Monday, 30 December 2013

December 2013 - Birding in a winter wonderland

As my last post illustrates, at the start of December 2013 I had come to the opinion that my birding year was winding down and I had become content with the slow but enjoyable pace of winter birding sessions on my local patch, Port Meadow. I did not expect to acquire any lifers by the end of the year and with a shortened Christmas vacation looming I was excited at the prospect of catching up with my birding mates from home and doing some good old fashioned winter birding. What I failed to comprehend however was that this was not any old birding year, this was 2013, later described to me as the 1990 for our generation of young twitchers by one Andrew Kinghorn. How right that boy was! In complete contrast to the norm, December has been a high octane month filled with great birds on both a local and national scale. Here I shall attempt to recount the various adventures of the most exceptional December I am likely to ever have birding in Britain. Fittingly the bird that kicked it off was an adult Caspian Gull, the subject of many an avid young guller's deepest desires and a bird that I longed to one day catch up with.

My December birding saga started as expected with a trip to Port Meadow in the fading light on the evening of  Monday the 2nd to check out the roosting gulls on the floods. As i approached our usual watchpoint, I noticed Port Meadow stalwart Adam Hartley already hunkered down in position. What's more he was filming a bird through his scope and when he saw me he turned and urgently beckoned me over. When I arrived he showed me the back of his camera and there sat on the edge of the flood was a stonking adult Caspian Gull! People who know me well understand that despite my relative inexperience, gulls are a burgeoning passion of mine and that I have a particular fondness for a good Casp. I had been fortunate enough to find several immature Casps on the meadow earlier in the year but had never seen an adult before and relished this opportunity to take in the bird in all its detail. The most striking and diagnostic feature was the long, pale grey tongue on the underside of P10, a feature I am embarrassed to say that I could never really comprehend until I had seen it for myself in the field. The bird also exhibited the characteristic long, parallel sided beak, sloping forehead and all dark eye. A truly stunning bird and a real pleasure to observe in the field, little did I know that this sighting would spark a run of birding success virtually unparalleled in all my years in the hobby!

Adult Caspian Gull, Port Meadow (c) Adam Hartley

The last week of term continued as normal and on the afternoon of Wednesday the 4th, I had the task of collecting mistletoe from the botanic garden for the college Christmas party that evening. I was on my way back to my room when news broke of a Velvet Scoter present at Farmoor Resevoir. This immediately piqued my interest as it was one of the few very common birds that I still needed as a lifer. I quickly checked the F1 bus timetable and realised that I could probably still make it to Farmoor before dusk if I was quick picking up the mistletoe. This job took longer than anticipated and my friend Phoebe has my eternal gratitude for allowing me to sprint off after a bus whilst leaving her to lug a huge basket of mistletoe around Oxford city centre. Once I eventually arrived in Farmoor village I sprinted up to the reservoir and along the causeway to where the assembled crowd was watching the bird. I quickly set up my scope, pointed it in the right direction and BOOM! An adult female VELVET SCOTER swam into view! Finally that tarts tick was under my belt and for the next half hour I enjoyed the bird as it swam and dived frequently at varying distances as the assembled crowd slowly departed. The bird eventually showed quite well in the evening light and even flapped once or twice revealing the rows of all white secondaries. Incredibly this was the first record for the county in 20 years and was last seen by me shortly before dusk before disappearing overnight, never to be seen again!

Elated with my successful Scoter twitch I headed up to the meadow on Friday evening for my final gulling session of 2013. It was to be a successful evening as I soon picked out a smart 1st-winter Caspian Gull amongst the assembled throngs. This was my second Caspian Gull on the patch in a week and my sixth of the year, not a bad starting point as far as records of this beautiful eastern gull go. I'll be intrigued to see how many individuals I record next year with an increase in effort over the first few months of the year as I undertake the patchwork challenge. The roost that evening also held a striking large first winter Herring-type Gull with frosty tips to the primaries and strong barring on the coverts and tertials. Ian Lewington reckoned that it was probably withing range for a pale argentatus Herring Gull but I can't help but wonder whether there was any Glaucous Gull influence. The next day my parents came and collected the majority of my belongings leaving only a few clothes and books which I would require over the interview period. As well as my optics, my bike was also gone meaning that I had little hope of getting up to the meadow quickly should a good bird be found. This quickly became problematic when On Monday the 9th, Adam Hartley text me to inform me that a 1st-winter Iceland Gull, one of my biggest patch targets. was present in the roost. After a spot of quick thinking I managed to borrow an surprisingly nippy bike of my friend Jack and thanks to some hell for leather cycling, I was on site and watching the bird within 10 minutes. A really smart looking bird and the last of the regular large white headed gulls that I needed for my Port Meadow list, this was definitely a fitting end to my patch birding in 2013!

1st-winter Caspian Gull, Port Meadow (c) Adam Hartley

1st-winter Iceland Gull, Port Meadow (c) Adam Hartley

However my dealings with Arctic gulls were far from complete and exactly a week later I found myself on the bleak shores of the Humber estuary at Patrington Haven with Scott, Austin and Dave Campbell, staring at a distant white dot which, I was informed ,was in fact a juvenile IVORY GULL. After travelling up overnight from Oxford on my day off, these views were somewhat deflating to say the least. Eventually the dot took flight and was chased closer by a couple of hulking Geebs. These views at least proved that the bird was in fact an Ivory Gull but still left a lot to the imagination. The bird soon retreated to the distant tideline and with a storm brewing me and Dave headed off to Hull for lunch at McDonald's. We decided to return in the evening to see if the bird would return to feed on the fish left out for it by other hopeful observers. Upon our return the bird was still a distant speck on the mudflats and I busied myself by chatting with a number of fellow NGB members including James Shergold, Anthony Bentley, Sam Viles and Jake Gearty. Soon however the gull took flight and drifted in towards us, landing on some rocks no more than 50m away and giving incredibly satisfying views. Better was soon to follow however as the bird once again took flight and drifted right over our heads before settling to feed on the fish. This caused mass hysteria among the crowd who all ran over to the pumping station en masse, briefly startling the gull which quickly returned to feed on its fishy banquet. There it remained for 15 minutes or so giving incredible views down to less than 10m as it contentedly tore its meal of mackrel to shreds. The experience of watching this mythical Arctic waif at such close quarters was a feeling rarely paralleled in birding and it probably constitutes the second best twitching experience of my life. I could write pages enthusing about the subtle beauty of this incredible bird but for the sake of brevity I will let Scott Reid's excellent series of photographs do the talking!

Juvenile Ivory Gull, Patrington Haven (c) Scott Reid

After this incredible twitch the next couple of weeks passed by almost completely bird free and I returned home to Manchester happy but exhausted on the 18th. Scott and I had planned to go twitching on Saturday the 21st but a hangover on my end and poor weather caused us to cancel. However an early morning text from Alex Jones, himself on route to see the Ivory Gull, about a Buff-bellied Pipit at Burton Marsh had us in the car and heading westwards within half an hour. Upon arrival at the marsh we noticed a distinct lack of twitchers and were informed that the bird had been spooked by a Sparrowhawk and had not been seen subsequently. There were plenty of pipits feeding among the tidal debris and soon the bird was relocated. However I had stupidly forgotten my bins and this, combined with strong winds and poor directions made getting onto the bird a real difficulty. This led to intense frustration and a bout of colourful language from me. Soon however I calmed down and whilst scanning the flock, I managed to locate the bird in my scope. BOOM! BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT on my list! I eventually achieved satisfying views for a long period of time on several occasions. The bird was strikingly pale and brought to mind Asain Buff-bellied Pipit race japonicus, a first for Britain and a potential split to boot! I was therefore slightly disappointed when correspondence with MG revealed the bird to be the frequently recorded American Buff-bellied Pipit race rubescencs. Still this did little to take the shine of seeing a Cheshire first and a bird that for me was an unexpected grip-back after missing the Berkshire birds in early 2013!

American Buff-bellied Pipit, Burton Marsh (c) Scott Reid

The good birding did not end here however and with the long-staying Hoopoe in North Wales proving too tempting to miss we headed to Pensarn for first light on Christmas Eve. We eventually located the caravan park it had been frequenting but after driving up and down several times we could not locate the bird.What happened next was one of those beautiful moments in birding and more broadly life in general when the stars align and things just seem to work out to perfection. As we stopped next to the sea wall pondering the tricky proposition of how to locate the bird in such a vast area of habitat, I noticed a movement to my left as the HOOPOE flopped over the sea wall and began to feed no more than 10m away from the car. Hoopoe is a species I've built up in my head since I was a small child reading my first bird books and to see one, even a slightly scraggy individual such as this, more than lived up to my expectations. It was an intensely strange experience to see the unique structure and striking plumage brought to life in front of my eyes and this feeling was exacerbated by the fact that it was Christmas Eve! We enjoyed watching the bird at close proximity for a while before heading down the coast to Llandullas to look for the wintering Surf Scoters. this was to be a real test of patience as all the bird were distant and although I thought i saw the birds several times each instant was brief as they bobbed up on a wave and unsatisfying for a tick. Scott, who has seen the birds several times was far more adept at picking them out and nearly got me onto them several times before the mother of all hail storms prevented any further efforts. On the way home I was slightly disappointed but still elated by the early Christmas present that the Hoopoe provided!

Hoopoe, Pensarn (c) Scott Reid

After this enjoyable excursion I enjoyed a relaxed Christmas with the family, most of which was spent ensconced in varying levels of prosecco-related inebriation. On boxing day however the news of a south coast double-whammy of White-billed Diver and the mythical Brunnich's Guillemot had Scott and I rapidly planning an unexpected twitch. After roping in Alex Jones and young upstart Chris Bromley, we headed south overnight to Portland, buoyed on route by news of the guillemots continued presence. Unfortunately by upon our arrival at 09.30 we were told that the Guillemot had not been seen for over half an hour and some reports even told of the bird flying off. Eventually I found Andrew Kinghorn who had seen the bird first thing and who set us straight by telling us that the bird had disappeared among boats in the marina but was likely still present. An hour and a half wait in miserable conditions ensued and was made all the worse by Kinghorn and David Campbell's smugness at having seen the bird. After what felt like an eternity the bird was reported at the far end of the harbour and a mad dash to the castle in frightful conditions ensued. We stopped at the castle and widespread panic crept over the assembled and now breathless crowd. Suddenly a shout of "there it is" put all our fears to rest as the bird duly popped up 100m or so offshore giving great views. A surge of relief convulsed through my body as I finally clapped eyes on the legendary BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT, an absolutely stonking bird! It then headed towards the marina in a series of 50m dives with birders running everywhere attempting to predict where it would pop up next. After several satisfying, close views I relaxed and lagged behind the crowd arriving at the marina to find the bird on show as it sheltered from the howling gale in the lee of a small boat. A really enjoyable bird to see although somewhat unremarkable plumage wise other than the thicker bill with a white central stripe in comparison to a guillemot. After enjoying good views we set off west towards Brixham and our second stonker or the day!

Brunnich's Guillemot, Portland Harbour (c) Scott Reid

Upon arrival in Brixham we pulled up at the inner harbour but could see no obvious sign of  the bird or any other birders. A sudden violent hailstorm caused kept us confined to the car and at this point I rang Dave who was watching a Black-throated Diver from the breakwater. We decided to drive round to his location however on route we drove past a group of birders actively watching something at the edge of the inner harbour. We quickly ground to a halt and I dived out of the car and sprinted towards them. They were indeed watching the bird and on their instruction I raised my binoculars to behold a magnificent (and there truly is no other appropriate descriptive word here) WHITE-BILLED DIVER, close inshore in the harbour below! I frantically motioned to the others to get out of the car and together we all dashed down to the harbour edge below. We continued to watch the bird as it moved into the inner harbour where it eventually came to a sort of rest feeding on crabs on the opposite side to us. Scott went back and got the car and we dashed round immediately getting incredible close views of the diver in awesome light. At this point Andrew Kinghorn joined me and Dave and together we watched as the bird repeatedly dived and resurfaced. At one point the bird surfaced less than 5m from where we stood, close enough to see the brown tone of the iris with my naked eye. From an aesthetic point of view this is by far one of the best birds I have ever seen in Britain and its stunning ivory coloured dagger of a bill was a fearsome sight to behold. This is another species about which I could enthuse endlessly however once again Scott did a fantastic job achieving some absolutely stunning image of this spectacular creature!

White-billed Diver, Brixham Harbour (c) Scott Reid

After enjoying our fill of the diver and wishing everyone a happy new year, we headed to Broadsands to look for Cirl Bunting which was a lifer for the others. Upon arrival we found a couple of guys photographing the birds at the well known feeding station and we proceeded to enjoy cracking views of at least 10 birds as they fed on the ground. Really smart birds and always slightly surreal to see, this was a great way to end a truly unforgettable day's birding. It was also nice to catch up with Garry Bagnell here, a really pleasant chap and always a pleasure to chat to. The journey home was a long one but we perked it up with a sing a long to some classic tunes including several from Jason Derulo. I can only wonder what poor Chris Bromlry thought of his new found twitching companions...

Male Cirl Bunting, Broadsands (c) Scott Reid

Friday, 22 November 2013

An Evening to Remeber

As the Oxford term reaches its climax and the workload spirals to almost unbearable levels, the stress starts to take its toll on many students. Despite the relatively easy ride I get as a Biologist, I too get a slightly snowed under with work sometimes and this evening, having finished all my work for the week, I decided to head up to Port Meadow and unwind by checking through the now sizable gull roost. Upon my arrival it was clear that the sunset was going to be beautiful and as I walked up to the North end of the floods I stopped to have a quick scan of the large flock of wintering Golden Plover. After a few minutes in which I failed to find any Nearctic interlopers, I gave up and headed further on to join Adam Hartley who was diligently checking the rapidly increasing ranks of large white headed gulls. On my first scan it quickly became apparent that there was a decent number of Yellow-legged Gulls in the roost with at least 4 adults immediately obvious. Further scans revealed a couple of smart third-winter birds and I would estimate that the final total was a minimum of 7 birds, 5 adults and 2 third-winters, although 10 or more would appear to be a reasonable estimate. The light conditions also enabled me to capture a couple of reasonable shots of one of the adult birds shown below.

Adult Yellow-legged Gull

Despite the impressive number of Yellow-legged gulls, we failed to find the hoped for casp or white-winger and as the sun set Adam decided to leave. I elected to stick it out for another ten minutes or so but soon the light was too poor to see any detail and, satiated, I decided to head for home. The meadow had more to offer though and as I walked back towards my bike I was privileged to experience a natural spectacle the likes of which I have rarely witnessed. I had almost reached the southern end of the floods when the flock of Golden Plover, some 750 or so birds in total, took to the air in unison. They proceeded to wheel around creating endless murmurations silhouetted against the brilliant evening sky. The rush of their wings and the occasional plaintive wail as they rushed overhead only added to the sensory overload of the spectacle. Beyond them the gulls continued to arrive, languid ranks of flapping silhouettes heading unerringly onwards to roost, unaffected by the majesty of the spectacle unfolding around them. Their haunting cries evoked memories of summer seaside holidays and was strangely juxtaposed to the calls of the Plovers, the epitome of the British uplands. As the sky began to rapidly darken the plovers decided to settle and the swirling masses of gulls provided the only visual sign of life on the meadow. Having been frozen to the spot, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that I had things to do in the real world. I left the meadow feeling both elated and profoundly moved by what I had witnessed.

This evening has reminded me about the intrinsic value of birds by illustrating how they can bring joy in a plethora of ways to a number of people. From the laridophile endlessly scrutinising the primary patterns of large gulls to the naturalist who simply enjoys the majesty of seeing large numbers of wild birds in their natural environment, they provide interest in a range of ways to a diverse group of people. As a birder I revel in the knowledge that I can gain joy from both ends of this broad spectrum of interests. The evening also affirmed my belief that Port Meadow is one of the best patches I could possibly have. Admittedly it doesn't attract hordes of incredible rarities but, on an otherwise dull November evening when twitchers are all but hanging up their bins for the autumn, it provides both birding interest and the potential to leave me rooted to the spot in awe of the majesty of nature. What more could you ask from a flooded field just outside Oxford?

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Autumn slips quietly away

After a stellar summer mostly spent chasing rarities around the country, my return to Oxford has inevitably seen my twitching fall off a cliff. Instead of chasing Yank megas I've been holed up in the library with my books (or more accurately at the pub getting drunk) and as a result autumn for me has ended with a drawn out whimper rather than the hoped for Hermit Thrush style bang. Over the course of the first 3 weeks of term my uni patch, Port Meadow, was in particularly dire straits as the long, dry summer had caused the flood waters to dry up removing the main draw for birds. A couple of optimistic early visits to the resultant puddle did produce a patch tick in the form of a Grey Wagtail as well as a seemingly confused Dunlin among the omnipresent winter flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing. These visits were pleasant as they reminded me why I loved the open skies and solitude of the place but as far as birds were concerned my interest was barely piqued and I soon gave up in favor of working or drinking.

A pleasant evening sky

My first real opportunity to see some good birds, albeit good in a local context, cam on November 2nd when Next Generation Birders did their 2 year anniversary weekend bird race. The aim was to get as high of a combined total for the weekend as possible and as Farmoor held both Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes as well as a very late Common Sandpiper, I thought I'd do my bit for the team. Therefor at around 11.00 that Saturday I found myself watching an incredibly showy 1st-winter RED-NECKED GREBE (only my second ever!) down to 20m as it fed happily just off the reservoir side. After soaking the bird in I then headed round to the bottom of F2 where I was treated to even closer views of the stunning SLAVONIAN GREBE as it happily dived away. With these sightings I managed to complete my target of seeing every Grebe species on the British list in 2013! Not an incredibly difficult challenge but a nice achievement all the same. Whilst at Farmoor I also picked up the Common Sandpiper, a nice adult Peregrine and a smart Red Kite which rounded out the day nicely. A very enjoyable days birding although in my mind it firmly moved me from the anything can happen excitement of autumn into the more predictable rhythm of winter birding.

Farmoor Resevoir (F1)

A late Common Sandpiper

Slavonian Grebe
With a couple of days of consistent downpours following my visit to Farmoor and a with the return of the floods to Port Meadow coupled with some of tantalising reports of Yellow-legged Gulls, I decided to make a return visit on the 4th of November. Unfortunately the calm, sunny weather and high disturbance levels ruined and gulling opportunities and I went away empty handed. However the numbers of Wigeon were impressive and the Golden Plover flock had built up to over 250 birds. My next visit on the 8th was far more impressive with a decent sized roost of large gulls producing a smart adult Yellow-legged Gull as well as an intriguing 1st winter Herring Gull with brilliant white primaries. The highlight however was a flyover TUFTED DUCK, my second patch tick of the term and a very difficult species to catch up with on patch due to the shallow nature of the floods. This visit assuaged my post-autumn blues and has me excited once again at the prospect of winter birding on the meadow. Now roll on those Casps....

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A late birthday present

Juvenile Semi-palmated Plover (c) Dave Campbell

After turning 20 (yes I feel ancient) this week I decided to attempt to twitch the juvenile Semi-palmated Plover in Hampshire on Saturday as a belated birthday celebration. Semi-p has always been high on my wishlist, a subtle birders bird and mega rare too, I decided this incredibly accessible individual was too tempting to turn down! After an early start I met Dave in Dorking at 08.30 and we headed off towards Hayling Island. Despite a few delays the journey went fairly smoothly and by 10.30 we had joined the assembled ranks and were scoping a mixed flock of small waders around 100m away on the mud. After much careful searching me and Dave independently got onto a juvenile Ringed-type Plover that we both thought looked pretty good. I was initially drawn to it by the small size, slender build and ridiculously short and stubby bill. Unfortunately we were too nervous to make the call and just as we were discussing what to do the flock all got up and flew around before settling back on the mud. While the flock was in flight I thought I heard a Spotshank-esque "chewit" call, further raising my suspicions about the bird.

Luckily soon after the flock settled the bird was relocated at the front of the flock and showed incredibly well. The slender build, small size in comparison to the accompanying Ringed Plovers and short, stubby bill gave the bird a very distinctive jizz. Plumage wise the narrow brown breast band and extensive white supercilium were notable and close scrutiny revealed narrow dark lores with a white whisker extending up to the base of the upper mandible. BOOM! SEMI-PALMATED PLOVER on my list! After five minutes the whole flock flew off just as Andrew Kinghorn, Harry Murphy and Michael Murphy arrived after a long drive overnight from Durham. Despite my elation at seeing the bird I felt somewhat guilty as they were all obviously crushed at the prospect of another long-distance south coast dip.

Satisfied, Dave and I headed off but about a minute down the road news of the bird's reappearance on the beach had us racing back. After some confusion and a fair bit of shouting, we found the site and got great views of the bird as it roosted on the beach in awful conditions. Having left my waterproof trousers in the car, my legs were soaked to the skin but it was worth it to get close views of this incredible bird. The drive back was a happy one as Dave and I reflected on what an incredible year we'd both had. Although my exploits pale in comparison to his, Semi-P joins Needletail, Bridled Tern, Great Snipe and Sardinian Warbler on my list of cracking ticks this year. A great twitch and definitely one of the best presents I could have asked for!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Turtle Dove saves the day!

I'm moving back to uni in Oxford on Sunday so I decided to make the most of my remaining free time by making an early morning visit to Hilbre with Scott before the tide. On the walk out the conditions seemed perfect for migrants; there was a light breeze from the southeast and the island was coated in low cloud and drizzle. As we reached the top of Middle we noticed that the contractors, who had clearly never visited the island before, had driven along the west side of Middle Eye and both of their vehicles were now irretrievably entrenched in the thick estuary mud. Unfortunately, given the state of the tide, there was nothing that could be done and both vehicles were submerged as the water rose. The two dishevelled builders were confronted by their angry boss, who had driven out in a third vehicle via the correct route, before they started work removing scaffolding from one of the buildings. Definitely a day to forget for them.

The island seemed quite promising at first with a decent passage of Meadow Pipits overhead and a couple of Reed Buntings overhead. However this provided us with false hope and two successive rounds of the traps saw us fail to catch even a single bird. While on the island we received news from Red Rocks that the elusive Acro was showing well in the still conditions so after the second trap round we grabbed our stuff from the obs and headed for West Kirby. It was a good thing we left when we did as the tide came in faster than expected and we were forced to wade across the gutter between Middle Eye and Little Eye. One of my quietest trips to the island but a single Dark-bellied Brent Goose, the rarer subspecies here, was my first record for Cheshire. I also managed to capture this rather pleasant shot of the smaller islands from the obs balcony.

The view from the obs

On our wade back to the mainland news came through of a Turtle Dove at Leasowe Lighthouse, once again found by Wirral legend Alan Conlin. Turtle Dove is a rare bird in Cheshire occurring just about annually so we were both really keen to see it. We decided to give Red Rocks Marsh a brief go for the Acro but a freshening north-westerly breeze scuppered any chance of it showing. Slightly deflated we headed on to Leasowe Lighthouse. Here we were met with the ominous news that the bird had been seen to fly from its favoured spot half an hour prior to our arrival. At this point the day was looking to be a complete write off but we decided to wander down to Lingham Bridge anyway on the off chance that it might reappear. At the bridge we found one other observer unsuccessfully searching the area. At this point I was on the verge of despair when I noticed two doves fly out from a thick Leylandi hedge. The front bird was obviously a Collared Dove but the rear bird appeared to show rufous wings in flight. It alighted in a small tree and I quickly got my bins on it. BOOM! TURTLE DOVE on my Cheshire list! The birds beautiful deep rufous, scalloped mantle was immediately obvious and the relative lack of dark neck markings aged it as a 1st-winter bird. It then flew up on to the telegraph wires where it remained for over 15 minutes allowing observers to watch it at length alongside a couple of Collared Doves and a Woodpigeon. Scott even managed to run back to the car to grab his scope and was able to capture this phone-scoped shot as a result.

1st-winter Turtle Dove, Leasowe Lighthouse (c) Scott Reid

A cracking Cheshire bird and one that I'm unlikely to see in the county again, given the perilous national decline suffered by the species in recent years! Always nice to see even in its breeding strongholds, the bird salvaged what would otherwise have been a rather dismal day. Congratulations to the finder, Alan Conlin, for another great Wirral bird. Also thanks as ever to Scott for driving, although he is slightly to blame for me getting damp feet! A nice bird and a fitting end to a great summer of birding. Unless of course I foolishly try again for that Acro tomorrow.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Cheshire Yellow-browed

With a relative wealth of good birds present in Cheshire and North Wales on Monday, Scott and I decided to spend a day birding in the area yesterday, starting with the elusive Acro at Red Rocks Marsh. I had dipped the probable Blyth's Reed Warbler on Sunday with Austin and given its highly elusive nature, I didn't think the prospect of seeing it was very high. Still it was a potential lifer so after an early start we arrived at Red Rocks for first light. Upon our arrival, the wind was ripping through the marsh and I instantly knew we had no chance of connecting. Ever the optimists, we decided to stick it out for an hour with Jane Turner and a couple of others but predictably there was no sign and at around 08.15 we abandoned our efforts and headed across to Hilbre.

Facing a race against the incoming tide,we completed the journey in a record 22 minutes and somewhat out of breath, we staggered into the obs to be greeted by a number of the regulars. The strong wind meant that the only bird we caught in the Heligoland Traps was a Wren but persistence with the potters at the North End saw us catch a smart first-winter Greenland Wheatear and 2 Rock Pipits. The latter, a ringing tick for Scott, were the first individuals caught on Hilbre for over two years and both species were an absolute pleasure to see in the hand! Below are a few shots I got of the birds once they had been ringed.


Rock Pipits

Greenland Wheatear

While we were on the island news came through from the mainland of a Yellow-browed Warbler on the nature trail Leasowe Lighthouse, found by Wirral stalwart Alan Conlin. The bird appeared to be hanging round and as this is a rare and difficult to twitch bird in Cheshire, Scott and I decided to go for it as soon as we got back to the mainland. After getting a lift off in the Lannie we quickly drove round to the lighthouse car park. After meeting Austin on the walk down, we arrived at the spot to find Alan Conlin and a few others watching the bush where the bird was present. It had showed well a couple of minutes prior to our arrival but the strong winds meant that it spent the majority of its time feeding deep within the foliage out of sight, accompanied by a Chiffchaff. After a short wait we heard it calling and both birds shot out of the bush before what was presumably the YBW shot back in. Definitely not a tickable view. After a further wait, Scott picked up the YBW low down amongst the branches and I picked it up as it flicked across to another branch. BOOM! YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER in Cheshire! The bird then proceeded to show well against the main trunk for half a minute before flicking left and out of view. As ever an absolute gem and an incredible bird to see so well in the Northwest! Seeing this bird has led me to take stock of all the rare birds I've seen in Cheshire and has encouraged me to start keeping a Cheshire list. Although I technically live in Greater Manchester, I do all of my local birding in Cheshire and the county itself is a much more pleasant place to go birding. In the next few days I'll add up my Cheshire list and seek to catch up with a few easy targets over the Christmas vacation.

The rest of the day was a huge anti-climax as we dipped the Lapland Buntings on the Great Orme before visiting Conwy where we saw what was almost certainly the pale Snipe reported by Marc Hughes which turned out to be a Common. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Jack Snipe which was seen earlier in the day, when will I catch up with on of those bastards!?! A disappointing end to the day but it was worth getting out in to the field just to see the cracking Yellow-browed Warbler. Hopefully I'll look back on it in a few years as the bird that motivated me to become a serious Cheshire birder. Thanks as always to Scott for the great company and for driving, I'm back to Oxford on Sunday and these regular birding trips will be sorely missed when I'm snowed under with work! Still there's time for a mega to break before then; Red-flanked Bluetail at Spurn would do nicely!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Sardinian Stunner

Alex and Scott survey the scenery at St.Abb's Head

A common bird around the Mediterranean basin, Sardinian Warbler is a tricky bird to catch up with in Britain. This rather sedentary species rarely strays this far north and the few individuals that do are often skulking and elusive. When a Sardinian Warbler was trapped and ringed in July my interest was piqued; this was the first record I of the species I could remember since I started birding seriously. Unfortunately the bird promptly disappeared however when it was retrapped last week and subsequently began to show, I could not resist the temptation. Thus, at some ungodly hour on Sunday morning, Scott, Alex, Zac and I began the long trek north from Stockport to Scotland, arriving on site just before 08.30. The brisk south-easterly breeze made for less than ideal conditions for seeing a skulking passerine but our doubts were assuaged when we were told the bird had been singing constantly. Buoyed we headed over towards the assembled crowd of twitchers staked out abover the Loch.

We were greeted with the news that the bird had flown off into a row of conifers ten minutes prior to our arrival, a situation that felt ominously familiar to us all. Undeterred we set up our scopes and began our vigil but a short while later we were distracted by the sound of a Yellow-browed Warbler "sooeeeting" urgently from a copse a short distance away. We headed over for a look but a fly -through Sparrowhawk quickly silenced the birds insistent calling. Alex and Scott, who ironically still needed YBW, soon gave up but Zac and I persisted and eventually lured the bird out using a Firecrest tape (for some reason they really take exception to Firecrest). The leaf sprite gave stunning views as it flicked around the copse, reminding me once again what little gems these birds really are. The Sparrowhawk then made a return, silencing the YBW and flushing a dark, chacking thrush that was almost certainly a Ring Ouzel.

We then returned to our wait for the Sardinian, entertaining ourselves with a bizarre flyover Redstart sp and an incredibly dusky juvenile Peregrine that was unlike anything I'd seen before. The visible migration here was pretty impressive with plenty of Meadow Pipits heading south along with Skylarks, Song Thrushes, Reed Buntings, Siskins and a couple of Bullfinches. Zac managed to capture a couple of shots of the odd Peregrine which are shown below.

Dusky juvenile Peregrine (c) Zac Hinchcliffe

After an hour or so the wait was beginning to drag on and I was starting to wonder whether the bird would ever reappear. It was at this point that Alex, the hero of the piece, saw a bird fly up into a bush away to our left and called Zac over to investigate. They soon heard a scratchy warble coming from the general area and urgently motioned to us that they had the bird. After a short wait the singing stopped and suddenly someone said "there it is". It was at this point that I experienced one of the holy shit moments characteristic of birding as I looked up and clapped eyes on a stonking adult male SARDINIAN WARBLER!!! The jet black head, red eye and dark mantle and tail combined to make the bird one of the most instantly recognisable species I've ever seen and easily the most striking. The bird initially flew straight at us then turned and hovered briefly, giving good views before dropping down into some gorse. This eventually turned out to be our best view and the only time I managed to get bins on the bird. Despite the brief views the rarity of the bird coupled with its striking appearance and overall holy shit factor make it  definite mega in my eyes and it goes straight down as one of my top 5 birds of all time! Despite its stunning appearance the bird was extremely elusive, showing only twice in the next hour, so at around 10.00 we decided to move on.

The rest of the day was much quieter and failed to match the excitement of the morning. We initially headed north but negative news on the previous day's Brown Shrike in Fife saw us turn south in the direction of a Little Bunting on Holy Island. Always a difficult bird, the Bunting had unfortunately disappeared into a huge weedy field 40 minutes prior to our arrival and was not subsequently relocated. Holy Island was still fairly productive however with 4 Yellow-browed Warbler and a yeartick in the form of a Merlin. After this we decided to head home, stopping to twitch the Horwich Glossy Ibises on route. Unfortunately poor directions and fading light conspired against us and despite checking a number of seemingly suitable fields, we dipped. Undeterred we headed for a celebratory pint in the Bob Smithy Inn and recounted a twitch that was destined to live long in the memory. Thanks to the guys for the great company and to Scott in particular for the driving. A great twitch and an absolutely stunning bird that will take something really special to remove it from my top 5. Yellow-throated Vireo anyone?

Better than 4 Glossy Ibis!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hilbre Ringing Session

On Monday I was invited by Scott, with the kind permission of Steve Williams, to spend a day at the obs on Hilbre watching the members ring migrants. Having developed somewhat of a penchant for twitching over the past few months I was unsure how much I would enjoy a day birding when the prospects of anything scarce or rare was relatively low. Thankfully these doubts were completely unfounded and it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable days in the field this Autumn.

Upon our arrival the island was shrouded in mist and there was a light south easterly breeze; optimum conditions for migrants! We were given a lift over by Steve in one of the Lannies just after 06.30, stopping on route to walk Middle Eye before heading on towards Hilbre itself. While we failed to flush the much desired "biggie" I did capture a rather atmospheric shot of the sunrise over the estuary.

Once we arrived upon the island the mist nets were set up in the observatory garden and the garden of the old obs at the north end and we were ready to go. A preliminary drive down the hedge of the obs garden met with instant success as a Robin and a Blackcap were flushed into the net. Over the course of the day I watched 22 birds being ringed, the highlights of which were a Spotted Flycatcher and a control juvenile Common Kestrel, both of which were caught in the mist nets in the old obs garden. The Kestrel in particular was a stunning bird and it was a real treat to study the intricate plumage at such close quarters. A second Spotted Flycatcher turned up in the afternoon but despite our best efforts managed to evade capture! There was also a constant southerly trickle of Meadow Pipits throughout the day and scrutiny of the modest gull roost over the tide produced a presumed argentatus Herring Gull. Below are a selection of iPhone pictures I took of the some of the birds captured over the course of the day.

Juvenile Common Kestrel




Song Thrush
Spotted Flycatcher

Juvenile Whitethroat
This was one of the few full scale ringing sessions I've ever witnessed and it was an absolute pleasure to study familiar birds, such as Chiffchaffs, closely in the hand. I also enjoyed the strategy and teamwork involved in working birds into the Heligoland traps, an activity that I believe should be used regularly as a team-building exercise. I'm extremely grateful to Steve Williams for allowing me to spend a day in the obs and to all the other obs members, particularly Kenny McNiffe, for going out of their way to make me feel so welcome. It was a fantastic experience and has made me seriously consider training to get my C permit. Hopefully, if the forecast doesn't change, I'll get out there again with Scott on a couple of occasions next week before I go back to Oxford.

The day had one final treat in store with an extremely showy juvenile Great Skua which was hanging around Little Eye feeding on the carcasses of a Cormorant and an Oystercatcher. We saw it from the Lannie on the drive back and after Scott grabbed his memory card from the car, we jogged back out there for another look. The bird was still hanging around and allowed very close approach to within 10ft before it flew a short distance down the beach. Some people have suggested that the bird is moribund and unable to fly but the fact it wasn't there on the way out or later when Steve had a look for it, suggests that it may be healthy and simply unwilling to leave a good feeding territory. Either way it was an incredible opportunity to observe the species at close quarters and allowed Scott to capture a series of stunning shots, some of which I hope to display here later in the week. Below are a couple of shots of the argentatus Herring Gull, cheers to Steve for sending them over!

Presumed argentatus Herring Gull (c) Steve Williams

Monday, 23 September 2013

A Double Dip and an Interesting Gull

Over the course of the summer I've experienced an unprecedented twitching purple patch, scoring 20 lifers including such monster birds as White-throated Needletail and Bridled Tern. This incredible run has taken me over 300 for Britain, my main target for the year, and during this time I had what amounted to a 100% hit rate. A run this good was always destined to end and this weekend I came crashing back to earth with one of my worst ever twitching experiences. When news of a first-winter  Brown Shrike in Hampshire broke on Friday afternoon I frantically rang around to try to arrange a lift but none were forthcoming. Slightly desperate I put out a lift request on twitter. I wasn't expecting much to come of this so I was surprised when I got a lift offer from Joel Clegg from West Yorkshire who agreed to pick me and Alex Jones up from Stockport at 4am. Thanks to my best friend's leaving night out I had only had 20 minutes sleep so most of the 4 hour journey was spent asleep.

We arrived at Hook with Warsash LNR just after 07.30 having been told by friends on site that the bird had not yet appeared. We were still hopeful as Shrikes, which feed primarily on large insects, are typically late risers. We waited it out for a couple of hours but as the minutes ticked on it became increasingly obvious that the bird has disappeared overnight. Rather desolately we trudged bck to the car around 10.30 and started the long drive home. This was a particularly disappointing dip as we had forgone waiting for news on the grounds that Shrikes are typically long stayers. Brown Shrike, while a rare bird, has a particularly good track record with the well-twitched Staines Moor bird staying for a couple of months. Despite the dip it was nice to catch up with some of the Durham lads including Andrew Kinghorn and Kieran Lawrence.

We were almost back home when I got a call from Mark Payne telling me that Jane Turner had found an adult Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the beach at Hoylake. A juvenile Caspian Gull had also been seen, so we headed back to mine to pick up Alex's car and dashed over there as quickly as possible. Despite some impressive driving from Alex we arrived too late, the bird having been flushed to the distant tideline by a dog walker 20 minutes prior to our arrival. This was another extremely frustrating dip, especially considering last year's controversial peep which I am currently unable to tick as either Western or Semi-p. We contemplated walking out there but in my depressed and exhausted state, I couldn't summon the energy to try. Suffice to say my mood during the train journey home and over the course of the following evening was foul to say the least.

Sunday morning done and having gained slightly more perspective on the previous day, Alex and I decided to give the Semi-p another go over the high tide. Last year's peep regularly appeared in the roosting wader flocks and it wasn't  too much of a reach to suggest that this bird might do the same. It quickly became apparent that we weren't the only people to have this idea and as high tide approached, over 50 expectant birders formed a crowd along the promenade. Unfortunately the number of small waders was apparently much lower than the previous day and despite the best efforts of the assembled masses, the bird was not relocated. Several Curlew Sandpiper in with the Dunlin did provide some sort of consolation but after the previous day they did little to lift the spirits. We waited around for an hour or so after the tide on the off chance and decided to check the beach on the other side of the lifeboat station before heading home. As we were driving down the beach we stopped to check the large flocks of large gulls loafing on the shore. Within a couple of minutes I picked out a dark mantled large white-headed gull which superficially appeared to be a bog standard adult Yellow-legged Gull. This was not a particular surprise as a couple of birds had been reported in the area intermittently over the past few weeks. Alex managed to get the following shots but unfortunately the primaries were obscured by other gulls at the time.

Presumed Adult Yellow-legged Gull (c) Alex Jones

Although the bird initially seemed to be a typical adult Yellow-legged Gull and the clean headed appearance and mantle shade seemed to support this identification. However further observation caused me to pick up on a couple of anomalous characteristics. One of the most striking things about the bird was the short, stumpy bill which appeared rather fine and tapering like that of a Lesser-black Backed Gull. This is rather different from the chunky blob-tipped bill of a typical Yellow-legged Gull. Another issue was the leg colour which was a rather weak lemon yellow shade similar to that of a common gull. The leg colour issue may be due to the bird starting the transition into winter plumage causing it to lose the bright yellow colour seen in breeding plumage. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get any shots of the primaries but the white-mirrors, especially that on p10, seemed somewhat larger than I would expect. Although I didn't take particular note of the primary projection, I don't remember it appearing as long-winged as most of the Yellow-legged Gulls I have seen. Although I'm still fairly happy with my initial identification as an adult Yellow-legged Gull, examination of the photos has led me to conclude that hybrid Herring x Lesser-black Backed Gull can't be ruled out. Maybe I'm overthinking things and the bird is just an adult Yellow-legged Gull although based on these pictures I'm certainly not going to claim it as one. Any thoughts or comments on this bird would be much appreciated as it certainly isn't like anything I've seen before!