Hen harrier!

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‘It flies so low that sometimes it seems to be stirring the grass, its long legs trailing through the heather like a keel. A slow tacking flight: float then flap.’ This description of a Hen harrier’s flight pattern is from the library book I’m currently reading, Raptor: A journey through birds by James Macdonald Lockhart (4th Estate, London, 2016) and, by sheer coincidence, I watched a Hen harrier fly just like this yesterday.

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I was at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, walking along the central hedgerow in the west paddock, on the lookout for winter thrushes, and had just walked down into a dip in the field when, with a loud whooshing sound, a large bird flew almost over my head.

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I immediately turned and looked up, swung up the camera and clicked as many times as I could before the hedgerow blocked my view. Walking quickly up out of the dip, I watched the bird, pursued by a couple of Carrion crows, dodge eastwards, then veer back west and head down over the west lake reed beds and on towards the coast.

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But what was it? It seemed quite large but I didn’t think it was a Buzzard. There had been a Sparrowhawk harassing the smaller birds a couple of days previously, but the flight didn’t seem right for that – not the flap, flap, glide that Sprawks are known for. This bird had been flying very low and relatively slowly.

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I had been out walking for about 5 hours by this time and was getting cold, so decided to head home. Hot cuppa in hand, I grabbed by trusty RSPB Handbook of British Birds, transferred my photos on to my laptop and opened up Photoshop. As the day had been gloomy, the shots all needed lightening and heavy cropping to get a better look at the bird. When I consulted my handbook, I found a bird that matched but couldn’t believe it was right. Luckily, my birding friend John was online so I flicked him a message with four photos … and waited.

Yay! He confirmed the match, a Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), from its colouring either a female or a juvenile – it certainly looks exactly like the juvenile image in my book. This is quite a rare bird locally so I was absolutely over the moon to have seen this beauty.

Birding at Garwnant and Rhaslas

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Clear blue skies, stiff  breeze and freezing cold, star birds and great company, long walk, Welsh upland scenery … it doesn’t get much better than yesterday’s Glamorgan Bird Club’s field trip to the forestry at Garwnant and Rhaslas pond, with a quick stop at the Llwyn-onn reservoir in between.

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It took us a while to leave the car park at the Forestry Centre as the birding got off to a cracking start with lots of Common crossbills coming in to feed on the cones of the tall conifers all around us.

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We headed out along one of the many walking trails, hoping for views of Willow tits. One person heard one but the bird didn’t reappear so we carried on a bit further to a high vantage point. From there we were rewarded with views of Kestrel, Buzzard and this magnificent Red kite.

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Retracing our steps, a couple of us who’d lingered behind heard the Willow tit calling, waved frantically to the birders ahead, and managed some good views of this increasingly uncommon little bird.

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We then walked a rectangular path, taking us out around more of the forest trails, seeing even more Crossbills and another couple of Willow tits, as well as many other species. After lunch back at the car park, we drove down to nearby Llwyn-onn dam for a quick scan for any interesting birds. The reservoir was looking gorgeous, with much more water than on our last visit.

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We’d hoped for a Water pipit … and there it was, though a very flighty bird that scarcely stayed still and kept flying off in various directions. I was pretty happy though as this was a lifer for me, and it was a year tick for several other birders.

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I really like how this photo of the Cormorant turned out. And there was a Common sandpiper just along the pipe from where it was perched.

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Then it was on for a quick check of Rhaslas pond before the light faded – sunset is around 4.15pm at the moment. It was bitterly cold up on the open moorland as you tell from how rugged up everyone was.

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Though there weren’t a huge number of birds on the pond, we did see several Goosanders, Wigeon, Tufted ducks and a solitary Goldeneye. It was a smashing end to an excellent day!

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Here’s my list of birds seen: Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Goosander, Grey Heron, Cormorant, Red Kite, Buzzard, Kestrel, Common Sandpiper, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Woodpigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Magpie, Jay, Carrion Crow, Raven, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Willow Tit, Goldcrest, Wren, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Robin, Pied Wagtail, Water Pipit, Chaffinch, and Common Crossbill. And somehow I missed the Starling, Song Thrush, Redwing and Fieldfare.

Late autumn at Forest Farm

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When anyone asks me what my favourite season is I can never decide because they each have their good points but, this year, our late-arriving autumn has certainly been magnificent. On Wednesday I caught the train to Radyr for a meander around Forest Farm Nature Reserve and it was sublime. From bright golden yellows to rustling red-browns, with some leaves still decorating spreading branches above my head and others carpeting the woodland floor beneath my feet, I spent a marvellous day, my eyes admiring, my feet kicking, my neck craning and all my senses spilling over. Ah, autumn!

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A Meadow pipit ablutes

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It was while watching this delightful little Meadow pipit at its bath and preening session a couple of weeks ago that I noticed another small bird dotting around on the grass nearby.

That bird turned out to be my mega find, a Lapland bunting. But, in all honesty, this little Meadow pipit was just as lovely and, as I was being very quiet and moving very slowly forward, and it was taking great pains over its toilette, it let me get quite close.

Meadow pipits have such pretty markings and, at this time of year, when they’ve recently completed their moult, their colouring is rich and warm. I thought this little sweetie deserved its moment in the spotlight as much as the vagrant bunting.

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A new Earthstar

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You can’t have a blog called Earthstar without occasionally having a post about an Earthstar, so here it is.

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Though I searched for these amazing little fungi at a known location in Cathays Cemetery a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t find any. So, I was delighted when a birding acquaintance showed me this solitary Earthstar at a completely new location earlier this week.

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This is Geastrum triplex, a Collared earthstar. I’ve previously only found them under conifers but the experts say they are most often found, like this one, under hardwood trees.

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I gave its sac a poke to show my friend how the spores are released – let’s hope that also helped to spread the spores so we see more of these little stunners in future.

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Variations on a theme

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With its seeds attached to tiny botanical parachutes that can be distributed far and wide by the wind, the Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.) has evolved an extremely efficient method of disseminating its seed. It’s not surprising, then, that many other species use a very similar method to disperse their seeds.

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I don’t think I’m getting my wish this time around!

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LBJ

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In birder-speak (and, actually, also in mycologist-speak), there’s an oft-used abbreviation for those small brown birds that look very much alike and so can sometimes be difficult to identify: LBJ (Little Brown Job). I think you can see why.

(To be completely honest, not all of these images are from LBJs; some are from BBJs. I won’t ask you to guess what they are.)

Who’s jealous then?

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I wasn’t the only one watching the Great crested grebe fishing at Cardiff Bay wetlands on that sublime autumn day. This juvenile Grey heron flew in half way through the fishing session and settled itself first on one side of the small pool, then on the other.

 

And the heron watched in awe as the grebe caught fish after fish so effortlessly and in such a short space of time.

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I’m sure I detected a look of jealousy, and perhaps hunger, on that wide-eyed face!

Fisher extraordinaire

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It was a lovely late autumn day, with a bit of a nip in the air but gloriously blue skies overhead and still a little heat in the sun. It was the perfect day, in fact, to stand on the boardwalk at Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve and watch this Great crested grebe catching itself breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper, all in the space of just 6 minutes (I can tell from the times on my photographs).

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No wonder this successful little fisher-bird was grinning so broadly as it headed into the reeds for a snooze!

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