Monday, 23 April 2018

Look closely, you never know what might be around.

The spring migration is now really under way. Most of the migrants are crossing the channel and heading towards their breeding grounds. There are a few long stayers though that are clinging on. Today I decided to try and go for one of each.
The first stop was at Farlington marshes for a Savi's warbler, a classic spring migrant. Though they appear every year they do not breed regularly in the UK. This would be a lifer for me. It's also a bit of a bogey bird as I have dipped on them 3 times so far, twice at Minsmere alone! An early start got me to the reserve just after 7.15. It is a marshy area on the coast near Portsmouth and I have been there quite a few times before. I had got some good info as well about where the bird is normally seen to help out as they are notoriously skulky birds.

This is the area of reeds where it is normally seen, or more precisely normally heard. Almost immediately you could hear it singing, a rattling call likened to a fast fishing reel. Myself and the 3 other birders on site scanned the reeds and discounted the assorted reed and sedge warblers. After 15 minutes though we got onto a bird low down in the reeds which opened its beak and gave the characteristic song. Lifer in the bag and it wasn't even 8 in the morning!!! I stayed for another hour but although it called frequently we didn't see it again. So, I called it a day, and with another car-less birder who tagged along, Geoff,  we set off for Longham Lakes for a long-staying Bonapartes gull. This bird has been hanging around the south coast since late Winter and has now grown into a lovely summer plumaged bird. It is a small gull, superficially like our black-headed gulls.
It took us just under an hour to get to the lakes, two small inland gravel pits near Bournemouth. The first thing we saw was a large sized flock of swallows, martins and swifts, the latter being the first I have seen this year, which was nice.

Now, if you were walking along you local lake and you saw either of these two photos would you give them a second thought. Just a black-headed gull and a few tufted ducks. Well, you would be wrong in both cases and it shows why you should always look closely. The gull is the Bonapartes, and I will go into more detail on how it is different but look at that duck on the bottom right. No tuft, light back not dark, its a gorgeous male scaup which has been hanging around here for a few days.
The Bonapartes is quite easy to ID if you look closely, especially in this plumage.

Firstly, when it is sitting on the water look at the head. The hood is dark charcoal rather than the dark brown of a black-headed gull (yes, I know!!). They also have a lovely white ring top and bottom of their eye.
Fortunately for us, but not for it, the locals didn't seem to like it and kept aggressively chasing it so we could see it in flight. Here, it is a bit more delicate and smaller with a more floaty flight and has orange feet

The wings have a few points to look for. There is a white wedge on the leading edge and a narrow black band on the trailing edge. 

We watched it for 30 minutes whilst we had our sandwiches and it tried to fend off the attacks from the locals. Quite why it has hung on for so long I don't know as it's clearly not welcome!!
We finally stopped off at Acres Down on our way back which was quite quiet but a solitary tree pipit was another year tick.
That now takes me to 208 for the year, the best April total bar one and one more week to go. Also, takes my life total to 374 (uk400) or 364 (BOU). Spring has only just started so lets hope for a few nice mega's dropping in soon. 

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Is it or isn't it??

ADDENDUM: despite it being a lovely bird, it has since been determined that this is an aberrant chiffchaff, not an Iberian one!
Some birds are easy to identify in the UK, say a grey heron or a mallard duck. Some can get a bit trickier and can cause confusion amongst those who are not so experienced, say song and mistle thrushes. Then you get to the real tricky ones to separateand a classic example popped up just outside Oxford.
Chiffchaffs are one of our commoner summer migrants and their onomatapoeic call (chiff-chaff chiff-chaff) is heard a lot in the woodlands and hedgerows at the moment. They do however have a close cousin that lives in souther Europe, the Iberian chiffchaff, which occurs infrequently in the UK. They are very closely related but are separate species. To tell the difference though is really hard. Visually they are subtly different, and the main diagnostic is on their calls. The problem is that our common chiffchaffs migrate back to the UK through the Iberians territories in Spain and can pick up phrases from them. They can also hybridise. It can also happen in the other direction, so even call can mean you are never totally sure what is going on.
This one however was being touted as the real thing so I headed out early in the morning down the M40. The site was apparently in the golf club car park. I wondered whether there might be some jobsworths stopping you park, but I needn't have worried. It was totally open to the public to park in.
As soon as I stopped and opened the car door I heard a very unusual bird song.

Iberian Chiffchaff song?

It was coming from a stand of trees not 20 yards away and there were two other birders standing looking at it. No need for my 'scope so I grabbed my bins and camera and scuttled down a bank to join them.
I immediately got onto the bird, flitting around in the tops seeming to keep singing and flycatching at the same time.

It had a very definite pattern moving between the trees close to us and then further away to a large oak which had no leaves. It was singing all the time.

Longer song of Iberian chiffchaff

The photos show a bird which is certainly a chiffchaff but may be a bit too dull for Iberian. Light and natural variation though mean the two overlap and none of the shots are definitive. Certainly whilst I was listening to it, over probably 30-40 minute its song was pretty pure Iberian and never sounded common chiffchaff. It is one? Who knows? It will probably go down as one of those where you decide for yourself but I was pretty happy.

Monday, 16 April 2018

It all adders up!

Spring finally seems to have arrived on these shores with a bit of warmth finally percolating through the rain and gloom. With it also being Judith's birthday last week we decided to take a day off and go to Suffolk. No real targets or rarities just fancied a nice potter out in the sunshine and a spot of lunch by the coast. We left not ridiculously early and pulled into the car park at Minsmere just before they opened the centre at 9.
This is rapidly turning into one of our favourite reserves. Hardly surprising as it is one of the RSPB's premier sites although there were very few cars there when we arrived. A short stop in the centre and we were out into the reserve.
Minsmere for those who don't know it is a large area of reedbed on the coast, with a series of scrapes or shallow lagoons in the middle. This is a very good area for nesting birds especially black-headed gulls. It is all overlooked by Sizewell B power station in the distance!!!

Before we got to the scrapes though we walked past the sandy bank behind the visitor centre. This is normally a very good area for sand martins nesting but last year for whatever reason they moved to nest on the cliffs nearby preferring a seaview I suppose! It is still a bit early for them to have decided this year where to go but there was a flock of around 30 birds flying around but it wasn't clear whether they were just feeding as they rapidly headed away and over the marsh. They certainly weren't hanging around and neither were we.
The scrape was covered in gulls. There must have been hundreds of gulls, mainly black-headed, starting to nest and pair up. The noise was incredible. They were joined by 20 or so mediterranean gulls and a few sandwich terns as well.
As the weather was fine and warm though we wanted to head up to the heath. As well as birds Minsmere is a hot spot for adders. They are in decline now in the UK especially outside of the heathlands where they are mostly found. Minsmere has an area where you can catch up with them basking out in the open and this is where we headed for.
As we got close you could see a small crowd, well 4 or 5 people, standing behind a rope and staring avidly a the ground. When we got there the very helpful lady from the RSPB directed us to a pile of leaves where a small male adder was basking.
As you can see, not easy to pick out. It was controlling its temperature by moving in and out of the sun and shade under the leaves.

The RSPB lady was good at explaining things about it. Firstly, if you look at its eye it looks a bit "milky". That is because it is going through one of the periodic episodes where it sheds it ski in order to grow. The milky part is where the membrane covering the eye has detached prior to shedding. Also, they do tend to keep their heads under leaves when in direct sun, not to stop getting hot but as sunglasses to stop themselves getting blinded.

Eventually it came out into the open a bit more and you could see all of it. It was quite small, only perhaps 18 inches long and as thick as your thumb but the patterns are stunning. Totally different to the commoner and larger grass snake.
We eventually left it in peace and explored the rest of the reserve where we did manage to catch  decent view of the stone curlews nesting just outside the reserve but no good photos. We finished the day off with an excellent fish and chip lunch on the pier at Southwold.
Nice to be out with the sun on your back for a change and it should be set fair for a few days now so being on those Spring migrants!!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Hare today...

One of the "targets" for when we were up in Scotland was to photograph  mountain hares. We have seen them before and knew of a couple of good areas for them but we didn't have good photos. With Wendy and Michael having been up there two weeks earlier and providing us with accurate location info we set out on our first full day to target them. Fortunately the weather was incredibly kind to us and we had sun most of the morning.
The area we went to was the Findhorn Valley. This is normally a location for seeing raptors, especially eagles. You reach it quite easily from Aviemore, with a very scenic drive along the valley. Eventually the road runs out and you have a  choice of two car parks - the far one to take a walk down the valley and look for raptors, or the near one to walk up the valley side and look for hares. We chose the latter one.
This area is known as being good for hares for the main reason that they are not shot here. On many of the surrounding estates the gamekeepers slaughter them in astounding numbers in a pretence of protecting the massively overstocked grouse populations from a virus carried by the hares. In practice of course they are trying to protect the income from shooting parties!! Hares are not the only targets and anything that may compete is also killed, hence the strange and frequent disappearances of golden eagles and hen harriers over grouse moors.
There was only one other car in the carpark when we put on our boots and loaded up our rucksacks to walk up the mountain side. Its actually an easy walk, along a track up the side of the hill going firstly through the valley then up the moor and finally onto the ridge line. There was still a bit of snow around on the higher ground as we walked up.
With Easter being so early it was very quiet - no songbirds to speak of apart from the odd meadow pipit - but we did see a couple of golden eagles in the far distance, way too far off to photograph though.
Finally we got the snow line and started seeking our target.

The hares are in the process of changing from their white winter coats into a browner summer pelt. It did mean that they stood out quite well which was how we saw the first one hunkered down into the heather.

This one was on its though and despite my best efforts at stalking it hopped off over the ridge line. We carried on up the mountain though and got to where the snow was a lot thicker. This turned out to be hare central. There were literally dozens of them pottering around on the moorland, feeding on the heather and chasing each other around.

We then spent an absolutely magical hour or so with the hares. They are very tolerant of people letting you get to within a few yards of them. Apparently the trick is not to be quiet but to talk to the hares as you approach them - we even tried singing to them!!! They don't like being surprised. I don't know if it really works but they were certainly very relaxed with us around.

One hare particularly let us get to almost within touching distance of it with two giant photographers looming over it!!!

It was interesting to study them as well You can see how they are so well adapted to life up in the snow, with really long hind legs for keeping them from sinking in.
Eventually the weather started to change and we left the hares to get on with their feeding and pre-mating rituals. A stunning day and amazingly we were pretty much the only people up there to share it. Definitely something we will be doing again.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Heading North

Every Spring, or rather every Easter which for obscure religious reasons moves around a lot, we head up to Scotland for a week. This Easter is really early and so the weather was always going to be challenging with the forecast being more Winter than Spring. We started off this year with an overnight stay in Northumberland before pushing on to cross the border. We stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms, which I can heartily recommend as being comfortable, having good food and more importantly has dippers in their back garden!
The hotel is on the Northumberland moors in a small village. As soon as we had checked in I got the boots on and headed out to cross the bridge next to the property and walk down the small stream. It looked perfect for dippers, small, fast flowing and on high moors. I wasn't disappointed. Within about  a minute I heard the characteristic call and saw a small brown blob flash down the middle of the stream and land on the far bank.

Dippers are one of my favourite birds. They have that indescribable ability to look characterful. For those less familiar with them, they have an almost unique lifestyle, living on rivers and feeding underwater by finding aquatic insets to eat. You normally see them though bobbing up and down on rocks in the middle of the flow, their white bib showing them up from some distance away.

There was at least one pair of this stretch, as they kept chasing each other up and down, some of the behaviour seeming aggressive, some a bit more like pair bonding. They were certainly always busy flicking up and down the banks.

The last thing to point out about dippers is their normally hidden side. When they go under water they  have a special white eyelid which comes across their eyes. This is termed a nictitating membrane, and strangely no one seems to know what it is for. Even more remarkable, this eyelid is covered in tiny white feathers!

Anyway, the weather was setting in and I needed to get back before our evening meal so I left the dipper sitting on a rock waving me goodbye before we set off for Speyside in the morning.