Today saw my first visit to Blacktoft Sands in about six months. I’ve been keen to pay a return visit here for ages as it’s one of my favourite reserves and has provided me with lots of great bird sightings in the past.
I arrived at about 9.30am to find that, so far, mine was the only car in the car park. It was a lovely, sunny morning with very little breeze as I checked-in at the Visitors’ Centre before making my way down towards Singleton Hide at the Eastern end of the reserve. Outside the VC, a Robin was perched in the trees at roughly my eye-level. The bird was singing away and the sun was shining on it showing its plumage to great effect, thus making a very attractive image. I took some photographs of the bird before moving-on down the trail; a great start to my day’s birding!
One of my favourite birds of all-time is the Sedge Warbler. At this time of year, Blacktoft is usually ‘alive’ with them, singing their wonderfully erratic and rambling song from their favoured location – perched at or near the the top of a clump of reeds. Today was no exception; in the few hundred yards between the Visitors’ Centre and Singleton Hide, I stopped several times to photograph ‘Sedgies’. They truly are beautiful-looking birds with the very distinctive supercilium ‘eye-stripe’ making identification easy. I must have taken about fifty photographs, always trying to get that perfect shot!
Two great birds in the ‘bag’ before I’d even entered my first hide of the day, and all the way down the path birds were singing all around me. This visit was shaping-up very well so far!
I took-up my position in (the empty) Singleton Hide and settled-down to watch the lake in front of me, the skies above it, and the reedbed to the East of the hide. All three locations can yield very exciting bird-sightings at Blacktoft. In over thirty previous visits to the reserve, I have only failed to see a Marsh Harrier on one occasion. Singleton Hide generally provides the best views of the many harriers that live and breed at Blacktoft. I didn’t have to wait long for the first of many sightings I had today; a pair of Marsh Harriers ‘cruised’ back and forth over the reedbeds in search of prey. As I watched, one of the pair flew high above the other and dropped some food which its companion deftly-caught in mid-air. Such ‘food-passes’ are commonly seen amongst Blacktoft’s Marsh Harriers.
As I surveyed the lake outside Singleton, I mentally ticked-off all the bird species I could see: Greylag Geese, Mallard, Shelduck, Tufted Duck, Black-Headed Gull, Mute Swan, Coot and Moorhen were all present on the water, whilst other birds such as Magpie, Woodpigeon and Carrion Crow were visible nearby. In the reedbed to the East of the hide I was lucky-enough to capture some photographs of a Reed Warbler singing amongst the reeds. (Reed Warblers are generally less-easy to spot than Sedge Warblers as they tend to perch lower down in the reeds for safety). A Cetti’s Warbler suddenly burst-forth with its very distinctive, syncopated and ‘jazzy’ song in the trees just outside the hide, but didn’t show itself – no surprise there given how shy Cetti’s usually are!
After about an hour in Singleton, (the duration of which I spent in the hide entirely alone!), I decided to move back along the path to visit some of the other hides. More Sedge Warblers ‘serenaded’ me as I walked back along the path in the sunshine. I kept a close-watch on the trees on my right as I went along, looking for small birds such as Blackcap and Whitethroat which are commonly-seen in these trees.
Two great sightings in quick succession occurred just as I reached the path leading to Townend Hide. The first was a very tame Dunnock which alighted in the shrubbery to my right just as I was passing. I quickly grabbed a number of close-up images which captured the detail in the bird’s plumage very well. Almost immediately afterwards, a Wren with a beakful of insects landed near my feet to the left of the path. Once again I rattled-off a number of frames before the bird disappeared from view. This was really becoming a great day’s birding!
The sightings kept coming as, within five minutes of sitting-down in Townend Hide, I was treated to sightings of a male Blackcap and a Lesser Whitethroat, both of which landed in the tall weeds just in front of the hide. Out on the lake in front of me, a group of around twenty-five Avocet were nesting on the island nearest to the hide. As I watched, I noticed one pair of Avocet were becoming quite agitated. I soon realised it was because they were nervously-escorting their two young on a foray out into the shallow water near the island. The parents were relentless in ‘seeing-off’ whatever threats they perceived to their young; a low-passing Marsh Harrier was one target, as was a Mute Swan which had the temerity to venture too-close to the chicks for the Avocet’s comfort.
Now, clearly a Marsh Harrier poses a very significant threat to young birds such as Avocet chicks, but a Mute Swan? Really? Visions of a giant oil tanker inadvertantly mowing-down a lone sailor in a tiny, one-man yacht aside, I can’t really imagine a Mute Swan being much interested in an Avocet chick. However, one thing is clear: Avocet parents know no fear!
Over the next forty minutes or so, I had numerous Marsh Harrier sightings, as they systematically quartered the reedbed searching for prey. A Little Egret landing near the front of the hide provided an additional bird to add to today’s rapidly-growing list of sightings.
Moving along to Xerox Hide I watched more Marsh Harriers – this time being harried by a Lapwing. An Oystercatcher on the grass in front of the hide, a Blue Tit in the weeds below the hide and several noisy Greylag Geese flying past completed the sightings from here.
The next hide I wanted to visit was Marshlands. As I approached the door, I was again startled when a Cetti’s Warbler burst into song just to my right. From the volume it was ‘putting out’, I knew the bird was really close to where I was standing. I stood quite still and scanned the bushes intently. After a minute or so the bird appeared on a low branch right in front of me. I quickly raised my camera, but the bird darted away before I was able to bring my lens to bear on it. Bother! I only have one confirmed Cetti’s Warbler image, which I took several years ago, and would dearly love to update with a better one. One day….
I spent a while in Marshlands Hide during which time I watched a group of Black Headed Gulls on one of the islands. Periodically, I could see at least two chicks amongst the adult birds. Other than that, the only other bird I saw was a lone Gadwall, swimming near the hide.
Back outside the hide, and once again I had a great view of a Sedge Warbler singing just near the path. More Cetti’s Warbler singing teased-me as I walked back down the path towards the car park.
What a fabulous day of sightings I had had at Blacktoft today! 33 birds in total. I’ll be back at Blacktoft Sands before long.