Lover of a lonely mountain (or London reservoir!)

When I awoke on the morning of the 25th November, I had no idea that American Horned Larks existed. So just before breakfast, when I checked the notifications on my phone and saw “Horned Lark still present 8am” I thought that the perilous auto-correct had struck once more. However, once I looked into it in more detail, I realised that this wasn’t just the product of a birder with cold and numb fingers.

I have to say that Staines Reservoirs is not the most inspiring birding location, which is probably why my parents have been unwilling to drive me there before. It is comprised of a North and a South basin, with a central kilometre-long monotonous causeway separating the two. Yet when I was dropped off at one end on the chilly November morning, I was quite eager to get to the other.

The news was negative when I first arrived at the far western end of the causeway, where most of the visiting birders seemed to be clustered. I began to scan the cold concrete apron on both sides of the causeway, to no avail after about 10 minutes. The resident Pied Wagtails were constantly distracting me with their calls.

It wasn’t long until negative turned to positive however. Alerted by a call that sounded almost fluty, I spotted a quite chunky small bird fly low over the causeway. The careful rush of the birders closest to where the bird had landed confirmed my suspicion that the bird had returned. For the next 30 minutes or so, the assembled birders had brilliant views of the the American Horned Lark on the northern side of the causeway, often venturing within 10 feet.

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The photos I was pleased  to have taken of quite a mobile bird show the features that separate this American Horned Lark from the more regular Shore Lark. Shore Larks are winter visitors to the UK, with usually around a hundred overwintering on the East coast. As their name suggests they are mainly restricted to the coast, so even a normal Shore Lark would have been a brilliant record for London/Surrey.

Eremophila alpestris is the species that Shore Larks and American Horned Larks belong to. Although some authorities split them into separate species, most recognise them as only subspecies. The species is actually split up into a massive forty-two subspecies by some authorities, which is what makes Horned Larks so confusing. The regular Horned Larks found in the UK (Shore Larks) belong to the subspecies flava. And although this particular Horned Lark is named as ‘American Horned Lark’, around twenty-one of these 42 subspecies are found in USA and Canada. This particular bird is considered to be either:

  • alpestris – the nominate subspecies, found along Eastern Canada and Eastern USA.
  • hoyti – found in Northern Canada, wintering in Northern USA.
  • praticola – sometimes lumped together with alpestris, found in South-eastern Canada, North-eastern and East-central USA.

Luckily, and unsurprisingly for a bird with so many subspecies, there are noticeable differences between the British flava and the American subspecies listed above. The main ones are:

  • The extent of the yellow on the face is much less than in flava (as the name suggests, flava translating as yellow, golden), with a completely white ‘eyebrow’.
  • The flanks and overall colouration are much more russet than the pale-brown colouration of flava.
  • More obvious breast streaking than flava.

So although at the moment there is little doubt that the Horned Lark at Staines during the last week of November was of an American origin, the challenge of identifying it to subspecies still remains. Luckily however, if the Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris is split into different species, it is likely that all the American subspecies will remain as E. alpestris and the British subspecies will become E. flava.

A nice article to sum up the proposed splits of Eremophila alpestris can be found here: http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/

Oh, and if you were wondering about the title of this blog post, Eremophila alpestris roughly translates from Latin to ‘lover of a lonely mountain’ – a reference to the breeding habitat of most of the subspecies!

References
https://www.hbw.com/species/horned-lark-eremophila-alpestris
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horned_lark#
http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/
http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Eremophila-alpestris

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Pectoral Sandpiper

Last Sunday afternoon I sat in the West Mead hide at Pulborough Brooks, with my binoculars focused on the far right corner of the pool directly in front of me. Among the Lapwings and the Teal was the silhouette of a Pectoral Sandpiper in terrible back-lighting.

There was no mistaking that this was a bird I was very pleased to see. One challenge of mine for this year is to get to 200 bird species for BBC Wildlife Magazine’s #my200birdyear, and this was my 193rd. Furthermore, Pulborough Brooks is exactly where I saw my first and only previous Pectoral Sandpiper, over 3 years ago. On that day in 2014 the Pectoral Sandpiper was so distant I didn’t even attempt a photograph, however this time this one was unusually close.

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The lighting was really poor, but at least I attempted a photo unlike my previous sighting three years ago!

Pectoral Sandpipers breed in North America and Eastern Siberia, yet despite the great distance from their breeding grounds they are still the most common Nearctic wader to reach our shores each year, mainly during autumn. Sussex definitely seems to attract its fair share, and in my experience Pulborough Brooks seems to be the best site in Sussex for them at the moment. There may have been at least three at this wetland site this autumn, which is an amazing total for a bird that would have had to cross the Atlantic or the whole of Siberia and Europe to reach here.

I have about a month and a half to find seven more species to make 200 for the year. It is possible, although it will be difficult. There are quite a number of species I’m yet to see, but it will all rely on how lucky I am!

BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 3

It was just after 8pm on the Saturday evening, it was a crisp evening on Thetford Forest and the attendees of BTO Bird Camp 2017 were in a group on a ride through an area of young Scots Pine trees. We were with Greg Conway, who is working on tracking technologies for investigating the private life of one of our least-seen species, the Nightjar. It was very interesting to hear of his research, and tonight we were there to try and help with it.

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The Nightjar habitat at Thetford Forest

Right on cue, at 21:18, the first Nightjar was heard churring. The song of the Nightjar is a peculiar sound, quite unlike most other bird songs. As well as the male’s churring song the Nightjar produces another peculiar sound which is a loud, sharp cracking sound. This is not a vocal sound however. It is produced by the Nightjar’s body, and the sound was long attributed to the tips of the wings meeting each other in flight. However it is hard to believe that this is true as Nightjars, and other birds that make this sound such as Short-eared Owls, have very soft feathers that seem incapable of making such a sound in that way. One theory that seems plausible is that the quick downward motion of the wings creates the sound in the same way a whiplash would.

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This photo was about as good as it got with the light levels not exactly going hand-in-hand with bird photography!

The first Nightjar was seen shortly after, at about 9.30pm, sitting right on top of a pine tree. We were able to watch it churring in plain view for quite a while, before it flew away producing some ‘wing-clapping’ sounds. I was incredibly pleased with this sighting as it was the first time I had ever heard a Nightjar, despite living only about 20 minutes away from one of the best sites in Sussex, Ashdown Forest. Nightjars are well distributed across most of England, Wales and southern Scotland on heathland, moorland and similar habitats. So if you have what you think is a suitable location for these birds nearby and you live within the Nightjar’s distribution I would highly recommend an evening walk there!

It wasn’t long before two Nightjars were giving close, although often invisible, fly-bys of the group. Occasionally however they would come into view, and when they did they were incredibly close above our heads. It was a memorable experience and I don’t think it would be easy to get much better.

Well, I was about to get proved wrong as a car came driving up the track towards us from the direction of where several mist-nets had been erected. Mist-nets are very fine, thin nets; so-called as they are not easy to see. They catch birds easily and safely, without harming the birds in any way. I knew that the arrival of this car meant one of two things: either the ringers had given up trying to catch anything or a Nightjar had been successfully caught. To have gone from not seeing a Nightjar to seeing one in the hand in the space of a few hours was an excellent thought, so I was overjoyed when a white bag emerged from the car, containing a Nightjar.

The Nightjar was quicky ringed, biometrics were speedily measured and all other details were transcribed into the book of data. Following this was a chance to admire the bird for a short while as well as one to take photographs. It was amazing to be able to see an otherwise mysterious bird up close and in detail like this, and surely something I’ll never forget.

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Nightjar in the hand

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Nightjars are long-winged and long-tailed. This makes them much lighter than they look!

Although most of us didn’t get to sleep until midnight, that didn’t mean we were able to have a lie-in the next morning. We left the camp again a little after 6am, on our way to the Suffolk coast near Felixstowe and more specifically Landguard Bird Observatory.

I have only visited one bird observatory before and that was Portland Bird Observatory, in Dorset, last August. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand what work goes on at an observatory instead of just reading about the sightings on the internet. I loved my visit to Portland Bird Observatory, therefore I was eager to visit another one.

Although it was still early morning when we arrived at Landguard the sun was already beating down and most of the wildlife was awake and active. We passed a large patch of Green Alkanet flowers on our way to the observatory building, just outside Landguard fort, which provided a vital feeding stop for 3 or more migrant Painted Ladies which had crossed over from Europe in the warm weather during the previous week. These were my first Painted Ladies of the year.

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After pausing for a while to watch and photograph these strong insects (many fly all the way from Africa and still look pristine!) we continued on to the observatory building where we had a look at the observatory moth trap. It was really interesting to see how the lepidopterous fauna can change with habitat and geographical position. The species of moths were much different to what I usually find in my garden moth trap, so there were a number of lifers.

As in most moth traps there were lots of little brown jobs although also a fair few very interesting ones too – my favourite were the Small Elephant Hawk-moth and the Cream-spot Tiger.

The Small Elephant Hawk-moth is related to the much more common Elephant Hawk-moth although smaller and more brightly coloured. It is usually found in chalky and grassland habitats, where its foodplant (bedstraws) can be found. The Cream-spot Tiger is just as beautiful and impressive, with even more colour hidden behind its dark forewings with large cream-coloured spots. It has orange hindwings and a bright scarlet abdomen, which are revealed suddenly when the moth is startled to scare away a potential predator.

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger

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Cream-spot Tiger

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger showing its stunning hindwings!

Following the moth trap we went on a walk around the Landguard LNR. The LNR is a nice coastal reserve, with breeding Ringed Plovers probably the star attraction. Most pairs had chicks, in differing stages of development with some still quite young although others well developed. It was also great to learn about the shingle habitat and the plants that grow there.

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Ringed Plover parent

After leaving the observatory the plan was to go to a piece of beautiful Suffolk heathland where we might be in for a chance to see another very elusive species, the Dartford Warbler. The Dartford Warbler is a species mostly southern in its British distribution, therefore it would be a lifer for many of the young birders who had come from Northern England or Scotland.

Upon arrival at this heath we were immediately greeted by the luscious song of a Woodlark, coming from right above our heads. This was a big surprise as Woodlarks are not common in Suffolk and therefore a very good species to see. It was excellent to watch performing its song flight, with the song of Yellowhammers also in the background. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the Woodlark (it just turned out as a dot in the sky) however a Yellowhammer singing on a bush behind us was more than happy to pose for photographs.

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Singing Yellowhammer

We walked down a track through the centre of the heath and there we waited to try and get a glimpse of our target species. Although there were loads of other birds, a hunting female Kestrel, several Stonechats including a recently fledged youngster and a flyover Yellow Wagtail (my first of the year) we ended up waiting quite a long time without any luck. That was until David Walsh, a bird guide who was helping out, came running along the road where the vans were parked exclaiming that he had seen a Dartford Warbler on the other side of the heath. We all quickly made our way towards where the bird had been seen and scanned the area to see if we could re-find the bird.

After a few minutes of searching, someone eventually spotted the bird and tried to get everyone else onto it. I struggled at first as it was quite distant and exactly matched the colour of the heather, however when it flew it was easily seen. Luckily, I think everyone managed to catch a glimpse of the bird. Looking back at some photos it appeared to have a few green caterpillars held in its beak; the Dartford Warbler was feeding young in a nest!

After a very enjoyable break for lunch at a nearby pub we were on to our last site of the weekend, RSPB Hollesley Marshes. We soon set out to walk through the reserve towards the sea wall. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the wetland in the distance while Swallows hawked for insects over the water’s surface. The track-verge was bursting with umbellifers and insects sipping the nectar, and damselflies danced on the leaves of Horse Chestnuts. It was clear that this reserve was one that was full of life.

As we walked towards the sea wall, we  passed a smaller marsh on our right. Here we could see Shelducks, and Avocet and a single Common Gull. From the sea wall we could see back over the marsh and out to the choppy water of the Alde River and the North Sea. Several Common Terns flew up and down the river and Herring and Black-headed Gulls battled the strong winds to keep in the air. Plenty of Avocets could be seen on the marsh, as well as a single Teal which was a surprise.

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Avocet with food

Finally, we stopped off at a hide that overlooked the larger marsh. From here we were treated to a close-up view of a Swallow on the wires just metres away and some close sightings of Linnets too. Avocets gave good views once again – a good end to our visit to this RSPB reserve and to the Bird Camp as a whole.

BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 2

It was a 4.30 wake-up for me on Saturday although I was awake well before that, awoken by the sound of a Cuckoo persistently singing outside the tent! Not a bad problem to have, despite the loss of sleep…

The attendees were split into three groups the previous evening and I was in group one, the only group that had to wake up so early. However I didn’t mind all that much as our first activity was bird ringing down at the BTO Nunnery Lakes reserve and an early start usually means more birds!

The Nunnery Lakes reserve is a network of lakes created by the gravel workings of the past. As well as lakes, there is also a myriad of other habitats including sandy heathland and wet woodland. An excellent 60 different bird species breed on the reserve, not including all those that pass through or spend the winter on the site. One of the key species on the reserve is Cetti’s Warbler, a localised resident species found in only the southernmost locations in England and Wales as well as across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

We were able to catch a couple of these birds during our ringing session. They may be drably coloured but they are full of character. I believe that breeding wasn’t able to be confirmed at Nunnery Lakes in previous years, however one of the birds we caught clearly had a brood patch. Brood patches are bare patches of skin that develop in the breeding season. They only occur in birds which are incubating eggs as the added proximity of the blood vessels to the surface of the egg allow heat to be passed on to the egg more efficiently. It was great to be able to confirm breeding of this uncommon species.

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A Cetti’s Warbler that we caught at Nunnery Lakes

Cetti’s wasn’t the only warbler species we caught during the session. We also managed to ring Sedge, Reed and Garden Warblers. We ringed a few Reed Warblers and there were clearly others singing around us, along with more Sedge and Garden Warblers. Clearly the reserve supports good breeding populations of each species. They all have slightly different habitat requirements and it is evident that Nunnery Lakes provides the perfect breeding location for them all.

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Reed Warbler

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Sedge Warbler

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Garden Warbler

Although there were plenty of birds being caught, ringed and released, there was still a number of avian attractions to steal the attention. Cuckoos were calling from every direction, and there must have been at least 3 males heard calling through the whole morning. The sound of the male Cuckoo is well-known however the female’s is less so yet nonetheless distinctive. We were lucky to hear the call of the female which is described as a ‘bubbling’ sound, quite bizarre! Shortly after first hearing this unusual sound the female herself came into view, flying quickly across the pit nearest the ringing station.

It didn’t take more than a first glance to realise that this individual female Cuckoo was not an ordinary female Cuckoo. Most female Cuckoos look very similar to the males, with only a small patch of rufous colouration on the breast. However, this Cuckoo had more than a little rufous colouration on the breast, in fact almost its whole body had a rufous tinge! Rufous morphs like this one are quite uncommon to see so I feel privileged that we had caught a glimpse of such an unusual Cuckoo. These photos below were taken by Elliot Montieth (@Elliot_Montieth www.elliotsbirdingdiaries.wordpress.com):

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It was following the ringing that our group moved on to the nest recording part of the morning. We were each given a long, wooden stick that, we were told, was to be used to gently tap vegetation to see if a bird flies off a nest. We all set off gorse bushes here and small trees there however not finding much using that technique. It wasn’t long into the session however that we located a Bramble and Gorse thicket that was a possible nesting site for a Willow Warbler. After a lot of searching and poking about within the spikey vegetation the nest was eventually located, with several young in the nest:

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Willow Warbler chick

As you can see the chick is not very developed with lots of down and adult feathers only just coming through. The white bars on the wings are what are known as the pin feathers, a sort of sheath before the feather veins expand and become the feathers seen in the adult bird. This chick clearly has a lot of growing to do before it fledges!

Lots of time passed until the next nest was found and we resorted to using the tapping sticks again. I was tapping most of the gorse and bramble bushes, as well as the short oak and hawthorn trees dotted around. Most taps were generally unsuccessful however one unassuming Hawthorn tree did give me a bit of a surprise when a female Blackbird flew out from the centre after a light tap! Knowing that this probably meant that there was a nest present, I immediately looked inside the tree for a nest. It wasn’t hard to spot as it was right in the centre of the tree and with the help of Toby Carter’s purpose-bought selfie-stick we were able to see that there were indeed eggs in the nest!

I was quite pleased to find my first Blackbird nest as it is not a species I was expecting to find. This is because as the Blackbird is a resident species, most pairs are already well into their breeding attempt with many having already fledged young. Few would have started their first attempt so that they would be on eggs at this time of year, so I doubt that this brood is the first to be attempted to be raised by the parents this year. I imagine that either this pair started incredibly early and have already fledged young which are now independent and are attempting a second brood, or the nest failed (e.g. it was predated or the nest itself destroyed) and the pair have now started again.

Just after that activity ended it was time for some birding before the next activity (and, to a lesser extent, breakfast). Just standing around seeing what flies by proved to be a useful exercise with my first Hobby of the year accelerating past high above the nearest lake. Arriving in the UK in late April to May they sometimes gather in large groups (up to 50!) at popular prey-rich wetland sites soon after arriving. However this was the only one I was to see that morning. Still, it was not bad to get a year tick.

Following the replenishment of energy, my final activity of the day commenced. This was learning how to do the Common Bird Census (CBC). For the CBC, one needs to note down the locations of individual birds on a map, and visit the site several times each year. By doing this one can begin to build up an idea of each bird’s territories. Whilst learning about the Common Bird Census we took a circuit of some of the lakes, which were rich in invertebrate as well as bird life.

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The above beetle is a species of longhorn, so named due to their long antennae. There are a number of species in the UK and they are a favourite among many entomologists due to their size (they can get larger than this) and how easy they often are to identify. Annoyingly, this is one of a few similar species, however I believe that it is Stenurella melanura. Longhorn beetles can often be found on flowers like this one or on the dead wood where they have spent most of their life as a grub. Occasionally, as they are so large compared to many other beetles, I spot them in flight and follow them until they land. One species that is easy to spot and identify is Rutpela maculata or the Yellow and Black Longhorn Beetle. If you do spot any longhorn beetles, the Longhorn Recording Scheme would love your records via iRecord.

After a much-needed rest back at the Nunnery and a well-earned lunch, we set off to Lakenheath Fen just inside Suffolk. I was looking forward to visiting this reserve as I’ve never visited it before and it’s home to a number of species that are tricky to see, such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier. Upon arrival at the reserve, we were split into two groups as this reserve trip was not simply a walk to see what we can see but a bird race: a competition between teams to see as many species as possible.

My team set off in a different direction to the other, and our first stop was a viewpoint overlooking a wetland. With Oystercatchers, a Redshank and Common Terns flying down the river it was clear that Lakenheath was a reserve full of birds even with an incredibly strong wind blowing. After seeing all that was in view at that viewpoint we continued along the path beside the river. We saw a Marsh Harrier and another Hobby, both birds of prey characteristic of wetlands.

It wasn’t much farther along when the highlight of the visit to Lakenheath appeared. On huge, pounding wingbeats a Bittern made its way across the reedbed, presumably with food for its young. At this time of year most breeding Bitterns will have young in their nest, and this makes them easier to see as they make feeding flights to and from the nest in order to feed the growing chicks.

The final stop before heading back in the direction of the visitor centre was where a Marsh Warbler had been seen for the past week. With it being incredibly windy I knew that we were never going to hear it let alone see it, but it was nice to stop for a short while and wait. There was a Marsh Harrier quartering the nearest reeds and a Cetti’s Warbler flew around us. Despite not seeing the Marsh Warbler I felt satisfied by our visit to Lakenheath as we had managed to see a number of key reedbed specialists. I’m hoping I can visit the reserve again sometime, because as it’s so large there is lots more to explore!

One of the highlights of the day was this stunning Stone Curlew giving exceptional views in a field. I do not want to disclose the location of this unusually unwary individual as it is on a breeding site, and as Stone Curlews are in decline I do not want it to gather unwanted attention from people with unfavourable intentions. All that aside it was superb to get such a rare opportunity to watch this species at a range that wasn’t hundreds of metres!

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Writing part two made me realise that I have a lot more to write than can fit into 3 parts so this series of blog posts will now be extended to four parts. In the next part, look forward to hearing about an adventure with Nightjars, a successful moth trap and a search for Dartford Warblers!

Summer migrant at last!

The weather last weekend certainly suggested that spring had sprung and the many signs of the changing seasons about such as flowering Wood-Sorrel and active Bee-Flies supported that fact. However despite the beautiful sunny weather, by yesterday morning I was still yet to see a summer migrant this year!

Early yesterday morning I spent over an hour at the beautifully serene and calm Hedgecourt Lake waiting for a particular species I was hoping to see arrive. Ospreys are apparently seen here every spring and autumn when they travel through on their way to their more northerly breeding grounds. However I have never seen a single one here.

The previous evening (Saturday) not one but two Ospreys were reported nearby at Weir Wood Reservoir just as the sun was setting at 18:30. I was hoping that they would carry on their migration northwards earlier this morning and arrive at Hedgecourt, which is the nearest large waterbody to the reservoir. That is the main reason why I was up nearly at dawn getting ready to wait for one to appear.

Unfortunately I didn’t have any luck with the Ospreys at Hedgecourt although there were some other nice birds about around the lake, with many singing Chiffchaffs, a displaying Sparrowhawk and a male Mandarin which flew in.

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Upon arrival back home I heard news that a couple of nice summer migrants had been seen at Weir Wood Reservoir while I had been at Hedgecourt. These were an Osprey, possibly one of the two there yesterday, and a Little Ringed Plover. Encouraged by this news we decided to head to Weir Wood Reservoir to see if we could see either of these birds ourselves.

Weir Wood Reservoir is quite a large reservoir and the whole reservoir cannot be seen from just one viewpoint. Therefore most people visit both ends of the reservoir, the West end and the Dam end. The West end was where we visited first and where the Ospreys were seen yesterday evening and this morning.

Despite the large number of birders at the car park there were few interesting birds to be seen and certainly no Ospreys. According to one of the birders there, Alastair Gray, they can remain well-hidden during a lot of the day simply perched in the trees beside the reservoir and only become noticeable when they set out to fish most commonly in the early morning and late afternoon. They don’t like to fly a lot unnecessarily as it really upsets the local crows which harass the Ospreys until they land! However there was an immature male Goldeneye amongst a group of Great Crested Grebes which was my first of the year.

After searching for hidden Ospreys unsuccessfully we then moved on to the dam end to look for the Little Ringed Plover. The walk up to the dam wall was alive with the song of many Chiffchaffs and the blossoming Blackthorns were full of life. There were a pair of Pied Wagtails on the grassy bank of the dam and a Grey Heron flew overhead.

After walking along the dam wall for a little while to my relief the Little Ringed Plover came into view. It was small and slender, moreso than its relative the Ringed Plover, and was feeding right on the water’s edge. I was able to get quite close, up to a distance of about 10 feet, and from there I was easily able to observe its distinguishing features. To separate Little Ringed from Ringed Plover, the easiest feature to see is the colour of the bill. Little Ringed Plovers have an entirely dark bill whereas Ringed Plovers have a bill with an orange base and a dark tip. Also,  if you are close enough, you might be able to see the yellow eye ring of a Little Ringed Plover which is a feature absent in Ringed Plovers.

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The Little Ringed Plover

Although Little Ringed Plovers are regular breeders in England and Wales in the modern day, they first bred as recently as 1938. Their expansion across southern Britain is partly due to the creation of man-made habitats perfect for breeding such as water-filled gravel pits. Now over a thousand pairs of these small waders arrive here each spring to leave again in late June/July.

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I am pleased that I have now managed to find my first ‘proper’ summer migrant of 2017. Over the coming weeks, migration is set to pick up as winds become favourable and it becomes warmer. Hopefully I will soon be waking up to the song of Blackcaps and Willow Warblers!