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Yellow-billed Loon (second calendar year), River Witham, Lincolnshire.

ALREADY SURE TO BE ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF 2017 and presumably pushed into the Wash by the big northerlies and the tidal surge on the weekend of 12/13 January this magnificent bird has sought refuge, twenty miles inland on a sheltered stretch of the River Witham near Woodhall Spa. I often wonder about the reason large divers turn up inland. Maybe they are sick or emaciated after a battering by bad weather at sea, or maybe they are just smart and there is an easier living to be had on inland waters full of fish? The loon spent almost as much time under the water as on it and at first I was worried it had swallowed some fishing line but this transpired to be strands of weed getting stuck in its bill, presumably as it fished underwater. The weed was sometimes there, sometimes not when it surfaced.

Of course my main objective was to get some photos of it. It is easy to find yourself with thousands of side-on ‘field guide’ poses as the loon doesn’t change its posture much. It sometimes holds its bill more upright, it flapped its wings once in four hours and stuck its leg out a couple of times but mostly it was diving actively, sometimes for up to 100 metres along the river and then pausing between each dive for a while. So I tried for some lower angle shots including against the light trying to get the sun shining through its bill. When the early morning sun’s rays first hit the water there were some nice reflective patterns and the loon was also occasionally illuminated against dark shadows, something I am always looking for behind subjects. Against the light was also quite good at times and although you lose the red iris colour and catch-light, the sun shining through the yellow bill tip is quite a nice effect.

By the way, I got some stick on twitter for calling it ‘Yellow-billed Loon’, going American or summat. The word ‘loon’, is derived from the Norse word ‘lom’, which is what Scandinavians have always called divers and this was adapted by American ornithologists. I originally bought Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Sea and Coast in 1980 in Norway…’Fugler I Naturen Hav og kyst’ in Norwegian (‘Birds in Nature Sea and coast’) and the name ‘Gulnebblom’ is simply ‘Yellow-beaked Loon’. The Collins Guide has also adopted the name ‘loon’ so why not? Got to try and keep up with all these new names!

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Bohemian Waxwing, Barrow, East Lancashire - oops!

AS IF THE INTERNET WAS NOT ALREADY FLOODED WITH WAXWING PHOTOS this winter! At risk of becoming part of the problem I had been patiently waiting for them to come to me instead of chasing them around. Strange how my first of the influx was in Stow-on-the-Wold in the last week of December. I just managed to add waxwing to my little ELOC year list on 31 January, ending up on 146 after I stopped trying for more species in early September. My highest total in East Lancs by far and not too bad considering I was out of the country for three months this year but I didn't even get within 20 of Mark Breaks's amazing total. I will not be doing it again. Instead I am planning to do more walks up Pendle Hill this year than ever before. I'm on four so far by 8 January and should manage at least 16 by the end of February before I go back to Ladakh. The only year list I will be taking an interest in will be a tree-less part of Pendle Hill, Bill Aspin calls it my 'Moorland Madness Mini-league of One'. I reckon the bird list will not get anywhere near the number of hikes up Pendle but ironically the very first bird on that list this year was one that eluded me completely in 2016, can you guess what it was?




Blue Rock Thrush, Stow-on-the-Wold, 30 December 2016

STOW-ON-THE-WOLD HAS BEEN ADDED TO THE ORNITHOLOGICAL MAP with the appearance of this Blue Rock Thrush. Although it is an adult male that should not necessarily mean it is not of wild origin. We get adult vagrants from time to time and if wild then it has appeared on the back of the best ever autumn for eastern vagrants. It is also no more confiding than the birds I see in winter in Oman or India for instance. Let's hope it is from somewhere like Iran rather than a nearby aviary! Although only three hours drive away I could have done without the 18,000+ steps today carrying the big lens and tripod before the thrush made its entrance around midday. The other thing that struck me was how nice the people in Stow are, just like Beeley in Derbyshire earlier in the month. Thanks also to Dan Branch for finding a waxwing, which relieved the boredom of trudging around the back streets of Stow for hours this morning.

It looked like it had a rough night in the hard frost.

Looking rather scruffy close up.




Long winter shadows fall over the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire.

THE CHALK DOWNLAND OF WILTSHIRE has numerous fabulous historical sites and on Boxing Day we visited the Westbury White Horse on what is thought to have been the site of one of the most important battles in English history, Ethandun. In early May AD878 Alfred’s force of maybe as many as 4000 Saxons of the Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire fyrds defeated the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of Danes (or Vikings depending on the author) led by Guthrum the Old. This was the last major conflict in a long series between the Danes and The Kingdom of Wessex and after their defeat a treaty resulted in the Danes more or less ceasing large scale raiding and saw them settle in East Anglia. Meanwhile much of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia was absorbed into Wessex and Alfred became the first king of most of modern day England. The presumed site of the battle is a formidable Iron Age hill fort (Bratton Camp) between the villages of Eddington (Ethandun) and Westbury, although other historians have suggested alternative sites.  Bishop Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ written in AD893 included the following account of the battle:

‘Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress’.

The Battle of Ethandun took place outside the fortress and afterwards, the surviving Danes took refuge inside it, from where they were eventually starved out by Alfred and forced to surrender. The terms included leaving Wessex and the Danes' leader, Guthrum had to agree to be baptized. He ruled as King of East Anglia until his death in AD890. I wonder if the result may have been very different had the three sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ivar, Ubbe and Halfdan) not parted company with the Great Heathen Army and depleted their numbers in the process. The history of the Vikings in England has been in fashion lately with TV Series like ‘Vikings’ and Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Last Kingdom’ and the Lothbrok brothers feature in both of them. It was interesting to have a closer look at one of the sites of the action and imagine the Viking shield wall lined up on Bratton Camp.

The 55 metres tall Westbury White Horse was constructed in the late 1600s to commemorate the battle, as was a trend at the time in the south of England and it was maintained until the 1950s when it was preserved as white-painted concrete. More recently its surface was restored in 2007. It is a shame they couldn’t get rid of the unsightly joints in its surface. Even though I left my binos at home today it was hard not to notice a Peregine that cruised effortlessly past over the white horse at eye level, followed closely by a raven. Fantastic stuff! Just to the north at Avebury, we also had a walk in the late afternoon sunshine around part of the Neolithic henge monument belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes Stonehenge.  Amazing that somewhere like this should only be in the ‘also’ category!

Alexander at Avebury Ring.