Friday, 10 November 2017

An Hawfully Good Time

I've just got back from another successful trip to Somerset where I finally managed to bump into some of the erupting Hawfinches. My encounter was in a churchyard in Bloomfield, west of Bridgwater. I had been hoping for an opportunity to arise close by as I had a couple of free afternoons post work and it duly presented itself. Lee and myself arrived to see the two Brians of Somerset birding on site but bereft of birds. Lee picked a big finch dropping down from one of the trees but it was lost until I espied it low down. After some kerfuffle we were all watching it. It moved up higher to a better position to view and was joined by a plethora of Greenfinches, Chaffinches and a couple of Brambling.

A bevy of 'pic pic' contact calls and a further three birds flew up to the Hornbeam after feeding unobtrusively in the Yew near us. The four birds showed nicely but as the sun lowered three moved off leaving just the original bird. Fantastic views and hopefully not the last I see this winter. On the Parrett there was the usual assortment of raptors and waders with some exceptional Peregrine and Merlin aerial combat against Avocets and Starlings respectively. I didn't see a kill despite long dogfights. Amongst the waders I also saw a single Great White Egret which still elicits a thrill when working away from the levels and a Spoonbill. It is the third year in succession that I have seen the latter in the same area which is excellent and hopefully a sign of their upturn in breeding success albeit not nearby.

Today I headed to Flamborough for a brief seawatch and a look at Cattlemere which has been hosting some good stuff on the ploughed field. There was a decent turn-out despite the unfriendly conditions and watching from the sheltered and sunny area to the S of the normal position under the foghorn was reasonably warm. The birds were less thrilling mostly with a few Red-throated Divers doing little for the enthusiasm. A pair of Goosanders south were my second record of the year and as I was about to pack in 5 Whooper Swans came in high. These were a new bird for me at Flamborough so a real bonus.

Moving round to Cattlemere I quickly bumped into five of the six Shore Larks which have been about. They were sharing the field with an assortment of finches and at least 9 Snow Buntings. Photos were tricky as they were all in and out of the furrows so all I have were these of the snobs.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Scilly Season - St Agnes 23-27th October

Last week I made my first venture to the Isles of Scilly. This birding mecca is logistically a little awkward, expensive and not as good as it once was (apparently). Allied with a wife and children who have no interest in birding and a trip wasn't looking particularly likely until I managed to wangle a few days on St Agnes camping at Troytown. As it turned out the spectacular run of megas Aggie has had ran short as I missed the Cliff Swallow, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and obviously the Yellow-billed Cuckoo which turned its toes up on Friday night.

My tent in the less the sunny scene that greeted my at Troytown
After a late afternoon flit I arrived in Penzance on Sunday close to midnight and attempted to kip in the car on a back street. I failed to get any sleep due to a touch too much caffeine and the fact I am no longer 22. Bleary the next morning I made my maiden trip on the fabled Scillonian III. Thankfully I am a solid sailor with no instances of seasickness as yet so despite the drizzle, the stench of vomit and the 3.5m rollers I watched the Gannets dallying in the lee of the boat with a solitary Bonxie the sole concession to the skua movement off Pendeen whilst making our way across. As we came in a Great Northern Diver lingered off Gugh. After a brief sojorn onto the Garrison I was then off to Aggie and I selected my spot at Troytown.

Little Bunting from Porth Killier
The mizzle persisted but a Firecrest was indication that I really was somewhere less than ordinary. I bumped into Steve Rowe, a regular from Cornwall, who kindly showed me the Little Bunting in dropping light. I picked a Yellow-browed Warbler near lower town and started to get my bearings. Steve and his friend Luke kindly invited me to join them at the Turk's Head for tea and the log where I was introduced to the CHOG members who were on island (Leo, Alan, Roger, Marek et al) and latterly Mike and Kathy Young-Powell. A friendly bunch who were always welcoming and willing to chat on my laps of the island.

One of several skittish Firecrests seen regularly
The Tuesday, my first full day started well with Black Redstart on the beach at Periglis and this was soon joined by a surprise Kingfisher. The known selection of Yellow-brows and Firecrests supported and there was a Reed Warbler at the Post Office and a brace of Willow Warblers opposite including a very brown acredula looking bird. Five Swallows persisted by the parsonage and a trio of Redwing were the vanguard of a movement later in the week.

Reed Warbler at the Post Office
The Wednesday was very much a quieter version of Tuesday although I added Mute Swan as an adult flew over Wingletang Down in the fog. Luke had apparently had the same on the pool first thing. Some genuine Mallards hung around Porth Killier along with a Little Egret and a Greenshank which called in the mist. The Little Bunting and the Yellow-brows remained in the area. I had a couple of Kittiwakes from Horse Point but no sign for me of the Lapland Bunting which was seen by a couple of birders at Beady Pool. News came out of a Long-eared Owl in the fruit cages and I got there to see a boatload of birders across from St Mary's. I got a brief record shot and came back later on when it had all calmed down and had the bird to myself. It was roosting in the open and was perhaps the best views I have had of this species. An attempt to twitch a mobile Hawfinch and Rosefinch double proved fruitless but did add Sparrowhawk and Red-throated Diver which were seen from above the Gugh tombolo. At St Warna's I located a new Yellow-brow and a female Merlin watched over from one of the granite extrusions that litter the island. There was a Yellow Wagtail at Covean and whilst I didn't get views on the deck as it moved about the feeling from other birders was that this was a candidate thunbergi.

Merlin at St Warna's Cove
Thursday was my final full day and it started with a Raven calling over the campsite along with a raptor call which I couldn't place and failed to see. I managed to see Kestrel, Merlin and Sparrowhawk whilst preparing my daily bacon sandwich. Walking round the pool I managed to locate the Sedge Warbler which Marek Walford had found the previous day. I'm not sure I have ever seen one later. A Willow Warbler was messing about near Periglis beach and the usual crew of pipits, wagtails and wheatears was knocking about including a one-footed White Wagtail. Black Redstart numbers had remained steady all week with between 2-4 seen daily depending on effort to wheedle them out by birders but the afternoon provided a fall with at least 10 new birds and perhaps a dozen as an adult male graced Troytown beach. There was a decent finch movement with over 1000 Chaffinches and a handful of Bramblings in evidence. I even managed to refind the Common Rosefinch in flight up near the Pig Pen above the Gugh tombolo. Sadly it didn't put down for me but it was seen later in the day by the ringing team near the tennis courts on the other side of the island. I came across several hundred mixed finches in weedy fields at the end of Barnaby's lane after being attracted by flocks doing fly arounds of Wingletang Down. More Brambling and a dozen Siskin were present amongst the Chaffinches. As the evening drew in Redwings started going over towards France and Spain. Fingers crossed they made it.

Portuguese Man O' War
I was woken by a calling Dunlin amongst the Ringed Plover, my first of the week and Steve heard it too as we readied ourselves. Friday was my final day on the island. It was evident that Redwings had continued all night and there were plenty of birds in the hedges and fields. A single Fieldfare was at the end of Barnaby's Lane but there was no Ouzel for me. A Common Redstart flicked along the hedgerow which was a surprise. I continued with my loops and had a final look in at the parsonage in the vain hope that the Hawfinch which had eluded me all week was there. It wasn't but there were a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and Firecrests to remind me how much fun this week had been.

One-footed White Wagtail
Exiting the island for St Mary's immediately a Dusky Warbler broke at the tennis courts followed by an Olive-backed Pipit. Birds were arriving all the time as they had been throughout the previous 36 hours. Red-breasted Flys were then found on Mary's but I had no time as the Scillonian beckoned. The crossing was quiet with a few Mediterranean Gulls as we entered Penzanze and a distant pod of dolphins off Porthgwarra. I didn't manage to find much or see the big one but I had an amazing time and I will certainly return. Scilly is an amazing place and the birding was outstanding. I managed to walk 120km during the 5 days I was on the island so I put the effort in. Perhaps next time it will pay off. 

Long-eared Owl at the Fruit Cages
Prior to heading to Scilly I managed to score some Patchwork Challenge bonus points when I found a Richard's Pipit at North Landing, Flamborough. I had given up finding much in unfavourable weather on Friday 13th  Oct when a trio of shreep calls came from virtually under my feet. The bird bounded along and alighted in some long grass but by the time I caught up it had vanished. Thankfully the bird was seen well by a number of other birders and has subsequently been joined by a second bird.

Adult male Black Redstart at Troytown

Thursday, 12 October 2017

A Herd

On Monday after work Neil Rowntree, Pete Clark and myself had a ramble round the Somerset levels. It was mostly the usual stuff with Glossy Ibis, Great White Egret and a few Marsh Harriers the highlights. Try as we might we couldn't winkle out any Bitterns and we ambled back towards the car at Ham Wall RSPB. There was an obvious egret roost on the southern boundary of the reserve and I suggested we scope it for Cattle Egrets. Remarkably all the birds I could make out were Cattle Egrets - about 15. We moved along to the bridge over the drain near the car park for a better angle and tried again. This time we came up with 28 Cattle Egrets, 1 Great White Egret and 1 Little Egret amongst the Cormorants. As the light left, Pete saw the Glossy Ibis fly over towards Shapwick Heath.

20 of the 32 Roosting Cattle Egrets - Ham Wall RSPB 10/10/17
A few emails and messages and it became apparent that this was the highest single count for Somerset. I wasn't convinced that we had done a great job of counting them due to our surprise at finding the roost so we went back the next evening without Pete. A single bird came into roost at about 18:15 and a few minutes later a flock of 27 Cattle Egrets came in. 28 then, perhaps we were correct the first time round. The egrets started to drop out of the trees into lower vegetation out of sight and the light was dropping when four more flew in - 32 Cattle Egrets! The Glossy Ibis then shot over and the light left. By 18:45 it was nearly dark and the only egrets remaining on view were 2 Great Whites and a Little. Time for off then.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Call the Scops

I have been beetling about seeing a few bits and pieces but largely failing to summon the prerequisite levels of enthusiasm to blog about it but thankfully a couple of days ago a blimmin' rare bird managed to chivy me along. The first Scops Owl in North-east England for a century, a British tick and my first sight record since 2005 when I was on Kos. It decided to pitch up just outside Sunderland and conveniently was on the way back to work from a dawn bat survey so I was one of the first on site, arriving an hour after news broke. Along with Northumberland Explorer Neil we first found the bindweed markers on the bush before resolving a small brown owl shape. It wasn't completely asleep and it morphed from a spherical fluff ball to the devil horned menace that is typically seen. Thankfully it was in a pretty secure roost and it showed well for all and sundry for a couple of days. A superb find by Tom Middleton and one that brightened my day.

Not the best picture but you can tell what it is.
At St Mary's Island, a couple of recent visits have revealed four Yellow-browed Warblers and a Reed Warbler but sadly not much else despite plenty of effort.

At Flamborough I have had a little success adding largely expected migrants with Whinchat, Redstart, Redwing, Lesser Redpoll and a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers being seen recently. Seawatching has revealed a Pomarine Skua and lots of Sooty Shearwaters but I managed to virtually miss a Sabine's Gull where I only saw its back end and as such I'm not counting it for PWC. Thankfully my plans to go to Scilly in late October look like they may bear fruit so I am looking forward to some yanks.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Monday Morning

Now being an ornithologist isn't the same as being a birder. Generally the fieldwork is dull and routine and the conditions are normally not ideal and usually you see nothing out of the ordinary. Occasionally though the timing, the conditions and the location all line up and you get something quite spectacular. This morning was one of those days. I am down on the River Parrett in Somerset doing some fieldwork and my routine of counting Shelduck was rudely punctured by the forecast of force 8 westerlies. Normally this causes a feeling of dread as a day of enduring the elements comes to pass but my optimism was piqued by the smattering of seabird records over the last few days in the Irish Sea.

Immediately upon setting up a Manx Shearwater flew past the sea wall on the river. And another. Then I noticed a third being brutalised by a GBBG on Stert Island. Something special was happening - you don't get seabirds in Somerset unless the winds are perfect and these obviously were. Soon there were Manxies zigzagging all over the place as the tide came in and a couple of young Arctic Terns danced over the writhing waters. An adult pale phase Arctic Skua headed up river bothering the ducks as it went. I settled back down to count the moulting birds when something small and black flew through my scope - a Leach's Petrel. I had been keeping my fingers and toes crossed for one and duly it skipped over the surface trying to escape to the Bristol Channel between Stert Point and Island.

Yet more Manxies and news of Bonxies and more Leach's beyond my view flooded in. I picked up a second Leach's up near Burnham and got the pleasure of watching it fight south in the breeze for the next 40 minutes until it too managed to escape. A Ruff, my first of the year, went south along the seawall and a juvenile dark morph Arctic Skua hunted up near Burnham. I received news of 4 Grey Phalaropes along the river which I'd obviously missed and another with 2 Leach's Petrels in Bridgwater Bay. I made so with another dark morph juv skua, this one looked to be a Pom in the brief views I got but they werent really long enough to pin it down as it escaped over the WWT reserve. As the tide receded so did the seabirds but not without a Kittiwake south past my VP and a Guillemot to round things off. A sad and probably moribund Manx Shearwater was still floating about when I left. An amazing day and probably not one that will get repeated anytime soon.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Summer Catch Up

I have generally been a busy boy over the last few months with work and family taking precedence over birding. I have squeezed stuff in such as a jaunt to Somerset which saw me side track to Pendeen and a Great Shearwater and the Devon commons where Dartford Warblers were the point of interest neither species I have seen for a good while (10 years for the shear and 6 for the warblers). Both were fantastic to see again and hopefully they wont take so long to revisit.
One of the more photogenic Dartfords...
 At Flamborough I have made three visits over the last couple of weeks and the highlight was a Greenish Warbler that Peter Williams and myself found. This devil was calling repeatedly from the crown of a sycamore in Old Fall and wouldn't show in windy conditions today. I'd have loved to get a photo but alas no. It was great to catch up with Pete as it had been nearly a year since I last saw him. A Yellow-legged Gull on the seawatch this week and a Balearic Shearwater last week were other highlights.

Prior to going on holiday I managed to see the Caspian Tern and Pacific Golden Plover in the handful of hours I spent in Yorkshire that week. Both species were Yorkshire ticks although I have seen both in Norfolk (weirdly in the same spring on down days from boat work on one project). I also saw Chough in between as I visited the Great Orme for work. A stellar location and one I hope to visit again.

We also celebrated my Mum's 60th birthday and despite a Dad shaped hole in proceedings we all enjoyed the festivities very much. And talking about Dad, I'm doing ok I guess. Not great as I'm prone to a cry and it doesn't take much to set the waterworks off. I miss him immensely and I'm having all the thoughts of nihilism and my own mortality that inevitably follow but then I look at my kids and I strive to continue to make him proud. One of the ways I'm doing that is going to Australia to visit my brother Tom and his family and my new godson Patrick in the new year. Another is finally making a commitment to look after myself better. I'm 35 years old and 3 stone overweight. This can't last or I will follow my father into an early grave. We have reached the end of the summer holidays and I have made a couple of pledges to myself. 1) to lose the weight 2) to stop hobby birding after new year until there is a 13 at the front of the scales and 3) to eat a better diet. This is all pretty tough as I live a somewhat transient lifestyle but prior to my father's illness I had lost a stone and got somewhat derailed by it all subsequently. Wish me luck or the blog may get even quieter in the first quarter.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Korcula, Croatia

This isn't really a trip report. It was hot and hard work to do any nature watching but I did manage to see a few odds and sods including a single bird lifer when an Olive-tree Warbler briefly popped up in the apartment gardens one morning. Mostly it was enjoying the inverts and the odd reptile. The holiday was in two parts. The first week was hot and the second week was extremely hot.

Southern White Admiral
Birdwise it was difficult as there was an extensive pine dominated scrub which was near impenetrable across the island so birding localities were limited. I tried some raptor watching first week with very limited success - two distant buteo sp, a probable Honey Buzzard and a distant Short-toed Eagle. Due to the heat there were very few birds visible during the day aside from Pallid Swifts, Swallows and Yellow-legged Gulls. Presumably most passerines were moulting and hiding from the sun. Red-backed Shrikes were evident in the first week with recently fledged young but presumably the fledging young and increased temps meant that these went to ground when the temperature hit the late 30s and early 40s.

Slightly scruffy Red-backed Shrike
A few warblers were knocking round the apartments and it took a few days to unravel what they were due to the brevity of views and lack of song but it was soon noticeable that a couple of Sardinian Warblers were in residence plus a myriad of Eastern Subalpine Warblers and a single Olive-tree Warbler was seen in the fig tree by the pool. A jaunt along a nearby goat track in the second half of the holiday revealed more subalps and a family of Wood Warblers plus an Icterine Warbler.

Icterine Warbler
On the reptile front it was uneventful although I did have three sightings of Balkan Wall Lizard in the first week. These were incredibly quick so unsurprisingly when it heated up even more they vanished. Turkish Gecko's were a feature throughout with several including adults and juveniles present around the apartment with a juvenile even residing in the kids room from which they took great delight. The final reptile was not as it seemed. A lumbering Hermann's Tortoise was infact a walled in pet although no doubt was a product of the local hillside.

Female Balkan Wall Lizard
Butterflies were present in abundance and my inexperienced euro lep eyes managed to see some decent bits and pieces. I still have a perfusion of unidentified 'blues' but the presence of a fig tree, lavender bushes and a vegetable garden mean't that there were usually a few about. Scarce Swallowtail was usually present in the garden with the occasional visit from your common or garden Swallowtail. A Two-tailed Pacha was seen twice, both fleetingly as it graced us by the pool. Both Red Admiral and Painted Lady were seen on the lavender on occasion. A wall sp. was present in the garden along with a Clouded Yellow and Southern White Admirals were also a constant. Eastern Rock Grayling held a territory by the cars and were common throughout the island. The lavender held Hummingbird Hawkmoth and Small White as well as Small Copper including the distinctive 3rd brood morph. The only blues I have identified so far are Blue Argus and Brown Argus although I think I have a silver-studded type but more work needed. Away from the hotel I also had an Eastern Wood White with its distinctive brown tips to the antennae.

Eastern Wood White

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive