In amongst a flock of seagulls…

No, I don’t mean the 80s pop band (they were around in the 80s weren’t they), but the black headed gulls bobbing about on the water at Daventry Country Park.

In my last post I waffled about my discovery of a totally new species for me – the black tern.  Well, that wasn’t the only new species that I spotted that day when out with my scope.  As I mentioned the black terns seemed to be quicker than the common terns over the water, and I had a bit of trouble following them in my scope.  This was made a little more difficult by the fact that I get easily distracted and, on this occasion it was probably a good thing.  Bobbing about on the water, seemingly quite happy amongst the bigger gulls, was a black headed gull.  Unlike the gulls named black headed gulls (BH gulls), this one did actually have a black head, rather than chocolate brown.  I was sadly very excited.  Not only because here was the second new species in a day, but because I actually noticed it and decided it was different.  Notebook time again (it’s becoming a bit of a habit) and I really wish I could draw, but I can’t so I scribbled instead.


I noted that the bird was smaller, as I mentioned above, that it had a black head that came all the way down its neck (that is what I was trying to get at in the picture) and that it didn’t have a white ring around its eye – I somehow knew that this was important (probably due to the huge number of bird books I had read over the years).  The bill also looked neater than that of the BH gulls all around it and it seemed to have a pinky tinge to its breast feathers.

I’ll not bore you with the details, but this was a Little Gull, larus minutus, unlike the BH gull, appropriately named as it is the smallest gull, and is described as more delicate than the BH gull with which it bears some similarities.  So, one trip with a telescope to the country park and two new birds to add to my lifetime list (if I kept such a thing).

The appearance of a small, dark stranger.

It all started with a tweet on Easter Sunday.  Apparently there were 24 arctic terns spotted at Daventry Country Park.  I wasn’t convinced, but thought I should maybe pop over and see if I could tell the difference between an arctic and common tern.  By the way, I’m not a twitcher, but if there is a chance to see a new bird at the local country park?  Well, I’d be a fool not to, especially on a bank holiday weekend.  Besides, this means that if nothing else, the common terns were back – if you’ve never seen a common tern close up, gracefully patrolling the shallower water, then you’ve missed out.

However, not willing to admit that I wanted to see if I could see arctic terns that possibly didn’t exist some subterfuge was in order and I suggested a walk but only a quick trip into the country park with my small binoculars to see if the terns had come back.  This worked and we happily sat for ten minutes or so watching the aforementioned common terns wheeling about.  There were other gulls there too, but I was only interested in the terns.   However, something else caught my eye, some of the terns seemed darker, but it could just have been a trick of the light – after all, there was some sun despite it being a bank holiday, and I did only have my little 8 x 24 bins with me.

I thought about them during the rest of our walk, wondered if perhaps they were younger terns or if I was just seeing things.  More information was needed, so I went back later in the afternoon (trying to reduce my exposure to the many families and their dogs off leads that were bound to be there) armed with my telescope and a notebook.

I was right, they were definitely darker, they moved a lot faster too and never stopped.  There were no arctic terns there, but there were a couple of dozen common terns.  These had the good grace to stop once in a while on the tern rafts so I could get a good look at them.  (Arctic terns apparently look like common terns but have no black on their beaks in summer and have longer tail streamers).  The dark strangers didn’t, so I had to resort to note taking, a habit that I need to get into.  (As I read on a completely different subject, about fungi as it happens, you should describe something first, then try and identify it, rather than trying to do it the other way round and therefore potentially miss some important features.)

Anyway, this is what I noted down;

  • darker wings than the common tern, darker below than above.
  • seemed slightly smaller than the common tern
  • white rump and greyish tail
  • lightish under the wing and the grey wings had white edges in flight
  • seemed to be faster than a common tern

Once back home it was time to hit my myriad of books.  There was only one conclusion, I had spotted some black terns, something I didn’t even know existed until Easter Monday.

According to the RSPB handbook of British Birds it is ‘smaller than the common tern’.  The Collins Bird Guide gives this description: ‘typical marsh tern.  In summer body black, under tail white; slate grey upper wing and tail, underwing entirely silver-grey; bill and legs dark red’ (although on this point the RSPB disagree and claim it has a black bill and it definitely looked black to me).  It is a ‘light airy bird that flies with great agility’.  This sounds exactly like the birds I had been watching.  Unfortunately I don’t have a photo, but there are plenty on the web if you want to see this pretty bird.

It is apparently a common passage bird through the UK (which means that you might see it in spring and autumn on its way to somewhere else) and has made a few unsuccessful attempts at breeding in the UK.  I was a little unsure as to whether I had really seen some of these until I noticed someone tweeting that there were some at Summer Leys nature reserve over the other side of Northamptonshire – I guess I was right after all and these were probably the same birds.

Goosanders – See them now at the Country Park

We all have certain triggers in life that remind us of past times, or tell us that something new is happening.  For me, the sign that Winter has arrived is the appearance of goosanders (mergus merganser) at Daventry Country Park.  This Winter I was surprised to see them at the end of November, particularly as, if you remember, it was quite mild and sunny.  However, a few days later the weather turned chilly and there was a bit of frost at night.  Winter had come.

So, why am I so interested in these birds?  It is not just their weather-forecasting abilities that I like about them.  They really are stunning birds, particularly if they catch the Winter sun.   They are quite a large bird, not really looking like a duck.  They swim low in the water, being very pointy with a thin red bill, which gives their group its name – Sawbills.  The serrated inner edge allows them to grip slippery fish, which they search for by swimming with their head under water before diving down with a jump to get them.  (Amazing fact number one – they can dive for up to 45 seconds.)

The duck and drake look quite different.  Whilst the duck is grey with a chestnut coloured head with a shaggy crest, the drake is much sleeker.  He has a bottle green head which looks black unless it catches the sun, some black on his back, but the rest is mainly white (with a hint of pink!).

Whilst these are not the rarest of birds, in fact their numbers are increasing (there are about 2,600 breeding pairs, numbers tripling in Winter to about 16,100 birds) they do face a threat from the owners of fisheries due to their particular love of salmon and trout.  (Amazing fact number two – a young goosander eats 33kg of fish in order to reach adulthood.)

Whilst researching this article, I also discovered amazing fact number three (well, puzzling fact really) – after breeding most of the male goosanders from Europe migrate to the north of Norway to moult – I have no idea why they do that.  The females stay put – I am not sure if this is due to parental requirements.

So, next time you are in the country park in Winter (the goosanders tend to stick around into February) look out for some very white and black, long, sleek pointy birds.  They tend to sit around in groups, close to the dam, particularly from about halfway up.

To quote from Birds Britannica goosanders ‘spend long periods asleep or loafing on the water and, on a cold, bright Winter’s day there are few more lovely  visions than a group resting in a backwater, their smooth contours and patterns mirrored in the river’s surface.’

A surprise at the country park

We went for a walk in the snow today, partly to get some exercise and to enjoy the fresh air, partly to look for snowy photo opportunities.

I hadn’t planned to go to the country park, I figured that it would probably be fairly frozen and possibly filled with dogs – which if you are not a dog owner does not make for a relaxing stroll.  However, after wandering along the old railway track and deciding we didn’t want to go into town we headed left for the country park.

We were a little surprised to see that all of the small streams that run into the country park appeared to be ice free, even at the edges and debated as to the reason for this.

We walked through the woodland on the west of the reservoir for a change heading for the entrance.  There were a lot of small birds about, wrens, robins, blue tits etc, but nothing unusual.

We had just about made it to the entrance when I saw a water rail.  Although I realise it is probably a sad thing to admit to, I have to admit that I was very excited.  You see, I have seen reports of good sightings at Brandon Marsh, I have even been there on the days when the alleged sightings have been made, but I have never seen one.  Now, here I was, about a metre away and with a camera fitted with my best low light lens.  Such opportunities only come round once in a lifetime!  Whilst these are not uncommon birds, they are quite secretive and I would never have expected to see one so close to the busiest part of the country park.

The cold weather had obviously made it decide that it could stop being secretive or it could be dead and that wandering into the more populated parts of the country park would have to be done.  In fact it seemed so intent on looking for food that a bright pink small child wandering past noisily didn’t deter it from its wading.  It was only the barking of a dog that made it run away but not before I had taken some reasonable pictures.

What a fantastic day – a nice walk in the park, a new birding first and some good photos – perfect.  Bring on the waxwings!

An afternoon at the Country Park

Golden Plover in Winter Plumage
Golden Plover in Winter Plumage

Sometimes it is hard to know what to do during a holiday in autumn, the weather is changeable, one minute the sun is shining, the next black clouds loom.  The solution for me is to take my scope to the country park.  With the lack of rain in September I was hoping the water level would have dropped and that there may be some waders about.

As you can see from the poor picture above (sorry about the quality, but impromptu digiscoping with my Canon Ixus was never going to produce stunning results) amongst the Lapwing and Coot there was a flock of Golden Plover.  I saw these for the first time last year.  There really is something special about a flock of these little yellow coloured waders, especially when the sun glints off their winter plumage.  I spent some time watching them, scuttling about, dodging in between the gulls and ducks.  Then, suddenly, they were gone.

I wandered further round, the usual suspects were all present – Pochard bobbing about, the sun highlighting their chestnut-coloured heads, Shoveler Ducks sifting the water, Tufted Duck diving, Coot, Cormorant gathering along the edges of the water and cramming together on the now vacated tern rafts.  I could hear the little birds in the hedgerows, Long-tailed Tits burbling, Wrens and Robins with their alarm calls and Blackbirds swooping between berry-laden trees.  Time to head back home.

But then, the sun came back out, a quick check through my binoculars showed the plovers had returned – time to set the scope up again; I may have missed something last time.  Indeed I had, a couple of snipe were probing the mud (not too far away, I got a fantastic view through the scope), amongst the Wigeon (did I mention those?) there was a Shelduck – how did I miss a big white duck!  I had never seen one before at the Country Park, in fact, I think the last time I saw one was during a visit to Martin Mere when I was much, much younger.

Then I looked again, there were other ducks there too, Gadwall, an understated and pretty duck and, there was the back end of another, different duck peaking out from behind a cormorant – not sure what it was.  I moved the scope – better view, it was still asleep – wake up I thought – then another duck wandered into it and it looked up briefly – I thought I recognised it – it was a Pintail, I was sure of it – a new lifetime first for me.  Then its head was down again – arse!  Literally, all I could see was its bottom.  Then, suddenly, the Cormorants were off, followed by the Wigeon, the Lapwing and the Plovers, and, the Pintail.  I looked for it again, but couldn’t find it.  Time for home before it rained – a Friday afternoon doesn’t get much better than this.

A Walk in the Park

There was a bit of sunshine on Sunday afternoon, so we grabbed the opportunity to go for a walk around the Country Park.  To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to see much as the weather had been a bit dull, wet and cold, but I was pleasantly surprised.

At the start of the walk we were greeted by numerous flowers, filling two of our senses with bright colours and heady scents, then we heard before we saw more than one song thrush singing for all he was worth, a female blackcap off to her nest with take out in her beak as well as the always present chaffinches, male and female.

It was, however, the number and variety of insects that surprised me the most considering the weather of the last few days.  Although I only saw a couple of white butterflies, the umbellifers (mainly hogweed I think) were flowering away and teeming with life.  I saw bees, flies and hoverflies galore, including this really pretty hoverfly that I had never seen before.


There were also a number of insects flitting about in the sunshine that caught my attention.  Some of these finally settled on leaves and had the biggest antennae I had ever seen.  They looked moth-like, and on googling for info discovered that they were longhorn moths (Nemophora degeerella) – certainly well-named.  According to the UK Moths site, the males (which have the long antenna) ‘dance’ in the sunshine in May and June and are quite numerous.  These were a first for me however.  This picture below shows how long the antennae are – about three times the length of the body.

Longhorn Moth
Longhorn Moth

So, the moral of the story is, there is something of interest whatever the weather.

Further experiments with my new lens.

There was a bit of blue in the sky, I was not at work today and I have a new telephoto lens; no more excuse needed for a trip to the Country Park.

I was interested to see how well the lens would perform with a bit more light than is available in our north facing garden, particularly after I dropped it on some concrete slabs! (It still appears to function, and, if anything, the image stabiliser and autofocus seem to be somewhat quieter!) I have also hankered after getting some shots of the goosanders that arrive each Winter.

The Country Park seemed to be busier in terms of people rather than birds, and I did notice a few female goosanders in one of the more sheltered areas where I hadn’t seen them in the past (and where I could not get a decent shot due to the number of trees growing at the edge of the water).

When we made it to the dam I was a little disappointed to find that the usual group of males and females was not there this time, my opportunity for wildlife photographer of the year had vanished! However, further along the reservoir I did spot a lone female and managed to get a few shots, one of which was not too bad for an early attempt (not great either, but I was pleased to get a shot).

Female Goosander

I think it must be Winter.

I have spent the last few weeks thinking about how, despite the wet Summer, this Autumn has been spectacularly colourful. The leaves on the Sycamores that I pass on the way to work have been a glowing yellow, but alas, they are no more. The wind of the last couple of days has taken away most of the leaves and left them on the ground, shadows of their former glory. The Purple Hazel and the Dogwoods in our garden, which last week seemed to laugh at the autumn, are now as naked as the Rowan and Silver Birches.

Around Daventry, apart from the evergreens, it seems as though it is only oaks that have kept their finery. Walking down the old railway track you can be fooled into thinking that the trees are still looking green, but it is the ivy, winding its way up so many trunks, that is giving the colour.

Oak Tree in Autumn

I went for two walks today, because I could, and because it wasn’t raining. This morning we walked into Daventry, and then back along the old railway track via the church yard. It was all peculiarly quiet. About this time last year we carried out the first Winter surveys for the BTO bird atlas, and the church yard was full of life (no pun intended). We struggled to count the blackbirds, they were so abundant, and, as for the old railway track, you could hardly hear yourself speak for their rustling and alarm calls. This morning there was hardly a peep (or cheep) out of them. We saw an occasional blackbird leaping about in the yew, looking for berries, but nothing else. But then, there were hardly any berries for them to leap for. Has it been a bad year for berries, was it the late frost and Easter snow, or are these shrubs and trees also suffering from the same lack of insects as most gardens this year?

Anyway, to look for more birds (and, I admit, in a half-hearted attempt to find the Red-crested Pochard again) I went to the Country Park. To sum up, it was cold. I only had binoculars (photography being my primary reason for the outing) so am not sure whether there were many birds out in the water. I am pretty sure there were no Red-crested Pochards though. What I did see, which surprised me as I have never seen them in November before, was a flotilla of Goosander. These are my bellwethers, the Harbingers of Winter. I may still be missing the redwings, but I need no other signs to tell me that it is time to get the thermals out.

Daventry Country Park in Winter

Unexpected finds at the Country Park.

A lull in the damp weather that has marked (or maybe that should be marred) recent weekends sent us out for a quick walk.  Not being sure how far we were going to go due to a bad back and the gathering grey clouds of doom and rain I was armed only with a small pair of binoculars and my small camera.

Destination – Country Park.  We came in through the back entrance, across the meadow and immediately spotted a Jay.  As my other half has an aversion to these birds since one threw a branch of an oak tree at his head, we headed in the opposite, and less muddy direction.  I immediately spotted a green woodpecker which flew across the path in the distance and perched on the fence.  As we got closer it helpfully flew back across the path flashing its bright green rump and flying with that unmistakeably woodpecker undulation.  A good start to the walk.

Next, a kingfisher.  It darted across the path like a bullet, stocky, but pointy, and flew arrow straight along the stream, a flash of electric blue. 

I didn’t think things could get much better really, but they did.  We walked through the woods, robins were ticking away (James thinks they are establishing their territory in advance of the european immigrants that often swell the numbers of song birds in the winter) and along the edge of the water.  There were a few more birds about than last week, and something caught my eye amongst a group of, as usual, slumbering pochard.  There was another bird in there, slightly bigger, with a chestnut head, white sides and a bright red beak.  It was a red crested pochard, something I have never seen before. It is a continental bird, and it is thought that those found in the UK are probably descended from escapees. Still, I was excited by this unexpected find.

Further round the Country Park the birds were having a harder time out on the water. There were flocks of gulls trying to remain still in the wind whilst they looked for food in the water, occasionally giving up the struggle, letting go and being swept off before coming back into position and starting again. Occasionally one would dive and catch something, whilst being watched by grebes for anything that got away.

Hovering Gulls

Still no redwings, and no goosander – Winter has not yet arrived.

The frost and snow may not have been good for the flowers, but the damp and grey is certainly not good for the soul.

The sudden drop in temperature last week which heralded some frost and unusually early snow finally finished off the cosmos and marigolds in the front garden. I could bear it no longer and so finally went out and pulled up the annuals. At the moment there is little to put in their place and I like to let things develop at their own pace. However, I have planted a number of tulips and alliums which I hope will appear in the spring when I have to cut the grasses back, and a set of three evergreen grasses which I accidentally bought at the garden centre yesterday when looking for said tulips and alliums.
A few cloves of garlic have also been planted, partly because I would like to grow some and, partly in the hope that the smell will keep some of the cats away.

Following the hard work I decided to treat myself to a walk in the Country Park. Boy, was it quiet. I have seen flocks of birds overhead which look as though they could have been Redwings, and there have been reports of flocks in the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire area, but I didn’t see any in the usual places in the Country Park. (But that could be because the hawthorn berries that they usually feed on are not there, neither is the rest of the hawthorn which appears to have been cleared away for some reason.)
There were very few small birds about, but then all of the bird tables and feeders were empty, so they are probably in nearby gardens where they are better fed.

The reservoir itself was also distinctly quiet. The calls of the Common Tern are now being heard in Africa, and they have not been replaced in any numbers by the usual Winter visitors. A scan of the water with my ‘scope revealed a few groups Wigeon and Pochard as well as about half dozen Shovellers and Tufted Ducks. Great Crested Grebes have now donned their winter plumage and look incredibly white, almost as if they are a different bird.

As so often it was a flock of birds that caught my eye, Lapwings. At one point standing on the shore, wandering about, then suddenly lifted as one into the air. They wheel about, almost landing, then change their mind, they gain altitude and circle around again, and you think they are leaving you. Then, just as suddenly, they are back again, flirting with the shore, making a few passes, before finally settling, seeminly in the same place as before. I was hoping to spot some other birds in with the Lapwings, and I wasn’t disappointed this time. There were two tiny waders, dwarfed by the Wigeon that they nimbly darted in between. They were typically shaped, dumpy birds with long, thin beaks. Both were grey, one with some black below. I had no idea what they are, now I think I know. I have checked them out, I think they were Dunlin, although these are usually coastal birds. I have never seen Dunlin before, yes, I think they were definitely Dunlin. Maybe there is something to warm the heart on a grey Sunday afternoon after all.