Sunday, 15 September 2019

One amongst many

The Autumn birding period is really getting going. After the excitement of the booby there aren't any real mega's to compete but a scattering of good birds are around. Wrynecks, red-backed shrikes, barred warblers and ring ouzels are starting to appear. What caught my attention though was a lifer. It is also one which has been a bogey bird for me, having dipped on it three or four times. It is the American golden plover (AGP), a cousin to one of our commoner wading birds. A few come over here every year so not in the mega category but lifers are lifers and ones not requiring a drive to Cornwall need going for. This one was in residence on the Swale estuary in Kent, either at Shellness or Oare marshes. With Judith as my co-pilot we set out reasonably early to head round the M25.
As we got close to the reserve the phone alert told us the AGP had been seen and was showing well. The last part of the journey is off-road down a very bumpy track so I tried to be as careful as I could but we did pitch into a few potholes. About half way down the track we met two birders. Window down, "any sign?'. "Yes, but it flew off about 5 minutes ago, heading toward Oare". Now that was both good and bad news. Good that it was definitely still there but bad because Oare, although only 5 minutes flight time for a bird, is 40 minutes drive. Not really an option to chase the bird! Despite a bit of sulking and bad language on my part we made the best out of a bad job and made for the end of the track for coffee.
The main issue we had was how easy it could be to look for the bird if it came back. The beach is one of the top naturist spots in the UK and you have to be very careful which  direction you point your camera!!! A refreshing cup of coffee and a bun later we had a quick walk down the beach but only some oystercatchers and a few late Sandwich terns were around. As we headed back to the car I spotted a dark shape in the sky - a flock of birds! It was the plover flock returning from across the estuary. We carefully followed them down to one of the stubble fields opposite the beach. A quick trot to the car, gathering up of the optical gear and we were off back down the track. Two birders were on a high point overlooking the field already so we headed for them. A quick conversation and they were on the bird. low down in the stubble, but now to find it amongst about 300 of its brethren!


Fortunately the others had a good idea of where in the flock it was so I homed in on the area, to the left of the flock by some mooching gulls.
It actually stood out quite well when you got onto it, as in the photo above. It is a bit smaller (hard to tell), longer-legged (impossible to tell) but has a very pronounced eye-stripe and a darker back - tick! The whole flock was a bit twitchy and would take off and fly around but always came back to the same field. Only once did it come close though, allowing me to get a bit better view of it in comparison to the commoner golden plovers.
Still not brilliant views but you can see it is a very different bird! Certainly good enough views to be sure of a life tick.
After this we went over to Oare marshes, proving the 40 minutes drive time and making us very happy we didn't have to chase the bird back and forth over the Swale estuary.... It was pretty busy as it was high tide, with lots of godwits, redshanks and curlew sandpipers on the main lagoon.
The stars though were a large flock of starlings feeding in the bushes near the cottages.



It's such a shame that what was once a common garden bird is now becoming a nice-to-see uncommon one. They make a lovely noise when in a flock and we spent some time watching them happily feeding up.
A very pleasant day. One lifer in a superb part of the country, can't complain about that. Now let's see what else Autumn might bring.

Eastern promise

I am hoping to pick up one or two more nice birds as the Autumn season carries on. So, when the alert went off late on Saturday afternoon of a lifer within striking distance my interest was piqued. It was a clear night though which often precipitates waifs and strays moving on. I held off on an early morning twitch and checked the phone after breakfast. The bird was still showing so I had a quick shower, loaded the car and was off.
The bird in question was an Eastern olivaceous warbler. It is a classic dull brown warbler, a bit like an oversized reed warbler. It should be moving to its wintering grounds in southern Europe from its breeding area in tropical Africa. This one presumably had just overshot a bit! It is a pretty rare bird with a record every year or so in the UK, most in September. It was present in the scrubby area of Farlington marshes near Portsmouth, an area I know pretty well. It didn't take long to get there but on arrival it was clear a major twitch was underway. All 3 of the car parks were totally full, with people trying to predate spots as others returned to their cars. I wouldn't get a space any time soon so I drove over the dual carriageway and got a space 10 minutes walk away. I wasn't the only person leaving there loaded down with optical gear!!
It took me another 10 minutes to find my way onto the marsh, or really dried grassland at this time of year. Twitchers were spread about looking at various bushes.
I headed for the largest congregation of them who were studying the upper area of a blackberry bush with great intent. Almost immediately a largish warbler popped up and cameras went off. I had the bird within seconds of arriving!
The only problem was that it wasn't exactly the best of views - it is in the photo above honest!!! Depending on your own personal rules to tick a bird, especially a lifer, you should have good enough views to be able to ID it not just rely on others saying "yes, that was it". I certainly saw no more than a bird with a large beak but not good enough. I waited there for 10 minutes but it became clear it had moved on as there was no more sign. We spread out again but it proved tricky to pin down. Someone thought they had it and the herd all moved across to study a hedgerow a long way away. The day before people had got VERY close to bird, creating a bit of a scene on site so today we were more circumspect. At the range we were at again all I could tell was that there were birds there. Others seemed confident of the ID but still not good enough for me. It then disappeared again for about 30 minutes and I was starting to wonder whether my views had been good enough, which they weren't really!
Suddenly, and without any obvious reason, lots of people gathered up their gear and moved to my right. A line had formed in front of a bush and only about 20 yards back from it. Then I caught a bird low down in the bush. The view was good enough to get the ID so I had the bird!
It was a very active, large Acrocephalus-type warbler. The plumage was dull green-grey, with a marked eye-stripe but crucially a really big bill!!! It was markedly different to them any chiffchaffs (below) also feeding in the bush.
For the next 20 minutes the crowd swelled to I suppose 70 or 80 as it fed away, sometimes giving its characteristic sharp "tack" call as well.




It was never still and never really came out into the open for more than a few seconds so I was pretty pleased with images I managed to get. Others got much better ones the previous day but these give me all the details I need to confirm I had the right bird. Eventually it disappeared and we concluded it had moved to a new bush and everyone spread out again. 
I finally left just after midday to head back home leaving the crowds and arriving birders to refind it, which they did. So that makes it 3 lifers in under 2 weeks, a good spell for the start of Autumn. With a series of Atlantic lows arriving who knows what else might stop in though!!

Friday, 6 September 2019

Oooo'err missus

The twitching world has gone berserk. It is not often you get a totally new species for the country. Getting two would be remarkable. Getting 3, all of the same species, is probably unheard of. About two weeks ago some birders took a phone of a strange looking gannet off the coast of Kent. On reviewing it on their computers they put it out onto the interweb and the answer came back of "it looks like a brown booby". This cousin of our gannets should be the other side of the Atlantic and has never ventured over our side before. The photo was compelling but not definitive enough to clinch the ID and the bird was not seen again. A few days later the alarm went off again. A brown booby had been seen off the Cornish coast near St.Ives. This time, although a long way off, the photos looked good. A gannet-like bird with a clear white/ brown demarkation on its chest and a dipping flight when fishing as opposed to the kamikaze dive of a gannet. The following day the bird was "probably" seen in very poor weather with a lot of claim and counter-claim as to whether it was there or people were "stringing" juvenile gannets. It was intermittently seen over the next two days. On Saturday though it gave itself up big time with stunning photos of the bird perched on a rock in St.Ives bay. By now it had even appeared on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2, no doubt driven by the "booby" moniker. There certainly was a lot of comment about the number of people trying to take booby photos on the beach!!! Then it disappeared again.
With my nephews staying at the start of the week I assumed that was my chance gone of connecting with it. However, another alert went out at the start of the week. A brown booby seen in Cornwall at Kynance cove on the south coast near the Lizard. Most remarkably the photos showed it to be  different to the St.Ives bird So, at least two, possibly three different individuals in the UK plus another in France! This one was sticking and got into a routine of being seen every day in the bay fishing and preening. So, it had to be done and I decided to go for it on Friday.
A trip down to Weymouth on Thursday night put me one third of the way there but it still needed an early start to get to the Lizard by dawn. I was on the road about 2.20am and by gone 4.30 was stopping for coffee in Cornwall!
By 6 I was pulling into the car park ay Kynance cove. Normally you would expect to have it to yourself at that hour. Today though there were already over a dozen cars there. Some had lights on and you could see people peering out, having coffee or dozing waiting for dawn.

As the light started to come up the car park started to stir. Cars opened, people came out having coffee and buns, getting their 'scopes and cameras set up, visiting the loo and greeting their neighbours, By 7 a line of twitchers moved out like a camouflaged wagon train. The booby was last seen going to roost on "gull rock" which is off the eastern side of the car park but requires a walk of about a mile to get to the best viewing point.

We spread out in 3 groups long the cliff top and started scanning.

The booby had been showing around 9 so by 7.45 with no show we were not overly worried. Suddenly the guy next to me called it "flying right from the rock". A mad panic of people spinning 'scopes round and we were onto the bird. Typical gannet shape, long wings but brown above and the shape brown/white line on its breast. It flew round twice then landed on the rock at the extreme right in the photo above, a long way away.
This is an uncropped image at 500mm. The light was poor and it was a nightmare to get onto the bird. One of the 8 of us had it in their 'scope but it took ages for all of us to find it. Fortunately once it landed it stayed in the same place.

This is the best I could really get and is massively cropped. It shows all the features you want though. The gannet profile, the long blue/grey bill, pinkish feet and that brown-above, white below plumage. With all of us on the bird we tried to alert the other groups who were a few hundred yards away on the other side of the bay. We shouted (useless in the wind), waved (they didn't look our way), and put the word out on the internet (very weak signal). Finally they got the message and a stream of birders headed our way. Realising the difficulty of seeing the bird and the danger of it flying off we set up a couple of 'scopes with the bird in the frame ready for the new arrivals. As they got to us we made sure they saw the bird though it proved hard as it was so well camouflaged. For two or three people I had to work hard to get them to actually see the booby even though it was dead centre in my 'scope.



With everyone on it and now two viewing areas set up we watched it for 90 minutes as it preened, dozed, looked around and thought about going fishing. About 10 it finally flew off into the bay but went out behind the rock from our view. We headed down into the bay but it was not playing ball and headed far out into the bay to fish.
With rain starting and a long journey back I called it a day and headed off home. Six hours later I was back. A great if very long day. A bird you just had to go and see and so glad it behaved for us all. Let's hope its not the last rarity of the Autumn.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

That's sealed it...

Not all of our trips are long distances to see an obscure brown job in a bush with lots of blokes in cammo gear. Today we did one of favourite trips out to go and see the seals on Blakeney Point in Norfolk. This involves getting on one of the many boats which take you out from Morston Quay with all of the other tourists but it is a marvellous sight.
We set out early to get ahead of the traffic and got to Cley for our breakfast on the beach before 9. It was a lovely day with a flat sea and crystal blue sky as we had our coffee and croissant sitting on the pebbles. Suitable refreshed we headed off for the carpark at Morston to join our boat. The car park was already really full as the school holidays were in full swing and most of West London had decamped to the coast!! We signed in, joined the queue and were 4th and 5th onto the Beans boat for our trip. You take a short trip out down the tidal creek into the harbour then on to the point for the seals.





The harbour was as busy as I've ever see it. Apart from the  seal viewing trips there were lots of yachts and a small race going on in the stiff breeze. Within 10 minutes we were at the end of Blakeney point where about 150 seals were pulled out onto the shingle.

The seals are pretty much habituated to the many boats going past, which get to within 10 metres of them. You go up and down the beach 5 or 6 times as the seals, both common and grey, watch you with a certain amount of amusement.




Most of the seals were common seals, who have a round face. The grey seals, as in the photo above, are larger and have a much longer and more pointed nose.





We go out on high tide to get down the creek and the seals are resting on the shingle. One thing they don't like though are kayakers, two of which were just offshore. The seals watched them and a lot did move into the sea.
We were a bit late in the season but a number of terns were still sharing the shingle. Most were sandwich terns, both youngsters and their parents still bringing in fish for them.





Finally we left the seals to the next set of boats coming in with their eager tourists.

We moved along the coast to Titchwell which was really quiet on the wildlife front but rammed with happy holidaymakers. A family of bearded tits were showing well on the mud

and a bedstraw hawkmoth trapped overnight was a star near the cafe. This is a very rare moth and the first for the reserve.

Tired but happy we headed back home via the farm shop next to Titchwell which supplied us with apple juice, fish and loads of swallows nesting in their eaves. A very good day!!!