Three humbugs, with spashes of yellow and red

About ten days’ ago I bumped into Sue Sellick in Shapwick village: had I seen the grebes from the Decoy Hide on the Heath recently? A pair had nested close to the hide, and their three chicks were still young enough to be hitching rides on their parents’ backs. I hadn’t, but I persuaded Jen that we really should go. They were just outside the hide and very photogenic!

Great crested Grebe at Shapwick Heath with a humbug hitching a ride.

The parents took it in turns to carry their chicks while the other went fishing.

The chicks seemed to have insatiable appetites…

There were three little humbugs in all, though usually only one showed at any one time.

Family portrait on a sunny afternoon…

A few days previously I went to Harnhill, in Cirencester, for three days’ retreat. While there I went on a walk over the fields towards Ampney Crucis – and I heard many yellowhammers singing, for the first time in ages. This may be because I’ve not been in typical yellowhammer habitat in a long time, but it’s a nationally red-listed species, meaning that it is endangered because of a serious recent population decline. I was determined to get a good photo, and having spotted a favourite perch of one pair, I went back a couple of times to do so.

Yellowhammer near Harnhill, Cirencester

At the end of last week, while Jen was still in London, I went up one of the coombs on the edge of the Quantocks to try to see redstarts. I wasn’t particularly hopeful of much more than a distant sighting, and in the lower part of the valley the lack of birdsong didn’t improve my outlook. Halfway up, I happened to turn around, just in time to see a flash of red tail feathers fly across the path. It was indeed a redstart! After hanging around for a while I realised I was close to the nest site, and found myself watching both parents while they were feeding their young. Although my camera ended up malfunctioning, it was my best sighting of redstarts, and my first photographic sequence of the male was at least halfway decent!

Redstart in the Quantocks

Catching insects by the beakful

Redstart at the Gilfach Farm reserve

Redstart at the Gilfach Farm reserve

Walking around the Gilfach Farm nature reserve near Rhayader feels a bit like walking along a 19th century valley. Birds species which are elusive in other woodlands are quite showy there.

My main aim was to photograph redstarts. The first one I saw, which was lower in the valley than expected, ended up providing the best pictures. There were several others in the field above the farm, which moved far too quickly for my camera skills…

Shortly after, I wanted to get a good picture of the stream running through the valley (which soon flows into the upper reaches of the River Wye). As I waded through the undergrowth to get the edge of the stream, I noticed a dipper perched on a rock in the middle of the stream, doing lots of odd bobs up-and-down (hence the name). It was ideally situated – and for me it was quite by chance.

Dipper on the Afon Marteg, flowing through the Gilfach Farm reserve.

Dipper on the Afon Marteg, flowing through the Gilfach Farm reserve.

Male pied flycatcher

Male pied flycatcher

The reserve is a great location for pied flycatchers, because there’s a hide just next to some nestboxes which they use. While I was there they were feeding their young: the female seemed to do more trips and probably collected from closer by, while the male appeared to fly further. It would be interesting to know if there was a difference in the kind of prey they were collecting.

Pied flycatcher female at Gilfach Farm.

Pied flycatcher female at Gilfach Farm.

Pied flycatcher with a beakful of insects

Pied flycatcher with a beakful of insects

Gilfach Farm is an easy place to romaticise, but the disused industrial workings – such as a 30-yard railway tunnel which now hosts five species of bat – show that the 19th century scene would have been rather different. However the lack of insecticides then would at least have been far better for the flycatchers and redstarts.

Walking the valley of time past

Some while ago, I was chatting with another birder who waxed lyrical about a nature reserve near Rhayader: “You even get redstarts coming to the feeders there” he said. So on Friday I made my way to Gilfach Farm, wondering whether it would live up to expectations.

The River Marteg flowing through Gilfach Farm

The River Marteg flowing through Gilfach Farm

Arriving at the car park I spotted another birder so I assumed he must be the fount of all wisdom for the site. He only partially disabused me of that notion: “For me also it is ze first time, but I hef seen ze pied flycatcher from zis hide, and ze redstarts are along ze river here” – which was exactly the information I needed.

Wandering along the side of the stream I was surprised how little birdlife there appeared to be, but assumed this was because it was mid-day. Eventually I caught sight of one bird that I could look at through binoculars – and it was a male redstart!

It was less obliging for the camera though, but there were other birds that soon grabbed my attention, such as a treecreeper which was rapidly picking its way around the mossy branches.

For a treecreeper, this mossy branch is an ideal hunting ground for insects.

For a treecreeper, this mossy branch is an ideal hunting ground for insects.

Pied flycatcher at Gilfach Farm

Pied flycatcher at Gilfach Farm

At the Otter Hide, a pair of pied flycatchers was using one of the nest boxes there. I soon discovered that trying to photograph them entering or leaving the box wasn’t particularly successful or interesting; however, they tended to perch on a nearby branch first, which proved to be much more satisfactory. They moved quickly though so focussing was a problem – until one landed exactly where the camera was pointed!

The old farmhouse was a short distance away, and I arrived just as some live food was being put out for the insect-eaters. Sure enough, a pair of redstarts were among those that visited. The female generally lingered, but the male was very quick and my photographic efforts were rather futile.

The main building is an old fifteenth century longhouse: the family had lived at one end, with the animals in the byre at the other. It remained like this until it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Radnorshire Wildlife Trust bought it in 1988 as a nature reserve and organic farm.

"You did want me to pose for the camera, didn't you?" - redstart at Gilfach Farm

“You did want me to pose for the camera, didn’t you?” – redstart at Gilfach Farm

On my way back I stopped off where I had seen the redstarts before, and realised that they were posing really nicely for the camera – but not where I had expected. Oddly enough there was a gazebo nearby, which would serve as a partial hide, and as I approached the male landed on one of the posts that supported the gazebo!

I then watched over the next hour, as both the male and female made frequent trips to a patch of long grass which seemed to yield plenty of prey, often perching on one of the nearby fence-posts.

Redstart at Gilfach Farm

Redstart at Gilfach Farm

Redstart having subdued an obstinate moth

Redstart having subdued an obstinate moth

Female redstart at Gilfach Farm

Female redstart at Gilfach Farm

Gilfach Farm fully lived up to expectations, and indeed exceeded them: it’s a beautiful reserve with a timeless air. Being able to see and photograph both pied flycatchers and redstarts was a real treat – and I was fortunate enough to end up with much better shots than I expected.

Migration excitements

The spring migration season is always an exciting time for birdwatchers – and I’ve been particularly fortunate this year. It’s required a couple of early morning starts in the Forest of Dean, wading through floodwaters at Coombe Hill, and a mad dash to Herefordshire – but each one has been immensely rewarding.

The trips to the Forest of Dean were to go on a couple of RSPB guided walks at Nagshead led by Lewis Thomson, the warden. He has an astonishing ability to pick out individual birdsong from the cacophony around: you go along a path, then suddenly he’d point in some random direction and say, “there’s a garden warbler in that bush!” – and you’d look, and there it would be.

We saw a number of stunning birds on the two walks, including both pied and spotted flycatchers and a very showy wood warbler, but the best event was at the end of the second walk. Lewis noticed a pair of redstarts (migrants from north Africa) at a nest site he’d not seen before, and as we watched we realised we were seeing a key moment in their lives: she was inspecting the nest that he’d built to attract a mate. She disappeared inside the tree hole to look around, while he hopped nervously around the branches outside. We were close enough that, with binoculars, we had exceptionally good views of this little drama.

Last Friday I found myself wading through floodwaters with fellow birder Dave Doughty. We were at Coombe Hill Meadows, in the flood-plain of the Severn. A red-necked phalarope had arrived. It’s one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds – most of the few dozen that nest do so on Fetlar, one of the remoter Shetland islands, to which they migrate from their wintering area in the Arabian Sea.

The chance of seeing unusual birds on passage between wintering and breeding sites is one reason why Britain is a good place for birdwatching. Another is that it is unusually well located for attracting rare vagrants from distant places – which can turn up anywhere. This happened rather spectacularly last weekend.

The story goes that Paul Downes, a birder in Herefordshire, had been getting his wife Christina interested in bird-watching. This almost went wrong last Sunday afternoon, because a diversion to see one bird led to her being late for dog-training. As a result she went up Bradnor Hill afterwards to give the dog a longer walk. She came back and said, “there was a strange bird up there…”.

It may have got the journey wrong – but it had plenty of admirers

This turned out to be a bird rarely seen in the UK: a cream-coloured courser. This kind of discovery may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for lifelong birders.

It’s a bird that doesn’t do Europe: it inhabits a swathe from north Africa, Arabia and across to Pakistan, but nowhere further north. However, unusual weather has brought a few into southern Europe this spring, and it’s possible that this individual is one of them.

I read about this on Monday, and figured that with a free evening, fine weather and a late sunset, I could get to see it. Hence a mad dash after work.

Cream-coloured courser, Bradnor Hill, Herefordshire

By half seven, I’d parked the car on the road past the club house, and made my way over the top to where other birders had gathered, along the 8th fairway. There, just on the edge of the rough, was the courser.

It may not have been quite the semi-desert with which it is normally associated – but it was unperturbed by its abundant admirers, all keeping at a respectful but eager distance. As Paul Downes later put it, “the little show-off [was] seemingly performing laps of honour to the assembled photographers and birders!”

Forest birding

I’ve discovered that birding in forests requires different skills than around wetlands. At somewhere like Slimbridge or Saltholme, the birds are often easily visible on the water or striding along the water’s edge. However, in a forest, if the tastiest insects are high up in the canopy, why would a bird want to come down and wave its feathers just so a human can see it?

Desiring to become proficient in forest birding, I’ve visited the RSPB reserve at Nagshead in the Forest of Dean a few times. However, each time I went, I came away having seen very little of the star species there. (I did see a family of wild boar trotting through on one occasion, though!) Top of my list was to see a spotted flycatcher… I spent two hours at a prime location, and saw nothing… only to see later in the day that someone else on the reserve (actually, the warden) had seen eight pairs!!

All this led me to whinge to the reserve warden, Lewis Thomson, about my lack of luck at Nagshead – so he kindly agreed to take me on an early morning bird walk. It’s surprising how different the place looks when you have an expert to show you!

Hawfinch chomping rowan berries. Photo: Lewis Thomson

Our first stop was a set of large rowan trees, full of berries. This is a regular, early morning stop for local hawfinches – but which tend to disappear into the heart of the forest once the day wears on and people are around. This large, massively-billed finch is nationally scarce, but the Forest of Dean is a stronghold for them. There were about five which flew around the rowans, guzzling the abundant berries, often sitting long enough on exposed branches for one to be able to admire them properly. There were also some pied flycatchers around, which are impressive birds in themselves, although this time the hawfinches were the more attention-grabbing.

Shortly after leaving the rowans, I received some big lessons in forest birding. As we walked slowly along one of the paths, Lewis heard a redstart, and shortly after spotted it flitting around one of the trees. Clearly, being able to recognise the songs and calls is an important skill when leaves and branches so often get in the way, whereas it’s almost unnecessary near wetlands. Then we waited, and eventually the redstart – a female – became readily visible. Lewis explained that it’s a mistake to follow after a bird that has disappeared into a bush – this will only force it to fly away. If one waits, the bird may well hop into view, becoming relatively comfortable with being watched.

Our walk lasted about a couple of hours, and has given me a new appreciation of forest birding. But we dipped on spotted flycatchers… I’ll have to wait until next spring for them, I think!