Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A start to PWC 2016 - James McCulloch

We are always super keen on 3rd party generated blog content and its especially good when we get an enthusiastic newcomer to the competition. James McCulloch is a 12 year old birder who has been working his East Surrey patch of Hedgecourt Nature Reserve and Domewood. Here is how he got on:

Day 1

On the first day Tony Davis came to my garden to do some bird ringing for the first time. I was worried that we wouldn't catch anything and hoping we would catch loads! As soon as he arrived he proved his ears are much more attuned to bird calls than mine as he quickly heard the rattling call of a Lesser Redpoll. You should've seen my face: that was the first Lesser Redpoll in my garden for 3 years! He didn't stop there though, he also heard a Siskin, only the 2nd garden record!

As our garden sometimes has 3-figure counts of Redwings in the winter, he played the Latvian Lovesong on a speaker near the net, which is a recording of Redwing song. That didn't work though so we changed it to Redpoll song. If we caught a Lesser Redpoll I would be amazed! The morning went by with just the usual tits biting holes in my fingers and the odd Robin, Dunnock, Blackbird and Goldcrest. Half way through the morning I went inside to warm up my cold hands while Tony extracted the birds. He came away with a disappointing 2 birds, but he refused to tell me what they were until I took them out of the bag. He only said that both species I hadn't ringed so far this morning. The first bag revealed a female Chaffinch, which I thought was the one that kept visiting my bird table (we only get one at a time). However, Tony said that the number of birds that visit your garden is the maximum count of that species multiplied by ten. That certainly puts a new perspective on things!

The second bag was much more exciting (for me anyway)! It didn't bite... it was relatively small... it was a male Lesser Redpoll! I'm extremely grateful to Tony for tempting that red-crowned gem into out garden.

Day 2

The weather was poor but I decided to visit Hedgecourt Lake anyway to see what was around. It turned out to be one of my best visits!

First of all I found a drake Scaup in a group of Pochards, a first for me in the UK as well as the patch. Unfortunately I didn't get very good views of it but it wasn't doing anything anyway. My first 2 pointer of the year!

Suddenly a flock of 100+ Siskin erupted from one small Alder tree, wow! Definitely a patch record and great to see.

A gull species on a buoy far out into the lake looked suspicious. It had yellow legs. Large but not bulky like a Caspian (unfortunately)! My first Yellow-legged Gull! Rather unseasonal but still 2 points.

Then I spotted a duck fly from right under my nose towards the far end of the lake. The white wing pattern was distinctive: Goldeneye! Could this day get any better??

It did! We were just about to leave the lake when I stopped and saw something large climbing some reeds. It was very well camouflaged and I struggled to find it even with my binoculars and it wasn't too far away. A Grey Heron flew over and the bird raised its head to look, which revealed a paler throat making it easier to see. Once I knew where it was I had a good view, it was right in front of the reeds. I was looking straight at a bird that has eluded me for years at Hedgecourt, an incredible Bittern! Below is a poor photo of it:

Day 3

Today looked even worse than yesterday but I still managed 4 new species. My parents were clearly not willing to accompany me to Hedgecourt so I walked to our local farm in the rain, which wasn't so bad as I found Nuthatch and Marsh Tit in a tit flock, both species that had disappeared during the first two days. When I reached the farm the first field was disappointingly bare apart from two Carrion Crows. The second field was more exciting, however. There was a flock of medium sized birds, which were very flighty and most flew away before I had even stepped into the first field. Some stuck around though, every last morsel is precious in the winter months so for a flock bird I suppose it is better to risk a small chance of being eaten by me and get extra food than fly away and not get any food.

I crept up to the fence separating the two fields and got my wet binoculars on a few of the birds. The flock turned out to be a mixed flock of Starlings and Redwings, Starlings and new bird for the year. Worth the wet knees!

The final new bird of the day came after dark, which I was not expecting. It was about 5:30 and I heard a call from outside. It was unlike any Tawny Owl I had every heard. Try whistling at a very low pitch quickly 4 times and that was almost exactly what I heard. I went through all the British owl species on Xeno-Canto as well as some really rare ones just in case. I was quite amazed when I listened to the Long-eared Owl call, it was identical!

I was really pleased when I read in the rules that the bird could be either seen or heard! Yippee!

Day 4

I managed a visit to Hedgecourt in the late morning during a dry interlude but there weren't as many birds as yesterday. I couldn't find any of yesterday's star birds or any new species.

But in the afternoon I had an opportunity to visit Wire Mill Lake, which I added to my official patch boundaries without having visited it before. Wire Mill Lake is a lake as long as but narrower than Hedgecourt Lake and it is mainly used for water-skiing which may explain why there are less birds on it than Hedgecourt. However, there were 3 Cormorants, 2 Mallards, 3 Moorhens, 50+ Goldfinches and 16 Fieldfares in an orchard along with the abundant species (Blue Tit, Woodpigeon etc.). Out of those Fieldfare was a new species and the first I've seen all winter, strangely. Maybe I just don't visit enough sites with Fieldfare habitat.

So, at the end of the first four days, I have 45 species, 49 points, 193 BirdTrack records and a competitive ambition to get to 100 species by the end of the year. 

James' blog - details his passion for Natural History,

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