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...?

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