Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Frozen cold

Some winter cheer - best wishes to anyone who's reading that you have a happy and successful 2011.

You may have heard that the UK's been suffering the coldest December for a century: it's certainly been an interesting one down here in Devon! A bit of chilly weather in mid-December, whilst the rest of the country was gripped by ice and snow, left some of us feeling smug and happy that we lived in the 'soft south'...

Pre-snow, Exminster Marshes in the first hint of the cold weather: the pools all frozen and almost every bird on or around the main storage lagoon on the site. Picturesque, though.

A pale and watery sunrise,  reminiscent of Turner's work. Only in England...

Reed Bunting

However, a short while later a 20cm layer of snow appeared overnight, wiping the smile off my face. A nice selection of interesting birds promptly appeared in the garden, including the expected Brambling, Redwing and Fieldfare, and a thoroughly unexpected Moorhen, walking down the neighbours' hedge!

Chaffinches were confused by the depth of the snow

A poor and grotty photo of a nice bird in the garden: Redwing

Even the squirrels were out making snowmen

Moorhen wondering what on Earth is going on.

And of course, a sunny day makes a perfect opportunity for a walk and a chance to take some pictures.

The river Bovey, as it ripples and roils downstream to join the Teign


Holly in the Bovey

Holly in the Bovey. Again.

Snow, snow, snow...

Freezing fog dusts a lone oak on the edge of the Parke estate

The river Bovey between Bovey Tracey and Lustleigh, steaming in the early morning sunshine

Frozen birch

More frozen frosty snowy trees. You know the score.

Yarner woods looking monochromatic and chaotic

The clear skies and even layer of snow also made a very nice combination to take the camera for a walk when we headed over to my parents' place for Christmas.

Haldon Belvedere in the evening sun

Nice male Brambling. Through the parents' double-glazing.

Blue Tit

The lure of a handful of apples was enough to bring in plenty of Blackbirds and Starlings, with Song Thrush, Redwing and Fieldfare thrown in for good measure. One female Blackbird in particular was extremely aggressive, chasing everything - even Fieldfares - off 'her' apples.

Blackbird vs Song Thrush

Blackbird makes victory salute after a first round KO

Apples: they've got tough skins...

...takes some effort to get...


...bit of...(aargh)...

skin off!

Just as a thaw was predicted, the temperatures tumbled lower: Boxing Day morning saw a rather nippy -7C at my parents' house, close to Exeter (I know it's nothing compared to many others, but cold enough for us, thankyou very much!) - a walk around Exminster Marshes that morning was particularly interesting.

To begin with, the canal was frozen solid. A small hole in the ice was kept free by a group of Coot, with a pair of Gadwall and a single Little Grebe - all moving rather sluggishly in the cold.

The Exeter ship canal, sans ships.

Coot freezing into the canal

Spot the Gadwall

Coots still freezing in the ice. Little Grebe huddling in for warmth.

A little further along the canal, a small seep of flowing water into a ditch was providing a life-line for a Water Rail; normally a bird which is extremely wary - this one was presumably so close to the edge that it let us wander past a few metres away without running for cover.

Water Rail, on the edge

At the Turf Locks hotel, a disconsolate group of Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing and Oystercatcher huddled on the frosty grass, whilst Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit flew up and down river, searching for the earliest opportunity to get onto fresh mud before it froze solid.

Black-tailed Godwit - looking odd because its legs are tucked in to its belly, rather than flapping along behind - they look oddly chesty in this pose.

Turf locks jetty

Lapwing heading over to check whether the marshes are snow-free yet. Nope.

Crystals on the fringes of the snow

To cap it all, ice floes were floating down the river Exe on the ebbing tide, with cargoes of Lapwing and Dunlin. Quite, quite surreal!

Lapwing and Dunlin drift downriver on ice-floe.

Reed-heads in the growing sunlight

Lapwings looking mournful in the snow

Lapwing on ice

Cheers... to a successful 2011!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Drake is going west, lad

So off we headed east. The weather was a pleasure - down in Devonshire at least. We wombled off to Cambridgeshire to walk round Wicken Fen, arriving just in time to have a short walk around Britain's oldest National Nature Reserve before dark. Vast numbers of woodpigeons clattered out of the trees as we worked our way around the western side of the site, with Reed Buntings diving into the fen to roost and Snipe rocketing out of the fen to feed. We spent a while munching chocolate cake and watching the swirling starlings from the tower hide, as Marsh Harriers gathered to roost; all rounded off with a fine Barn Owl floating low along the canal banks in front of us and a ringtail Hen Harrier which nearly flew through the hide on its way to roost in the sedge-fen.

A rather Turner-esque sunset over Wicken Fen.

A bright and bitter morning dawned on us unsuspecting Devonians, as we circumnavigated the horrendous Cambridge traffic and headed off across the unremittingly flat Cambridgeshire countryside to Welney WWT. Clear skies meant that the temperature had dropped off strongly, so most of the little water present on the floodplain was frozen solid. A mass of Whooper Swans were feeding intently on food left out for them in front of the main hide, along with a handful of Greylags. A nicely mixed bag of ducks - Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Pochard and Shoveler were loafing and preening in front of the hide, whilst a host of Wigeon grazed the banks on the far side of the floodplain. Lapwing were scattered across the grassland, looking miserably cold...

The Ouse Washes - mainly frozen but very beautiful
Whooper Swans make sure to keep the Greylags at bay as they feed

We finally returned to the cafe, had a cup of tea and admired the feeding frenzy of Collared Doves, Jackdaws, Greenfinches and House Sparrows on the feeders outside, with a handful of Tree Sparrows mixed in. Time to move on, after scanning quickly through the flocks of swans on the neighbouring fields, just to have a look at some Bewick's Swans amongst the Whoopers - not so easy to pick up quickly when everyone's up to their nostrils in mud! Fortunately the size difference helps.

Whooper and Bewick's Swans on the fields near Welney

A brief covey of Grey Partridge later (whatever happened to those in Devon?!) we continued on to Norfolk - a marginally less flat county than Cambs. As we were on holiday, we took the scenic route through the back-roads, rather than mingling with everyone else on the A149. Half-way to Holkham we happened upon a flock of some 3,000 Pink-footed Geese, which gave us the perfect opportunity to hold up, have lunch and enjoy the sounds of the flock squeaking and squabbling.

 Pink-footed Geese in the Norfolk hinterlands

On we drove, towards a blank wall of dark sky - which eventually dumped a couple of inches of snow on us over the next 20 minutes. We carefully navigated our way through to Holkham, thanking everything possible that we'd chosen to take the quiet roads, coughed up £2 for parking and went off for another wander, admired the sunset and finally booked in to our B&B (Arch House; very comfy, and a superb cooked breakfast - can thoroughly recommend).

Sunset looking from Holkham Gap towards Burnham Overy and Scolt Head

Saturday morning saw us up bright and early, and walking out into the teeth of an inordinately stiff northerly wind. The birds were - unsurprisingly, but disappointingly - completely blown out. Several disconsolate-looking Lapwing were huddled on the local pitch-and-putt golf course, apparently waiting for the weather to ease. A handful of Sanderling scurried around on the beach, along with a few Turnstone as we struggled along from Wells to Holkham - the happiest-looking group were gorging on the remains of a small dogfish. We pottered along steadily, and finally swung into the dunes at Holkham Gap, where we erected the tripod, poured some soup and waited for the local group of Shorelarks to emerge. Despite a nice flock of Skylark and Linnet showing well, we lost out on the Shorelarks, due in large part to the behaviour of the other people looking for them: one group in particular stringing out into a line and walking the saltmarsh in order to flush the birds. Hardly fair on the birds in sub-zero temperatures and force 6 winds. 

We gave up rapidly, rather than join in the 'fun', and went to look across the marsh which lies inland of the pine-tree belt. We quickly found a superb Rough-legged Buzzard, which kept us occupied for a while and made Na's several-hundredth new bird seen this year. The marshes were pickled with Wigeon, Teal and Mallard, and a fine drake Goldeneye was lurking on a small pool on the edge of the trees, but there was little else to distract us, so we continued along the coast to Cley-next-the-sea and the famous Cley Marshes.

 Looking from Cley to Blakeney, along the shingle beach. A stiff northerly wind made it tough to see what might be on the sea, not to mention the shivers at the thought of being out on that 'orrible North Sea chop.

The wind hadn't abated in the slightest, so we were rather limited - a stroll along the beach, dropping in to the North Scrape hide along the way. Since the Environment Agency finally decided that an annual bulldozer-fest to maintain an artificially high shingle ridge was no longer economic, the ridge has become far more natural-looking, with some superb washover fans, and the marsh behind has now become slightly more saline, by the look of it. A sprinkling of Wigeon and Teal on the scrape hid a couple of Shoveler and Gadwall, with three Avocet snoozing regally behind them.

 Brent Geese over Cley Marshes - whilst we admired the North Norfolk coastal marshes and huddled out of the freezing wind as best we could, the Brents got up from the west and headed east - just like us...

Brent Geese
Little Egret. Superbly camouflaged amongst the snow, when it comes.

 Cley, looking west along the shingle ridge. Smashing washover fans of shingle now that the bank is no longer maintained by force. Looking towards the North Scrape hide.

Our final full day in Norfolk was characterised by an absolute lack of photos. After a late start and a leisurely cooked breakfast in the local greasy spoon, we headed for a walk round Roydon Common in the west of the county. The skies grew steadily darker as we drove, and by the time we arrived it was positively crepuscular. Despite that we had a pleasant walk, seeing such delights as Fallow Deer, Common Buzzard (relatively rare out there!) and Tree Sparrow, but nary a glimmer of light worth photography...

We left Norwich - finally - after an abortive attempt to see Waxwings and stopped for a quick wander around Thetford Forest. We took a short walk to freshen the cobwebs out of our lungs, but with snow falling more and more heavily, it felt like a good time to head west, like Drake, for the relative comfort and security of sub-zero Devon.
Snowfall in Thetford Forest