Monday, 23 December 2013

Season's Greetings!

I would like to wish all my readers Season's Greetings and Happy Holidays! May your God go with you....

I've had a pretty good 2013 and am hoping to have just as good a time in 2014! There's at least one big overseas trip coming up soon, so watch this space!

I have also put together an album of some of my better photos from 2013 on Photobox which you can see HERE!

And don't forget to take a look at my FLICKR page, too!

Best wishes,

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Rye Meads - 20th December 13

Weather: Sunny, blue skies, with slight Breeze.

Birds Total: 39

It was time for this month's visit to RM. And today was nice, bright and sunny with a light wind and not too cold. There weren't too many people about, I only saw about half-a-dozen all day.

The first thing I noticed was that an awful lot had been done to the Reserve. I had read in recent weeks that the staff and volunteers were out and about cutting this and chopping that. Lots of trees, bushes and reeds had gone and another lagoon had been created just before you get to the twin Hides.

It was a quiet day today, with not too many birds about, other than wildfowl. I didn't see any flocks of passerines at all, other than on the feeders by the visitor centre.

It was that sort of day!
My first stop was by the first bridge, overlooking the Meadow. I could see a few Pheasants; a Grey Heron and a Kestrel, which was perched on one of the goalposts.

I moved on to the Draper Hide. The area outside the Hide had been worked on extensively, mostly on the left side of the lagoon. The water level was very high, swamping everything. And there wasn't much about either. Mainly Coots and Moorhens; Mute Swans; a Little Grebe and a lone Stock Dove sat atop of one of the Owl boxes. I didn't spend too much time here and moved on.

Further along the trail there were more Pheasants; a Dunnock and a Chaffinch feeding on the ground and a lone Redwing. When I looked out over the first lagoon I could see Pochard; Shoveler and another Grey Heron. A quick look from the Ashby Hide only yielded Coot and Moorhen but I did hear a Cetti's Warbler sing out.

Then I found myself looking out over the newly created lagoon which, again, only had Coot and Moorhen around. I could see the recently created debris around the area too, mainly branches, logs etc.

I then sat down in the renamed Gadwall Hide, formerly the Tern Hide. RM had decided to swap names as the Terns over the years had decided to nest down outside the Gadwall Hide. This was by far the best lagoon for birds today, as the place was teeming with lots of species.

First up, I counted over 400 Lapwing spread out around the lagoon, every 15 minutes or so being put up. Together with all the BHGs it was quite a sight. On top of that there were 9 Common Snipe; 1 Green Sandpiper; 1 Pied Wagtail; another Grey Heron; lots of Teal and Shoveler and the obligatory Coot and Moorhen. There was even a fly-past by a Sparrowhawk, which, again, put up all the Lapwing. Then a Shelduck flew in and started feeding. I haven't seen Shelduck around here since June. Little Grebe and Starlings were present and then a lone Goldfinch flew in and started feeding on one of the teasel plants in front of the Hide.

I hung around for over an hour here as I suspected that this would be the highlight of the day. After a quick visit to the Tern Hide, which only yielded Mutes and Coots and BHGs, together with a few Tufties, I went straight to the Kingfisher Hide where I saw a lone Coot; a juvenile Moorhen; a pair of Mallards; 2 pairs of Gadwall and a pair of Blackbirds, who were feeding on the red berries to my left. But the star birds here were a pair of Jays just to the right of the Kingfisher nesting area. Unfortunately, they were a bit too shy and didn't venture too close.

I took a slow, uneventful walk down to the Warbler Hide which was also uneventful and had lunch. And the only extra thing to add on the return route was a 2nd Shelduck seen from the Gadwall Hide.

Back at the feeders lots of Greats and Blues were still about, plus Goldfinch and LTTs. As I was stood watching these I heard, then saw, a GSW fly past. Home before 3, it was good to get out again. If the weather stays dry I might get one more visit before the end of the year.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Finland Northern Lights - 11th-14th December 2013

Weather: Very, very cold. Much snow.

Wildlife seen:
Carrion Crow; Great Tit; Magpie; Woodpecker. Husky Dogs; Reindeer.

Places visited:
Finland and Sweden.

We were here for the Northern Lights but unfortunately we did not see them.

'Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.' Albert Einstein

'Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath' Matt Groening

Finland, officially the Republic of Finland, is a Nordic country situated in the Fennoscandian region of Northern Europe, whilst Sweden, officially the Kingdom of Sweden, is a Scandinavian country also in Northern Europe. Sweden borders Norway and Finland, and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Oresund. At this time of year the long polar nights last for upto 22 hours a day, with the sun never quite managing to rise above the horizon.

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis are curtains of colourful lights that dance across the night sky due to the expulsion of solar flares from the sun. Each flare releases a billion times the energy of an atomic bomb. The radiation from these flares are deadly but fortunately the Earth is shielded by a magnetic field so most pass by harmlessly into deep space.

Our Hotel, the Arctic Star
We flew in to Enontekio airport and arrived at our hotel, the Arctic Star in Karesuando (Latitude 68 degrees). I found the hotel to be very basic, with very small rooms painted plain white with no d├ęcor whatsoever. 

Presumably they were trying to emulate the snow-fest outside. To open the door to the bathroom you had to first close the bedroom door and vice versa. But that didn't matter too much as, unfortunately, the bathroom light wasn't working anyway. Our particular room was external to the main hotel in what looked no better than Nissen Huts. I think Nelson Mandela had a bigger cell. The food was simple fare, warm and filling, nothing too special. The staff were courteous and polite, especially the barman. The usual expensive lagers were on offer but were offset by Guinness and Leffe.

The local hooch
The village of Karesuando is situated on the border of Finland and Sweden separated by the River Muonio. It is very small and rural with a population of less than 500 people with limited amenities. It is also part of the Sami homeland area, a people who are still semi-nomadic today, herding their many reindeer across the vast landscape. They are the only European ethnic group to be recognized as an aboriginal people.

Where are the NLs?
We were due to spend 3 days and 3 nights here but unfortunately our 10am flight from Luton airport was delayed by over 7 hours and we did not arrive at our destination until after midnight, local time. We were told that the plane couldn't land in the thick fog that had engulfed Luton and that it was, in fact, circling above waiting for it to clear. Strange then, that our plane was the only one to suffer this problem, as all the other flights seemed to be unaffected. This, of course, had a delayed knock-on effect. We were supposed to take possession of our all-in-one thermal suits and boots and attend a welcoming information session by the tour reps. But because of the late hour we all went straight to our rooms. We were informed that our key would be in the door. Ours wasn't. But it was open anyway.

Early the next morning after breakfast we attended our first excursion, a 2 hour session at a Reindeer camp, where we learnt all about herding and lassoing from the local farmers. We were split into 2 groups to take turns in experiencing a sled ride. All the sleds were pulled by one reindeer and were all tethered together. It was a slow, chilly 25 minute walk around the area. It gave us an opportunity for a few scenic photos but it was quite cold just sitting there. Some of the group spent extra time with the reindeer and some of us spent time in the local, warm tepee where the local hot brew was on offer. It was like a warm ribena and, to me, tasted quite like Swedish Glogg, but without the alcohol.

The weather was quite cold, but I was warm enough in my layers, especially with the added help of the thermal suit. But I found the boots sadly lacking and decided to wear my own boots from then on. We were told that a couple of days ago the weather went as far down as -37 degrees but today it was a balmy +1, with a slight breeze. On subsequent days we experienced -12 and -24 degrees. Luckily I remembered to bring my scarf.

After a nourishing lunch, during which the TLs gave us their welcoming speech, we had the afternoon off and so a walk around the area was called for. Even around 2pm it was already getting dark and so we found ourselves walking from the hotel in Sweden over the border to a bar and souvenir shop in Finland. A few beers later and, armed with a fridge magnet and the obligatory t-shirt we headed back to the hotel for tea.

Dressed up and ready for our next excursion, a snowmobile safari, we found that the admin side of the tour was not the finest example on the planet. Apparently there were to be 2 sessions this evening, one group was to venture out at 7 whilst the other, my group, was to go out at 9. Only to find that both groups had been set to start at 7. And, after much delay and debate, we found ourselves back in the hotel bar, dressed down, waiting for 9pm. Unfortunately, this was not a one-off incident and we soon learned to check the noticeboard on a regular basis as the paperwork was changed and altered almost hourly. It seemed to me that the left hand wasn't talking to the right hand.

Local transport
Anyway, our time to depart soon arrived and we found ourselves out in the wintry wilderness listening to the 'experts' explain what and what not to do on the snowmobiles. I decided straight away to volunteer to be just the passenger, if only for the fact that I had drank too much beer earlier. Unfortunately, our snowmobile decided to have a mind of its own and we soon found ourselves flat on our backs with the snowmobile on its side. No injuries were suffered, other than our pride, either to us or the snowmobile.

But it was here, in the snow, flat on my back, that I looked up into the sky and noticed what I
Which way is it?
thought at first to be a cloud in the night sky. I gave it a second look and, whilst doing so, one of the 'experts' came over to see if we were alright and saw me looking up. She exclaimed and shouted that the Northern Lights were arriving! Unfortunately, that was a bit premature as the main lights did not, in fact, appear. It was only a mild, light green wisp of a cloud. It was indeed recognisable as a northern light but was hardly what you would have seen on the TV and in photos. And, unfortunately, it proved to be our only encounter of the trip. Still, it warmed us all up and we set off on further noisy circuits around the dark forest. It was past midnight when we got back to our hotel room, via the bar.

Next morning was another early-ish start as, after breakfast, we set off to see the 'Call of the Wild' Husky safari. This was quite probably my favourite excursion of the trip as we were allowed to jump on a sled and 'mush-mush' the dogs around the area. We each had 5 dogs to a team and every one of them were noisy and enthusiastic. One team overturned their sled but this time it wasn't us. A quick few photos of the morning and, sadly after only an hour here, we headed back to the hotel for lunch.

I decided to stay in the bar afterwards and meet up with a few of our fellow travellers as there were quite a few of us here and before long it was time for tea and then preparation for our last excursion, the Northern Lights Forest Trek.

What we saw instead!
What we should have seen!
This entailed a trip to the other hotel, the Davvi Arctic Lodge, where all the families were staying, mainly to see Santa. I hope for their sake he turned up and wasn't still circling high above. I'll gloss over more admin problems here and we soon found ourselves at the top of a viewpoint, after a 15-minute trek, overlooking the whole area. Here it was almost totally dark, with the exception of two things, a roaring fire and an almost full moon.

The fire could be avoided by trekking into the darker areas but the moon was disturbingly bright and did not bode well if the Lights were to appear. In the event, it didn't matter as we didn't see any at all. Sadly the night sky did not give us any better views of the Milky Way as we get at home either. After about an hour or so I headed back to the fire to warm up and have the promised hot drink only to find that the fire had almost gone out due to lack of wood and that the hot drink had vanished back down the hill. As had all the Tour Reps, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Now, I'm not really a fan of Health and Safety but they would have been all over this. To me, it was an accident waiting to happen and the TLs were very lucky that no-one incurred any injuries this night.

Put some more wood on!
Around 11pm the cold was finally getting to me and, more importantly, to my camera which was beginning to seize up. I found myself one of the last to head back down the hill to the hotel for the pick up by coach back to our own hotel. But, another admin mess-up, I found others still waiting to be picked up. Some had been waiting for nearly an hour, as the coach had been replaced by a car. After much discussion (!) with the local Reps the coach returned in place of the car and transported us all back to the hotel, arriving after midnight.

The next morning saw us checking out after breakfast for the trip back to the airport. Thankfully the plane was on time and we arrived in Luton just after 6. Baggage reclaim wasn't too painful and a couple of hours later I found myself at my local supping a decent beer.

If the Northern Lights had appeared I would have given the trip 6 out of 10, but it only merits an over generous 4. I know that the travel company had no control over the Lights or the flight delay but the hotel, the admin and most of the TLs were sadly lacking. I don't think I will be travelling with this Tour Operator again, despite the cheap price and, if I decide to try and see the NLs again it would probably have to be somewhere else.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Amwell Nature Reserve - 9th December 13

Weather: Cloudy and overcast for most of the day. Slight sunshine.

Birds Total: 47
Plus: Harlequin Ladybird; Konik Pony; Muntjac; Rabbit.

Well I finally managed to get a day out again after having a few problems over the last few weeks. So, with everything sorted out, I believed in the weather forecast for a dry, warm, sunny day out. Well, at least it was dry.

Amwell was next up for a visit and I was keen to see the reported Smew and Goldeneye seen recently. Nothing to report on the way down other than lots of House Sparrows and when I arrived at the viewing point I was greeted by a few familiar faces. Out on Great Hardmead Lake the outstanding bird was a lone drake Pintail. He was sleeping off a late night at first but soon perked up and went for a swim. Unfortunately he swam around the back of the island and I didn't see him again for the rest of the day. Other birds of note seen were 6 GCGs; lots of Wigeon; plenty of Shoveler; a few Teal and Pochard; 60+ Lapwing and a lone Snipe. There were the usual mass of Gulls and Coot with the odd sprinkling of Mute Swans, a couple of them having a difference of opinion.

Just after I had arrived we all heard a squeal behind us somewhere and one of the other guys confidently stated that another rabbit had just been taken by a Stoat. If it was true we couldn't verify it as nothing was seen.

After about an hour here I decided to head down to the Gladwin Hide to try and find the Smew and Goldeneye. The sun had peeped through the clouds at this point and was shining down behind the Hide. I did indeed spot the Smew, a Redhead and 4 of the Goldeneye, one male and three females, all constantly diving. I hung around for about an hour to see if any of them would swim close but I was out of luck.

From here I decided to head to the James Hide to try my luck. Over the course of the next 2 hours or so I spotted a Kingfisher perched up on a branch at the back of the pond; a Little Grebe in the distance; 3 Buzzards screeching high in the sky over the horizon; a Water Rail darting across the recently cut reeds after being spooked by a Moorhen and lots of birds on the, nearly full, feeders. These included loads of Reed Buntings. I also witnessed a territorial dispute between a pair of Wrens. So it was already quite a good day. I then decided to try the ground level to see if I could get any decent shots of the birds on the feeders. But, just as I was about to leave, I spotted a bird at the far end of the newly created channel. Unfortunately it disappeared into the reeds before I could bring my Bins to bear. I got enough of a look to
make my heart skip a beat as I thought it might be a Bittern, but as the memory of it faded I took the size, shape and colour of the bird into account and accepted that it was probably a hen Pheasant.

Just after that a guy walked in and proceeded to fill up the feeders, including the fat ball feeder. He let me know that other feeders had now been put up on a tree just inside the entrance to the Dragonfly Trail so I headed off to have a look.

Just before I got there I bumped into another guy just leaving who had only seen Chaffs and Goldies. But not long after I had arrived I spotted a lone Coal Tit; a pair of GSWs and a flock of Redwing. There were the usual Greats and Blueys among them but I was also pleased to see dozens of Chaffinches and Goldfinchs there too. It's been a while since I saw this number of birds. In fact it was very pleasing to finally see lots of birds in some numbers. I hung around here for another hour before heading back to the viewing point.

I was a bit dubious about a visit out today because of the poor light but I was glad I made the effort as it turned out to be a very rewarding day. Unfortunately, at this time of year the short day made me head for home earlier than I would have liked. But it was great to finally be out and about again with my camera and to finally manage a few photos or too.