Thursday, 16 January 2020

Episode 4 - Somerset Starlings and Great White Egrets

After a drizzly morning at Ulrome I headed to Somerset via the Red Kites in the Yorkshire Wolds and the Whooper Swans in the Lower Derwent Valley. On the River Parrett I managed to film a Mediterranean Gull and found a Great White Egret with more on the Avalon Marshes plus a stunning Starling roost with attendant Peregrine.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Episode 3 of the 2020 Vlog - the lunchbreak one

I failed to get out and about this week but a couple of pleasant days meant I meandered through the village. A walk down the Nafferton beck produced the expected Little Egret and a bonus Green Sandpiper whilst Dunnock, Blue Tit and Great Tit were more expected fare. A Coal Tit on the Spittle Beck feeders was a pleasant surprise. They are about in this area in winter, breeding in leylandii nearby, but they aren't reliable due to small numbers.

This weekend gone I headed to Ulrome and despite grim weather added a few species to both the video year list and the Patch year list. Not really enough to produce a video but I am down in Somerset this week so hopefully I can see plenty down there.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Year List Vlogging

Hi all, Happy New Year! I hope you had a restful Christmas and are ready and raring for 2020. I got a couple of new toys for Christmas, a GoPro Hero 7 White and a Nikon P900. With these I am trying to do some vlogging and to get started I am looking at a video yearlist as well as doing some videos for Patchwork Challenge as I head back to Barmston for the first time in a few years. My Youtube Channel is here:

I got out on the 2nd January (yesterday) and started out with 47 species at Barmston including Merlin and Gadwall which were the highlights. I moved onto Hornsea Mere where 5 Russian White-fronted Geese and a Long-tailed Duck perked things up in a biting wind. Video below:

I also got a pass today and a visit to RSPB St Aidan's led to Barnacle Goose and Water Pipit (x5 at Lemonroyd Sewage Treatment Works across the river) getting seen. This was followed up with a trip to Blacktoft Sands where there were over a dozen Marsh Harriers into roost (probably well over a dozen) plus two Hen Harriers, an adult male and female. Three Black-tailed Godwits and plenty of Golden Plover were highlights as well as several large skeins of Pink-footed Geese. The yearlist moves onto 83 and I managed to record 55 species across the two videos.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Autumn in the Costa Blanca

This trip report has been slow coming to realise itself out of my tiny, addled mind and onto the virtual paper here. In late October I spent a rather warm week in Southern Alicante with my family and as usual I was indulged to get out and about including day trips to see my friend Jess up in Albacete and with the family to Sierra Espuna, Murcia. We arrived from single digit temperatures of Leeds-Bradford to the relative comfort of 22c and by the time we came left it was touching 30c.

Sierra Espuna
My first morning in Spain always starts with a pre-breakfast wander to reacquaint myself with the local birds. I was hoping for a bit of passage and there were some bits and pieces. I started at the cemetery in the Parc Natural de la Mata y Torrevieja. The park is located a few metres from the door but it is massive. I planned on looking for migrants in the plantations but the proliferation of mosquitoes still present meant I changed plans and headed round the edge of the salt pan looking for waders.

Juvenile Flamingo
I manged to cheer up the local Finnish birder when I found him a Kingfisher but for me it was the hundreds of Black-necked Grebes and the Flamingos which were appealing. Sadly the closest of the latter were all juveniles but in pleasant light it was still great to see up close. The usual suspects were about with Iberian Green Woodpecker, Thekla Lark and Zitting Cisticola. A Marsh Harrier cruised by, checking us out and the largest flock of Stone Curlew I have seen were sat on a spit with a minimum of 38 present. A Mistle Thrush in the cemetery was a good local bird although they breed close by. A single Iberian Grey Shrike was perched up surveying for potential food and the highlight was four Shoveler which dropped in. It was soon time for coffee although not until I had acquired the first of many puncture wounds from the mozzies.

I went looking for herps with Izzy late morning and we found our only snake of the trip, hiding under the step that led into the reserve. It looked like a Smooth snake but had a chequered pattern on the belly which as far as I knew made it a Southern smooth snake. I was however mistaken, it was the mildly venomous, rear-fanged impressionist the Iberian False Smooth Snake. Naturally I held it and got Izzy to feel it - it showed no inclination to bite and there are no records of envenonmation. It had a couple of fake strikes when I annoyed it a bit but we had to move it out from under its hiding place so we didn't crush it.

That afternoon we had a ramble round El Clot de Galvany, a small nature reserve 15 miles to the north which has some pleasant bars nearby. This is a small oasis and has a mosaic of habitats. With the plentiful water I was hoping for crakes but all I got on that score were Coots and Moorhens. More interesting were the Crag Martins scuddings about and an Edward's Psammodromus on rocks. I also had my only Red-rumped Swallow of the trip and a few Crested Larks.

Water Pipit - El Rincon
On the 28th I was meeting Jess in Albacete in order to get out on to the steppes and catch up with a few more localised birds. Jess works in a school on the outskirts of the city so I had to wait until they kicked out. As it is about 100 miles up there from where I was staying I headed to El Rincon which is the visitor centre for El Hondo which is open daily (it doesnt give the full experience but allows a dabble). Water levels were incredibly low but there were some great birds. A circling Booted Eagle was bettered by a male Hen Harrier messing about over fields. Bluethroats were present throughout. The reintroduction scheme Crested Coots remained loyal to their pool with a few Purple Swamphens. My only Squacco Heron of the trip was sat on the marsh in front of me but as it was a first winter bird it wasnt very obvious (and I am blind / useless). I flushed it and thus only really saw it in flight. Idiot. A number of meadow pipits were foraging around the margins of the marsh and amongst them was a lovely Water Pipit which was only my second in Spain. The margins shimmered with Plain Tigers which are also known as African Monarchs and are in the same genus as the more famous Monarch Butterfly. Numbers were higher than I can ever remember.

Plain Tiger
In addition to the birds and butterflies I spied a slightly raggedy male Vagrant Emperor. Despite the first records of this nomadic species from Yorkshire this year I had yet to catch up with one anywhere. A few squadrons of Glossy Ibis crossed the marsh as did a small group of Spoonbill which was the first ones I have seen at El Hondo (I have seen them distantly at Santa Pola salinas before). Pretty soon my stomach told me it was time to head onwards and upwards from sea level to about 1000m asl on the plains of Castilla La Mancha.

Male Vagrant Emperor
Once I had acquired Jess we headed for Petrola where we saw some distant flamingoes and not much else although a Iberian Grey Shrike watched us from above. We didnt have much success at a number of pools with Red-crested Pochard and the odd Marsh Harrier the highlights. It was however really good to catch up with Jess. We know each other through ringing at Tophill Low with Graham Scott on his CES site. Jess moved to Spain several years ago as a fluent Spanish speaker and has been teaching in Albacete ever since. We had a rather epic day in Norfolk several years ago featuring a Lesser White-fronted Goose, a Western Sandpiper and a Coues' Arctic Redpoll with support from Shore Larks, Taiga Bean Geese and a rather lovely Chinese Water Deer.

One of many chilly and duck filled lagoons of Castilla La Mancha. And Jess
We did eventually manage to find a few troops of Great Bustard to the west of Bonete. Once East of Bonete however things picked up. Whilst looking for Rock Sparrows at Bonete Station a rather lovely male Black Redstart popped up. A few kestrels dotted about and we chewed over the possibility of Lesser which they werent but at this point I noticed some Great Bustards on the far side of the fields. The fields were enormous with 'boundaries' nearly a kilometre away. Despite this the birds gave really nice views and some meandered closer, halving the distance. A smaller brown thing between us and the Great Bustards resolved into a Little Bustard and then two, three and finally 11. Mostly these were hidden in the crop but occasionally they stood up. One even deigned to give us a view of its wing pattern by flapping and this happened to coincide with my efforts to take a record shot with Jess' phone for her.

Lucky Little Bustard shot!
Light was disappearing fast and we headed up the road to Higuerula. No more bustards were in evidence but we did manage to find a flock of what I presumed were golden plover. Something wasnt quite right as the first had a big supercilium, as did the second and third and we pushed further up to make the most of what was left of the light. The better lighting from this angle revealed what I had suspected, 37 Dotterel. Very definitely a Spanish tick for me! Jess mentioned that they are known for wintering on the plains of the area, not something I realised at all.

Bonete Estacion Black Redstart
A trip to the watchtower at the north of La Mata Salina the following day resulted in zero harriers (hen, marsh and Montagu's roost here at various points of the year), zero snakes and a multitude of Black-necked Grebes with at least 200 seen from the tower. There were probably c1,000 BNG on the Salina throughout the holiday but getting an accurate count on such a large waterbody proved impossible although well into three figures were viewable from any watch point.

Sierra Espuna
A trip to Sierra Espuna was not without its ornithological charms although chiefly this was a family fun outing into the mountains of Murcia. We zigzagged up to vertiginous heights on some very narrow and unprotected roads and amongst the pines were some cracking views which were decorated with Chough, Golden Eagle, Crested Tit, Crag Martin and Raven. Alas there were no snakes or lizards as it was fairly chilly at this altitude but it was all about the views and a ramble to collect some of the largest pine cones I have ever seen. We also came across Ice Houses which in winter were used to collect and keep ice to supply the local area with that rarest of southern Spanish commodities, cold.

Part of a flock of 70 Stone Curlew
The penultimate day of the holiday was largely spent swimming with the kids but a balcony coffee led to some vismig with 25 Song Thrush tumbling out of the sky in small groups after reaching the coast. Chaffinch and Meadow Pipit numbers increased and small parties of Serin bounded past. My only Common Redstart of the holiday was seen off by the resident Black Redstarts and headed into the Stone Pine scrub. I went for a meander around the south-east of the lake again and found the Stone Curlew flock had increased to 70 birds. These hid in the shrubs beside the waters edge and were only discernible if you were looking.

Iberian Grey Shrike
The final full day of the holiday started with a pass and I went to the Vistabella road which flanks El Hondo. I started in an area which allows access and viewing over the western lagoon (El Poniente). Here I kicked up four Green Sandpipers from a damp ditch, swiftly followed by half a dozen Snipe and finally a Jack Snipe. This was one of my finds of the trip and another Spanish lifer. I didnt really realise that these guys made it as far as Spain but this one, typically flushed at close range and flopped down along the ditch. I saw it on a handful of occasions as I moved along without getting great views on the ground. Once I got to my viewpoint the raptors started to emerge with a scattering of Marsh Harriers and single Osprey, Peregrine and Booted Eagle. No clanga eagles were seen but a Red Kite sallied over the sallows and eucalypts. This was a province first. Any kites are rare in Alicante - I have seen a total of three black kites which roosted in the reedbed one morning on migration and disappeared towards the mountains before the sunrise was in full effect (I watched a Red-necked Nightjar and a Montagu's Harrier playing chase at the same time). I moved along the road to where an Osprey was perched up - this is a breeding area for this species which is present year round. I assume it was the same bird I had seen catching fish on the lagoon. As I made my way to the hide I pushed a Bluethroat through the reedcut and managed one crappy photo.

The Osprey sat, looking bored on the post that I saw one on in 2015 at the same time of year. There was little else about and my Spanish birding was drawing to a close for another trip. Below are a few of the other photos that I managed whilst out there. We are currently planning to head to Cadiz province in late August 2020 for our summer holiday when hopefully the raptors are plentiful. I miss Spain already and I can't wait for my first Tarifa experience.

Light Morph Booted Eagle

Zitting Cisticola
Thekla Lark

Monday, 14 October 2019

Early October

Aside from the vireo I have had some excellent luck whilst working and birding. Continuing project work in Somerset had me in Bridgwater Bay for a few days at the beginning of the month. Rocking up in frankly disgusting weather Pete and I had a few hours on the Steart WWT watching waders with some nice diversity. The first visit revealed Spoonbill, Ruff, Greenshank and a Wood Sandpiper which dropped in late on during Monday evening. We couldn't winkle out the American Golden Plover from the back of the Marsh due to terrible viewing conditions. A couple Spotted Redshanks were pretty vocal as they dodged about.

Returning on Tuesday morning proved a double edged sword. At the back of the marsh was a lonely looking juvenile American Golden Plover which decided to avoid its cogeners for kicking about with Redshank and a couple of Curlew Sandpipers. Most of the previous days crowd were about although the Spoonbill was a billion miles away. A slight Tringa with yellow legs, monochrome ground colour and a thin, dark bill ticked all the boxes for Lesser Yellowlegs and when we thought we saw the correct tail pattern I jumped the gun and put the news out. The sun duly came out and it suddenly looked more robust, browner, with a pale bill base and orange legs. Eight minutes from misidentification to embarrassing climbdown. I felt shitty as I withdrew the report but folks were pretty decent about it. Thankfully it only took another twenty minutes for a degree of redemption as Pete and I marched along the dunes between Catsford and Wall Common only for a small thrushy thing with a barred tail to lift up from under Pete's feet. As I went for my bins and sturggled to process, Pete shouted 'Wryneck' and it duly gave superb views in a dell. Obviously I left my camera in the car so all I came away with were some phone-binned garbage but you can kinda see what it is. Ish. A handful of locals saw it subsequently and we saw it on our return through the dell but not half as well as initially and we left it. This was a find tick for both Pete and I which is always a good day. As we wandered back a Common Tern crossed Wall Common, a decent bird for the area and my 3rd tern species in Bridgwater Bay.

We also wandered along the banks of the River Parrett at low tide and I picked up a marsh tern doing the floppy diving thing they do. Bins only views were a little inconclusive given the distance but eventually we were happy with a 1st-winter Black Tern which was also seen by a few others. It rested on the mud with Black-headed Gulls and continued the next day. No sooner had Pete gone back to Newcastle than Paul took his place. A quiet but cool day was followed by a quick bit of snaking with no less than four Grass Snakes under a piece of tin including two neonates. We also checked the same bit of tin the following day and two new neonates were present (the first two were in shed so easy to ascertain the difference). Six snakes from one tin in two flips is pretty good for Britain in October I'd say!

We followed up this expedition with a trip for the Greylake Spotted Crake. A hideful of noisy folk meant it didn't show on our first attempt but a male Marsh Harrier, three Great White Egrets and a Cattle Egret were decent consolation. We returned the next day to see the crake swim across the channel in poor light. We also saw a Water Rail (we assume - another crake/rail seen badly in flight) cross the same area shortly after. 

Whilst working on the river the following day, I was on the phone to Paul when he promptly hung up on me. Only slightly offended I was keen to find out the cause of the interruption as we had been expecting decent birds due to strong westerlies. It turns out that a Grey Phalarope landed at Paul's feet in a puddle, no more than three feet from him. It sat there for 30 seconds before disappearing across Huntspill Sea Wall. About five minutes later I picked up a Grey Phal inflight coming from Paul's direction, crossing Fenning Island and heading back out into Bridgwater Bay. A fitting end to a great week in the south-west.

I managed to sneak a crafty seawatch in on Sunday 6th October but as I was late rising and the wind was South-east backing east in heavy rain I was no more than hopeful. Despite my tardiness I dropped into Flamborough and a full hide and a decent few hours was had. I picked up a Sooty Shearwater and got my eye in on a line of Little Gulls that were moving through. A lone Brent Goose plus a couple of groups of Eider, one of which containing an eclipse male Red-breasted Merganser moved past. A Tufted Duck was in amongst some Wigeon and small numbers of Common Scoter moved past. Single figure counts of Arctic and Great Skua along with a handful of Manx Shearwaters brightened up a soggy day and we were all grateful for the shelter of the seawatching observatory. Numbers of Kittiwakes were low and I kept an eye for juveniles, and a little burst of kitts and Little Gulls proved particularly productive as a juvenile Sabine's Gull appeared in my scope. I gave myself a few seconds to be sure before calling it. Thankfully all but one observer got on the bird (the Little Gull line was fiendish in difficult light conditions). This was the first Sabs I'd seen for a good few years when I found a couple offshore along the Yorkshire coast when self-employed. Last year Brett called one that six people got onto and one didnt. I cant complain too much, you miss the odd bird seawatching. Best to keep it at the ones you have seen before.

As morning turned to afternoon it was obvious that birds were arriving but I had the need to be elsewhere and wandered back up to the car park, pausing briefly at Bay Brambles. It was alive with wet migrants hiding in the scrub that adorns the cliffs. The first bird I saw was a Yellow-browed Warbler and two Goldcrests soon replaced that, never to be seen again. Some of the seawatchers who abandoned at a similar time to me came and checked what I'd seen. A Sparrowhawk went through and flushed three Song Thrush. No further sign of the Yellow-brow but then a Firecrest was called, a rarer bird in the autumn in Yorkshire for sure. There were a flurry of these sprites over the following week but initially I couldn't get onto this bird. Once I worked out the directions (its below the ridge in the brambles, in the darker brambles, above the hole) which made sense when you got there but less so prior to this in a sea of brambles. It popped up again and was a very bright male with an obvious orange crest. Delighted, I mistakenly thought it was my first for Flamborough but on checking my records I saw one last year along Old Fall hedge although weirdly I cant recall that at all. Dementia? From here it was all downhill as I headed for a week of being indoors only to be revived by an American wanderer. And now I'm back in the South-west and it seems to be raining American landbirds. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Worshipping with the REV

October has got off to an excellent start and this morning I made a pilgrimage to see the second Red-eyed Vireo for Yorkshire, a mere 29 years after the first. Yesterday I was wrapped up in family stuff as my wife was out with friends so it wasn't a goer and I feared I had missed my opportunity but in the pouring rain this morning the good news about the bird being present came out and I readied the troops. Much bribery and suitable charging of the kids tablets meant they were content to stay dry in the car whilst I went looking for this moss-green yank delight. 

My first REV was in August, on migration at Lucky Hammock in Florida and I considered twitching the Church Cove one in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago only for time/distance/cost to come into play and I decided to look for other stuff instead. Back to today and in driving rain I wandered along Vicar's Lane (there is a theme I'm sure but I just can't put it together). The crowd numbered almost 15 hardy souls in the stair-rods. Amongst them were John Sadler and Peter Williams who had already seen it and reassured me that it would reappear every quarter of an hour or so to drop into a berry-laden ornamental bush by the entrance to the car park by the gas station. They drifted away and time ticked by, almost 20 minutes of getting soggy and then birds started to move through the trees. First a Blackcap, then a Blackbird before a Song Thrush and then finally another Sylvia sized bird. This however was no Garden Warbler but a North American beauty. It dropped hesitantly through the canopy giving great views before alighting on the final branch above the ornamental bush. It was maybe ten or fifteen seconds but easily long enough to get some photos off in difficult conditions. It then fed in the bush for a couple of minutes before lifting off and disappearing into the willows. At this point, very satisified with what I had seen I congratulated Steve Lawton and Andy Malley who were also amongst the small congregation before heading back to the girls, happy to tell them their sacrifice was worth it. 

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Wake me up when September ends

Last month featured minimal actual birding but some damn fine birds and a few snakes. It started with a week in Somerset which featured a diversion to Kynance Cove on the Lizard for a brief look at the Brown Booby which put in a rather brief appearance as it headed to roost. I also saw a good number of Curlew Sandpipers and a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls around Stert Point. A post work sally into Dorset saw me come face to face with my first ever Smooth Snake on a small site (handled under licence).

Izzy at MigFest
Isabelle joined me for the morning at Migfest where we represented the Yorkshire Naturalists Union. We saw loads of great people including Jonny 'Lord of Dovestep' Rankin just as he finished his marathon section of a monster biathlon. We recruited a couple of members and I also managed to see my first White-rumped Sandpiper (lazy twitcher) as it continued its residency at Kilnsea Wetlands. On the Sunday I headed out for a seawatch at Flamborough which was probably the only structured birding I did and I saw a juvenile Long-tailed Skua, a handful of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters (I managed to miss a brace of Balearics) plus a returning Pale-bellied Brent Goose.

A second trip to Somerset was enlived by Yorkshire's first Little Crake since 1946 at Blacktoft Sands which showed exceptionally for the assembled masses before undertaking an overnight flit and leaving a dirty great hole in many twitchers lists. Not mine though and also added the same day was a county tick in the form of the Long-billed Dowitcher which had been at Fairburn Ings for a little while. Like the White-rumped Sandpiper, this was a bird I CBA to go too far for. Three Yorkshire Ticks and three lifers in one month isnt too bad.

Little Crake. Showing between the reeds again!
A glorious mid-September day with temperatures in the 20s led to another snake trip, this time to a larger site and we manged to see an array of sizes and shapes of Smooth Snakes with seven gracing us with their presence by the end of the walk. I can't go into much detail due to sensitivity over the site but I improved my handling skills and also saw my first Wasp Spider which was very cool. A couple of probable Sand Lizards evaded a decent look but we did see plenty of Zoots.

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive