The “invisible bird watcher” — Bence Mate

At the age of 14, Bence Mate won the title ‘Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year’, but it was not just his photographic talent that impressed the judges, it was his passion for wildlife and conservation. Mark Carwardine, a BBC zoologist and one of the judges, presented Bence with his award. He recalls “Bence was and still is an outstanding naturalist, due to spending every available moment in the field photographing the behaviour of his beloved birds. Even as a teenager his stated ambition was to earn money from his photography so he could set up his own hides, to encourage more people to appreciate birds and wildlife.”

22 years later, Bence Mate has more than achieved his teenage ambition. He’s designed and built 24 very different hides around his farmhouse in Hungary. He pioneered the use of one-way glass to allow bird watchers and photographers to get close to the shyest of birds without disturbing them. Described by Mark (now a regular visitor) as “some of the most imaginative and inspiring bird hides I have ever seen”.

Theatre hide in spring – photo by Bence Mate

The hides include a 12 metre high Tower Hide which is home to numerous nest boxes and perches, which says Bence “encouraged numerous prospective tenants. A pair of kestrels chose a nest box right under the window of the hide. They actively defended their territory, even against Common Buzzards, three times their size.”

“The success of the first Tower Hide led to the building of a second one close to a site favoured by a Red-footed Falcon colony. We mounted four nest boxes on the hide and four more close by. Red-footed falcons are  known to occupy nest boxes but we were very surprised when the first pair returned from Africa and immediately occupied one of the boxes.”

Roller Hides in Hungary – Photo by Bence Mate

Key species which can be seen from the hides in winter include otters, white-tailed eagles, common buzzards, bitterns, great white egrets, grey herons, water rail, kingfishers, marsh harriers, spoonbills, great cormorants, caspian gulls and black-headed gulls. Later in the year they are joined by goshawks, sparrowhawks, little egrets, squacco herons, European bee-eaters hoopoe, European rollers (from early turtle doves, little owls, black woodpeckers and Mediterranean gulls.

The hides and plentiful supply of nest boxes have also attracted one of the most colourful birds in Europe – the Roller. A few decades ago it was rare to see breeding pairs in Hungary . The roller mainly nests in tree cavities but due to extensive logging such holes became scarce. However, a nationwide nest-box project supported by Bence proved very successful and now the population is thriving. Says Bence “rollers regularly occupy nest boxes around the hides, where their behaviour can be observed at very close quarters. I can state with confidence that their spectacular colour is only matched by their meanness! I’ve seen them fearlessly attack Turtle Doves, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Common Kestrels and even Buzzards, during the mating season.”

In conversation with Ruth Miller

Many people dream of leaving their humdrum life, and heading into the unknown for a life of adventure. Ruth Miller and Alan Davies made this dream a reality, but with an added twist. They decided to take on the ultimate birder’s challenge – to break the world record for the number of species seen in one calendar year. The story of their great expedition, searching for birds from Ecuador to Ethiopia via Argentina, Australia and Arizona is documented in The Biggest Twitch.

Here, Ruth Miller gives an exclusive insight to RSPB Guildford about birdwatching closer to home.

“My favourite spot for birding in the UK is perhaps not surprisingly my local patch right here in Llandudno – the Great Orme. It is literally on my doorstep and has year round great birds to enjoy with spectacular scenery and lots of other wildlife. This wonderful limestone headland was a real life-saver during lockdown and allowed me to keep enjoying wonderful birds – so good for my mental health. 

The Great Orme holds some very special birds indeed with breeding Red-billed Chough (photo above) and Peregrine Falcons resident, huge breeding colonies of seabirds including Common Guillemots and Kittiwakes. Then in spring and autumn large numbers of migrant birds use the headland as a stopping off point so each day brings new birds and excitement. Amongst these regular migrants we enjoy some scarce birds too with Dotterel, Yellow-browed Warbler, Richard’s Pipit and Lapland Bunting all annual on the headland.

In winter we still have our wonderful Chough and Peregrines and the seas around the headland have Red-throated Divers, Common Scoter and a few auks while the rocky beaches hold Ruddy Turnstones and if we are lucky, as this winter, a Snow Bunting or two on the limestone pavement areas. Every visit to this beautiful headland is rewarding and it is always changing I love it!

Thinking about the most unusual bird I have seen in the UK is tricky as I have been very lucky recently being in the right place at the right time to see some fantastic birds. But if really pushed I think it would have to be the awesome Black-browed Albatross at RSPB Bempton Cliffs back in July 2021. We had arranged to guide one of our Birdwatching Trips tours in Yorkshire for a lovely couple, Barry and Wendy, a long time before so when news broke that an Albatross was being seen on and off at Bempton Cliffs just a few minutes away from our base was amazing. Of course the first place we visited on the tour was RSPB Bempton Cliffs and on the way Barry recounted the tale why Black-browed Albatross was the most wanted bird in the world for him, no pressure then! Luckily this fantastic bird was seen straight away sat amongst the nesting Gannets on the cliff in the sunshine wow what a moment! To see a real live albatross here in Yorkshire was mind-blowing but to share the moment with Barry and Wendy and see their sheer joy at seeing their most wanted bird really added to the moment. Birds really are brilliant!

The bird I would most like to see in the UK but hasn’t crossed my path yet here is the Snowy Owl. I had always wanted to see this charismatic Arctic owl and was lucky enough to find one for myself in Norway – what a thrill that was. But it still eludes me in the UK and that hurts not only because I longed to see one for so many years but the fact one turned up here in North Wales. The wonderful huge owl spent several weeks wandering around North Wales but was never pinned down when I was able to go and see it, so frustrating! But hopefully there will be another…..”

Ruth Miller
Birdwatching Trips

Why you need to visit the Forest of Dean

When thinking of birding destinations in the UK, the Forest of Dean might not be the first place that comes to mind. Tom Mabbett, Naturetrek tour leader, describes why it should be high up on all bird watchers’ travel lists.

“The ancient Forest of Dean is the largest expanse of forest in the UK, after the New Forest. In medieval times it was a royal hunting forest, before becoming a source of timber for the navy’s Tudor warships. Today the forest is home to a wide variety of birds and wildlife.

There is a huge choice of different habitats to watch birds in the forest – both native and migratory. There’s always the opportunity to see something special like the great grey shrike, which is rare in the UK. It is the largest of the European shrikes. Small numbers come to the UK in autumn and spend the winter here. One particular bird returns to a certain glade every year and has been described as the forest’s ‘star of winter’.

Winter is a brilliant time to spot a variety of finches, like the chaffinch, redpoll and siskin. The forest is possibly the best place in the UK to find the secretive hawfinch, enjoying the sumptuous food on offer.

Nomadic crossbills can be seen throughout the year. Goshawks start displaying in January to March as they set up their territories, and can be seen all year round.

Nightjars arrive in Spring, then leave in August to winter in Africa. They are nocturnal birds and can be seen hawking for food at dusk and dawn. Watching nightjars at dusk is a very special experience. Lesser spotted woodpeckers still breed in the forest, but can be difficult to spot unless you’re familiar with their territories.

The forest is not just about birds. In the late 1990s wild boar were spotted (likely escapees). The initial group (known as a sounder) has now become at least 1000. Despite their numbers, wild boar are not easy to spot unless you know the best times and places to find them. It’s best to go out after dark in winter, with a powerful torch to pick up their eye shine.

Another highly successful reintroduction is the pine marten.  16 were released in 2018 and have bred successfully. It is hoped they will have an impact on the grey squirrel population. If this is effective, there is a possibility of red squirrels being introduced one day.

I recommend that anyone with a passion for birds and wildlife visits the Forest of Dean to enjoy all that this wild and beautiful forest has to offer.”

Tom Mabbett is Operations Manager and Tour Leader at Naturetrek.

Naturetrek offers a wide range of natural history and wildlife holidays in the UK (over 100 tours in fact!). From the Scilly Isles to the Outer Hebrides and everywhere in-between. Whether you are looking for a day trip, a weekend break, a week-long tour or a cruise there is a holiday for you. All small group tours led by expert naturalists.

Clicka clicka cheep cheep – capturing creative bird shots

Wildlife photographers are known for the lengths they will go to, to get their shot. Award-winning photographer and broadcaster Paul Goldstein is no exception. “A true wildlife photographer accepts the hardship and welcomes it”, says Paul “but it should never be about an image at any price, the welfare of the bird or animal is paramount.”

Paul shares some of his secrets about photographing birds and how his unique approach helps turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.

“Whatever you’re photographing, the background is key. It can make all the difference between invoking an emotional response to an image and a photo being dismissed as merely ‘nice’.”

A really good example of this approach was seen in lockdown, when instead of capturing the exotic wildlife of the world, Paul turned his attention to an extraordinary study of an urban swan family in London.

“Lockdown forced us all to relook at the world with wiser eyes and look for wonders on our own doorstep. I watched a swan family living in a pond next to a busy main road. My dream shot was to capture the swans in the reflection of a red London bus. It almost came off but I wasn’t quite happy with the result [Paul is own fiercest critic!]. I then changed my approach and waited for a swan to remain still for long enough, to use a slow shutter speed. I wanted to blur the moving red bus in the background whilst keeping the swan fully in focus. Sounds easy? It definitely wasn’t! I had to wade into the pond with my tripod and wait for the right moment.

Reggie the cob swan by Paul Goldstein (ISO 100, f5.6, 1/20sec, 300mm)

Sometimes luck plays a part and Reggie the cob swan framed himself beautifully between two bollards. And a red bus obligingly went past.”

Further afield in the Pantanal, Brazil, Paul took a similarly unusual approach when capturing a night time shot of a hyacinth macaw. “There was a beautiful full moon, but otherwise no light. Creatively there wasn’t a lot of interest, until I spotted a hyacinth macaw in a palm tree, with a very clear outline. It was then a matter of quickly lining up the two (whilst being devoured by mosquitoes). I didn’t have a tripod, but a friend kindly lent his shoulder so I could use a slow shutter speed and keep the camera steady.”

Hyacinth macaw by Paul Goldstein
Hyacinth macaw by Paul Goldstein (ISO 6400, f9, 1/50 sec)
World penguin day by Paul Goldstein

“In South Georgia, I wanted to create drama with the waves and reflections, whilst still focussing attention on the penguin. Getting the background right was key to this shot.”

Murmurations by Paul Goldstein

“Sometimes, a grab shot is all you need. If the birds are performing magnificently as they did recently in Snettisham, just grab your camera or your phone and capture the magic of the moment.”

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Ringing the changes

Interview with Jeremy Gates – a Surrey bird ringer

Many members of RSPB Guildford will have met Jeremy Gates, as every year he rings the juvenile kestrels nesting in the garden of the Grundy family. But how did Jeremy become a dedicated bird ringer and why does he do it?

Jeremy with kestrel chick

… I’m doing what I always dreamt of as a child. Bird ringing is not just a hobby, it’s my passion.

In Jeremy’s own words: ‘I think I was born a bird-watcher. Even before I could walk I was watching and reacting to birds. When my father took me fishing, I only wanted to watch the birds. All birds fascinated me and I spent my younger years cycling around Guildford, looking for birds.

Joining the Junior branch of the RSPB (which was then called the Young Ornithologists Club), meant for the first time I had like-minded people to bird watch with. The organised trips meant I could visit places like Farlington Marshes and Pagham. I was absolutely hooked.

My ambition, even as a young child was to become a bird ringer. I wanted to see birds up close, to hold them and to understand more about their lives. Becoming a ringer involves registering with a trainer who takes you under their wing. While I was trying to find a local trainer (not easy), I worked and qualified as a tree surgeon. In my spare time I became a twitcher, travelling all over the country to see rare birds, such as the Golden Winged Warbler (seen in Kent in 1989).

Then in 1993, through the Surrey Bird Club I found someone willing to train me. Steve Abbott had been the Club’s Chairman and was a very experienced ringer. Under his guidance I learnt how to net and ring birds. I will never forget holding my first bird – a Great Tit. I felt both humbled and excited.

Now I ring around 1,000 birds a year and am one of about 2,500 ringers in the UK. It’s a mixture of general and targeted ringing. The general ringing involves the use of a net to catch a selection of birds. The targeted ringing is often seasonal, so for example I might look for warblers in summer and siskins in the winter.

Being a tree surgeon really helps when climbing to bird of prey nests in trees. It means I can easily climb a tree, put the rings on quickly and  then leave the birds in peace. So long as you are very calm and quiet, the birds don’t panic. Their welfare is always paramount.

I think the Firecrest is the most stunningly beautiful bird I’ve ever ringed. Top of my ringing wish-list is an Osprey, but as they’re mainly found in Scotland and a special licence is needed to approach their nest, this may remain just a fantasy.

For now, I’m doing what I always dreamt of as a child. Bird ringing is not just a hobby, it’s my passion.’

Birds to spot this Autumn

Tony Cummins, RSPB Guildford Walks Leader and Coordinator

The days are getting shorter, leaves are falling and mornings are chilly. Autumn is here! Birds are sensing a change in the weather and are becoming more active. Summer migrants are leaving and other birds are starting to arrive. So what should we be looking out for this Autumn and where are the best spots for bird watching?

Tony Cummins, our RSPB Guildford Walks Coordinator, explains which birds are arriving, leaving and just passing through.

“Many birds are migrants, but it’s not always obvious. Some migrants are just passing through and refuelling for a few weeks, others are here for the winter and some are internal migrants.

The passage migrants are travelling south from Northern Europe, where they go to breed during the short Northern summer. This includes many waders, who may stop off here on their migration route.  It can be an opportunity to spot some of the less common waders like the Curlew Sandpiper (which likes saltmarshes with muddy pools and shallow coastal lagoons) and the Little Stint (a tiny, wading bird). There is a plentiful food supply in the UK and birds will ‘refuel’ for a few weeks before moving on.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen

Then there are the winter migrants who spend their winter in the UK, like Redshanks (who may have travelled from Iceland), Curlews (the largest European wading bird), Godwits (Black-tailed and Bar-tailed) and Plovers. It’s also worth looking out for the juvenile waders, who often migrate later than their parents.

Birds migrating from the UK include swallows, sand martins and house martins who will start leaving any time soon. Swifts and cuckoos have already left.

So where are the best places to see these avian comings and goings? Pulborough RSPB is good for spotting small passage birds like Whinchats and Spotted flycatchers, which are both summer visitors and passage migrants. Also, there is a gradual build-up of water fowl. Wintering ducks include:

  • Shovelers – in winter, breeding birds move south, and are replaced by an influx of continental birds from further north
  • Wigeon – many birds visit the UK in winter from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia, with large numbers of wintering birds at a few UK sites
  • Teal – in winter, birds congregate in low-lying wetlands in the south and west of the UK, many are continental birds from around the Baltic and Siberia
  • Pintails – can be seen all year round, wintering birds arrive from September with numbers peaking in December
  • Brent geese  – nest on the boggy Arctic tundra, by mid September they leave their breeding grounds and arrive on our shores in early October, where they will stay until April

Photos courtesy Steve Simnett

Coastal areas can be very good in Autumn and we have birdwatching trips to Titchfield Haven, Farlington Marshes and West Wittering. If you’re keen to see starling murmurations, there are 5million starlings in the UK in Autumn, and many can be seen at Farlington Marshes. Avocets can often be spotted at Titchfield Haven.

Closer to home, you’ll notice garden birds are sensing a change in the weather and their behaviour changes too. Tits start to form feeding flocks, often led by Long Tailed Tits who are particularly adept at spotting food sources. Winter thrushes will start to arrive. Many blackbirds are internal migrants, and after they’ve finished moulting often look for a new location to settle in.

Also, if you’re very lucky you may spot a rare Wryneck. As its name suggests, it has a very flexible neck. It’s a species of woodpecker and passes through the UK in Spring and Autumn.”

To see our full programme of Autumn birdwatching walks, CLICK HERE.

Spotting the Western Sandpiper in Snettisham

A lone Western Sandpiper, amidst a mass of Dunlin was discovered at Snettisham RSPB on 22nd July. Although it is the world’s commonest calidrid, previously there were only ten accepted records of the Western Sandpiper visiting Britain. This was Norfolk’s second ever sighting, the previous one was in 2011.

Talking to the person who first spotted the bird he said “a small group of Dunlins and Sanderling landed in front of me, in silhouette and amongst them was something that I knew was special, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what. I managed to manoeuvre to get a slightly better angle, but was thwarted by vegetation that obscured the mystery bird. Before long, the tide pushed the flock off and despite much effort I failed to relocate the intriguing calidrid.” After eliminating a number of possible species, he realised he had something special and thought he knew what it might be. Returning early the following morning, as the tide fell and the Dunlin spread out to feed, the mystery bird was spotted again. It was a summer-plumaged Western Sandpiper. The orange on the head and back were subdued but clearly visible.

Jim Scott, the RSPB Snettisham site manager confirmed the identity of the ‘mystery bird’. As the news circulated, keen birder watchers started to arrive at Snettisham. I spoke to one person who had driven through the night from Cumbria in the hope of seeing this rare visitor.

Snettisham is a tricky place to get the timing right, as the ideal times are just before or just after high tide, as the birds either finish up their foraging, or just get started. At high tide, most of the waders are roosting and asleep, hunkered down with their bills tucked in. At low tide, the shorebirds are spread out into the far distance across the vast mudflats of the invertebrate-rich mudflats of The Wash, so that even with a scope the majority of the birds are too far away.

Because the tide had largely gone out by the time most people arrived, the Western Sandpiper was not seen by many birders until the evening tide on 23rd July. The sandpiper was most easy to locate at high tide and on the falling tide. At low water it disappeared and presumably fed somewhere further out. With patience, the bird was possible to find and there was an almost palpable excitement amongst the bird watchers, waiting for it to appear. I was lucky enough to see it through various people’s scopes, as I know I could never have spotted it myself amongst the thousands of Dunlin, Knot and Sanderling.

This was my first visit (as a ‘newbie’ birdwatcher) to Snettisham and even now I cannot believe how privileged I was to see this top of the rarity range of North American shorebirds visiting Britain.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen