Thursday, 29 August 2013

East Coast Drifting

The fall continued throughout Monday with drift migrants continuing to litter the east coast from Kent to Shetland. Austin had managed to book a day off on Tuesday so together with Alex we planned an early morning raid on Spurn. This hallowed peninsula had seen a fall of 25+ Wryneck on Sunday and still held a number of relatively easy ticks for all three of us. After some questionable navigation, the guys picked me up around 05.30, slightly later than planned, and we headed east along the M62 arriving at Spurn some time after 08.00. Upon arrival we made a beeline for Beacon Lane in Kilnsea as both Icterine and Barred Warblers had already been found there. Alex staked out the Icterine near the entrance to the caravan park while me and Austin headed up the lane after the Barred. True to form the Barred was a skulky little bastard, only showing intermittently in flight or perched up for a split second, and to my utter frustration several other birders managed to see it while we were searching. After half an hour of missing the bird I was at my wits end and was punctuating every sentence with a few choice expletives. News of other good birds further down the peninsula had me keen to move on so we met Alex where we'd left him and decided on a plan of action.

Alex was in a much more positive frame of mind than me and as he needed Icky he encouraged us to stick it out on Beacon Lane. Begrudgingly I agreed and me and Austin trudged, rather dejectedly, back the way we'd come. About half way up the lane however our luck changed as we met a guy watching an incredibly settled Wryneck, perched up in a tree at the edge of the caravan park, giving great views! Knowing that he needed it, I rang Alex who hotfooted it up the lane and got good views before the bird flew out of view. Elated he mentioned that he thought he'd been watching the Icky near the caravan park entrance so we decided to sack off the Barred Warbler and go and help him look. With a group of birders in tow we made our way down Beacon Lane to the correct spot and sure enough the Icterine Warbler duly popped up giving great views as it perched up on a dead stem.

Icterine Warbler (c) Austin Morley

Both Alex and Austin were over the moon having already bagged 2 ticks, however I was starting to feel rather antsy. The number of ticks in different places around the peninsula kept distracting me leaving me unsure of which direction to head it. Once again it was Alex who calmed me down agreeing to my suggestion that we head down the peninsula stopping to bag the Red-Backed Shrike at the Warren. This was music to my ears and after a short drive we pulled up at the Warren to find a guy watching the bushes where the shrike had been a couple of minutes prior to our arrival. After a few minutes wait the nerves began to set in but my worries were unfounded as the juvenile RED-BACKED SHRIKE duly arrived, flying down the fenceline from the direction of the obs. After hiding in the dense vegetation the bird showed well before heading north from bush to bush in the direction of Kilnsea. A really smart bird and one that I've longed to see since I started birding all those years ago. My day was finally on the right track!

Juvenile Red-backed Shrike (c) Austin Morley

Feeling more relaxed, we headed down towards the point stopping at post 61 to look for the apparently showy juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher. We met a birder who had seen it 5 minutes prior to our arrival but despite an hour spent searching the area with a number of other birders we could only locate a Pied Flycatcher and a Redstart for our trouble. Amazingly while we were searching one area another birder had the RBF, a male Red-backed Shrike and an Icterine Warbler less than 100m away from us but for whatever reason the shout didn't reach us. Slightly frustrated we decided to head down to the point to look for the apparently showy Barred Warbler that had been seen earlier in the day. I should've known this was a mistake from the off and as I arrived at the Barred Warbler twitch I was informed, by Steve Webb no less, that the bird typically had only been seen intermittently giving brief views. At this point my stupid decision was compounded by a report of the Red-breasted Flycatcher showing well at the wire dump. At this point I was kindly offered a lift back there by a local birder and decided to cut my losses leaving Austin and Alex birding around the point.

Almost immediately after my arrival, another birder located the juvenile RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER which proceeded to give cracking views as it made feeding forays from a favoured perch in the shade at the base of a hawthorn bush. The bird was incredibly pale underneath and the bold white eye ring and diagnostic black and white tail pattern made it unmistakeable. My second tick of the day and incredibly my 10th in August! After watching it for a while I wandered slowly back down to the point picking up Spotted Flycatcher and Wheatear, only to find that Alex and Austin had somehow driven past me and were watching the Red-breasted Flycatcher! I therefore made the long walk back to post 61 where I found them photographing the flycatcher which was still perched in the same hawthorn.

Juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher (c) Austin Morley

Whilst speaking to other birders we had learned of a couple of Wrynecks that were giving incredible views as they fed along the verges of Easington Road between Kilnsea and the Crown and Anchor. Austin and Alex were keen to get some photos so we headed up there and after a short search we were whistled over by Steve Webb who had located one of the bird on the verge right next to the pub. I wandered over and was astounded to see a Wryneck feeding on the grass no more than 30ft away! The bird did not seem at all fazed by our presence and fed away happily allowing us to appreciate the intricate cryptically barred plumage in all its detail. At one point, the bird even perched up woodpecker style in a small dead tree, a behaviour I was thrilled to witness in the field. It was also nice to have a chat to Steve Webb, an absolutely lovely guy and a true legend of the twitching scene! Satisfied we headed back towards the car only to find a group of birders watching a second Wryneck showing just as closely! This bird also gave stonking views and it was at this point that I decided that Wryneck had probably managed to pip Manx Shearwater as my favourite British bird. Both birds were astoundingly showy and I doubt I'll ever get better views of the species again! Austin managed to capitalise on the occasion getting a series of stunning pictures, a selection of which are shown below.

Wryneck (c) Austin Morley

Wryneck (c) Austin Morley

Wryneck (c) Austin Morley

After appreciating the Wrynecks in all their glory we headed back to Kilnsea with the aim of doing a seawatch. However while Alex was getting a drink at the Bluebell news came through of an Icterine Warbler in the garden off Beacon Lane so we headed down there for a look. After a short wait the bird duly appeared constituting what could easily have been our second Icterine Warbler of the day. I only watched the bird briefly before learning that the Barred Warbler had been showing again further down Beacon Lane. Off I went and predictably an hour of frustration followed during which the bird remained incredibly elusive. I did manage brief flight views of it as it dived into a bush but these were in no way conclusive enough to allow me to tick it. I have a feeling that Barred Warbler is going to be a very difficult bird to get on to my British List but at least this dip gives me a target for next weekends Migration Festival. At this point all three of us were flagging so we decided to call it a day, stopping briefly to chat with Lee Evans on our way down the lane before heading to the car. On our way out of Kilnsea both Wrynecks provided us with a parting gift as they showed down to under 10ft out of the car window. A fitting end to another great days birding on the east coast! Thanks as always go to Austin for driving and to both guys for their great company! I'm likely to be out of action now until the migration festival although there is a small chance of a trip somewhere in the North West in the coming days with Grandma and my younger cousins. Hopefully the winds change for the migration festival as the current forecast of moderate westerlies leaves little hope of a plethora of birding delights. However I guess that the beauty of birding is that there's always a chance of a surprise or two!

Monday, 26 August 2013

Four Tick Flamborough

Being a west coast birder who can't drive and until very recently had no local contacts, there has long been a significant gap of my list in the form of the Scandinavian drift migrants. While I managed to pick up a few of the eastern scarcities on Scilly such as Dusky and Yellow-Browed Warblers, standard autumn east coast fare like Wryneck and Icterine Warbler have so far eluded me. I knew the conditions were looking good for the east coast early this week so when Mark Payne mentioned that he was going when we were at Frodsham on Friday, I jumped at the opportunity and managed to get in on the trip. So it was that at 05.30 yesterday morning I was picked up by Mark and Pod, slightly worse for wear after an hours sleep following a boozy night out in Manchester. A McDonald's breakfast on route did much to ease the lurking hangover and we arrived at the lighthouse car park at Flamborough some time around 08.30.

Upon arrival conditions seemed perfect; a strong north-easterly breeze was blowing and out to see the horizon lay shrouded in mist. We began by working the hedgeline along the eastern edge of the gorse field and were immediately rewarded with passerine migrants in the form of a Whinchat and a Garden Warbler. Encouraged by the early signs, we spread pout and continued to work the hedge. Mark was around 100m or so ahead of me when a large, long-tailed passerine flopped out of the hedge on to a fencepost no more than 20ft ahead of me. I immediately knew what it was and a look in the bins confirmed my suspicions. My first ever WRYNECK and a self-found one at that. BOOM indeed! I watched the stunning, cryptically patterned bird for a few seconds before it flicked off over the hedgerow giving decent flight views. The day was off to a cracking start! After a quick search yielded little but a Pied Flycatcher pointed out by a following birder we began to work the hedgerow along the southern edge of the gorse field.

The hedge seemed to have a lot of potential and as we worked our way up we flushed the Wryneck again which proceeded to give more prolonged scope views perched on top of a gorse bush. Scott, who had been camping a mile or so up the coast, then arrived with his girlfriend Samaya and his dog Marley. We continued to work up the hedgerow to the western boundary of the gorse field where we flushed a large grey Sylvia warbler that was most likely a Barred Warbler. Unfortunately it dived into a patch of dense brambles and gorse and we failed to relocate the little skulker. News of a Greenish Warbler at Old Fall saw us heading back towards the car and we obtained nice views of Wall and Painted Lady butterflies on route. I was having a quick check of the gorse field when Mark shouted from further on that he had the Red-backed Shrike. Unfortunately it had dived straight down and despite a good deal of searching we could not relocate it.

On to Old Fall and after a long walk down the hedge which has held so many megas in its time, we were soon viewing the willows at the southern end of the plantation. The location was sunny and sheltered and as a result the willows were dripping with migrants including half a dozen Willow Warblers and at least 3 smart Pied Flycatchers. After a short wait  one of the small group assembled located the GREENISH WARBLER and suddenly there it was zipping about in the bottom of the willows giving stonking views! The white wingbar was strikingly obvious as was the long pale supercilium. The bird was also darker on the back and much paler underneath than accompanying Willow Warblers which were more of an even yellowy green tone. A cracking little bird and a nice one to nail after the Bolton bird disappeared a couple of weeks before I got home from uni.

News of an Ortolan Bunting at Buckton caused us to take our leave but after a long walk and a bit of confusion over the precise location due to vague directions, we were left slightly frustrated. A message on twitter reporting no further sign of the bird led us to abandon our search and news of an Icterine Warbler in the same place as the Greenish decided our next destination for us. The first order of business however was lunch and we managed to find a nice pub in North Landing with a very reasonably priced menu. I had a giant Yorkshire pudding with chicken and gravy but declined to have a pint as I think at this point it would have finished me off. Refreshed from our break we headed back down the long hedge to the south end of Old Fall Plantation.

There was a much larger crowd assembled this time included the legendary twitcher and local stalwart Brett Richards. After a short-wait, Brett located the bird perched up in one of the willows and kindly let me have a look at it through his scope. BOOM! ICTERINE WARBLER, my third tick of the day in the bag! We stayed in the area for half an hour and I got several satisfying views of the Icky despite it being much more elusive than the Greenish. While here I also picked up a smart Lesser Whitethroat and a nice flyover Cuckoo. Pod also managed to briefly locate the Greenish but I missed it and managed to almost drift off as I sat down on the floor to rest my legs. The others also felt a bit sleepy so we headed back to the car picking up a Redstart in Old Fall Hedge on route.

We decided to head back to the lighthouse to do so seawatching on the off chance of something like a Long-Tailed Skua, one of the few seabirds that I still hadn't caught up with. Upon arrival at the lighthouse we we're informed that birds had been passing and that we had just missed a Cory's. Undeterred we settled down and one of the first birds I picked up was a dark shearwater close in which soon turned out to be a very dark Balearic Shearwater, a good bird for the North Sea. Soon after this Pod picked up and Arctic Skua going south and I quickly got onto what I thought was the bird. Suddenly I picked up a rather larger skua in the edge of my scope which I quickly realised was Pod's bird. Instantly I realised that I was watching a LONG-TAILED SKUA, my fourth tick of the day!!! The bird quickly caught up with the Arctic making its smaller, slimmer build and more buoyant size very obvious in comparison. The bird was a pale phase juvenile and looked incredibly pale in comparison to the Arctic. Soon after Scott turned up and was irritated to hear that he had missed 2 lifers. Luckily he received some consolation as soon after a dark phase Pomarine Skua, a lifer for him, went past in the company of a couple of Arctics. Other good birds recorded were a few Manx Shearwaters and a strong northward movement of Little Gulls. After this rush the sea went quiet and me Mark and Pod decided to call it a day. I spent most of the journey home sleeping in the back and we arrived back in Heaton Moor just after 7. An incredible days birding on the east coast and my first experience of a proper fall of passerines. I wonder when, if ever, I'll manage to get 4 British ticks in a day again? Cheers to Mark and Pod for driving and allowing me to tag along on the trip in the first place, it was much appreciated! Hopefully the weather holds for Spurn tomorrow!

Friday, 23 August 2013

Costa del Frodsham

After yesterday's Citrine Wagtail twitch my considerable appetite for rares had been momentarily satiated. However I had a desire to obtain some better pictures of the bird so decided to go again today with Scott who had been working when I went yesterday and still needed it for his list. The proposition became even more exciting yesterday evening when news again filtered through from Alex Jones (he really has his finger on the button), this time of a fully winged adult Marbled Duck at Frodsham Marsh. Although the species currently languishes in the doldrums of Category D of the British List, probably for eternity, there is always the chance that a Spanish ringed bird will turn up or stable isotope analysis will prove the wild credentials of one individual. The Frodsham individual appeared to have decent credentials, turning up in late August after a possible drought induced northwards dispersal, being fully winged and apparently fairly wary. As such it seemed like a possible candidate for future acceptance if wild individuals were proven to naturally occur in the future. It was clearly worth the detour on route to Conwy as insurance so Scott picked me up around 6 am and pointed the car West.

We arrived at Frodsham shortly before 7am and we're greeted by top Cheshire birder Mark Payne. He had just finished checking the flock of c500 Teal on the main lake with no success. We therefore headed round to the small pool where the bird was seen to roost yesterday evening but drew a blank here as well. As we had plenty of time we decided to head back down the entrance track and check the Teal on the main lake again. After a few minutes Scott located the Marbled Duck and we proceeded to enjoy great views as it headed towards us from the far side of the lake emerging onto the muddy shore infront of us. The bird was truly stunning with its gorgeous marbled plumage and its larger size and sleek structure made it really stand out from the accompanying Teal. The bird posed for a few record shots and showed that it was at least fully winged, stretching before flying off right with a couple of Teal.

Marbled Duck (escape)
At least it was fully winged!

We headed back along the track towards the area where it was first found hoping to relocate the bird and achieve better views. As we were walking along the track me and Scott simultaneously picked up an egret flying towards us from the direction of Frodsham Score. Immediately alarm bells in my brain began to ring; the bird appeared really compact and short-legged in flight and I quickly asked Mark if it was just a Little before quickly getting it in my bins. At this point all hell broke loose as I saw the short yellow bill and realised at once that I was watching a Cattle Egret!!! I quickly expressed this thought to the other two, screaming the words cattle and egret several times in rapid succession. Scott instantly agreed however Mark was a second slow and only caught the arse end of the bird as it headed off over No. 6 tank. We all stopped in disbelief for a moment before Mark and I bolted after it down the track while Scott dashed in the other direction to get his camera from the car. I managed to periodically keep track of the bird in flight as Mark ran ahead. Fortunately as we reached an area with a good with a good view across the main lake the bird circled round and landed on the scaffolding on one of the water towers. Scope on it and BOOM, there it was a self-found Cattle Egret and a stonking adult summer bird at that! I quickly fired off a few record phone-scoped shots before allowing myself to relax slightly. Scott soon arrived with his DSLR and after more shots were acquired and the news put out to both locals and the news services, the joy of the find began to wash over me and Scott.

Adult Cattle Egret, Frodsham

Adult Cattle Egret, Frodsham

We proceeded to watch the bird for a while as several local birders turned up to appreciate it. We also picked up a couple of Black-necked Grebes which appeared to be and adult in winter plumage and a scruffy juvenile. Austin Morley arrived on his way to work and after failing to relocate the Marbled Duck for him, we decided to head onwards to Conwy for the Citrine Wagtail. On route we were sad to learn that the Marbled Duck was seen to be carrying a red ring on one of its legs making it a definite escape. I was rather disappointed by this fact as the birds credentials seemed fairly good and while I was not expecting an immediate tick I had allowed myself to vainly hope that one day it might just have a chance of being accepted as a wild bird. Alas it was not to be! Still it was a stunning bird and a real treat to see in Britain despite its rather dubious origins. Plastic fantastic for sure!

We gave it a couple of hours at Conwy but it quickly became clear that the Citrine Wagtail was not going to show and we left just after 12pm. During this time however we did see a few nice consolation birds including a juvenile Water Rail, 2+ Green Sandpiper, 7 Greenshank and a smart juvenile Peregrine which gave great views as it put the fear of god into everything on the scrape. On the way home we called in briefly at Llandullas but there were fewer Scoter than yesterday and they were just as distant., It appears that a winter visit here to bag Surf Scoter and the tart of all tarts, Velvet Scoter, is a must!

Despite the wagtail dip and the unfortunate news concerning the Marbled Duck, Scott and I were still buzzing about our Cattle Egret find the entire way home. The bird was completely unexpected and put a shine on what would otherwise have turned out to be a rather disappointing day. On a personal note it was also nice to finally find something better than a Cory's or Great Shearwater, a nice reward for the hours of birding put in over the past couple of years. If anyone wants to see some shots of the Cattle Egret then Mark Payne has posted some crackers on the North West Birding Facebook group. Thanks as usual to Scott for driving. A fantastic day in the field which will be remembered for years to come! It just goes to show that in birding you must always expect the unexpected! In the meantime the East coast looks good in the next few days, Icky anyone?

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Citrine Success

1st-winter Citrine Wagtail

After a truly incredible late spring/early summer for rarities which culminated in a week involving both White-throated Needletail and Bridled Tern, things have predictably slowed down for me on the twitching front. As August has unfolded, all the action has been in the Southwest and I had planned to head to Cornwall next week for some seawatching until the weather conspired against me. The resultant lack of decent birding has resulted in a severe case of boredom which I had planned to alleviate today by taking a trip over to Nottinghamshire with my dad in the hope of scoring some Honey Buzzards at Welbeck. The birds there have been rather showy in the past few days and as I have a rather strange affliction for Honeys it was an exciting proposition.

After a recent dearth of twitchable rarities I hadn't really expected anything to crop up and derail this plan. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when I received a text off Alex Jones around 9am informing me off a 1st winter Citrine Wagtail showing well from the Benarth Hide at Conwy RSPB. Citrine Wagtail is a tricky bird to catch up with in this country and one this close was well worth the effort. I therefore made the easy decision to go for it and by 11am me and dad were speeding west towards Conwy. After a slightly longer than anticipated journey involving a man transporting a mobile home on the A55 who appeared to have a death wish, we arrived on site just before 12.30.

We decided to head straight down to the Benarth Hide but upon entry I was informed by the birders present that the bird had been showing more reliably from the boardwalk screen. A report of the bird again from that location caused us to quickly changed tact and we dashed around to the other side of the reserve. We were informed on arrival that the bird had walked out of view around the back of an island and was currently missing. A tense wait followed with every juvenile Pied Wagtail that dared pop up receiving close scrutiny before being dismissed with annoyance.

After about half an hour a report came through on twitter of the bird showing from the hide and suddenly one of the guys present located the bird feeding along the edge of one of the closer islands. He kindly let me have a look in his scope to bag the tick and there it was, a pristine 1st-winter Citrine Wagtail! I soon had my scope on the bird and proceeded to enjoy cracking views as it worked its way back and forth along the shore. The bird was incredibly striking in appearance, clean white underneath with a strong double white wingbar and a bold white double supercilium extending round onto a pale cheek. The bird also had noticeably long legs giving it a taller appearance in comparison to a Pied. A really subtly beautiful bird, almost nicer to see than a gaudy adult male in my opinion, and a valuable tick bringing me ever closer to my target of 300 by my 20th birthday in mid-October. The bird eventually disappeared round the back of the island but showed again more distantly after ten or so minutes.

Satiated, we headed off home, stopping at the café and the visitors centre where I picked up a copy of Mark Avery's much acclaimed "Fighting for Birds". After eating our sandwiches by the river in beautiful sunshine we hit the road. A brief stop at Llandullas produced huge numbers of Common Scoter out by the windfarms but unfortunately they were just slightly too distant to grill properly for an early Surf or Velvet. Still it was nice to be by the sea on such a beautiful day.

The beach at Llandullas
All in all a great day out with a fantastic bird as the reward. Also nice to meet a few Northwest birders from the Wirral, hopefully I'll bump into them again soon. With the winds heading easterly in the next week or so I think a trip to the East coast is beckoning. Hopefully the Red-Breasted Fly at Spurn today is a harbinger of things to come. Watch this space...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Two-barred Grip Back

Juvenile Two-barred Crosbill (c) Scott Reid
Juvenile Two-barred Crossbill (c) Scott Reid

Adult female Two-barred Crosbill (c) Scott Reid

A light northeasterly breeze in the last week of July was all it took for them to start slipping across the North Sea and within days there were numerous sightings along the east coast from Norfolk to the Northern Isles; the invasion was underway! The last invasion of Two-barred Crossbills into Britain happened in 2008, long before my twitching career had started in earnest, so this summer has been my first realistic shot of bagging one of these intrepid visitors from the north. I was in Cornwall when the Lynford birds turned up so you can imagine my joy when a juvenile was found on feeders near Clitheroe in Lancashire on the day I was travelling home. Unfortunately, thanks in part to the rather inconsiderate behaviour of a select few of the assembled masses, that twitch was an unsuccessful one!

Fastforward to Monday and a report of another juvenile near Stockdale, South Yorkshire, had me and Scott considering the possibility of a twitch at our earliest convenience. This happened to be today and after watching the number present swell to an astounding 5 over the course of Tuesday we were raring to go. Scott and Alex Jones picked me up just after 5am and we were on site just after 6. Despite some initial confusion we soon found a group of ten or so twitchers assembled at the correct location. After a short wait a reasonable flock of Crossbills flew in and me and Alex quickly got onto a juvenile Two-barred Crossbill in the top of a larch which promptly dropped out of sight calling. Elation at the feeling of redemption that came with the tick but a lurch of despair as Scott and the others present had missed the bird.

The next hour and a half was a nervous wait with no further sightings of any Two-barreds although we could hear at least one bird in the area intermittently emitting the distinctive nasal trumpeting call. After a while Scott and Alex got bored and decided to check the roadside larches where the birds where seen the previous day while I plumped for the lazy option of staying put with the masses. This turned pout to be the clever choice as within minutes a family party of what appeared to be 5 Two-barred Crossbills appeared in a larch above our heads and began to feed giving amazing views. After getting stunning views of both the adult female and several juveniles I decided to head off and find the others. Luckily they were heading back up the track and we were all soon enjoying cracking views of the birds as they fed. These prolonged views allowed me to appreciate the finer ID pointers on the birds such as the shallower bill and more slender structure as well as the obvious white tertial tips and covert bars.

After roughly 20 or so minutes the birds were flushed and flew off in a tight knit flock of 6. This caused initial confusion but we soon dismissed the extra bird as likely a Siskin. Satisfied with our views we decided to hang around a bit and after another half hour or so the birds reappeared in the same tree and recommenced feeding. It was at this point that Scott realised that there were definitely 6 Crossbills in the tree and after some painstaking observation we confirmed that all 6 birds were Two-barred Crossbills, an adult female and 5 juveniles to be precise! It was great to locate an extra bird increasing the total of what must be one of the largest groups of Two-barred Crossbill ever recorded on the British mainland! We speculated that these birds were a family party and joked about an adult male turning up, a dream that was sadly left unfulfilled.

We watched the birds until they departed with a large flock of Common Crossbills before deciding to hit the road for home. The twitch had been an educational one allowing us to get to grips with the plumage and more interestingly vocalisations of Two-barred Crossbill. As well as the distinctive trumpeting call, we also discerned the chipping call to be higher pitched, more metallic and slightly more urgent than that of a Common Crossbill. It was also great to see a family party feeding in their natural environment and a gathering of this size is something I'm unlikely to witness again in the British Isles. Suffice to say that on the way home we all realised just how lucky we were to dip the Clitheroe bird. Maybe I'll thank those inconsiderate twitchers next time I see them! Thanks to Scott as usual for driving and for allowing me to use his excellent pictures.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Speculative Seawatch

As we all know Summer is seawatching season, with a decent shift off any stretch of coastline bringing the prospect of rare and scarce seabirds. On the way home from Norfolk early last week Scott remarked that a seawatch off the Wirral or North Wales might be worthwhile in the coming week if conditions were right. A look at the forecast confirmed this and Monday morning saw us heading west to Chester where we teamed up with Autsin Morley and Alex Jones. We then hopped in Austin's car and headed up the Wirral to West Kirby to make the long walk out to Hilbre Island. For any one who doesn't know, Hilbre is a windswept hunk of sandstone in the middle of the Dee estuary which regularly produces triple figure counts of Leach's Petrels in Autumn following northwesterly gales. We were admittedly a month or so early but upon arrival at West Kirby conditions felt perfect; the wind was swinging between west and northwest and gusting at over 30mph. This coupled with the incoming squalls raised our hopes of some seabird action and the prospect of Balearic Shearwater, a real rarity in Liverpool Bay, was at the forefront of my mind.

After a long, windblasted walk out to the island we stopped at the obs to pick up a key, before making our way down to the seawatching hide at the north end of the island. Once inside the rather spooky structure nestled on top of the old lifeboat station, we settled in and made ourselves comfortable for the day ahead. The first few hours were predictably slow as the tide was way out although a couple of tern flocks on the exposed mud provided some intrigue. As the tide slowly made its way in we started to pick up the odd distant Arctic Skua harrying the terns out by the windfarms. Incredibly on this windy, overcast day there was a considerable heat haze which hampered our efforts to achieve even reasonable views.

The view from the hide
Scott, a veteran Hilbre seawatcher, confidently predicted things would get better as the tide came in but after several hours with little visible improvement the boredome became tangible. In deperation Scott started trying to string "Ascension" Gannets in the heat haze while Austin went for a walk as the three of us played a classic game of "guess the Scandinavian drift migrant from call" (patent pending). Things got so desperate that our first tubenose of the day, A Fulmar which drifted slowly west close in, made me almost hop with excitement. While Austin was away on his walk he also managed to miss the only close Common Scoter of the day, a species he was keen to photograph.

Fulmar (trust me it was exciting) (c) Austin Morley
Mercifully, as hope was all but lost, a couple of older gentleman turned up and our attentions were refocused on the task at hand. Soon we started to get some worthwhile rewards as a couple of nice dark phase adult Arctic Skuas came closer in and gave great views as they chased the terns. The sight of these stunning birds showcasing their considerable aerial ability was a joy to watch and made the trip worthwhile. From a birding perspective, it was also nice to get to grips with the flight jizz of Arctic Skua in time for some east coast seawatching in Autumn. Things got even more exciting when Alex picked up 2 Manx Shearwaters screaming east at distance and a close pale phase Arctic Skua allowed Austin to capture a few decent shots. The post-breeding build up of terns in the estuary mouth was also impressive with at least 80 Little Terns, including a good proportion of juvenile birds, recorded throughout the day.

Pale phase Arctic Skua (c) Austin Morley
After a 7 hour shift in the hide we decided to call it a day and took a more leisurely walk back to West Kirby, stopping to admire a couple of smart Whimbrel on the rocks on the east side of the island. In the car on the way back to Chester the mood was slightly deflated. However the resounding sentiment was that it had been worth chancing our arm; you have to be in it to win it after all and the conditions had the very real possibility of producing a decent skua or shearwater. Either way it was a great day out with fantastic company and definitely beat the alternative of sitting in watching trash TV. Thanks to Austin for his driving and great pictures and Scott as usual for picking me up.

The view from Hilbre

Thursday, 8 August 2013

A Tale of Two Birds

Despite being a fairly regular visitor, Black-crowned Night Heron is a bird I still haven't managed to catch up with, partly due to being stranded in the practically birdless Northwest. I'd been having thoughts about attempting to twitch the highly elusive Old Moor bird so I was pleased when a showy 2CY bird turned up at Thornton Resevoir and stuck around until I was home from my trip to Cornwall. After dipping the Two-Barred Crossbill near Clitheroe on Sunday, me and Scott Reid resolved to head to Leicestershire early the next morning but unfortunately rain cancelled play. This happened to be a stroke of luck as the Norfolk Roller was relocated on Monday. This lead to a brainwave from Scott who suggested enlisting Austin Morley and attempting double twitch with a night's stay in Norfolk and some classic north Norfolk birding, a proposition I couldn't resist.

Tuesday morning saw me and Scott heading towards Cherry Corner at the ungodly hour of 5am. Here we picked up Austin and headed south, arriving at the reservoir just after 7am. After some initial confusion we found the correct spot and were informed by a well camouflaged local photographer that the bird had moved behind some reeds. After a short but nerve-wracking wait the bird emerged giving stunning views. The blood red eye was particularly noticeable, giving the bird a striking appearance. The bird showed well around the inflow for a couple of hours allowing me to capture this record shot.

Night Heron, Thornton Resevoir
After enjoying this bird it was on to Norfolk and we arrived at Horsey around lunchtime. After what felt like an hours walk we arrived at the correct location to find the Roller showing well, albeit distantly as it fed along a fence line. Despite the distance I was elated at finally catching up with this stunning vagrant, especially after missing the well-twitched Yorkshire bird last year. After achieving satisfying views of the bird and a number of cracking Dark Green Fritillaries, I enjoyed a celebratory pint of Nelson's Revenge in the Nelson's Head Pub. Unfortunately the distance of the bird and the heat haze prevented any attempts at photography but I got this shot for posterity.
Roller, Horsey
We then headed to Blakeney where we pitched the tent at the pleasant Galley Hill Farm campsite. Then it was on to Cley NWT where we enjoyed an array of waders on the North Scrape including a stunning Wood Sandpiper and a moulting adult Curlew Sandpiper. Also nice was a flyover Spoonbill and 3 Little Gulls. The rest of the evening was spent at Kelling Heath where we dipped Dartford Warbler, a bird I've only seen on a couple of previous occasions. This faded into insignificance however as dusk fell and we were treating to an incredible display by a stunning male Nightjar which responded to us clapping and waving around a white tissue. The bird gave incredible views flying around us calling and displaying, a real treat. The sound of this ethereal bird churring, likened to stout pouring from a tap by the excellent Tim Dee, with a background accompaniment of jazz piano emanating from Kelling Heath campsite was a fantastic if surreal experience. Elated, we headed back to the campsite scoring a nice Tawny Owl on the way home.
The next day was comparatively quiet with no success at Kelling Heath and a failed seawatch in crap conditions off Sheringham producing nothing. The Montagu's Harriers also failed to play ball despite over 3 hours searching. This was a shame as Monties was a potential lifer for both Scott and Austin. My mood was lifted however by the sight of a group of 5 Turtle Doves which included 3 juvenile birds. The joy of seeing these subtly beautiful birds was sadly tempered by the realisation that I may never again see a larger group in Britain.
Turtle Dove, North Norfolk

After this we headed to Titchwell where we got similar fare to Cley with the added bonus of 2 juvenile Bearded Tits and 2 female/juvenile Red-crested Pochard on Thornham Pool. We finished the trip with a cracking fish and chips in Hunstanton before hitting the road for the long drive home during which, we somehow crossed the M1 on two separate occasions. A fantastic trip with good birds and great company. Special thanks to Scott for all the driving, it was really appreciated!

An Introduction

Hi everyone, Liam here. I'm a 19 (soon to be 20) year old birder/twitcher from Stockport about to go into the second year of my biology degree. After months of deliberation I've decided to finally start blogging as a way of cataloguing my experiences of birding and twitching around the British Isles. I split my time fairly evenly between university in Oxford and the birdless wasteland that is Greater Manchester and as a result the blog will concentrate primarily on my trips birding and twitching around the country. I also aim to give regular updates from my uni patch, Port Meadow, a fantastic site 10 minutes outside Oxford city centre where I spend many a winter's evening gulling to my heart's content.

I've been birding on and off since 2003 but my current fervour for the hobby was kickstarted by a week on Scilly in October 2011. Seeing the likes of Northern Waterthrush, Wilson's Snipe and Upland Sandpiper whetted my appetite for rarities and I've been twitching and listing more seriously ever since. Having said that I make the effort to visit Port Meadow at least a couple of times a week in term time and have amassed a decent patch list of 105 over my first year including self-found Glaucous and Caspian Gulls.

I'll take the opportunity now to apologise for the poor quality of any pictures I post on here. The realities of twitching on a student budget means I have nothing left for a decent camera although I do take the odd phonescoped picture which is usually of dire quality. Despite this fact I aim to provide interest and occasionally some entertainment as I recount my birding exploits on here. Trip report of my recent 2 day excursion to Norfolk to follow soon.