Foot It progress 2013

Following a light dusting of overnight snow, the sun was out so a walk to Fen Drayton Lakes was on the cards. Accompanied by Wendy & Jet, we set off just before 11am.
We followed the river & then circled Ferry Lagoon, seeing Black-tailed Godwits, Ruffs, Golden Plovers, a Little Egret & a rather dark Buzzard along the way.
After a quick chat with the RSPB volunteer work party in the Holywell Lake car park, we carried on around Ferry Lagoon. Upon reaching the south-west corner, I spotted something amongst the Tufted Ducks that were busily feeding near some overhanging willows - I believed this was my target bird for the day, Scaup, which had been reported the previous day, but as it turned out, the bird is actually a hybrid (possibly Tufted Duck X Pochard).
From the viewing shelter in the south-east corner of the lagoon, we watched a Slavonian Grebe diving frequently in the open water & picked out a nice adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst the assortment on the water.
Setting off along the bank of the Covell's Drain, we spotted a white nun & two weasel coots on Far Fen Lake (a drake & two redhead Smews).
On the walk back home, via Swavesey, we saw two separate Barn Owls completing a very enjoyable walk.

A bit of a fortunate sighting this one; I was picking up the kids from the local primary school when I noticed a small finch in a tree in a garden next to the school grounds. It was either a redpoll or a siskin, but I couldn't tell as the bird was silhouetted against the sky. After a few seconds, it flew off, calling - siskin (102). Woohoo!

A mega walk out in the snow today! We were out for three hours & it didn't stop falling all the time we were out (& at the time of writing, it still hasn't stopped!).
We started by heading down to Lowbury Holme & out to the river. Our first good bird was a Tree Sparrow on a feeder in the grounds of the fishing lakes.
We then headed up to Ouse Fen, where we started another search through the many Snipe present in the area. All commons on Cell 1, so we moved on to Sophie's Pool. Two Dunlins were feeding amongst a small Snipe flock on the western shore whilst a third flew across the water, calling as it went. There were more commons in the rough vegetation along the southern shore. We had once chance left, the frost-free outlet ditch in the north-east corner. This area has been good to me, with both Kingfisher & Green Sandpiper here earlier in the month. Today it produced first one, then a second, Jack Snipe (101). Bingo! On my sixth attempt, it was in the bag!
On the way home, a nice male stonechat showed well beside the cattle corral.

Saturday afternoon, & I was leading a sponsored bird walk for the local Wildlife Explorers group, of which my daughter, Holly, is a member. I wanted anything I saw to count on my Foot It list, so at 12:45, I set off down the river towards Fen Drayton Lakes. There were no great surprises along the way & I got to the Holywell Lake car park with plenty of time to spare.
Whilst waiting for the group to arrive at 2pm, I saw first a drake Smew & then a drake Pintail fly over. Things were looking promising!
Everyone arrived for the start of the walk, including Wendy & Holly, & we set off. The walk lasted almost two hours & we saw 40 species in total, although none of them new for my Foot It list. Highlights included a fine drake Goosander on Drayton Lagoon, several Snipes, a dashing male Sparrowhawk & a fly-over Little Egret. We finished with hot chocolate, back at the car park & will hopefully have raised some much needed funds for the Wildlife Explorers Rockhopper Penguin appeal.
The kids left at around 4pm, & whilst we were packing up, a Bittern (99) flew out from the reedbeds, across the lake, circled once & landed in the top of a young willow. It then sat there for about ten minutes before dropping out of sight. Brilliant!
As I had now seen a Foot It tick, I had to walk home to be able to count it, so I decided to stay on until dusk & walk back in the dark. I gave it until 5pm, but hadn't seen anything new, so with the light failing I headed for home. I hadn't even got halfway down Holywell Ferry Road when a Woodcock (100) flew over my head. Magic! Target achieved!
I couldn't stop smiling all the way home.

Woke up to snow!
After the school run & a quick visit to the doctors, there was enough time for a morning walk out to Ouse Fen.
Taking Jet with me, I set out at 10:30. I decided to head to Sophie's Pool as I still had designs on a Jack Snipe.

Sophie's Pool
Jet did her work & between us we put up 16 Snipe, but not a Jack among them. However, just as we were giving up here & crossing the outlet ditch, a Green Sandpiper (96) flew up and away into the quarry. No sooner than the sandpiper had disappeared, but a Curlew (97) flew over, calling, circled once & headed off towards Cell 5!
We carried on along the drove & out into the arable fields.

One day, all this will be wetlands
Within a flock of Greylag Geese were 11 Egyptian Geese, the most I have seen here. Further on, a stubble field held a massive flock of Skylarks. As I was scanning the flock, looking for buntings, a fine male Merlin (98) flew in from the north & tried to grab a lark. It missed & headed off over Cell 3.
It was time to head back home, but I couldn't resist watching a Marsh Harrier over Cell 1 as it quartered the reedbed, flushing two Pheasants as it went.

Marsh Harrier
Back at home, with the snow falling more heavily, I replenished the bird feeders & soon attracted several blackbirds, including this nice male.

A Woodpigeon looks on through the falling snow
98 out of 100 - the end is in sight!

Sunday morning started a little frosty & a little dull, but my spirits were high as the predicted cold weather had arrived & with it the chance of some new birds.
Jet & I struck out for Ouse Fen at around 9:30am & I was already on 18 species by the time that I had left the village. Things were looking good.
On arriving at the Wetland Project, I decided to check out Sophie's Pool. Although not part of the actual wetland restoration yet (it's a settlement lagoon for the quarry), it usually has a good muddy margin. My luck was in, as virtually the first bird I saw was a Greenshank (89). They are pretty scarce here in the winter months, so picking this up made up for the lack of Green Sandpipers. On the water, amongst the Tufted Ducks, was a lone Shelduck (90). Again, a tricky bird to see here in the winter. At the nearby Reedbed Viewpoint, I was scanning the ducks on Cell 2 when some loud honking calls drifted across the water to me. I knew what they were, straight away, & I quickly picked up three Whooper Swans (91) flying over Cell 3 & away towards the river. Bonus!

Cell 2, from the Reedbed Viewpoint
I moved further on & upon reaching the far side of Cell 2, I heard Bearded Tits (92) calling from amongst the reeds. With Stonechats, Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plovers, Marsh Harriers & a Little Egret also present, the Fen had proved very productive!
I decided to head off towards Overcote in the vain search for a small flock of Siskins that had been reported the previous day. An hour later, I still hadn't seen them, but I had picked up a Goldcrest & a Tree Sparrow.
By this time, it was 12:30pm & time to head home.
After lunch, it was time to see what the Lakes would offer, so leaving Jet behind, Wendy & I headed out at 1:30pm.
Almost an hour later, we were chatting to the RSPB volunteers in the Fen Drayton Lakes car park. We didn't hang around though as there were good birds to see. We set off towards the viewing shelter on the northern side of Ferry Lagoon.

Ferry Lagoon
Waterbirds on the scrape - can you spot the black-tailed godwit?
We easily found our target birds........

........a wonderful flock of Bewick's Swans (here are 10 of the 18 present).........
.......and a stunning male goosander (with a lovely female nearby).
After having our fill of the Bewick's (93) & Goosanders (94), we headed back to the car park. We intended to head around to the southern side of the lagoon for the gull roost, but a phone call had us heading to the much closer western viewpoint & we were soon watching a fine adult Caspian Gull (95). Further examination of the gulls turned up another, this time a 3rd winter bird.
With my target bird seen & time in hand, it was back to the car park to watch over the Holywell Lake reedbeds.

Teasels in the sunset
After an hour standing in the freezing cold, we still hadn't seen either Bittern or Woodcock & we had an hour long walk back in the dark. However, we were very happy!
I saw 73 species in the day (only slightly short of New Year's Day when I clocked up 77). After getting 7 new species, I'm now on 95 against my 100 target.
It's looking good now with more cold weather on the way.

You wouldn't think it possible to record 26 bird species from a play park, but that's exactly what I did this morning, in a little over half an hour whilst our minded children played on the equipment.
Buoyed by all the reports of white-winged gulls in the area, I decided to head to Fen Drayton Lakes in the afternoon, to see what flew in.
I left at 2pm & headed straight down the hill. A brief stop at Mare Fen produced a nice flock of 40+ Black-tailed Godwits & a perching Buzzard.
When I got to the Guided Busway, I headed westwards along the cycle path.

A bus departing the Swavesey stop on the Guided Busway

Swavesey church, from the Guided Busway
 I managed to get past the first flooded section, as did one brave cyclist.

Flooding along the Guided Busway cycle path
Both Green & Great-spotted Woodpeckers were seen before I got to the intersection with Mow Fen Drove.

Looking north towards Swavesey Lake
I decided to leave the cycle path & head along the drove, skirting Swavesey Lake. I only just made it through, as did this lady coming the other way.

Jet enjoying the biggest puddle ever!
Just made it across!
 The Little Grebes were still on Swavesey Lake, along with a healthy range of wildfowl.

Swavesey Lake
 I made it to Ferry Lagoon at around 3pm. I couldn't get to my preferred lookout - the viewing shelter in the south-east corner - due to the flooding, so I headed up the footpath beside the Covell's Drain. I set up my scope in the north-east corner and waited for the gulls to fly in.

Ferry Lagoon
Shortly after, they started arriving but to my horror they didn't settle on the eastern half of the lake! I had to relocate, & only had one option - to head along the riverside footpath to the north of the lake. Not ideal as I would then be looking southwards, into the light. I managed to find a suitable spot where most of the birds were visible & started scanning. As well as contending with the bad light, the birds were still very far away, so I had to turn the magnification on my scope up to max. As the birds piled in, I managed to pick up an adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst the numerous Herrings & Lesser Black-backs.
By 4:30pm I had had enough - no Caspian, no Glaucous, no Iceland, no Mediterranean! One tick after an hour & a half walking & an hour shivering. I headed along the riverbank, in the dark, hoping for a late Woodcock or an owl. No joy there either.
Reading this, it sounds like I didn't enjoy myself, but rather perversely I did! I had counted 57 species along the way & the exercise is doing me good.

So, I've moved on to 88 out of 100. I'll have to give the gulls another go!

No Foot It possible on Saturday, due to family commitments, although I did see Red Kites from the A14 (which, obviously, I haven't counted!).
The main feature of Sunday morning was the thick mist, so a lazy morning was had & we didn't get out until midday. This time, as well as Jet, I was accompanied by my darling wife, Wendy. Once again, we headed down Lowbury Holme & out to the Fens.

Mare Fen
There is still plenty of water around & many of the usual wildfowl species were present on Mare Fen.

Mare Fen wildfowl
We headed along the northern edge of Middle Fen, to the Webbs Hole Sluice, where six Lesser Redpolls showed briefly. Striking north, we followed the riverbank as far as the Brownshill Staunch. Here we parted, Wendy & Jet heading for home whilst I crossed the river & headed into the Needingworth Quarry Lakes complex. I was a man on a mission, with one specific bird my target. However, I still found time to stop and admire a drake Smew & two redheads on the same lake where I had seen this species recently. Reaching my destination, one of the settlement lagoons, I was soon watching the bird I had walked two hours for - a fine Slavonian Grebe in winter plumage. I hadn't put this species on my target list as they are unreliable in the valley, so it was worth the long walk!
Chatting to a visiting birder, he mentioned that the neighbouring lagoon held two Green Sandpipers, so off I headed. Half an hour of watching & I had seen Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redshank, Dunlin & Ruff, but no sandpipers.
As I had come so far, I decided to give the Sewage Works another try. I'm glad I did, because after only a couple of minutes I had picked up a Chiffchaff, following a Long-tailed Tit through the hedgerow at the back.
It was time to make tracks, so I legged it back to the river, north to the Staunch & across into the Wetland Project at Ouse Fen. One sentence; forty minutes walking!
I followed the path between Cells 1 & 2 and was rewarded with singing Cetti's Warblers and calling Water Rails. A fly-past by an alba Barn Owl finished the day off nicely & I headed for home.

Four ticks, so I'm now up to 87 species, which is 87% of my 100 target.

A very short report, this one, as I didn't get out at all yesterday & only managed an hour & a half, with the dog, this morning.

Jet biting off more than she can chew!
We worked the scrub at the end of Lowbury Holme and managed to pick up a Treecreeper following a flock of long-tailed tits, which also contained a Goldcrest.

Lowbury Holme
Total now 83, against my 100 target.

A later start today, but I was still out before 10:00, with a plan of heading across the river to the Needingworth side. I headed down Overcote Road & quickly had the first new bird of the day in the bag as there were several feral pigeons feeding on spilt grain in the yard at Chain Farm. Yes, I know but I live in rural Cambridgeshire; what chance have I got of seeing rock dove?
Further along, I turned up Long Holme Drove & passed the western side of the Wetland Project and on to the Brownshill Staunch. Unsurprisingly, the river was still running very high.

Looking northwards from Brownshill Staunch
It wasn't long before my target species, grey wagtail, put in an appearance as a single bird flew in, calling, and landed on a fenceline covered in flood debris. I managed one quick photo before it flew off. The lack of markings on the head show this to be a 1st winter bird.

1st winter grey wagtail
On the other side of the river, a brighter adult was feeding alongside two pied wagtails, but too far away to photograph.
I headed around the Needingworth Quarry works to my next port of call on the western side. Here, a field of mixed game cover crops had been attracting very large numbers of farmland passerines. Reed buntings were the most abundant & I was lucky enough to pick up a tree sparrow in the hedge alongside the field - one of my favourite birds & one I rarely see in this part of the valley.
I moved on, through the quarry's settlement lagoons as the rain started to spit on my binocular's lenses. The large lake at the southern end of the complex held two redhead smew, with a further two on the small pit adjacent. Always a good bird to see, but disappointing that the drake and larger number of redheads seen in December seem to have moved on, along with a recent slavonian grebe.
The furthest point of my walk was the Needingworth Sewage Works, where a lesser redpoll fed in alders alongside several goldfinches & two goldcrests flitted around in some brambles before moving off after some long-tailed tits. However, I failed to see either chiffchaff or treecreeper; species that I have seen here on many occasions.
By this time, the rain had become heavy & constant, so it was time to head back. The trudge along the riverbank was enlivened by two flyover ruff & a buzzard flushed from a hedgerow as I passed by.
Back over the river at the Staunch & into the Wetland Project, I followed the path between Cells 1 & 2 and round to the new reedbed viewpoint. I saw plenty of snipes & pipits along the way, but they were all commons & meadows, no jacks or waters. At the viewpoint, a short-eared owl flew up from the long grass and away over Cell 3.
By this time, I was completely soaked, so it was time to head for home. I got back, five and a half hours after leaving and with 67 species recorded for the day. However, only five of them were new for my Foot It list, taking me up to 82 species seen.
Working the next couple of days, so that's it for the long walks for a wee while, which is no bad thing as I think I need some time for my body to recover!

I was up just after 07:00 & out before 08:00. Remarkably, I was already on one species for my British & County lists by this time as I had seen a barn owl whilst driving home from a New Year's party at around half past midnight! Unfortunately, I couldn't count this for my Foot It list, so the first bird turned out to be a robin, singing in the early morning light.
Heading towards Lowbury Holme, I was lucky enough to see a great-spotted woodpecker & hear a green woodpecker at the same time. The first quality bird was a lesser redpoll at the start of the footpath that leads down to the fens. In the field to the north of the Barrier Bank, two buzzards were searching for earthworms amongst the sparse crops. Middle Fen was as full as ever & the river was still very high - a few select photos below.

Flooding in the Great Ouse valley
There was plenty of wildfowl around; mainly wigeon & mute swans, plus several large flocks of geese, such as these greylags, heading up & down the valley.

Greylag Geese
Mute Swans in the winter sun
On the far side of the river, a flooded field had attracted a very large flock of lapwings, with smaller numbers of golden plovers and black-tailed godwits amongst them. Whilst scanning through the flock, a group of dunlin headed southwards along the river.

I also headed south, along the riverbank towards Fen Drayton Lakes, & as I went, two Egyptian geese flew over my head, heading in the opposite direction. As I reached the Covell's Drain & started scanning over Ferry Lagoon, a pair of pintail flew in & I realised that there were another four already on the water. I turned & followed the drain, picking up four little grebes on Swavesey Lake along the way. After crossing the Guided Busway, I followed the edge of the Trout Pond, where goldeneyes were displaying to each other, as far as the Bailey Bridge. I still needed shoveler, so a detour to Oxholme Lake was required, where I located several males amongst the variety of ducks present.

Wildfowl on Oxholme Lake
Whilst there, a couple of snipe flew from the Pig Field, calling as they went. Heading back along the Entrance Track, south of Far Fen Lake, I stopped to chat to some reserve visitors & scan the sizable lapwing & golden plover flock in the nearby flooded fields. Amongst the numerous birds were two dunlins & a very fine male ruff. Further along the track, I met up with many of the RSPB volunteers, who had come out for a New Year walk. It was good to meet up & exchange pleasantries!
The final quality bird at Fen Drayton Lakes, was a lovely male stonechat in a game cover crop beside the road. I headed off through Swavesey & back home to Over without seeing anymore new birds.

After lunch, it was time to visit Ouse Fen. I walked down Fen End and out towards the Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project. Heading up the farm track into the site, a flock of farmland passerines contained yellowhammers, corn buntings and linnets. Whilst standing beside a ditch close to Sophie's Pool, a kingfisher flew in & landed about 30m away.

By scanning over the reeds, I was able to locate one male and at least three female marsh harriers in the distance. Just then, I noticed a barn owl had appeared & was hunting along the edge of the track about 50m ahead of me. However, this was no ordinary barn owl. Its dark grey head & upperparts, dark face and bright orange breast & belly have led many to believe this is a 'dark breasted/bellied' barn owl (ssp. guttata). it certainly looks a very good candidate to me! Below is probably the worst photograph you will see of this bird, but you can just about make out the orange colour extending right down the belly.

Barn Owl - possibly a 'Dark breasted/bellied'
Many birders & photographers had turned up to see this bird, which as been present, but not widely reported, since early December so, hopefully, better photos should start appearing soon. There were also at least three of our normal 'pale breasted/bellied' barn owls (ssp. alba) in the area, giving an excellent comparison. (For the purposes of the Foot It challenge & my own lists, I have only counted these two types of barn owls as one tick) Just as I was leaving, a short-eared owl flew past, delighting the few remaining birders who had stayed to the bitter end.

A tally up at the end of the day, & I had amassed a list of 77 species! An excellent start & well on my way to my target of 100 species by the end of the month.

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