Sunday, 20 October 2013

A late birthday present

Juvenile Semi-palmated Plover (c) Dave Campbell

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

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

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

Friday, 4 October 2013

Turtle Dove saves the day!

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

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

The view from the obs

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Cheshire Yellow-browed

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

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


Rock Pipits

Greenland Wheatear

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

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