despite much efforts to point me in the direction of the Crake - thanks Lee. I just couldn't get the bins onto it! And then all to quickly the bird had returned to the depths of the marsh and out of view...bugger! I gave it a couple of more hours staring a reeds, sedges and rushes! Before reluctanty sloping off - shoulders slumped and dragging my scope on the floor behind me.

This marsh could hide dozens of Crake's!
As I started penning this post the Crake had been frustratingly seen on and off for most of the day! Possibly tempting me back for a 3rd visit in two days - how I love the A13.... is that how this tale will end?

No... having already spent enough time in a hide at Rainham than is healthy for a happy and harmonise marriage – I gave the Crake one last crack! And then finally after another couple of back aching hours, standing and staring at the same stretch of rushes, I was rewarded with excellent views – aided by the careful positioning of myself in a prime front row location!

Job done and Baillon's Crake finally bagged I was off home, tired, elated and some what relieved - twitching...I should have stuck with the golf!
Bird ticked - I retired to the back of the hide