Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I had another day off today (my last for sometime - I'm on nights again as of tomorrow, 7 in a row) so I thought I'g get a train all of 6 minutes outside Reading to Theale gravel pits.
I've been desperate to see the Reading Peregrine(s) whilst I'm in possession of this 18X zoom camera, so I thought I'd revist the place where I know one hunts regularly...

What a day I've had!
As described in my Hampshire posts not so long ago, Wigeon are possibly my favourite of our British ducks - and there were many at Theale.
Shoveler drakes and ducks too - typically shovelling their huge bills through the water - very nice to see.
Gadwall also. Gadwall are pretty dull ducks (from a distance anyway, they're quite beautiful close up) with a black arse - no other of our ducks has a black backside like the Gadwall.
Great Crested Grebes were about also, looking very pale and pointy in their winter plumage without their crests.
Of course there were the usual suspects too. Coots, Moorhens, Swans, Mallard and Cormorants, but then I spied something a little unexpected (although a look at this months records and I should have known better) a striking male Goldeneye Drake and three females (re-heads). Great stuff!

The lake that I saw all these ducks on, is not particularly small - far from it actually, and most of the ducks were way off shore - a REAL test for this camera I've borrowed.
All the photos above were taken at 18X magnification and then cropped 2 or 3 times. (If I'd taken them with a normal 35mm camera lens, you wouldn't even be able to make out a duck at all, let alone what species it was). Apologies for the poor quality photos - thats a drawback of very high magnification sometimes...

That wasn't all though...

I was treated to the magnificent site of a big female Sparrowhawk chasing a Redwing around a Hawthorn bush as I left the lake proper. The last time Anna and I went to Theale, to see if we could find a Peregrine (which we did), we were then treated to a Sparrowhawk ambush also. Thats a 100% record so far then!

Fieldfares and Redwing were all over the bushes too. These appeared to be very skittish though, (I'm used to being able to approach these winter thrushes, so that surprised me somewhat), meaning the only photo I got (of a Fieldfare) is of very poor quality again.

Was I finished?
Was I 'eck as like!

As I made my way back to the main gravel pit, to give my Peregrine one last chance to show itself, one flew over my head - heading away from its usual spot (on an electricity pylon on an island in the main gravel pit).
Beautiful to see, such a powerful flight, but I thought that was that.
I sat down on a grassy knoll, took out my sanwiches, and watched another Peregrine on its pylon for about an hour.
To be honest with you, it didn't move much. A scratch here, a shake there, that was all. Unfortunately in terms of photo opportunities go, there were none with this bird. It was sat right at the top of the pylon, on the far side, half hidden by metal struts (only its tail was visible for the most part), against the bright sun, at a distance of about 1/4 mile! I'll post the photos above - you may just make out its tail, but thats about it!

Finally, as I ambled down the canal tow path, on my way back to the station, the sun came out completely - and I fought my way through the rabbits and midges to board a train back home.
A really nice, peaceful day out on my own. You know what - sometimes it's grand to have a day off when most other people are at work!

A few relevant facts regarding some of the species above:

A relatively common winter visitor to our lakes these days, although you'll have to look very hard to see one. The UK has about 100 pairs of breeding Goldeneye (all in Scotland), which nest in trees, sometimes in duck-nest boxes! That resident breeding population is boosted by up to 30,000 pairs which overwinter here.
Compare that with the Tufted Duck, which has approximately 9000 breeding (resident) pairs in the UK (nationwide), and 90,000 overwintering pairs.
At a distance (thats how you'll see them), they look like the far more numerous Tufted Duck, but they do sit lower in the water, remain much longer underwater when they dive, and the drakes exhibit much more white in their plumage (with an obvious white spot at the top of their bill).
Close up, and the drake is a striking bird - with a tall, domed head, which has a green tinge to it, and piercing golden eyes.
The duck is far less striking, with a white belly, grey body and red/brown head - a few of these were at that lake today - 3 I think and only one male (that I could see anyway).
Click HERE to visit Arthur Grosset's Goldeneye page (and photographs).

A large, fat bold drake with chestnut and snow-white flanks, and a spatulate (shovel-like) out-sized bill. Unmistakeable.
Shovelers do breed in Britain, about 1000 pairs breed mainly in England, and mainly in the east (specifically the Ouse Washes, though they breed elsewhere too). The winter population is more like 10,000 pairs.

This photo is a marvellous view of a Shoveler drake - taken once again by Arthur Grosset (see links).

Allegedly one of the tastiest of our ducks. Often seems to be quite nervous. I guess thats the reason why. Look for the black backside in the drakes and a 'graceful pose' in both sexes, with a more graceful, slightly longer neck in relation to their (slightly smaller) bodies if compared to, for example, a Mallard.

Breeding population in the UK - about 800 pairs, overwintering population - about 17,000 pairs - though I think you're much more likely to see Gadwall than Goldeneye in the winter. Gadwall may visit close to the edge of our lakes - Goldeneye are normally right out in the centre - in the far distance!

Click HERE to see some very nice photos of Gadwall - they are quite beautiful close up!

Beautiful pink/chestnut heads with a gold crown running between the eyes, and a snow-white rump, (thats the drakes).
Very vocal. The drakes whistle and the ducks growl. Honest. Click HERE to listen to drake Wigeon whistling (courtesy of the very good site "Thames Valley Bird Forum".
The UK only has about 400 breeding pairs, (resident, mainly in Scotland) and these numbers are swollen by our winter visitors from Russia etc... up to 300,000 pairs overwinter in Britain.
Wigeon tend to graze on plants a the side of bodies of water.
Click HERE to view an RSPB video of Wigeon foraging, and HERE to revisit my original post on Wigeon (complete with very good photos from Arthur Grosset).

Great-Crested Grebe.
Unmistakeable again. This sawbill's crest feathers were taken for ladies hats not so long ago in Britain. I can't understand for the life of me why? Not because I don't understand the fashion regarding ladies hats in Victorian England. Well I don't actually - but couldn't they have found any better feathers? A Jays feathers for example? A Woodpeckers? Many ducks feathers would be better than the rather dull ginger crest of the Great Crested Grebe. Annnnyway, since all that nonsense stopped, our most common Grebe has flourished.
I was lucky enough once to see a Great Crested Grebe catch a Roach UNDER WATER once! I was looking in the right stretch of the river at the right time I suppose. Thats all. I honestly don't think if I spent the rest of my time peering into rivers, I'd ever see that event again!
There are approximately 10,000 breeding pairs of Great Crested Grebes in Britain, and the overwintering population doesn't rise much.
They are famous for their elaborate courtship routines (click HERE to watch an RSPB video of that wonderful courtship), and their very vocal young, which look like giant black and white humbugs, riding about on their parents back, learning to fish.

In October it begins and by the middle of November it has reached fever pitch. This is when the UK is inundated with literally millions of overwintering Thrushes such as Redwing and Fieldfare, all from Scandanvia - (and only a proportion of the Scandanavian population actually make the trip south).
We have between 1 and 5 pairs (at a last rough count) of breeding Fieldfares in the UK, and 750,000 pairs in the winter - all gorging themselves on our berries.
Fieldfares are big, upright thrushes, with a distinct grey head, but unlike our Mistle Thrush, which has a blobby breast, the Fieldfare has distinct prisoners arrow markings.
Fieldfares are often (like most birds) heard calling before they are seen. Click HERE to listen to a Fieldfare's call (not its song, which is far less often heard in the UK).
You can compare that to THIS, the flight call of the other big winter thrush from Scandanvia - the Redwing. Both flight calls can be heard very commonly at night from these 2 species - as they fly overhead , fresh in from the north - you'll hear them, but not see them.

All my photgraphs in the posts above this one - all shot at huge distance. Please excuse the poor quality, but (as always)...
Click on any to enlarge!

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