Monday, 30 December 2013

December 2013 - Birding in a winter wonderland

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

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

Adult Caspian Gull, Port Meadow (c) Adam Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

Juvenile Ivory Gull, Patrington Haven (c) Scott Reid

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

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

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

Hoopoe, Pensarn (c) Scott Reid

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

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

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

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

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

Male Cirl Bunting, Broadsands (c) Scott Reid