Birding bits and pieces

By User:Max Naylor (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By User:Max Naylor (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve done a lot of driving around the country recently – I’ve been collecting motorways.  Recently I have ‘got’ M1, M4, M5, M11 and far too much of the M25 as well as glimpses of the M2, M3 and M40 – is there a prize?

When you spend a lot of time in a car you only see big birds – often raptors.  I was pleased to see a buzzard perched, somewhat nonchalantly I thought, by the M25 just south of the M4 junction.  It would have been almost unthinkable to see that when the M25 was built.  Nearby a flock of ring-necked parakeets flew over the dense traffic – their speed easily exceeded mine.  In Norfolk a ringtail hen harrier flew over the road to brighten my day.  In both Berkshire and Northants I was surprised that red kites were up and flying early in the morning – I guess they were returning from their roosts.

By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
And then there are other snatched sightings. A great-spotted woodpecker called and sparkled in the sunshine outside the Holiday Inn Express in Gloucester.  Before talking at WWT Slimbridge I snatched 10 minutes looking at 250+ Bewick’s swans from Siberia on the Rushy Pool.  Whilst waiting for the first race at Cheltenham I saw my first house sparrows at the racecourse for many years – and there were lots – maybe the cold weather had pushed them to the gardens next to the racecourse but I was very pleased to see them.  I did a short interview with BBC TV in the quiet countryside near my home and glimpsed a distant barn owl just before the interview and then four waxwings flew past just afterwards – pure luck!  And then there was the peregrine that flew past whilst I was WWF’s HQ in Godalming.

Back in the garden I have seen blackcaps often since their non-appearance in the BGBW and also a few reed buntings have  frequented the bird feeder  – I only see them very rarely in the garden.

By DickDaniels ( (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
By DickDaniels ( (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
I failed to see a mandarin duck in January, as I had intended, but I did try at Virginia Water where I have always seen them before. I’ll have another go some time soon.  But I can say that I have seen a drake smew in February – actually on 1 February and very smart it looked too.  At a nearby reservoir there were reports of smew and having fluked waxwing already that day I was feeling that my luck was in – so I went to have a look.  A redhead was easily spotted, and then I saw another distant redhead, but it was thanks to another birder that I saw the drake smew feeding in the vegetation at the back of the pool.  A very smart bird.

All in all I feel as though I’ve fitted in a lot of birds around ‘real life’ but I guess that’s the point.  If you are tuned in to birds then you will always see them and hear them wherever you are and they will bring you pleasure as they remind you of the natural world around us.

On a more structured bit of birding I had a quick walk around Stanwick Lakes on a cold day at the weekend.  The strong wind hastened my walk by pushing me faster from behind and motivating me to walk quicker when it was in my face.  It was clearly a winter day as the air was full of wigeon, teal and lapwing.  A single male pintail flew around too.  There were redwings in the hedges and the only birds singing were great tits and robins – both known to be bonkers enough to sing in almost any conditions.

But it’s only 6 weeks, or less, before I’ll be looking for sand martins and expecting to hear singing chiffchaffs. And I had a look at the BTO cuckoo tracking page and wondered whether Welsh cuckoo David, currently (when I wrote this) on the border of the Central African Republic and Cameroon, was already heading our way.


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16 Replies to “Birding bits and pieces”

  1. Soon be my trip on the M6, M5, M40, M25. When I did it last year I managed 36 Red Kites on the M40 but non on the M25. Only 6 Buzzards mainly on the M40 and M6 but plenty of Canada and Greylag Geese, Grey Herons and Mute Swans. Must try harder to keep my eyes on the road!

  2. I am interested to hear you mention house sparrows at the race course. It is not exactly "city" there, and in my ignorance I thought the h-sparrows had a problem in cities. From your comment it sounds more widespread than that!
    Will be interesting to see how they are doing in the new Atlas. Living in West Wales we have plenty..........and I am old enough to have hand fed them in central London and also remember the BTO say don't ring, too common!

  3. Nice blog post, it had me chuckling to myself as soon as I saw that blue sign, as a lorry driver, I can relate to the motorway tales. I even have a "from the seat of my lorry" list. Buzzards, Kites are often the most seen yet a few years back it was the Kestrel but they seem to have been replaced by the Buzzard hardly see them now, though the A5/Dunsmore stretch is very good, best bits Toddington services and the Starlings, bold as brass as they perch on a coffee franchise waiting for food, between J18/J19 M1 southbound in flooded fields circa 200 Golden Plover, a LRPlover underneath the new bridge near Swan Valley industrial estate, Tawny Owls hooting at night in "stop-over laybys near some wooded area by Stoke, Buzzard by the off ramp on the A45 both one at Brackmills and one at the Billing Aquadrome, circa 200 Fielfare on a layby near Fineshades Woods (and Kites of course), the early morning thing you mention about Kites is quite common Mark, I think it's more feeding then going/returning to roost sites as I often find them very early eating the "night-before" road kill before the traffic gets heavy.
    My best was though was Barn Owl as I travelled along the A148 it came out the field in front of my lorry and flew in front of the lorry, so I slowed down to avoid it, I noticed a lorry coming the other way he flashed his light and stopped his lorry in the middle of the road, stopping anyone overtaking him, I did like wise (many beeping horns) and watched as the owl hunted the verge before going off towards Sculthorpe NR. We past each other and the lorry driver had a massive grin on his face and stuck his thumb up. Got back to base and someone and dialled the "hows my driving" number, I told the boss what had occured and he just said "good on you, make sure you put your hazzards on though"....can't get fairer then that really.

  4. Unclassified road, after dark, Barn Owl with a field mouse which got dropped on the Landrover bonnet. Drove very carefully 20 yards back to the yard. Mouse ran off the bonnet down below windscreen wipers. Lifted bonnet and mouse escaped over the gap into the engine. Tried to catch it but it fled into the fuse box. Several mins latter with torch and a long bit of welding wire caught it. Mouse went fee, after all it hadn't had a very good evening !

  5. John Miles says "Must try harder to keep my eyes on the road!" Try driving with my daughter in the car and you get shouted at every time you look at anything off the road. I get a lot of my red kites from the car but not when she is in it.

    1. Enjoyed your comment Bob! I try to follow the same approach for birds as for mirror checks - a glance not a stare. I hope that's enough to stay safe and enjoy.

      That way I'm also supposed to check for birds every six seconds and before every change of speed or direction ... ok perhaps that's taking it a bit far!

  6. I used to do a lot of motorways myself, particularly the M4 and M5 and while much of this was after dark even the mundane birds in the daytime trips always bring delight. My main memories are of buzzards - I can certainly relate to Douglas's comment about them seemingly replacing kestrels as the commonest raptor on mway verges. When I first started visiting Pembrokeshire in the late nineties they only seemed to become common well into Wales on the western M4 and A48. Now you'd be fairly likely to see them anywhere west of London.

    My own most 'urban' sighting of a buzzard was last year, just the London side of South Mimms on the stretch of the A1 between the M25 and the northern tip of Barnet - so still Hertfordshire but only just. My buzzard was soaring nonchalantly as opposed to perching nonchalantly. Do buzzards do everything nonchalantly?

    To me the most remarkable birding motorway in the southern half of England is now the M40, with red kites being as common as gulls at times on the section between Beaconsfield and Watlington.

    My other birds of motorways are undoubtedly crows, not only for their (mostly) death defying road kill scavenging habits but also their love of motorway service stations. Rooks seem particularly to enjoy hanging around in car parks picking up scraps and their strutting walk and other antics can be hilarious - I have been happily distracted on many stops at Membury on the M4. In late summer I can be positive that a young rook isn't a carrion crow! I'm glad that my daughter's magazine from the RSPB's Wildlife Explorers includes a character called 'Rookie' and look forward to future generations' successful campaign to get the corvids taken off the general licence and no longer regarded as vermin but as the wonderful birds that they are.

    It is very easy to be distracted by crows mobbing buzzards and vice versa, although the only time I've actually come close to being a danger to other road users was when a raven and buzzard decided to have a huge fight right above me on the Dartmoor stretch of the A38.

    I wonder if contributors have their most 'urban' motorway sightings of large raptors, or indeed anything else unusual and interesting that marks the recent recovery of a species? A former colleague and friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, said he hoped to see red kites over 'greater Reading'. He did live to see that, there are now kites in numbers over outlying suburbs like Tilehurst, and they're not uncommon as I understand it in the town centre. Something to be celebrated. Could we see large raptors in Hyde Park in our lifetimes?

    Finally, honourable mention should perhaps go to Britain's rail network, where it's possible to enjoy the birds at (mostly) somewhat higher speeds, but without needing to worry about driving. I'd particularly recommend the line between Exeter St Davids and Teignmouth, but then many of you will know that and have many others. And finally, finally, I was moved my Mark's comment that "if you are tuned in to birds then you will always see them and hear them wherever you are and they will bring you pleasure as they remind you of the natural world around us." I've always found the same with trees on journeys or anywhere else and have enjoyed them more acutely in the last few months, looking out for the finer details of the different species, albeit for melancholy reasons. I have to take a deep breath before taking in the ash dominated bits of the south Beds, Herts and North London treescapes now and try to hold on to as much memory as I can...

  7. In regard to large raptors and urban experiences I did once see a Red Kite swoop down into a park opposite a certain supermarket in Wellingborough opposite the "Embankment", and I did once attend a family event in Oxfordshire too were once the BBQ was lit Kites just appeared from nowhere and my uncle was chucking sausages into the Thames and we watche Kites swooping and snatching off the water. But also we've had a Buzzard start appearing on a regular basis over our house, which is very urban, and I'm sure it's the same bird that sits on the lamposts on the section of the A43 between Thorplands Housing Estate and the Arbours housing estate. I know the BTO say Kes' numbers have stayed level but I just don't see them that often anymore.

    1. Douglas - sadly I think you're right about kestrels being in decline, though the UK picture is mixed they are Amber Listed:

  8. Having spent quite a few years of my life in the High Wycomber area (including both Watlington and Beaconsfield) I, my family and interested friends were so unbelievably excited when the (Spanish) red kites were introduced to the Chilterns.
    That was over 20 years ago - and now there are almost as many kites in the chilterns alone as there are in Wales.

    I disappeared to London for a while then 6 or so years ago returned to the home counties - to Reading with my wife, where Kites are indeed all over the town (as mentioned in another comment above).

    My wife and I have since left Reading (but still live within a 30 minute drive of the town) so we are still lucky enough (I guess) to have kites over our house every day, as well as the local A and M roads.
    Our local starlings have even started mimicking the kites from our and other old rooftop TV aerials - they're that common.

    Whilst the kite projects have been an undoubted, stunning success and I'd miss them if they disappeared.... I have to admit (dare I say) that in the last 5 years or so, I think I have perhaps got a little "bored" of kites round here - they're EVERYWHERE - I just don't take much notice of them anymore! (I never thought I'd say that!)
    I must work on that I guess - one should never get bored of such a beautiful bird. (note to self - remember what the Chilterns were like BEFORE the reintroductions).
    I have no idea why people from the SE of England go to Gigrin to "get their shots of kites - just head to the Watlington / Stokenchurch area (off the M40) and you'll have trouble not seeing dozens and dozens and dozens.

    Me... these days...I much prefer to see a buzzard (doing well... but harder to see than the omnipresent kites) or a kestrel (still seemingly doing ok round here) or one of the town peregrines (doing VERY well in Berkshire) or a hobby in the summer or a wintering merlin (now making regular appearances at Wycombe Marsh I hear) or even the sparrowhawks that race through the garden.
    I'm very lucky that I've managed to see (from the car) two barn owls in the gloom recently, quartering over very local farmland and roadside verges - now that's a sight that makes my heart beat faster!
    I know barn owls are doing well these days also (thanks mainly to a huge specific conservation drive), but I shouldn't think I'll ever get (even close to) bored of barn owls.

    The strangest avian site I've ever seen on a motorway was on a Christmas day many moons ago.

    A kilted man, walking up the central reservation of the M40, with a very large (and very much alive) swan in his arms.

    I have no idea either.

  9. On the A303 yesterday travelling from Salisbury to Budleigh Salterton and back (not taking in Bude) I counted eleven badgers and two foxes dead on the road - no hedgehogs. The only birds I recall seeing were magpies and rooks picking at the corpses, and one pied wagtail at my destination. But I do try to keep my eyes on the road as far as possible - should I be checking rear windows for "Birder on Board" stickers advertising potential swerving or other erratic behaviour.


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