Monday, 16 March 2015

Birding back home

Prior to returning home from university on Saturday, I arranged to spend Sunday with Scott, birding around Cheshire and North Wales in order to clean up on a few year ticks. The day started at the ungodly time of 05.00 however the early start proved worth it when, an hour later, we were watching at least 11 male Black Grouse lekking at point blank range at a traditional site. As ever I was captivated by these charming birds, their haunting calls carried through the moisture-laden air providing a fitting soundtrack for the ethereal dawn landscape. After getting our annual Black Grouse fix, we headed to Pensarn where we caught up with the juvenile Iceland Gull showing distantly at the eastern end of the beach. A confirmation message on Birdguides then had us shooting across Angelsey to Cemlyn Bay where Scott finally connected with Lapland Bunting. The female bird showed incredibly well feeding on a seeded path to the north of the western car park allowing me to capture some great phone-scoped shots.

On the way home we made the short detour to Burton Mere Wetlands where I finally saw the wintering :Long-eared Owl which gave good views as it roosted in a shrub on the path to the IMF hide. This was only my third Long-eared Owl and constitutes a great record of what can be a very difficult bird to see in Cheshire. The returning Avocets and a singing Chiffchaff also reinforced the feeling that spring is on its way.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

2015: The story so far.

The days are getting longer, the migrants are pushing in and as winter inexorably gives way to spring it seems like a poignant time to compose a short summary of my first few months of 2015. After painfully dipping the Little Bustard on New Year's Day due to illness, I've actually had a good few months listing wise with 6 lifers, with the Harlequin Duck in Aberdeenshire and the Pacific Diver in Cornwall the obvious highlights from a rarity perspective. 

Harlequin Duck, River Don, Aberdeenshire

Other standouts include the Cheshire Laughing Gull, an absolute county mega and a bird I've long since wanted to see in the UK. The winter of 2014-2015 has been another cracking season for rare Larids and  I've also seen Franklin's, Bonaparte's and Thayer's Gulls in addition to the Laugher. This leaves me, Sabine's Gull aside, with very few easy Gull ticks left for the UK.

1st-winter Laughing Gull (Phonescoped)

Against my better judgement, I finally made the pilgrimage to Bedforshire earlier this week and after a considerable wait and more than a modicum of luck I managed to catch a glimpse of what is likely the only Lady Amherst's Pheasant left in Britain. To my surprise, seeing what this unarguably stunning species engendered a considerable amount of joy, especially considering its as plastic as they come! I've also managed to catch up with a couple of tricky passerines this winter with Little Bunting and a couple of Serin thankfully finding their way on to my list.

Patch-wise its been a relatively modest start to the year, with the gull roost in particular being a complete waste of time with no Casps or white-wingers for me despite many hours stood in the cold and dark freezing my bollocks off. Despite this poor showing it has been an educational experience with a couple of 3w Yellow-legged Gulls one evening in early March a nice age class to catch up with.

3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Port Meadow

The unshakable feeling of Spring unfolding is raising my anticipation for the season ahead however the impending doom of my final year exams has so far managed to temper my excitement to a large degree. Inevitably, my birding will be somewhat curtailed however I still have the NGB trip to Spain in early April and the prospect of Lammergeiers in the Alps next week to tide me over. I'd like to imagine that the Spring will pass by mega-free and exam revision won't cause me to miss too many birds but I'm not holding out too much hope. At least I'll have the prospect of an Autumn volunteering on North Ronaldsay with it's mouth-watering potential to keep me going through the inevitable misses!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Back in the game.

After a long, university-enforced hiatus from twitching, which led to me missing Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Eastern Crowned Warbler among other things. last Sunday saw me finally get back on the twitching horse starting with a 5am rendezvous with Brucey on Oxford High Street. We quickly headed cross-country arriving at Lowestoft beach in Suffolk just after 9am following a quick stop for a classic twitching breakfast at Maccy's. We took a brisk walk down the seawall and were soon watching the rather disheveled looking male Desert Wheatear down to a few metres as it sat on the wall obviously regretting its decision to ever leave its desert habitat in the first place. After enjoying my first lifer of the day we took the ten minute drive into Norfolk to Gorleston where the female Desert Wheatear was showing equally well on the beach, sheltering in a pipe in the sea wall from which it made occasional feeding forays. As a more active bird than the knackered male at Gorleston it gave a more accurate impression of the characterful nature of this stunning species. Both birds gave nice phonescoping opportunities allowing me to get some decent shots despite not yet having an adapter for my iPhone 5. It was also nice to finally see another species of Wheatear and I look forward to one day catching up with more members of this charismatic family both in Britain and their native ranges.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft.

Female Desert Wheatear, Gorleston. 
After enjoying the female Desert Wheatear we headed to Holkham NNR where we spent the rest of the day. Highlights here were the stunning male Surf Scoter showing down to 500m offshore and a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard sat up in a field on the fresh marshes, both of which were long overdue lifers. There was also a nice supporting cast here with Great White Egret, Short-eared Owl, Firecrest and 9 Velvet Scoter offshore rounding off my first visit to this incredible site. Overall a great days birding and a nice 3 tick day after the twitching drought of October.

Looking out over the fresh marsh from the west end of Holkham Pines. 

Yesterday afternoon, my twitching run continued when Adam Hartley offered me a lift from Oxford to see the long-staying Franklin's Gull which has been coming in to roost at Blashford Lakes in Hampshire. After a pleasant drive down we arrived at about 15.15 and joined the assembled masses waiting in the Tern Hide. After scanning for ten minutes and picking out a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls among the assembled large gulls, a small disturbance at the opposite end of the hide alerted me to the Franklin's Gull had dropped in early. After a scramble to get a clear view I managed to get my scope onto the bird. BOOM! Franklin's Gull finally on my list! The bird was showing incredibly well about 200m away from the hide allowing me to get excellent views and even a crappy phone-scoped shot. The bird was a real stunner with the gun-metal grey mantle, large white mirrors on the primaries, diffuse dark mask and chunky, dark bill reminiscent of that of a Med Gull giving it a really distinctive look. The bird was also really compact looking noticeably smaller than the Black Headed Gulls it was associating with. A really nice bird and one of the easiest twitches I've been on in a while. Hopefully autumn has one or two more surprises before we sink into the depths of winter for another year.

Adult winter Franklin's Gull, Blashford Lakes, Hampshire

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Back to Birding

After an incredible 3 months on Skomer Island this Summer, conducting my undergraduate research project on Manx Shearwater chicks, I've decided to try and start blogging again as a way of writing down my birding experiences in prose form. At some point, I'll try to find the time (not easy for a finalist!) to write some retrospective posts about my Summer on Skomer as it was a truly life-changing experience and some of the natural spectacles I was fortunate enough to witness beggared belief! The birding was also pretty decent with myself, Ollie Padget and the wardening team including Ed Stubbings and Jason Moss finding some great birds between us, the pinnacle of which was a self-found Lesser Yellowlegs on North Pond, my first BBRC rarity! Since returning from Skomer I've done a spot of twitching, seeing Masked Shrike among other things, but I've not really had the time to invest in it and since returning to Oxford at the end of September the well of new lifers has run bone dry. I have had some great local birding however with Otmoor RSPB producing the goods in the form of a juvenile Red-backed Shrike and an adult male Dartford Warbler, both county megas! Both of these birds were twitched in the fading light with Ollie, hopefully I'll be able to convince him to spread his wings and twitch some birds further a field over the course of this year.

One bird that has eluded me however is the Red-necked Grebe that has spent the last month residing at Farmoor Reservoir. Having both previously dipped the bird twice, yesterday evening a course-mate of mine James Evry and I decided it would be third time lucky and headed over to Farmoor for the last hour of light. We did a full circuit of F1 but unsurprisingly couldn't find the Grebe which I'm now convinced phases in and out of existence as it pleases! We did however have a nice Rock Pipit along the causeway as well as a smart adult Yellow-legged Gull which perched up on a buoy close to the southeast corner of the basin. Initially I was unsure of the birds identity as the pale base tone to the yellow legs and hints of streaking on the crown and around the eye briefly raised the spectre of a Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull hybrid. Luckily the bird soon flew revealing its diagnostic wing pattern with a large white mirror on p10, a small mirror on p9 and a solid dark band across p5 which confirmed its identity as an adult Yellow-legged Gull, the first of the winter for me. A pleasant way to finish the evening, the Gull was a nice consolation for dipping the Grebe which was of course present again today. Hopefully I can get out int the field again over the next week, the Steart Pallid Harrier is awfully tempting, and if I do i'll attempt to write about it on here. Below are a series of shots of the YLG captured by James Evry, having a friend with a DSLR is really useful!

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, all photos (c) James Evry

Monday, 9 June 2014

Highs and lows

The few weeks since my previous post have raced by in a blur of birds, people and places. After a horrendous week involving several frustrating dips in the last week of May, I was almost, admittedly rather  melodramatically, ready to pack in this twitching lark for a quiet life of patching. Unfortunately I have been well and truly bitten by the bug and the adrenaline of seeing new rarities appears to be one of the most addictive drugs known to man. Therefore early on the 20th of May, with my logic well and truly beaten by my compulsive need for a rarity fix, I found myself boarding a train to Leamington Spa. Here I met Matt Bruce and after a quick detour to pick up James and Sam in Notts, we were steaming north towards Covenham Reservoir and a date with a Terek Sandpiper. Upon arrival I was feeling particularly twitchy and my fears were compounded as I was told the bid had just flown to the far end of the causeway. A brisk and incredibly nervous walk followed but thankfully upon our arrival we were put on to the bird by a couple of birders present. As I got my scope on the bird waves of relief washed over me as the Terek Sandpiper filled my vision and I was able to take in the stunning little wader in all its glory! A bird I've long since wanted to see I was amazed by just how compact and dumpy it was structurally. I continued to watch the bird for around 20 minutes as it fed along the waters edge on the emerging flies with a small mixed wader flock. In this time we were even treated to a few snippets of song and Sam Viles managed to capture the fantastic images below. A real treat and a reminder of the extreme highs that make twitching so worthwhile.

Terek Sandpiper (c) Sam Viles

Terek in flight (c) Sam Viles

During this time Scott arrived and almost simultaneously news broke of an Eastern Subalpine Warbler in the Canal Hedge at Spurn. As all of us needed this likely armchair tick, we headed off tearing up the coast and arriving at Spurn just before 2pm. After what felt like an eternity searching the scrub to the south of Canal Scrape, the bird was eventually picked up but instantly dropped down out of view on the far side of a dense hedge. We cautiously walked over and as we rounded the hedge I saw a small bird flit across into a bare shrub. I got my bins on it and instantly knew it was a Subalpine Warbler, but which one? In the 5 minutes we watched it at close range, opinions were split on the ID as the bird possessed a thick white moustachial strip but appeared far too buffy underneath for an albistrata. As time was pushing on we had to head south but thankfully the ID conundrum was solved by shots of the diagnostic tail pattern which proved the bird to be a 1st-summer male Western Subalpine Warbler race cantillans. A cracking tick for me made all the sweeter by gripping it back from Scott who had seen the Lleyn Penninsula bird a year or two previously.

A few days later and I found myself heading back towards Spurn with Scott for a weekend's stay at the Warren. The conditions were perfect with easterlies and rain forecast and a nice arrival of Red-backed Shrikes on the Friday afternoon raising hopes for some nice drift migrants. Saturday certainly didn't disappoint with highlights including a self-found female-type Common Rosefinch at the point, a smart female Red-backed Shrike in the bushes behind the Riverside and an elusive female Red-breasted Flycatcher in the garden off Beacon Lane. which eventually gave good views. A report of the Flamborough Bee-eater flock heading south over Tunstall the had us dashing to the Warren but after several hours with no sign we decided to head north and search for them. Despite checking most of the likely spots between Kilnsea and Tunstall we could not locate the birds. Consolation was provided however by this incredibly showy Wryneck in Withernsea Tesco's car park which gave stunning views as it fed on ants. An absolutely stonking bird, this cryptic species is one I never tire of seeing, especially when they show as well as this.

After a heavy night in the Crown and Anchor watching the Champion's League final, Scott and I decided to have a lie in on the Sunday morning as the weather was awful when the alarm went off at 5am. This proved near fatal when I was stirred from my sleep just after 7.30 by what could possibly have been a distant shout of "Bee-eater". Despite the chances of it being a wind-up to wake us up, I was taking any chances and grabbed my bins running up to Numpty's in just my shorts and a vest in a state of wild panic, half-expecting to see one of the locals holding a camera. I immediately realised this wasn't a joke however and was soon scrambling to try and see the birds as they headed rapidly  south. In my adrenaline fueled panic my brain managed to stay focused enough to pick up the 5 Bee-eaters as they powered over the narrows and off down the point. Although the views were crap the birds characteristic, strong undulating flight was obvious even at distance through bins and when they banked I got more of an impression of structure. Not ideal views but still a nice lifer and a great addition to the trip list! After we had calmed down slightly, Scott and I had breakfast and decided to vismig from Numpty's. However news of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in North Yorks and a Little Bittern 20 minutes from home eventually proved too tempting and we set off on a daring round trip twitch, the thoughts of what we might miss back at Spurn constantly in our minds. Thankfully the Broad-billed Sandpiper showed well, if distantly on arrival and we soon moved on towards Elton Reservoir and the Little Bittern. This was to prove slightly trickier as the bird was flushed prior to arrival but had apparently returned and vanished into one of the smallest bits of habitat I'd ever seen. As the minutes dragged on I was getting more and more nervous but the day was saved when young birder Harry Murphy picked up the Little Bittern creeping unobtrusively through marsh. A stonking adult male, we were treated to fantastic prolonged views as it successfully hunted Great Crested Newts along the edge of a small pool. A cracking bird to catch up with and much more satisfying than the distant flight views achieved by many at Ham Wall. A 3 tick day already in the bag, we headed back to spurn where miraculously the best birds we had missed were a couple of Curlew Sandpipers on the Humber. Result! Monday was unfortunately a dud, with most of our time spent waiting for a Black Stork which never materialised. Still a fantastic trip which reaffirmed the Spurn area as one of my favourite birding spots in Britain!

Tuesday the 27th saw me make a flying evening visit to Port Meadow before dinner to twitch a summer-plumage Grey Plover found by patch stalwart, Adam Hartley, in abysmal weather. The patch had been pretty dead for a couple of weeks prior to this but his persistence paid off in the form of a scarce patch bird and a nice patch tick for me! The rest of the week passed relatively bird free and I looked forward to my sister making a visit to Oxford to see me before I head away for the summer (more to follow). Making commitments in June is always a risk and my gamble was punished when a second summer Short-toed Eagle was found roosting in a tree in Dorset on Saturday evening. Despite kind lift offers from Scott Reid, I decided abandoning my sister in a strange city was a bit far and was forced to watch as hundreds of people saw the bird of 2014 so far without me. Although I don't regret my decision, it was heartbreaking to miss the best chance I'm ever likely to get at seeing this species in Britain, especially when so many of my contemporaries saw it. I can't keep on about the Needletail forever after all (NB: yes I definitely can!). I was still feeling slightly down the next day when the mega alert announced the presence of a singing Spectacled Warbler at Burnham Overy Staithe in Norfolk. I desperately rang round to try and sort a lift to no avail and a feeling of overwhelming despair had begun to consume me when Brucey kindly stepped in and offered me a lift. I met him at Leamington Spa around 4.30pm and we ploughed up there, reaching Burnham Overy just before 8pm. At this point the light was fading and doubts were starting to creep in as to whether we would see the bird. After a taxing 20 minute walk/jog to the bird's actual location, passing many smug NGB's on the way, I arrived to learn that the bird had not been seen in twenty minutes. A bout of swearing ensued and I began to lose hope I'd ever see the bird. Luckily persistence won out and after ten or so minutes of constant scanning I managed to relocate the Spectacled Warbler as it popped up in a small bush and proceeded to give great views as it fed amongst the suaeda. An absolutely cracking little bird to see, much more distinctive than I was expecting with a beautiful steel blue/grey head and a really buffy wash to the breast and underparts. A really nice bird and one that I didn't expect to catch up with in the UK for a long time, the Speccy partially made up for the pain of missing the Eagle.

The rest of the week was quiet bird-wise until the Saturday when Brucey offered to take me to Otmoor for some local birding with him and Emma-Louis Cole. This proved an enjoyable afternoon with absolutely mega views of a couple of Turtle Doves, a nice county tick and a great opportunity to practice my phone-scoping. Other good birds included year ticks in the form of Hobby and Garden Warbler as well as my first cucurra Lesser Whitethroat of the year. The next morning I was rudely awakened from my sleep by Dave Campbell who informed me that the STE was back, perched in a tree near Beaulieu Road station in the New Forest. BOLLOCKS! I eventually managed to arrange a lift with Mark Payne and Fred Fearne to get there early afternoon. Predictably the bird flew off as the weather warmed up and despite the best efforts of us and the assembled birders, there remains doubt as to whether it was ever seen again and it certainly wasn't seen while we were there. The New Forest was actually remarkably quiet with a couple of Hobbys and a singing male Redstart the only birds of note. Still it was a pleasant day out and it seems possible that the bird, being a non-breeding immature in suitable feeding habitat, might linger in the area for awhile. Unfortunately I head to Skomer for 3 months of research (twitching quarantine) on Sunday so the chances of it being found roosting in that time window appear to be rather low. The beauty of birding however its that you never know what might happen......

Phonescoped Turtle Dove, Otmoor RSPB

Monday, 19 May 2014

Passage Waders.

After a very disappointing week in terms of twitching the last few days have seen a slight uptick in quality. Last Thursday saw me make a quick visit to the meadow to twitch the Avocet that Adam had found the previous day. Upon arrival I quickly located the bird fast asleep in the north arm of the floods. Eventually it perked up and had a preen allowing me to capture some record video footage for posterity. A nice bird constituting only my second patch record and a decent patch yeartick which I thought I had missed out on. Saturday saw me head to the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust Reserve, Brandon Marsh NR, to help Matthew Bruce man the NGB stand at their wildlife day. A couple of brief sojourns to the hides over the course of the day produced two very smart, summer plumaged Wood Sandpipers. Always a pleasure to see, these stunning, delicate waders with their striking spangled plumage were a nice treat after the trials of the previous few days. Overall I was highly impressed with Brandon Marsh and its ripe potential. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking beer in the sun and skywatching in the vain hope that a Honey Buzzard or Black Kite might deign to drift over. Well there are worse ways to spend a Saturday...

Brucey working hard

Thursday, 15 May 2014

A mixed bag.

On the last day of a great trip to Tenerife during which I mopped up all but one of the endemics (damn you Bolle's Pigeon!), a quick check of RBA informed me of an Oxfordshire double whammy; a summer plumaged Spotted Sandpiper at Farmoor and a Glossy Ibis, the bird I had been anticipating for weeks, on my patch Port Meadow! Seeing this was a somewhat gut wrenching feeling but I consoled myself with the fact that it could've been a much rarer bird and with the still fresh memories of singing Blue Chaffinch at Las Lajas from a few hours before. After a somewhat grueling journey home and only 4 hours of sleep, Sunday morning saw me stood on the banks of Farmoor Resevoir just 45 minutes after the Spotted Sand had last been seen. I hung around for an hour in a despondent state but predictably the bird didn't return and I had to head off back to college. An evening visit to Port Meadow produced very little although the summer plumage Black-tailed Godwit was still hanging around and had been joined by a second, winter plumage bird.

That evening I endeavoured to give the Spotted Sandpiper another go  as it seemed to have a routine of roosting on the reservoir before flying off to the river mid-morning to feed. I figured that if it was seen early the news would get out on Twitter or at least RBA at 07.30 so after receiving no confirmation I stupidly decided to roll over and go back to sleep. Predictably at around  08.30 I was woken by an RBA notification informing me of the bird's continued presence at 06.45. This amounted to a mystifying 2 hour delay in getting the news out which lead to me missing a lifer that I could easily have twitched!! Suitably annoyed, I decided to head up to Port Meadow to look for a singing Sedge Warbler which Adam had kindly informed me about. Upon arrival I heard the bird chuntering away in the hedge at the southern end of the Trap Grounds Allotments and with some perseverance i managed a few brief views of the elusive little bird; a nice patch tick! Whilst attempting to watch the Sedgie I suddenly realised that I could hear a Cuckoo singing from somewhere  in the Burgess Field. I was just setting off to search for it when I picked it up flying off across the meadow to the far side of the river. My second patch tick of the day and nice to actually see a bird that usually a heard only species on the patch! The conditions were nice and drifty so I decided to stake out the valley for migrating raptors. My efforts were unfortunately unsuccessful although I did pick up at least 4 each of Red Kite and Buzzard as well as a flyover Little Egret. The 2 Black-tailed Godwits also showed well allowing me to capture the phone-scoped pictures below.

Wednesday morning saw me at Farmoor early for another attempt at the Spotted Sandpiper. Despite carefully searching all of F1 and a good stretch of the river behind Shrike Meadow, I could not relocate the bird which hasn't been seen since. A really frustrating dip of a great bird for Oxon and the commonest yank wader is till need. I hung around at Farmoor for several hours but found nothing other than a flyover Little Egret. However my spirits were lifted by the sight of good numbers of Swifts screaming past my head as they hawked low over the causeway for insects. As ever a close encounter with these breath-taking birds, to my mind the pinnacle flight and filled with almost an inherent joy, lifted my spirits inexorably. As I watched them gracefully twist and turn over the water, my mind ran wild with fantasies of a Needletail bombing in to join them but this was, unfortunately, rather wishful thinking. Whilst at Farmoor the news of a singing Great Reed Warbler at Slimbridge filtered through and Dave Campbell and I made plans to head down there the next day to twitch it. Unfortunately circumstances conspired to thwart us as limited time meant that we were forced to leave 20 minutes before it showed for the final time. A couple of Spotted Flycatchers and nice views of one of the introduced Cranes provided some consolation but the whole day ended up being the climax to a pretty dreadful week. Seeing all the fantastic endemics in Tenerife with such ease has made me realise what a slog British birding can be once you get over 300. Still we all go through these periods and hopefully the hard work will eventually pay off with some rewards, a Yellow-throated Vireo on Skomer this Autumn would be nice...