Last weekend, I went to the BTO’s Bircamp 2017 – and it was amazing. Where else can you ring nightjar, find reed bunting nests and catch cream spot tiger moths – with like-minded teenagers too?
It began with a car journey that took 3 hours longer than it was meant to, and a shorter walk than planned with Louis Driver and Michael Sinclair, who I know via twitter. Both were very nice and great company for a walk at RSPB Lakenheath.
We started off by disturbing a cuckoo from the reedbed next to the path. We guessed it must have been a female from the fact it was down in the reeds, and probably laying eggs in a nest. As it flew past, I got a flight shot.
This was my FIRST EVER cuckoo, and a bird I had really hoped to see.
We then later saw a further TWO, although unfortunately these were more brief fly-bys.
Not a bad start.
By the way this would be a good point to make excuses for all of the bad photos I have included below – a lot of the interesting birds we saw were very far away.
We were then treated to a selection of dragonflies and damselflies. Believe it or not I’ve only just made the connection that their names are related to the fact that the dragonflies eat the damselflies, like dragons eat damsels.
To be honest, a lot of damselflies look superficially similar – you have to examine the patterns on their segments and stuff to identify some species. So thanks to David Walsh for assisting in the ID of some of these species.
This is a Blue Tailed Damselfly. Why? Okay, it has a blue tail, but surely its striking pink body is a more notable feature? Well, yes – in some cases. The Blue Tailed Damselfly has a very variant female, whose thorax ranges from blue to green to violet to salmon pink to red. This was the salmon pink form, rufescens.
The dragonflies are slightly easier to identify. This is the four-spotted chaser, with 4 characteristic dark spots on the middle of the leading edge of the wings. A beauty.
We also caught a glimpse of a female scarce chaser, which is similar but lacks the extra dark spot in the middle of the wing. It has a black central stripe running down the abdomen getting thicker towards the base.
Finally, a Hairy Dragonfly, easily identified by the fact that no other hawkers are around at this time of year. You can just about make out the fur behind the head.
After seeing so much in just under an hour, we were pretty pleased, but it was time to head off to the actual Birdcamp, and so we parted temporarily for the journey.
On the way, I saw a kestrel, and while we were driving I whipped out my camera and took some photos. I watched it swoop down, and fly back up again, landing on a container by a railway line. Glancing at the photos I could just about make out a a tail from some unfortunate mouse it had caught…
But looking through the photos again when I returned home, I noticed something weird. Is that tail green? Isn’t it a bit long for a mouse?
I just accidentally photographed a kestrel with a LIZARD!!!
It may not be the sharpest of photos, but you can still see the lizard, which is pretty cool.
Here you can just make out the legs sticking out, confirming it isn’t a snake.
Judging from the bright green colour, I would guess it was a male Sand Lizard – nationally rare and not something that you see every day. However then again the uniformity of the green isn’t right for Sand Lizards, so perhaps it is just really weird lighting.
All this in an hour! This weekend was looking good already.
When we arrived at the BTO headquarters in Thetford Forest, the tipis had already been set up, and they were looking awesome.
We had some introductions and dinner, followed by a few short talks.
I knew a few of the 24 or so young birders there from twitter – James McCulloch, Luke Nash, Louis and Michael from earlier, Charlotte, Elliot Montieth, Harry King and Samuel Levy. I also loosely knew Ben Porter, Iuean Evans and Lee Barber from twitter.
In addition I made plenty of new friends from the weekend, many of whom have now joined our twitter circle. Keep an eye on my links page, where I will shortly post links to their blogs if they have them.
We then set out the moth trap ready to catch some moths the next day. Although I love moths and have tried to set up my own home made wine traps, proper Robinson, Skinner or Heath traps have always been out of my range in terms of price, always being second place to a new lens, so I was dying to test these ones out.
Then, having been warned of a 4.30 start, we settled down in our tipis, complete with comfy mattresses and blankets. After a little (well, quite a lot) of talking and laughing and disturbing the neighbouring tents we fell asleep…
Despite a very early start, I wasn’t tired at all on Saturday. We set off at 6.15 in the minibus to the other side of the Nunnery Lakes reserve (where we were camping).
We were split into three groups, and mine started with ringing with Justin Walker from the BTO. We didn’t catch very much, but we did get several interesting species…
Here’s a garden warbler, distinguishable by it’s lack of distinguishing features.
We then had a very nice bird – a Cettis Warbler.
Cettis are somewhat wren-like in appearance, and with only 2,000 UK pairs it’s not something you ring every day.
We also caught a reed warbler.
I am by no means an expert on warbler ID, and combined with the fact that I rarely get to visit reedbeds both the Garden Warbler and the Cetti’s Warbler were lifers for me. When released, they sped off to the nearest tree then hammered out an alarm call, before disappearing into the undergrowth.
I have to admit that on occasion I did get distracted, but not without good cause. A cuckoo was singing in a tree, then flew past.
This was soon followed by a rare Rufous morph female cuckoo!! Unfortunately I didn’t get a very good photo, but it serves well as a record shot.
Elliot Montieth however did get a stunning photo, which we were all just a little jealous about. Here it is…
This was then followed by another normal male cuckoo, and a final cuckoo sitting in a tree. That, combined with yesterday’s cuckoos, makes 6 overall!
We were also teased by a Barn Owl, who flew past us at least 4 times, once right over our heads. But it went so fast none of us had time to get a good photo.
I did manage a few record shots, just as proof.
We then stopped at around 11 (I think) for breakfast, and I think we all deserved it.
While nibbling at a banana I had a look at some of the moths that they had caught in some Heath traps on the reserve overnight.
These included a subtly beautiful Pale Tussock, the extraordinarily camouflaged Buff Tip, designed to look like a broken twig, and the White Ermine, named because of its resemblance to lining of monarch’s robes traditionally made from ermine pelts.
Now chewing a croissant I ran off with some of the others to have a look at a stone curlew that was apparently very close, but had retreated by the time I arrived. Everyone else could still see it, but despite their best attempts to describe its location to me in a uniform unvarying field, I ended up photographing a distant lapwing instead, and only realising afterwards. But here is a photo that James McCulloch took, which was really good.
Ben Moyes and Toby Carter had also turned up by then. I had met them both at the Birdfair, and it was they who had first told me about the Birdcamp, so I have a lot to thank them for.
Then we went out onto the reserve looking for nests, with Lee Barber and Dave Leech.
They showed us a Willow Warbler nest that the previous group had found before, which was lovely:
…and contained chicks at the perfect stage for ringing!
We then found a song thrush and a blackbird nest.
I can’t quite tell from the photo but I believe that the above was a Song Thrush nest, distinguishable from that of a blackbird by a solid bowl at the bottom made from mud and rotten wood mixed with saliva.
Then, an absolute treat – a Reed Bunting nest, complete with 5 eggs! Note the wonderful spots and swirls on the eggs.
They all look very different – indeed one seemed to have very few markings at all. Cuckoo? I’m not sure. Cuckoos are amazing, and manage to either lay different coloured eggs depending on their host species, lay a dark one that the host species find hard to detect in dark nests, or lay a pretty average egg that resembles most species. Incredible.
Personally I found two nests, both of which were too high for me to see into. One was a Blackbird or Song Thrush, the other a possible Yellowhammer.
But apparently most excitingly, I found this…
It’s a Red Tipped Clearwing, and, believe it or not, it is a type of moth. It’s not a common moth, and is found in small local populations, so I wish I had spent a little more time trying to get a sharper photo!Still, you can tell what it is and it looked pretty spectacular, so I’m happy.
The met office weather forecast had threatened a storm; we hadn’t heeded their warning and so the threat was carried out. A long band of dark clouds loomed behind us, and we heard the first rumbles of thunder reverberating over the landscape.
We decided on a swift walk back to the minibus, where we all just fitted during a period of intense rain, while fork lightening spasmodically leapt across the sky. I considered trying to photograph it, but it was so fast and irregular that it was really impossible.
However it soon passed, and we got back to work in equally sunny weather to before. It was my group’s turn to do the Common Birds Census, whereby we listened for the songs of breeding males and plotted their territories on a map. It was good fun, and I learnt a few new calls.
Here David Walsh joined us. I met him at the Birdfair last year, and it was really he who opened up this opportunity by introducing me to Toby and Ben , who talked to me about the Birdcamp.
We all benefited from his damsel and dragonfly knowledge. He pointed out this Large Red Eyed Damselfly:
And I spotted this beautiful Banded Demoiselle, which seemed to be everywhere!
We also saw a few nice birds, such as this Gadwall, which are pretty rare in the UK (690 – 1 ,730 pairs) until winter, when migrants swell our numbers to 25 000 individuals. What’s more, another group found the Gadwall’s nest, but unfortunately I missed out on that particular highlight.
We also saw a Great Crested Grebe…
We also saw a Great Crested Grebe…
…and plenty of swifts.
Having finished all three activities, we all went to RSPB Lakenheath.
I learnt that I had missed out not only on the Stone Curlew, but also on a Hedgehog and a Slow worm.
I’ve only seen a Slow worm once, and never a Hedgehog. 🙁
I suppose that always leaves something to get excited about another time…
At Lakenheath we were eager for a Birdrace, and we were split up into two teams to try and spot the most bird species that we could.
But before this, David Rogers, the head warden for RSPB Lakenheath, gave us a talk in the open air about what the reserve was set up to conserve, and how they are conserving those priority species.
He also gave some tips as to what to look for while we were out – a very rare Marsh Warbler was out there somewhere, as well as a rare Savi’s Warbler. Black-winged Stilts were also sighted earlier.
Then we set out onto the reserve in our two teams, brimming with enthusiasm.
But from the first we realised that this was going to be difficult – there was a strong wind that would dissuade birds from perching out in the open, and drown out the calls of any rare warblers, which is really essential if you want to find them.
However one animal was more disturbed by us than by the wind; a muntjac deer. They’re all over the place up there, but unfortunately too quick for a good photo.
There was a Great Crested Grebe with chicks on the lake, which we could just make out with scopes from the viewpoint.
There were plenty of Reed Buntings about too.
We also heard another Cetti’s Warbler in a bush right next to us, although we couldn’t see it. I remember it’s call by the fact that it starts with a single note, then a small gap of half a second before a short burst of varying notes.
Half of us headed down to a hide, where we scanned the reeds for any signs of life. A mallard spotted us and swam right up to the hide, quacking for food. Suddenly, we saw a small brown bird fly across our field of view, and land in the reeds behind the hide. Someone identified it as a female Bearded Tit, and so I got out to have a look. Unfortunately, with the wind it was impossible to see or hear anything in the reeds.
We were given some good views of Marsh Harriers and brief glimpses of Hobbies flying over.
But then another particular highlight obliged us with a fly-past – a BITTERN. It wasn’t a very close or very long view, but it was my first Bittern, and about as good as you are going to get for that species.
Bitterns are the main target species that this reserve is trying to conserve, so seeing it is a good sign.
Then, on the way back to the minibus, guess what we saw.
Yes, another cuckoo, bringing our total up to 7. Very good considering before that weekend I had never seen one.
And another Scarce Chaser – they don’t seem very scarce here!
This Whitethroat also perched on some distant reeds before flying off.
Just as it did so, I turned back around and saw this Marsh Harrier fly past – the closest view I have ever had.
Then this Garden Tiger Moth caterpillar (round of applause for Ben Porter, who identified it from a basic description I gave him) decided to take a stroll onto the path right before our feet. It was massive, and didn’t look like it wanted to be touched!
Finally, our trip to Lakenheath was over, and we returned back to the BTO headquarters for some fish and chips.
But when we returned, there was still a job to complete before heading in for some food.
The moth trap from the morning was still unchecked.
Those of us who were interested headed round to the side, and we began to unload it carefully.
Moths came thick and fast. We had had an influx of Treble Lines Moths during the night, which were quite easy to identify, although there are other moths with three lines running across their wings.
We also caught this interesting Figure of 80 moth, again aptly named (although perhaps the Noughts and Crosses moth may have worked well?). It had a nice pink and orange tinge towards its head.
And a Hebrew Character…
And a Pale Tussock…
And this Alder Moth…
And finally, perhaps the most spectacular, this Peppered Moth…
We were so taken by the beauty of these moths that some felt moved to use them as fashion accessories…
We finally settled down to fish and chips, which were gratefully received by everyone. 16 hours of activity make you hungry.
But our day wasn’t over there. We still had one final activity left, and it was the most exciting of the weekend.
We were ringing Nightjars.
Now, I get a lot of Nightjars within walking distance of my house. In fact, I heard some the night before we left for Birdcamp.
But when I see them – if I actually see them at all – it is a brief glimpse of a silhouette racing above my head; if I didn’t know better I could mistake them for large bats. I only know what they actually look like at all from photos on the internet.
So seeing one in the hand would be pretty special for me, and for many of the others who hadn’t ever seen a Nightjar before, it would have been even more spectacular.
So we set off just as the sun was setting, and reached a heathland somewhere deep in the heart of Thetford. There we met BTO ecologist Greg Conway, who has been studying the ecology of Nightjars and the pressures placed on them since 2007.
He spoke to us about the technologies and techniques they used to discover where Nightjars were migrating, and their numbers. GPS tracking and ringing are both important aspects of this, which is what he was hoping to show us tonight.
I found this very interesting – I have a particular interest in Nightjars over most other birds.
Someone had heard a Tree Pipit as soon as we arrived, and we went to look for it while we were waiting for the Nightjars to start churring. Eventually it was spotted in a tree, and most of us got pretty good views.
After an hour or so, things started to get more exciting. Churrs started to spring up from corners of the heath, some in the trees right next to us.
Sometimes we could pinpoint these calls to the tips of trees, where silhouettes were just visible.
Then they started swooping down, catching insects from right above out heads, weaving between the trees and slicing through the still night air with their scythe-like wings. They appear to be just like some oversized swift or bat, such is their speed and agility.
With the low-level light conditions, and having been warned not to use flash (it damages their sensitive night eyes)
we really struggled to get decent photos.
This was a magical enough spectacle in itself, and it was great to see equal enthusiasm from other people as I feel for it. But to be honest, I can see this at home for myself, and other than the good company, I can have such an experience any time I like.
What I was really hoping for was to be able to see one in the hand, up close. Last year they managed one, but by that no means guaranteed the same thing happening again. In fact, it slightly lessened the chances, as Nightjars tend to be quite good at avoiding traps once they associate them with danger.
So when it was announced that we had only half an hour left, I tried to manage my expectations, and think about the amazing activities we had in store the next day.
But when we returned to the minibus, Greg and the other Birdcamp helpers pulled up in two trucks. The helpers in one truck emerged with nothing, but from the second Greg appeared, carefully carrying a ringing bag.
We crowded round, hushed with anticipation, as he withdrew his hand from the bag. There was a collective sigh.
It was a Nightjar; a long bird with soft brown mottled plumage, deep black orbs for eyes, and a massive frog-like mouth and a set of thin whiskers. A bizarre but beautiful creature, and it stared at us all warily.
We watched on in barely suppressed excitement as Greg expertly handled it, examining its wings and ringing it.
At first the creature opened its mouth absurdly wide, and gave a very frog-like croak, but it soon calmed down and was very obliging.
I even got a stroke! It had wonderfully soft feathers, and up close its plumage was stunning.
This was the single best moment of the trip for me – totally amazing and not something many people get the opportunity to do at all.
After heartily thanking Greg, we set off back to base and went to sleep. We had all been awake and active for at least 17 hours, and although I had enjoyed every minute, I was totally exhausted.
The next morning our tent woke up to a head poking into our tent and saying ‘We’re leaving in one minute’.
We had overslept by an hour, because our alarm had failed to go off. We jumped out of bed, into clothes, and stuffed everything into our bags. We jogged with the luggage into the building, where everyone was waiting, and then hopped onto the minibus with the rest.
So, in the end, we got an hour’s extra sleep – every cloud has a silver lining!
The journey wasn’t a short one, and there was plenty of time to get to know people a bit better.
When we did finally arrive, we found ourselves in a large tarmac carpark with a massive container port on one side, and a military base on the other. From out of nowhere emerged Nigel Wooden, the site manager for the observatory.
He led us right towards the military base, labelled ‘Landguard Fort’. I soon realised that this was the bird observatory
– a converted military fort.
We stepped through the tall steel gates and onto the site, and immediately we started spotting mist nets set up here and there. Nigel explained that they would try to ring some birds today, but they hardly catch anything at this time of year, and so we shouldn’t get our hopes up.
However, he did say that we had a big moth trap to unload, and he hinted that there were some pretty exciting ones in there.
As we climbed up a few flights of steps and arrived at the top of the fort, which commanded a stunning nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding area, including right out to sea.
The building itself was very interesting; it seemed that pretty much the whole building was made of solid concrete.
This formed staircases and walls and rings with pools (now ponds) in the bottom.
Nigel showed us where the moth trap was placed, and set to work unloading the moths.
First up were two wonderful Cream Spot Tigers. They look quite pretty at first, with their cream spots on deep black wings…
And hints of a red thorax underneath…
But when they open their wings, they get even better, showing a bright orange set of underwings and an abdomen that goes from orange to a red tip.
And then when it lifts its wings, you get an even better view of the deep red underside.
An amazing moth to catch, and not something I would see in Surrey because of its strictly coastal distribution.
We also got this nice Angle shades, that is an interesting shape and pattern, but was slightly swept away by the torrent of big and colourful moths that were unleashed from the trap.
This Poplar Hawk Moth was probably the most Popular Hawk Moth, because it is absolutely massive, and has interestingly-shaped wings too.
Although, having said that, the pair of Small Elephant Hawk Moths we caught (how many animals can you fit in one name?!) were absolutely stunning with their bright pink and green colouring.
I don’t know how anyone could possibly see moths as boring.
They seemed to make a very stylish combination anyway, until they warmed themselves up enough to fly off.
However, when the Angle Shades flew off, it found a very interesting spot to land – Ben’s camera, just as he was photographing the Cream Spot Tiger on a leaf. It creates a pretty cool effect…
I promise that wasn’t set up in any way whatsoever.
Then, finally there was this Beautiful Hook Tip – and yes, beautiful is its actual name. This was the first record of that moth for the site, which is pretty exciting considering how long they have been moth trapping there for.
After an awesome start, we went on a walk around the observatory, checking mist nets and and the Helgoland Trap.
I have never seen a Heligoland trap before. They are very big, this one the size of a large room, and are kind of funnel shaped. The birds can fly in one side, enjoy some bird seed from the feeders and fly back out again. But if you walk in while a bird happens to be feeding, it will be scared further into the funnel far from the exit, and eventually it will fly into a sheet of light, soft, clear plastic that will cushion its fall into a box, an the ringer can take it out from that.
However, once a bird has been caught once or twice, they generally become wise to the trick and fly straight back out over your head .
This is useful, because it means you don’t keep retrapping the same birds – (although retraps can be scientifically useful in other cases).
Unfortunately, as expected, we didn’t get anything, but this did leave more time to walk around the shingle beaches looking for Ringed Plover. Overall we saw about 3 pairs, 2 of which had a pair of chicks that we could see.
I have never had such close views of Ringed Plover; I’ve only ever seen them feeding on some distant marsh from a hide.
Nigel rings and monitors these birds, and he told us how attached he’s become to them over the years. Unfortunately, this species is on the Red List, due to a sharp decline. It is believed that the main factor affecting this is human disturbance, which is why areas containing Ringed Plover are often cordoned off on beaches. If you see one of these spots, it is very important to keep your dog on a lead for the same reason.
So concluded our visit to Landguard. Thanks to Nigel for sparing his time to give us a tour.
Then, before lunch, we decided we had time to try to see a Dartford Warbler at Upper Hollesley Common, where last year’s Birdcampers had success with close views.
However, after an hour of seeing next to nothing and frying under the scorching sun, we were still no closer to a Dartford Warbler. My first Yellow Wagtail flew over, which was a definite consolation, but the main attraction still refused to appear.
I have to admit, it was getting a little uncomfortable out there in the heat.
Just in the nick of time, before we decided to call it a day, David came running and told us that he’d heard a Dartford warbler just around the corner.
He all ran around, taking a momentary pause to photograph a posing Yellowhammer.
But when we arrived, it had vanished. We all stood under the shade of a tree, which at least provided some relief from the sun, and scoured the heather for some glimpse of red.
We spent another ten minutes or so there, when finally: ‘LOOK …’
There it was. Very distant, but it was indeed a Dartford Warbler, my first one.
Now that is what I call a record shot.
Having spotted the bird, we could allow ourselves to enjoy an excellent pub lunch.
In the afternoon we travelled out to Hollesley Marsh, an RSPB site right on an estuary, and home to plenty of birds and dragonflies.
After a short walk along a path, we came to a hide that commanded views over the marsh.
From there we saw plenty of Avocets, Shelduck, some Shoveler ducks, a Marsh Harrier, Kestrels, a Mediterranean Gull and a Juvenile Stonechat, just to name a few. And all the while, a beautiful swallow watched us from a nearby fence and a pair of linnets darted in and out of a bush, obviously feeding chicks in a nest.
But I think the real stars of the show were the dragonflies. I saw no less than 4 Red Veined Darters, which, according to our resident dragonfly expert David, are pretty rare migrants and only found in small localised populations.
It is quite easy to see why they are called Red-Veined Darters, isn’t it?
What an awesome way to end the weekend.
We then said goodbye to Elliot Montieth, Ben Porter, Toby Carter and Ben Moyes, and headed back to the Nunnery.
We had a final summary of all the birds we saw, which amounted to 104 species.
We all said our goodbyes, followed each other on Twitter, and departed.
All in all, an incredible weekend, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
At least 10 (bird) lifers, at least 20 new moths, and over 25 new friends.
I want to say thanks to the BTO for hosting this weekend, the volunteers who gave up their time to make it work, and the Cameron Bespolka Trust for sponsoring it. In a few years time, I hope to return the favour by volunteering myself.