Pond Life again

I know that summer is almost here when Tom spends most of an afternoon sitting on the wooden platform over the pond watching out for signs of life.  If I’m not out there with him (I normally am), every so often he’ll run to the back door and shout “Dad!  Come and see what I’ve found!”.  He can’t wait for the dragonflies to return, but this weekend we had to make do with their smaller and daintier cousins – the damselflies.  Our first three Large Red Damselflies and a solitary Azure all arrived on Sunday and allowed me to take a few arty shots (all photos below are unedited).


Sunday was a fantastic day – in the morning we saw a bird that we’d both wanted to see for ages, taking Tom’s UK life list to 253 species.  But in the afternoon, the pond suddenly came to life and I think the couple of hours by the pond actually trumped the morning.  And we got a “pond lifer” too – a Great Diving Beetle.  I have to be honest – when Tom said he’d seen a “giant” beetle in the pond I didn’t believe him.  But this thing really is huge for a beetle!


Before we saw it we actually found a couple of their larva – they hang in the water like miniature sea horses, although in fact they are sticking their bums out of the water in order to breathe.  There were plenty of dragonfly larva too – some we were pretty sure were Southern Hawkers, but we weren’t too sure about the one below as it was very well camouflaged – one of the Chasers maybe?  How Tom picked this out I don’t know!


There was plenty of other stuff going on too – our Common Newts seem to have survived the winter, there were the usual Backswimmers, another water beetle that was a lot smaller and which we couldn’t identify, and a dead bee was providing a feast for a whole host of Pond Skaters and Water Measurers.

But you don’t want to see a picture of insects eating insects – you’d much rather see another arty shot, right?

Awesome Large Red Damselfly - Garden Pond

It is amazing what will come to the pond to drink if you sit still enough.  Tom had a lot of birds passing through (including a pair of Common Cranes flying over the garden which I missed!), and this Greenfinch arrived whilst I was there with my camera, which was very decent of it.

Greenfinch drinking - GP

We have been blessed with lots of baby birds in the garden this year already.  A Collared Dove nest at head height in a sparse bush has provided great views of the two chicks as they grew up (both fledged today), at least one baby Blackbird has been regularly begging for food on our lawn.  We’ve also had young Robins, Greenfinch and Dunnock.  The Blue Tits are back in their usual box – hopefully we’ll have young Blue Tits in the next few weeks.  Of the other nine nest boxes, none are occupied – admittedly five of those are for swifts and it is probably a week or two too early for them to be getting ready to nest (although they did arrive here a couple of weeks ago).

I nearly forgot the lifer from the morning.   Dotterel is another of those birds from the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds from my childhood that I’ve wanted to see for years.  So when two were reported just 40 minutes away on the Essex coast (near the mouth of the Colne Estuary), we had to give them a shot.  Even though we parked a lot further away than we needed to, it was still worth it – fantastic views from just 40 yards or so.  And the long walk yielded Hobby, Red Kite, Yellow Wagtail and Corn Bunting which are all birds worth walking for!

Dotterel - St Osyth

I’ve just had a quick flick through the above book – there are 217 birds with full illustrations, and there are just nine that I’ve never seen anywhere in the world (with a further five I’ve not seen in the UK).  I’m pleased that I’m not quite there yet – it means the excitement of seeing Dotterel for the first time can be replicated at least another nine times.  The ones I’ve not seen are listed below in rough order of desirability – we are hoping to get the second and third birds during a half term visit to the Peak District.

  1. Red-backed Shrike
  2. Pied Flycatcher (yes – really!)
  3. Wood Warbler
  4. Roseate Tern
  5. Corncrake
  6. Capercaillie
  7. Ptarmigan
  8. Black Grouse
  9. Quail

It is interesting to see some of the birds given just a twelfth of a page in the guide to visitors and rarer birds at the back of the book – including birds such as Little Egret, Spotted Redshank and Common Crane all of which we’d see fairly regularly now.  However the bird Tom wants to see more than any other at the moment is now even rarer than it was in 1969 – the Golden Oriole.   I think another trip to the continent is going to be required!

Cormorants v Buzzards

There was an outcry on social media last year after Natural England issued a licence to shoot up to ten Buzzards in order to protect Pheasant chicks (which are apparently classified as “livestock” which makes it possible to apply for a licence to kill wildlife to protect them).  As we all know, we have to shoot Pheasants in this country in order to feed our growing population, so the job the gamekeepers are doing is vital or British people will go hungry.  I may have got that wrong, but if we don’t protect Pheasant chicks, then at the very least, people (not) like you and I will be denied their day out in the country, blasting birds out of the sky (presumably they are no longer classified as “livestock” by this point in their lives).

But this blog isn’t about the needless destruction of birds of prey.  Nor is it an attack on Natural England.  This blog is about Cormorants.  They aren’t quite so exciting or good-looking as Buzzards.  You don’t see birders excitedly pointing at the sky when one flies over.  And unlike Buzzards, Natural England didn’t issue licences to kill ten of them in 2016.  They issued licences to kill up to two thousand.

I had no idea that Cormorants were being killed in Suffolk until the matter was raised at a recent Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group meeting.   It stuck a bit of a chord with me, because earlier this year we’d seen the largest flock of Cormorants we’ve ever come across.  They were at Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast, and this picture probably covers about a third of them – my notes say that we estimated there to be about 600.

Shingle Street - Cormorants

When I started investigating, I was amazed to learn that Natural England can also issue licences to kill Grey Heron, Red-breasted Merganser and Goosander.  These licences can all only be issued to protect fish stocks at fishing lakes and fish farms.  Whether fish farms are a good or bad thing is beyond the scope of this blog, but they do at least exist to provide food for people.  Fishing lakes however are there to provide somewhere for people to catch fish for pleasure – not dissimilar to Pheasant farming in my opinion, although fishing does seem to appeal to more normal people.

So why is there an outcry about Buzzard licences and not Cormorant licences?  Are there far fewer Buzzards than Cormorants?  Are Buzzards declining in numbers, but Cormorants increasing?  The BTO provides the following information:

Buzzard:  Green listed;  67,000 breeding pairs in the UK in 2009; over 500,000 pairs in Europe.  Species of “Least Concern”

Cormorant:  Green listed; 8,400 breeding pairs in the UK in 2004, over 275,000 pairs in Europe.  Species of “Least Concern”.  Population swells to 35,000 in winter – which makes the UK internationally important for this species.

To complete the picture for the other birds:  Goosander (Green:  3,500 breeding, 12,000 wintering), Red-breasted Merganser (Green: 2,200 / 8,400) and Grey Heron (Green:  12,000 / 61,000).  Statistics are a bit boring though – let’s forget them for a moment and ask why anyone would want to shoot this:

Red-breasted Merganser


But back to Cormorants.  There are in fact two subspecies of Cormorant in the UK.  The “native” species Phalacrocorax carbo carbo which is typically found around the coasts and nests on cliffs, and Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis which has arrived from Europe and which nests inland in trees.   In fact, the first tree-nesting colony of P. c. sinensis was at Abberton Reservoir – a place that I visit regularly.  Again according to the BTO, the population trend of each subspecies varies – the native population is actually decreasing (11% decline since 1986), but the population of the usurpers from the continent increased rapidly from the 1980s onwards until recently stabilising.  I’ve studied the pictures of the two sub-species, and I’m not convinced I’d be able to easily tell the difference in the field.  So presumably anyone shooting them probably can’t either.  If you are interested, the most reliable way of telling them apart is from the angle of the gular pouch – see here.  Once you’ve worked out what the gular pouch is, next time you see a cormorant just determine whether the pouch is angled at more than 76 degrees (sinensis) or at less than 65 degrees (carbo).  Here is a picture to practice on.


So what do these licences allow you to do, and when are they granted?  Natural England can only grant licences to cull 10% of the UK’s cormorants each year – they currently therefore grant licences to cull 2,000 birds, but have the right to increase this to 3,000 birds.   At a local level, licences are normally granted to cull 20% of the local population – this seems to keep the total for the UK below 2,000.

The Suffolk Cormorant licence that was raised at the SOG meeting is for Loompit Lakes.  This is part of the Orwell Estuary, which is protected as follows:

  • it was designated as an SSSI in 2003
  • it is a Ramsar site (internationally important wetland) according to this list
  • it is a Specially Protected Area (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive with cormorant even listed on the form that registered it as an SPA

You can see it on the map below.  Amazing that you can shoot a wetland bird on a Ramsar site.

South Suffolk - SSI MapCulling can only take place from September to April, and a licence will only be granted if “serious damage” is occurring and if other measures have been tried and proved not to work.   I don’t want to get all political at this point, but I’ve noticed over the last few years that Scotland seems to be making sensible decisions (e.g. plastic bag charges, vicarious liability for owners of shooting estates, etc) way ahead of England.   Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) are the equivalent of Natural England, and they have actually listed out the evidence required before a licence will be granted.  The details can be found here (see the first page) – they even require the fishery to perform daily bird counts!  Why isn’t a similar evidence list required in England?

In the EU, Cormorants are protected under the Birds Directive – however derogations from this Directive are permitted in certain circumstances, including where birds are causing damage to fisheries, and the UK government has taken advantage of this.  The EU have also published a guidance note which can be found here.  It tries to define “serious damage” and specifically states that the damage must have a serious economic impact – it isn’t good enough to simply see cormorants taking some fish.

Natural England does require all licence holders to complete an annual return that lists the numbers of the birds shot, and this return also acts as a licence renewal application.  I wonder if the same rigour is applied to licence renewals as it is to the original licence?  I also wonder how many resources Natural England have to monitor whether the correct number of birds are actually killed and whether they are killed humanely.  Perhaps this could form the basis of the next Mark Avery/Chris Packham petition?  Or maybe I’ll stop leaving it to other people and try to make a difference myself this time.


Weekend Wonders

This weekend everything went right with one exception – my photos …

On Saturday, Tom was very insistent that he wanted to go to the RSPB reserve at Wallasea Island.  I have often suggested we go to Wallasea, but when the time comes I have changed my mind, as I can’t face the one hour drive which is mostly down the A12 (but not in the direction along which it gets quieter).  Wallasea is a relatively new reserve and has been enhanced over the last few years by the addition of earth dug out from underneath London during the Crossrail project – this has raised the land levels and allowed better mudflats to develop.


We chose to walk along the sea wall which gave us good views of the muddy River Crouch estuary on one side, with the whole of Wallasea Island laid out on the other.  We stopped and started so often, that we ended up walking probably less than a quarter of the paths, so we’ll definitely have to come back again.

Although we’ve seen Corn Buntings in the UK since we came back from Extramadura (where they seem to be on nearly every fence post), this was the first place I’ve been to where I could listen to one singing every few hundred yards of the walk.  They were accompanied by Yellow Wagtails – we even had one of these singing to us as we ate our lunch.  Unlike Pied or Grey Wagtails which I nearly always see on the ground or on a building, Yellow Wagtails seem quite happy clinging to a reed or grass stem.  Tom then found us a Little Ringed Plover – our first this year – and there were also one or two Wheatear around.

Wallasea - Wheatear

As we left the reserve, I was forced to slam on the brakes as a raptor that didn’t look like a Buzzard or a Marsh Harrier flew overhead.  We jumped out of the car and sure enough – we’d found our first Hen Harrier of the year.  A very nice end to our first trip to this reserve.

On the way home we had to stop at Abberton Reservoir as there had been a Black Tern and a Bonaparte’s Gull reported from there – the latter would be a UK lifer for both us.  As in previous years, the Black Terns liked to congregate on the grassy edge to the water reasonably close to Gwen’s hide, which allowed me to get a digiscoped image.

Abberton - Black Terns - flight

They are noticeably smaller than Common Tern – you can see one Common Tern just taking off below the central Black Tern.  Apparently there were Arctic Tern present as well, but I’m not good enough to pick these out in flight from amongst hundreds of Common.

I am sure you are all waiting with bated breath to find out whether we added Bonaparte’s Gull to Tom’s UK list.  Well – you’ll have to work that out for yourselves from the photo below.  Funnily enough, this gull didn’t turn out to be in the top 10 wildlife moments of the weekend!

Abberton - Bonaparte's Gull

Saturday had been pretty good, but Sunday was going to be even better.  We were joining a SOG walk at Eastbridge which basically skirted around the whole of Minsmere.   The walk was led by David Walsh who is a professional guide for Ornitholidays and is an incredibly good Suffolk birder to boot.  We saw over 85 species before lunch (admittedly we did start at 7am, which meant a 5:30am wake-up for Tom) – but the bird highlight turned out to be a bird we didn’t actually see.   Grasshopper Warblers are quite hard to find in the UK, but they have a very distinctive reeling song (a bit like the Savi’s Warbler we’d heard at Minsmere the previous weekend).  This was also a UK lifer for Tom – our second of the weekend!

You may have noticed the quality of the photographs is getting progressively worse as you read this blog.   My photograph of the trip highlight maintains this trend.  Tom saw his first Adder last weekend, and this weekend he saw his first black Adder.  This is the melanistic form of the Adder and there is some speculation that it does better than the usual colour form (it will warm up more quickly as black absorbs heat comparatively quickly).

Minsmere - Black Adder - rear end

We added quite a few birds to our 2017 list including Garden Warbler, Swift, Little Tern and Dartford Warbler, but probably the most spectacular birds we saw at Minsmere were a Knot and a Bar-tailed Godwit in full summer plumage.   Not that you can tell from the photograph below.

Minsmere - Barwit and Knot

After lunch we headed to Hollesley Marsh (Tom took a bit of persuading given he’d already walked 6 miles and had been up for 8 hours, although the fact that he wanted to be sure of getting back in time for the Spurs v Arsenal game may have also influenced him a little!).   There were a couple of birds reported at Hollesley that we wanted to see – Little Stint and the ridiculous Black-winged Stilt.  You really have to see these yourself to appreciate the crazy legs on these things!  Just look at the angle they have to bend over at, just to get their beaks to touch the mud!

Hollesley - Black-winged Stilt bows

And to complete a miserable photographic weekend, I had my phone attached to my telescope pointing at the above birds just as they decided to mate.  Did I press the button?  Or did I panic?  I’ll let you guess.

Minsmere does it again

We often go to Minsmere at this time of year to look for adders, but this time it was a specific bird that tempted us out – a Savi’s Warbler had been heard “reeling” for the last few days (there was also one there last year for several weeks).  Somehow I managed to persuade Tom to get out of bed at 6:30am, and a little after 8am we were in Island Mere hide listening out for the Savi’s.  Two very noisy Greylags right outside the hide didn’t help.

It took about an hour of waiting for us to hear it, and then it was quite distant, although we hear it a bit closer as we left.  I did comment to Tom at the time that we must be quite strange people to get up early, drive for an hour and then wait around for an hour, all to hear a few seconds of bird song that we’d never heard in the UK before!  The waiting wasn’t too bad though – a Cuckoo flew over calling loudly, Bearded Tits kept popping up and flying low over the reeds before dropping down to a new location, and Bitterns boomed in the background.  Add to that the constant chatter of Sedge Warblers and the pairs of Marsh Harriers floating around, and it was actually a rather enjoyable hour.


On the way back to the Visitor’s Centre for our second breakfast of the day, we wandered along the Adder Trial, scouring the ground for adders – but with no luck.  Adder would have to remain on Tom’s “must see” list for a bit longer.

The UK’s other venomous animal – the Water Shrew – is also found at Minsmere, and we were lucky enough to find this in what we call the Water Vole pond.  Although we love seeing Water Voles, seeing the tiny shrew was in fact even more thrilling – partly because we’d never seen one before, and partly because you could watch it swimming under the water.  It was also the first time we’d seen one – our second “lifer” of the day.

Minsmere’s bird life didn’t disappoint either – a Stone Curlew was on the field where it was supposed to be (for a change); Common and Sandwich Terns were back on the scrape amongst hundreds of gulls; Avocets swept the water for food, and we even got a few waders though most have now migrated.  We finished the day on 72 species which we were pretty pleased with – and 8 of these were new to our 2017 year list.

We were on the last stretch of path surrounding the scrapes, when Tom suddenly said “Adder”.  Amazingly, an Adder was sunning itself on the path just 2 yards in front of us.  We realised afterwards that if he hadn’t been paying attention, one of us may well have trodden on it, but at the time we were far too excited to worry about things like that!


It didn’t seem too bothered by us – although it did slowly slither off into the nearby hedge, where it lay long enough for me to get a photograph.   We had to tell everyone who came past that there was an Adder to look at, and eventually it had had enough of all the attention and disappeared.  As we continued on, Tom twice asked me whether it had really been there.  He had wanted to see an Adder for so long, he couldn’t believe he finally had!

But that wasn’t the only snake we saw at Minsmere – as we approached the Water Vole pond (for the third time that day), a chap turned to me and said “How are your snake identification skills?”.  I immediately knew that there must be a Grass Snake in the pond, and sure enough we could just make out its head (with a bright yellow neck collar) peeping out of the water.  We were then treated to the sight of it swimming across the pond and into the reeds, where I managed to get this very poor shot – although if you look carefully you can see its tail under the water and its yellow collar in the dead grasses.


Today pushed our 2017 year list through the 150 mark, although we are still a few behind where we were at this time in 2016.  Hopefully a half-term trip to the Peak District (and possibly Bempton Cliffs) will help to catch us up.

Wild Poland – Part 3

With so many mammals and birds already seen and blogged about, what could possibly be left?  Below is a brief selection of the best of the rest.


We were a bit early in the year for butterflies, but nevertheless did see a few species that are common in the UK – Brimstone, Peacock, Comma and this lovely Small Tortoiseshell


The best butterfly however was the Camberwell Beauty – still found in the UK but not easy to see.  It is one of my favourite butterflies and we saw it several times.


Reptiles and Amphibians

There were plenty of lazy toads hitching lifts on slightly larger (female!) toads, such as this pair that we almost ran over.


In the restricted area of the forest, there was a large pool which was full of frogs – both Common and Moor, the latter being quite blue whilst in the water.  This was the most frogs I’ve ever seen in one place – and lots of frog spawn too.


Whilst peering over a bridge looking at Lynx tracks below, we heard a rustle behind us, and found this chap hiding in the grass.  Quite hard to spot at first glance.



This isn’t my area of expertise, but the forests had a huge number of different fungi.  One of my favourites was Dead Man’s Fingers (below).


I think the one below is a Red Banded Polyphore – it was easily found on many trees in the forest.


How to change your wife

For those of you who know Jessica, she isn’t generally that keen on:

  • getting up early
  • doing anything before a coffee
  • birdwatching (unless a walk is involved)

So imagine my surprise when I returned from a walk before breakfast and spotted this on the way back to the room:


And that wasn’t all.  Jessica is really rather safety conscious, especially where Tom is concerned.  So what on earth is she doing taking this photo of us birdwatching just inside the Belarus border?  To be fair, standing on the railway line was the only place from which you could see the reservoir properly, and the driver was watching out for trains – and only slow-moving goods trains used the line.


So – if you are thinking of visiting Poland, then beware – it might change you in ways you weren’t expecting!

Wild Poland – Part 2


Only one place to start when talking about the birds of Białowieża forest – the woodpeckers.  I’ve never seen so many in one place before.  Two of the British species were easy to find – Great and Lesser Spotted.  The Middle Spotted was also very common, although getting a good photo was not easy.


The others were quite a bit harder.  Black Woodpeckers are impressively large and we got great views in the restricted area of the forest watching one chiselling out a nest hole. Grey-headed were heard calling quite regularly, but we only got good views once – this was on the day where Tom walked around 10 miles and I think seeing the woodpecker gave him the extra energy needed to get back to the car.  The prettiest were the Three-toed Woodpeckers (below) – we saw these several times and on one memorable occasion we had three on the same tree!


White-backed proved quite hard but we got there eventually, and Green (the third British species) we only saw once.  That just left the Syrian Woodpecker to complete the set.  On the way back to Warsaw, Piotr took a short detour to a nearby town (having spent a bit of time the day before on the phone with birding friends), and amazingly found us one on a willow by a canal.  It was only his third Syrian, which gives you an idea of how good a find this was.


When were in Spain, White Storks were everywhere, but I didn’t realise that the country with the highest number of White Stork in Europe is actually Poland.  One great thing about these birds is that they stand still to be photographed.


Towards the end of the holiday, our guide Piotr pulled off one of the most ridiculous “bird spotting from a fast-moving car” feats that I’ve ever seen.  Black Storks are big birds, but the one he found for us was two fields away and partially hidden under a tree in the corner of a field with dark woodland behind.  When I first looked at it through binoculars I wasn’t even sure it was a bird!

Ducks, Grebes, Waders and other water birds

The stand-out duck was the Garganey – plenty of these around in the flooded fields of the Biebrza and Narew rivers, but we also had Smew and plenty of the more usual ducks.  The most frequently encountered goose was the White-fronted, closely followed by Bean.

At the “fish ponds” (a series of seven large fishing lakes) on the edge of Bialystok we were treated to stunning views of Red-necked Grebes in full summer plumage (later in Biebrza, we also got Black-necked Grebes in similar garb).  These lakes also hosted a large Black-headed Gull colony which was memorable for the noise they made.  Tom found us an Osprey here, and we also got to watch a Great Crested Grebe’s “weed dance” – my first ever.  If you’ve never heard of this before, there is a lovely video on YouTube (the bit with the weed comes around the 1 minute mark):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN5bThgJhX4


There weren’t many waders around (a couple of weeks earlier and we’d have got a lot more water birds in general, but many had left for their breeding grounds).   Ruff were the exception, and there were quite a few Redshank, plus a few Godwit and a solitary Greenshank.

We got to see plenty of Common Cranes though – both on the ground and in the air.  The trumpeting call of a Crane is an extraordinarily loud sound, and hearing it was one of the stand-out experiences of the holiday (especially as we were watching Bison when we first heard it).  Turn up the volume, plug in the sub-woofer and listen to it here.



For any non-birding friends that may be reading this, the wagtail family is one of the more complex in terms of subspecies.  In the UK we have three species – Pied, Grey and Yellow.   In Europe, the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla yarrellii) is replaced by a related subspecies – the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba).  The main difference is the much lighter grey back.


The Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima) in the UK is a subspecies – the nominative form (Motacilla flava) is the one found in Poland – known as the Blue-headed Wagtail.  In another “spot from a fast-moving car”, Piotr managed to find us a couple of these in a newly ploughed field.  These are migratory birds, and the two Piotr found were the first reported in Poland this year.

So that’s the Yellow Wagtail subspecies all wrapped up then right?  Well – apart from Spanish Wagtail, Ashy-headed Wagtail,  Grey-headed Wagtail, Black-headed Wagtail ….

Birds of Prey

Buzzards and Marsh Harriers were seen almost constantly, and Goshawk, Kestrel, Hen Harrier and Sparrowhawk were all encountered, but the really exciting birds of prey that we were hoping to see were the eagles.  And we got all three species over the same reservoir in the same hour!  At one point, there were 18 White-tailed Eagles sitting on a grassy bank, but the best view was when a White-tailed was joined by a Greater Spotted Eagle as they circled up and up over the water.  The third species was the Lesser Spotted Eagle which we saw several times over the second half of the holiday.

The panoramic shot below gives an idea of the sort of habitat you could be scanning for ducks and waders and over which a White-tailed Eagle would be regularly seen.  There is actually one sitting in a tree in the middle of this shot, but I defy anyone to find it!


Those of you who have read Part 1 of this blog are probably wondering whether we saw the Pygmy Owl at 5am.  Well – we didn’t.  But we did hear Tengmalm’s Owl instead, and a couple of days later we went out in the evening and our guide did manage to whistle in a Pygmy.  I couldn’t believe how tiny this owl was – honestly, a large vole would probably be able to fight it off.  In flight, it looked the size of a Robin!

Birds Dave’s not seen

Most of you won’t know Dave.   He is one of our best friends and has seen in the region of 6,000 of the world’s birds.  He also reads this blog.  If I remember correctly, he’s not seen Hazel Grouse yet – and this was the only bird missing from our list of expected species as we collected the camera trap during the last 30 minutes of our stay in Białowieża.  Then we looked behind us, and watched as two Hazel Grouse crossed the track and disappeared into the undergrowth.  Mission accomplished!

Hard to see in Britain

On each trip we make, we always notice one bird that is hard to see in Britain, but is really easy to find in whatever country we are visiting.  In Spain it was the Corn Bunting; in southern France, the Black Redstart.  In Białowieża it was the Hawfinch and in Biebrza it was the Ruff (we must have seen well over a thousand).   In both places, there were also plenty of Tree Sparrows which were a lot easier to photograph than Hawfinch or Ruff.


Personal find

One of the problems in going birdwatching with one of the best guides in Europe is that they will nearly always find the birds before you do.  It is a really good feeling to be the first in a group to find an interesting bird, so I decided that the only way to do it was to sneak out on my own before dinner.  I was standing in a doorway of a outdoor dining area at the Biebrza hotel, when a Hoopoe walked around the corner and stayed within 2 yards of me for several seconds before he saw me.  Needless to say, I had to run back to the room to get Tom and Piotr – fortunately the bird hung around long enough for everyone to see it.  Again we got lucky as this is another migratory species, and this was only the second record for Poland this year.

Note to self – always take camera when sneaking off birding before dinner.  You’ll all have to make do with a picture of a friendly Song Thrush instead.


My best moment

Given that I’m a birder, my best moment was always going to involve a bird.  But what was it?  One of the woodpeckers perhaps?  An eagle?  For quite a while I thought it was going to be the Penduline Tit (a bird I’ve long wanted to see) which Piotr found for us – especially as we got to watch it starting to build its nest.  Unfortunately the direction of the light meant that all the photos came out as silhouettes, but below is a picture of what its finished nest would eventually look like.


In the end, my best moment involved a bird that is common in Britain.  On the early morning on which we saw the Elk crossing the road (see Part 1), we also walked out along a long boardwalk to a wooden platform in the middle of the marsh.  We were surrounded by reeds, and one species of bird was zipping about in the sky all around us making its crazy call and making an even crazier sound with its tail feathers.  Snipe!  I’ve never properly heard snipe drumming before.  They make the sound by changing the angle of their tail feathers and diving downwards so that the air through the feathers makes a sound that I can’t describe in English – the tail feathers were clearly visible in the binoculars as several birds came very close.  To have so many of them (around a hundred at a guess) drumming and calling all around us was truly magical.

Guess the bird

And finally – I spent quite a bit of time trying to get photographs of birds that aren’t common in the UK in order to challenge your identification skills.   See if you can work out the two below.  In the first I had to pretend to fumble with the camera whilst the bird sat out in the open so that I could get a shot of the bird partly obscured by a branch.


And in this second shot, the hardest part was making sure I didn’t press the camera button on time.


In Part 3 – amphibians, reptiles, butterflies and how Jessica has changed …

Wild Poland – Part 1

When Jessica married me nearly 20 years ago, I doubt she envisaged that one day we’d be standing in a forest in Poland at 5am whilst a guide whistled for a Pygmy Owl!  But that is where we were a week ago.   The week turned into one of the most amazing wildlife trips we’ve made – one where everything just seemed to click into place.  This was largely thanks to our guide Piotr who seemed to be able to spot everything that moved or made a sound within a 1 kilometre radius!   The trip was organised through Wild Poland who did a fantastic job from start to finish.   Each hotel made a real effort to provide vegan food for us at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the cooking at the Wejmutka guesthouse in particular was superb.  A luxury vehicle with drivers who constantly jumped out to open the doors for you meant that every moment of the trip was a wonderful experience for us.

The trip was split into two parts – four nights in Białowieża forest followed by three nights in Biebrza marshes. Białowieża is a huge area (over 1000 square miles) of forest spanning the Poland/Belarus border (a little under 50% of the forest lies in Poland).  A small area (about 40 square miles) of the Polish forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park, although the current Polish government has recently approved logging operations in the National Park, the results of which are already obvious as you drive through the area.  There is then a strictly protected area of the National Park into which you are only allowed if accompanied by a licensed guide.  This area has been left alone – as you can see from the many fallen trees covered in moss.  It is the most beautiful woodland I’ve ever been to – even in early April there are plenty of birds and flowers.  It is hard to do justice to it in a photograph – note the carpet of flowers, bracket fungus, mossy fallen trees, the sunlight coming through and the number of different tree species in the photo below.


The Biebrza river system and marshes are contained within a massive flood plain.  For someone from the UK who is used to seeing the “large” reedbeds of Minsmere, the scale of Biebrza is hard to comprehend.  The flood plain area is huge – everywhere you travel there are flooded fields and it is impossible to work out exactly where the banks of the river are.  This panoramic view taken on my iPhone gives some idea, but stepping out of a car in a small village to be presented with this view was really breathtaking.


And now – on to the wildlife …

I’m primarily interested in birds, but for the first part of this blog I’m going to focus on the mammals as they were a big part of the reason why we chose to go to Poland in the first place.  Tom made it very clear to Piotr when we met at the airport, that not seeing a Bison would not be acceptable.  Piotr’s response was that he’d see one before supper, and sure enough – he did!


I had thought that the Bison would the highlight of the trip in terms of mammals, but in fact it was the Elk that stole the show.  We had got up early at the Dwor Dubarz hotel in the Biebrza marshes, and had only driven for a couple of minutes before we saw an Elk crossing the road a hundred yards ahead of us.  When we arrived at the spot we could see three Elk grazing a short distance away, but as we got out of the car, we realised there was another one in the reeds right beside where we’d parked.


This beautiful and huge animal then crossed the road within 5 yards of us and joined the others grazing in the field.  This was almost (but not quite), the top moment of the holiday for me.


That evening we were taken to a small house on the Narew River for a night time boat trip to search for Beaver.   The boat was like a long rowing boat (seating maybe 8) with an outboard motor and the boatmen had powerful torches to look for Otter, Mink and Beaver in the water (the former should be easy to spot as their eyes reflect the light, whereas beaver’s eyes do not).  Having had to wait all of 2 minutes for the Elk in the morning, this time we got a Beaver within 45 seconds!  It was night time, so I’m afraid the photo isn’t very good but will give you an idea of how close we were able to get.


Like the Elk, it was completely unconcerned by us – it let us watch it for 10 minutes whilst it chewed on a stick.  We then left it alone to travel up the river.  Almost at the end of the trip we found more beavers – this time swimming in the water.  Having been lucky enough in Nova Scotia last year to watch a Humpback swim under the boat, we couldn’t quite believe it when one of the beavers did the same thing!  All perfectly lit up by the torches as well.  But no – this wasn’t quite the best moment of the trip either …

Białowieża forest also provided several views of Red Squirrels which allowed you to get quite close, sometimes freezing on a tree trunk in the hope you hadn’t seen them.


But the most abundant mammal in the forest is almost certainly the Bank Vole.  In the UK you are lucky if you see these clearly, although you’ll hear the rustles in the hedgerows on nearly every walk in Suffolk.  But in the restricted part of the forest (the last primeval temperate forest in Europe), they could be seen on every fallen tree.


We saw plenty of other mammals, often from the car – one of the major advantages of having a separate guide and driver is that the guide can spot things from the car without risking driving off the road!  The lack of traffic meant that the car could stop almost anywhere, so we could get out and have great views of Brown Hare, Roe Deer and this Fox.


There were of course mammals that we didn’t see – in particular Wolf and Lynx.  Before I went to Poland, I didn’t think seeing tracks of these animals would be very exciting, but in fact knowing that you were standing where a Lynx had had a drink a few hours earlier did provide a quite a buzz!


Piotr was an expert at finding and identifying tracks and other signs (largely poo!) all around the forest.  We saw many many signs of Wolf, and also signs of Stoat, Pine Marten, Racoon Dog, Red Deer and others.  All-in-all, we saw 10 different terrestial mammal species and saw signs of 8 more.

At the end of the trip, we spent a couple of days in Warsaw – where we added one last species in one of the parks.  We didn’t have Piotr to help identify it, but we are fairly confident it was a Striped Field Mouse given that its main feature was a bold black stripe down its back.

I know you are all desperate to find out about the birds we saw – but you’ll have to be patient until I find the time to write part 2 of this blog (which will reveal my top wildlife movement of the trip).  Right now I’m off for a spring walk in the Suffolk countryside.