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!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Feeling Autumnal

With autumn now in full swing I have been maximising my time in the field in an effort to catch up with as many birds as possible before returning to university in Oxford where my ability to get out birding will be drastically reduced. What follows is a roundup of my birding week encompassing the Great Snipe twitch on Sunday and a couple of cracking seawatching sessions of Hilbre. I was reovering on the sofa after a particularly heavy night out on Friday when news of a Great Snipe at the bottom of Beacon Lane in Kilnsea filtered through. Great Snipe is a species that is almost impossible to see in Britain with most being one day birds that are only seen via an organised flush. As word spread that the bird was incredibly showy Mark Payne, Scott, Alex and I quickly made plans to get there for first light. News that the bird had flown to a nearby field before dark and had not been relocated put a dampener on our plans however and led to Alex deciding to pull out. As we headed over the M62 in the darkness my hopes were not high and it seemed we would have a long day on our hands.

My doubts were unfounded however as upon our arrival we were waved over by Spurn regular Pete Wragg who was watching the bird as it slept behind the gate of the caravan park. BOOM! GREAT SNIPE on my list! Amazingly I have now seen every species of Snipe on the British List other than Jack Snipe; I must be the only person to have achieved this bizarre feat in the history of British Birding! It emerged that we were the first twitchers on site and as we watched the bird from a ditch none other than Garry Bagnell arrived blue bandana and all! He quickly jumped into the ditch and I put him on the bird. Contrary to some opinion I found him to be a pleasant and engaging guy who is clearly obsessed with his birds. We continued to watch the bird as it woke up and began to feed on worms which is removed from a small patch of grass. The white tips to the coverts were obvious but not particularly striking leading people to age the bird as a likely first winter. The white outer tail feathers were also clear to see as was the extensive barring on the flanks and undertail coverts. Structurally the bird was clearly more stocky and short-billed than a Common Snipe giving it an almost Woodcock like feel.

We continued to watch the bird over the course of the morning, keeping our distance first but approaching more closely when it became obvious that the bird had absolutely no fear of people at all. It gave incredible views down to under 5ft allowing a once in a lifetime opportunity to closely study the bird's intricate cryptic plumage. An absolute stunner which instantly booted its rarer cousin, Wilson's Snipe, out of my top 5 all time British birds. I was therefore incredibly saddened to hear of the bird's demise yesterday at the hands of a local moggy. Although many have been quick to vilify domestic cats (and I do agree they pose a considerable threat to our birds), I think this bird's obvious lack of fear when a dog walker passed a few metres away illustrated that the likelihood of it being predated was high. I would also like to dispel some slander from certain people who are of the opinion that twitchers were to blame for the birds moribund state by preventing it from feeding. I can only speak about Sunday morning when I was present but during the time I watched the bird it fed constantly when awake absolutely oblivious to the assembled twitchers present. Regardless of the birds untimely demise it was an absolutely spectacular sight to behold and a bird I'm glad I made the effort to see. At least it lives on in the hundreds of spectacular shots of it including the stunning ones below that Scott managed to capture!

As we were about to leave news came through of a Barred Warbler showing in the hedge of the garden at Southfield Farm. Barred Warbler is a species that has continued to elude me this autumn so I jumped out of the car and dashed down there only to find that the bird had gone into thick cover. Knowing how skulking Barred Warblers can be I did not hold much hope of seeing it, especially in the overcast, windy conditions. After around 20 minutes the bird popped out of the hedge and flew around it but in  panic I failed to get my bins up and connect.Much to my annoyance, Scott managed tickable views so decided to head back up the road with Mark and ogle the Snipe some more. I nearly threw in the towel there and then but decided to persevere. My patience was rewarded however when around 10 minutes later the bird popped out and  began to feed on rose hips, allowing me to obtain incredible scope views through a kind birders Swarovski. BOOM! BARRED WARBLER finally on my list! I have now managed to mop up all the Scandinavian drift migrants, other than Ortolan Bunting, over the course of one autumn! After one final look at the Snipe, which was now feeding in the ditch next to a Strongbow can, we headed for home. A memorable day and a gamble that paid off to a huge extent! As they say, fortune favours the bold!

Monday morning saw Scott picking me up at the ungodly hour of 04.55 to head over to Hilbre for some seawatching. A huge low pressure system was heading in from the North Atlantic and the extreme conditions on the drive down the M56 certainly got me excited at the day's potential. After getting a lift over to the island in one of the Landrovers we were positioned in the seawatching hide as dawn broke. The wind was gusting at Force 9 and the sea off the north end was wild. After a slow start a distant LEACH'S PETREL got things going before a distant small skua picked up off the North Wirral by Steve Williams turned out to be a juvenile LONG-TAILED SKUA as it eventually drifted across the rocks behind the seawatching hide and over the head of an elated Scott! This was a lifer for him and in his favourite birding spot to boot! A perfect reward for the effort the day's efforts. Despite the wild conditions he managed to capture some decent shots including the effort below.

The rest of the seawatch was productive with another distant pale phase juvenile Long-tailed Skua and at least 10 Leach's Petrels including a stunning close bird which gave incredible views off the north end. The supporting cast was slightly lacking with several Manx Shearwaters and a Red-throated Diver the highlights. The lack of British breeding species such as Fulmar and Kittewake was notable however and there was not a single Arctic Skua. The lack of juveniles seen at spurn last week coupled with the blank result from Hilbre seems to suggest an unfortunate poor breeding year for the species. Back on the mainland a showy Mediterranean Gull on West Kirby marine lake allowed Scott to capture some incredible shots. The dark tips to the underside of the other primaries suggest that the bird is likely a 3rd or 4th winter rather than a full adult.

The next day saw us once again sat in a rather more cramped seawatching hide at the slightly more civilised time of 07.30. The wind conditions had continued unabated for over 36 hours and this was enough to produce a triple figure count of LEACH'S PETRELS although I only managed to connect with around 30 individuals! Bird of the day however was a gorgeous adult LONG-TAILED SKUA which drifted in from the east eventually passing within 200m of the north end. The bird's pastel plumage tones made it absolutely stunning and it still possessed full tail streamers! A marvellous sight and a great bird for Cheshire and Wirral! The supporting cast also constituted a marked improvement on the previous day with over 40 Manxies, a stunning Great Skua and a distant Fulmar the pick of the bunch. A cracking couple of days seawatching from a truly remarkable location and a big thanks to the obs members, especially Steve Williams, for sacrificing their comfort to allow us to watch from the hide and carting us on and off the island in the Landrover. It was truly appreciated! Big thanks as usual to Scott for driving me everywhere and even entertaining the possibility of twitching Suffolk for a Lesser Grey Shrike! Sometimes however local birding is best and the sight of the beautiful adult Long-tailed Skua more than made up for missing out on a dull first-winter Shrike. All in all a fantastic few days, I wonder what will turn up over the weekend...?

Monday, 9 September 2013

Spurn Migration Festival

Unfortunately, due to university getting in the way, 2013 will be the second year running that I am unable to make an October visit to the enchanting Isles of Scilly. It's hard to describe the feel of birding on Scilly to someone who has never visited but the constant anticipation of what might be found at any moment coupled with the great craic of an evening in the Scillonian Club makes it an experience that is hard to beat. When  Migfest 2013 was first advertised earlier this year, Dave Campbell and I decided to go as at that point I needed all of the Scandinavian drift migrants and he still needed a couple of the trickier ones. We booked to stay at the legendary Spurn Bird Observatory and over the following months anticipation for the event was heightened by the realisation that I'd have a good group of mates going including Scott Reid and Alex Jones. I knew that I was likely to see some decent birds but I didn't think the trip would match the feel of Scilly birding; how wrong I was!

Dave picked me up at around 15.00 on Wednesday afternoon and we took a leisurely drive over to Spurn stopping for our ritual Maccy Ds in Hull. Upon arrival at the obs we were greeted by Andy Roadhouse as well as a hoard of young birders: Dan Langston, Samuel Perfect, Tim Jones and Jack Ashton Booth. After sitting in on the log and a couple of hours discussing the potential for the days ahead we got an early night in preparation for an early start the next day. I instantly warmed to the digs at the Warren Cottage, cosy and affordable accommodation steeped in birding tradition, but that night I could barely sleep due to a potent mix of excitement and anticipation of the days to follow.

Thursday 5th September

After getting what amounted to no sleep, the day started at the ungodly hour of 05.30 with an early morning seawatch. Conditions weren't conducive for a heavy seabird passage with light winds and a heavy mist hampering visibility. Still several Arctic Skua and a couple of Red-Throated Divers were a nice reward for the effort. After a couple of hours I decided to give up and head for the triangle to check for migrants. As I was walking past the obs I was stopped by Jack and Tim who had just caught a Wryneck which they were about to ring. After a 15 minute wait the bird was released and we treated to incredible views of this cryptic stunner in the hand. A magical experience and a sign that there were birds to be found!

With the promise of migrants in the air me and Dave headed to Canal Scrape to Spurn tick the showy Kingfisher before undertaking a lap of the triangle. This produced a smart Cuckoo and at least half a dozen Whinchat which appeared to be fresh migrants working their way inland. We then headed to Southfield Farm where the juvenile Red-backed Shrike, seen on my last visit over a week previously, was giving great views as it fed on bees and other insects along the hedgerow of a garden. This hedgerow appeared to be a magnet for migrants producing a Sedge Wabler and a couple of Reed Warblers in addition to the Shrike. While watching the bird we also picked up 2 Common Swift  heading south, up to that point my latest ever British record!

After enjoying the shrike, Dan and I decided to have a wander around Sammy's Point which produced an adult Mediterranean Gull, a male Redstart and a flyover Common Buzzard. We then met Dave in the Crown and Anchor where we cooled down with a drink before retiring to the Warren for an afternoon combination of seawatching and vismigging. This was fairly quiet but a Hobby heading south was a decent Spurn bird and a couple more Arctic Skua took the days total to 7 birds. A northward passage of 12 Little Gull was also nice to see. As darkness fell we headed to the obs to complete the log before staying up talking birds for a few hours. Over the course of the evening two Spurn stalwarts, Pete Wragg and Adam Hutt of Rock Thrush fame, arrived making the obs a slightly more crowded place. After getting introduced it was off to bed for a few hours sleep in preparation for another early start.

Friday 6th September

Dawn saw us camped out in the seawatching hide where the fresh north-easterly winds produced a decent seabird passage. Highlights included around 20 Arctic Skua heading south accompanied by a decent Teal passage. Suddenly Dan's radio crackled in to life and Adam Hutt on the other end announced that he was watching a Roseate Tern head out to sea from the Humber over the warren. All eyes were instantly fixed on the sky and we soon picked up the bird, obvious from its small size and buoyant flight action, as it headed out to sea with a flock of commics. After this excitement we quickly back down to seawatching but a short while later a second message from Adam caused pandemonium as he informed us that he was watching a LEACH'S PETREL over the humber! We all emptied out of the hide and sprinted down to where Adam was standing on the banks of the river. After an intial struggle I managed to get on to the bird which gave great views as it bounced back and forth over the river. I'm a huge seabird fan birds so seeing such an enigmatic species this well, despite having seen them before, was one of the highlights of the trip and perfecetly illustrates the potential of Spurn to throw up suprises. Hats off to Adam for the find, an awesome birder who always seems to know where the right place to be is! After this we returned to the sea where 2 Sooty Shearwater heading north rounded out the morning nicely.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon passed by quietly with a wander down to the point in the company of Dan and Samuel producing little except an Eider and a Spotted Flycatcher. Despite the promising conditions, the expected rain never materialised and this was shown by the lack of new migrants on the ground. We therefore decided to head back to the Warren and spend the afternoon seawatching. Seabirds were still passing by in numbers when an unconfirmed report of a Common Rosefinch came through over the radio. At first I decided to ignore it however when it came through as genuine on the pager I dashed up to Kilnsea to have a look. We were attempting to relocate the bird in Church Field when a report of a Long-tailed Skua heading south past Grimston came through. Samuel needed this so we decided to prematurely abandon our search and head back to the Warren to continue our seawatch. On route we met Scott, Samaya and Alex who were accompanied by NGB members Matt Bruce, Zac Hinchcliffe and Chris Bridge. They excitedly informed me that they had found the Rosefinch meaning that I could no longer pass it off as a juvenile Greenfinch (although Pallid Harrier was suddenly a distinct possibility)! Most of them also needed the Skua so we headed back to the warren to search for it.

Upon arrival it was apparent that things had kicked up a gear with a large movement of Manx Shearwaters and a constant passage of Fulmars in evidence offshore. I was settling down and enjoying some close Arctic Skua action when the radio informed us of another Common Rosefinch in the bushes along the road just north of the warren. Moving faster than I ever had before I dashed down there in time to see a silent finch drop into the bushes where Adam had set up his nets. After a short wait 2 Greenfinch and a flock of Starling we're flushed out of the bushes but there was no sign of the Rosefinch. As the bird had apparently sat tight I slowly headed round the back of the bushes with Ray Scally. Soon I heard the bird urgently giving its Phyllosc like call before a chunky brown bird flicked left. I moved further round and the bird bolted flying round in a circle calling before dropping straight into the net. BOOM! COMMON ROSEFINCH on my list! Adam quickly processed the bird before it was shown to the large crowd which had quickly assembled. Although drab in comparison to a stunning adult male, it was a smart bird and constituted my only lifer of the trip. After the excitement we continued seawatching with a self-found juvenile Black Tern heading south the highlight. the Arctic Skua passage also continued with my personal total for the day reaching a whopping 44! As evening fell we retired to the pub for a nice meal and a few celebratory pints. A fitting end to one of my best ever days birding!

Common Rosefinch (c) David Campbell

Saturday 7th September

A very quiet day in comparison to Friday. Another early morning seawatch produced a large northwards passage of Manx Shearwater as well as the expected Arctic Skuas, Little Gulls and Red-throated Divers. Clear skies quickly made the sea virtually unwatchable however so we decided to wander down to the point to look for migrants. We managed to get a lift in the landrover to Chalk Bank where 4 Curlew Sandpipers gave excellent views from the south hide. We also saw 2 Black Terns, a juvenile and a moulting adult, and a nice Artic Skau which gave great views over the Humber. The wire dump and the sheep fields were fairly quiet producing only a couple of Lesser Whitethroats and Spotted Flycatchers. After getting good views of the juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Southfield Farm, where a digiscoping instructor captured the excellent image above on my phone, we returned to the warren. The highlight here was a group of 14 Common Snipe which flew in off during our seawatch, evidence of visible migration in action!

The highlight of Saturday was the evening entertainment. First we were treated to a sumptuous hog-roast and several glasses of wine before an excellent lecture by the legend that is Martin Garner on being the best birder that you can be. After this we retired to the pub for another session of drinks. The craic here rivalled the Scillonian and spending time here chatting birds with a good group of mates was one of the highlights of my year! I was also privileged to have a ten minute chat with Martin Garner, a humble and down to earth guy as helpful and inspirational as anyone I've ever met! This rounded off a great evening and gave me a few great ideas for future birding trips.

Sunday 8th September

Another quiet day with the weather conspiring to produce few birds either on land or on the sea. Most of the morning was spent attempting to relocated a Lesser Golden Plover which was heard calling in flight by Adam Hutt over Westmere Farm. Despite our best efforts the search failed however we did locate a cool partially leucistic Golden Plover with white primary flashes reminiscent of a Great Skua! After checking Kilnsea wetlands where I got nice views of Curlew Sandpiper, I headed back to the Warren to pack up. Here I met Dave who informed me of some discussion about a possible Baltic Gull in the area. After some inquiry we learned that the bird was infront of the Kilnsea Wetlands hide so headed back up there to view it. The bird was showing excellently when we arrived in the hide and was being carefully studied by Adam, Martin and Pete. Structurally it seemed bang on and most of the plumage seemed to be a fairly close match to the expected for juvenile BALTIC GULL. I have almost no clue about the finer points of identification of fuscus type Lesser-Black Backs and the bird is still under discussion but it was great to learn from Martin in the field. There is also the possibility that one day in the not too distant future this could potentially be an armchair tick.

The gull provided a nice end to an incredible trip and shortly after watching it I was heading home cramped up in Alex's car with Zac, Matt and Chris. Overall the quality of birds may not have been as high as hoped for but I still managed one lifer in the form of Common Rosefinch. More importantly I made some new friends, met some great people, saw some great birds and learned a huge amount! I also really took to the pace of birding at Spurn and could only liken the feel of the place to birding on Scilly. I plan to make another visit to the obs in the coming weeks and in the long term I hope to one day own a caravan at Spurn. Hopefully the legacy of this trip will be long-lasting and it will prove to be the beginning of a new chapter in my birding life.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Lesser Scaup: 300 and counting

Eclipse drake Lesser Scaup, Pennington Flash

Eclipse drake Lesser Scaup, Pennington Flash

Eclipse drake Lesser Scaup, Pennington Flash

My main aim this year in terms of birding, has been to drag my rather pitiful British list over the 300 barrier into a state of semi-respectability. This quest has been going somewhat better than planned and Saturday's unexpected Stilt Sandpiper took me to 299 for Britain, one away from the magic 300. I had figured my 300th tick would therefore come during my trip to Spurn for the Migration Festival and the end of this week so I was pleasantly surprised yesterday evening when news came through of an eclipse drake Lesser Scaup at Pennington Flash in my home county of Greater Manchester. Greater Manchester is one of the worst counties in the country for rarities so for something that I needed to turn up when I was one away from my target was unexpected to say the least! I immediately texted Scott to try and arrange a quick twitch but he was stuck in work so I had to settle for a lift in the morning with my Grandma. A nervous wait followed overnight but as dusk approached the bird was reported as fairly settled so I was optimistic about my chances of connecting.

As soon as I awoke this morning I checked the news services and the Manchester birding forum but no reports had come through. Slightly worried, I sent a text to county recorder Ian Mckerchar who confirmed that the bird had not yet been reported but reassured me that it was unlikely to have moved on given its current state of moult. I was picked up by Grandma around 09.30 and after a quick detour to Chorlton to pick up my little cousins, Joe and Dan, and their mum Gemma we were on the road to Pennington. On route I was informed by Pete Hines that the bird was still present at 07.00 and this lifted my spirits greatly, 300 was in my grasp! Upon arrival at the site Grandma dropped me at the far end of the car park and I headed off round the south end of the flash while the others went to Horrocks Hide.

I quickly reached the East Bay and quickly began to scan the assembled masses of Tufted Duck with no success. I was starting to get a little desperate when I picked up a distant drake duck steaming towards me from the direction of the Yacht Club. The bird was head on and distant but appeared to be pale mantled and the black on the nail of the bill was very restricted. At this point another birder who had been searching for the Scaup arrived and I informed him of the bird I was watching. After having a look through my scope, he agreed with my suspicions and we waited for the bird to approach. After a couple of minutes the bird arrived in the East Bay and promptly turned side on revealing a pale mantle with visible vermaculations. BOOM! LESSER SCAUP, my 300th bird in Britain. The bird continued to approach closer settling with the Tufties at a distance of 50-100 yards. Here it gave great views, allowing me to capture a series of decent record shots, before promptly falling asleep. The bird was pretty similar in size and structure to the accompanying Tufties with a visibly more rounded head. A few more birders arrived and I helped them to connect before spending a while watching the bird and revelling in the glow of finally breaking the 300 barrier! Some have said that its a fairly dull/drossy bird for my 300th but Lesser Scaup is a species I've long been chasing and reaching 300 in my usually dire home county brought a little more gloss to the occasion.

After ten minutes or so Grandma called me back and I headed round the flash to meet the others. On route I got nice views of a Willow Tit, a valuable year tick, and also bumped into Brian Hilton whom I haven't seen in a long time! The rest of the trip was fairly quiet with at least 2 Green Sandpiper on the Teal Scrape and another Willow Tit at the feeding station. Despite the dearth of interesting birds it was nice to spend some time birding with my cousins and to witness first hand their passion for birds and wildlife. They're only young but if they keep it up they'll be giving me a run for my money before too long! After a walk round the hides it was lunch time and I enjoyed a decent burger and chips from the burger van. I then pointed out the distant Scaup to another birder before we hit the road for home.

Having finally reached the admittedly low milestone of 300, it seems to me that the only course of action is to push on towards 350 then 400. I think, with the amount of tarty species such as Jack Snipe I still need, that 310 by the end of this year is an attainable target. Accounting for a reduction in the rate of accumulation of new birds, 400 in the next 5 years seems like a bold but achievable aim as long as I continue to have the desire and financial means to go twitching. I'm heading to Spurn tomorrow afternoon for a 5 day trip and am eagerly anticipating the delights that could await over the course of Britain's first Migration Festival. To steal an idea from Scott, surely Gray's Grasshopper Warbler is a long overdue first for Britain? Its not beyond the realms of possibility that one will be found lurking somewhere along that hallowed peninsula.  In reality I'd be more than happy to spend the trip cleaning up on the few drift migrants such as Barred Warbler and Common Rosefinch that have so far eluded me. I guess I'll have to wait and see what happens...

Sunday, 1 September 2013

An Unexpected Twitch

Stilt Sandpiper (c) Andrew Kinghorn

Stilt Sandpiper (c) Andrew Kinghorn

After a rather heavy Saturday night which embarrassingly saw me fail to even make it into Manchester, I was glad that I turned down Scott's offer of a trip to North Wales to twitch the long staying Dotterel on the Great Orme. While they were enjoying stunning views of the bird, I was enjoying a nice lie in before heading to the shops to buy some much needed hangover supplies. Upon leaving the Coop I checked my phone to see a missed call off Mark Payne. I half wondered if it was an accidental dial but called him back anyway to check that he wasn't trying to relay news to me of a rare bird. Incredibly the latter was true and after he informed me that the reported Curlew Sandpiper at Neumann's Flash was actually a Stilt Sandpiper I quickly thanked him for the gen before hanging up and running all the way home. As it was my mother's birthday I knew I faced a battle for a lift but with Scott in North Wales I had precious few other options and I simply could not afford to miss such a good local bird, especially when I was this close to 300!

To his immense credit my dad put up little resistance and when he realised that we could easily twitch the bird before having to be at the restaurant for my mum's birthday meal he begrudgingly agreed to take me. The journey to the site did not run smoothly however with two bad sets of roadworks sending me into a frenzy of angst. Reports that the bird was very mobile did little to assuage my fears of a dip although news that the bird had apparently been present three days did give me some hope. After what felt like an eternity, we pulled in to the car park at the end of Old Warrington Road and after some confusion I was running in the right direction towards the old hide. Somewhat out of breath I entered the hide to be greeted by Mark Payne and a few other local birders. The bird was still on show and I managed to connect when Frank Duff kindly let me look down his scope. BOOM! STILT SANDPIPER ticked and at Neumann's Flash of all places!

At this point the warm sense of relief flooded in and I was able to relax and watch the bird at fairly close range. Despite the bird being periodically obscured behind long vegetation, I managed to achieve decent and fairly prolonged views. The structure of the bird was longer and more attenuated than Curlew Sandpiper with a longer bill that drooped at the tip. Despite being in fairly advanced moult, the bird also exhibited heavy barring on the flanks and undertail coverts which, coupled with the bold pale supercilium and some retained dark scapulars, made the it quite distinctive. A really smart bird and an absolute mega for the county, this would have been a fitting 300th bird and this realisation made the Barred Warbler episode all the more frustrating. Incredibly I have seen both Stilt Sand and Black-Winged Stilt at Neumann's Flash, it must have a strong draw for birds of the Stilt variety.

It was also nice to meet Bill Morton here who was very grateful for my Cattle Egret find and subsequent finders report. A really nice guy who I hope to catch up with again in the near future on his home patch of Frodsham. As I had a very limited time period I said my goodbyes to the assembled birders before nipping round the path for a quick catch up with Alex, Scott and Austin. They'd had incredible views of the Dotterel on the Orme and Scott's incredible phonescoped shots left me feeling rather jealous. They'd headed to Neumann's as soon as they'd received the news and were enjoying the Stilt Sand, a tick for all 3 of them. Soon I had to take my leave and headed for home extremely satisfied with a totally unexpected bonus tick. I'm now almost definitely out of action until I head across to Spurn on Wednesday for a 5 day trip during which I'm hoping to break the 300 barrier. I've spent a fair bit of time pondering what that bird will be and ironically the most likely option appears to be Barred Warbler! Such is the way of birding.