Monday, 19 August 2019

A tale of two waders

I've had a very slow Summer where birding is concerned. I've managed to get out for a few birds, such as a rather nice couple of pied flycatchers in Alexandra Palace.

A week in Cornwall on a family holiday allowed me to catch up with some Cornish choughs and a very distant Cory's shearwater off the Lizard but I missed most of the stars like the Yorkshire little bustard and the mass influx of wood and white-rumped sandpipers.
Never mind, with a very Autumnal feel to the weather there has been a pick up in rarer birds, especially reverse wader migration. I set out early for what is turning into one of the best reserves on the east coast - Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire. I was last there in Spring dipping on the black-winged pratincole so I figured it owed me one. The main target was a buff-breasted sandpiper which had been present for three days. They are nearctic waders, breeding on the American tundra but a small number make it over here every year.
I got to the carpark just before 8. The weather felt more like October than August, with a keen wind and dark cloud. The reserve is a wetland area behind a high seawall. The tide in the wash was high at 9 so the marsh was covered in waders.

Most were dunlins but the supporting cast were black-tailed godwits, ringed plovers, avocets, knot, golden plover, ruff and snipe as well quite a few yellow wagtails.
They mixed up feeding vigorously with flying around when a large gull or heron overflew the mud.
As I made my way along the seawall there was already a small throng gathered.
As well as the buff-breasted sandpiper there was also a long-billed dowitcher (another Yank). This is a long stayer and I had already caught up with it in March. We scanned the flocks many times but no sign of either of the stars. I did manage to pull out two curlew sandpipers in the flock of smallish waders, which were a year tick for me.
They are not easy to ID but once you get your eye in they stand out reasonably well. They are similar in size to the ubiquitous dunlin and both spent most of the time probing the mud for morsels. There are a number of key points to look for though. They have a predominantly white underbelly, compared to the black-belly of the dunlin and a pointed tail. In the photo above you can even see a bit of the reddish blush they get in breeding plumage.
 The plumage on their back is much more scalloped and grey in colour rather than brown, though dunlins can be very variable in this regard. They have a marked eye-stripe and, most of all, a bloody long bill, hence their curlew moniker.
An hour passed and still no sign of the star birds as the crowd grew to I suppose 40 or so spread out along the seawall. A group of 13 spoonbills were present but as normal spent most of their time asleep.

Only once did they take off for a fly around before returning to their daytime roost!
It was now approaching 11 and I had been scanning the marsh for over 2 hours. We had agreed the the buff-breasted sandpiper would most likely be in the grassy area. Although it is a wader it prefers feeding on dryland. Most of this though was a long distance off so we were stuck with trying to find a small bird in long grass at 200 yards distance. One birder who I had been taking to thought he might have had it so we moved along the bank for a better angle but still nothing. Another 15 minutes passed then I got onto a small golden-brown bird in the grass opposite us.

I immediately knew I was onto the BBS but I had to get everyone else onto it. There then followed one of those chaotic couple of minutes as I first tried to explain to my neighbours where it was. "on the far bank behind the large pool". Ok, that worked. "look for the Canada geese". Not quite as good. I didn't dare take my eyes off the bird so I didn't realise there were about 4 groups of geese and I got a barrage of "the ones swimming/ are they facing left/ feeding/ flapping". I refined my directions to "the 3 together, it's between the right hand and middle one". The crowd was now swelling as the radar of other birders picked up on the fact we were onto something. So, new arrivals were further confusing the mix. This also wasn't helped by the fact it was feeding vigorously and kept disappearing into the long grass for minutes at a time. Finally though a core of people got onto it and spread the word and eventually everyone present had it. I even had two people come over and shake my hand for finding it and getting the directions out!

Absolutely appalling photos but this is the bird. Long yellow legs, small in size, very short beak, round head, buff on its breast. It stayed in view for I suppose 15 minutes before dropping out of sight behind the bank. I tried to relocate to get closer to it but it totally vanished, I stayed for another hour but no one managed to get onto it again. I presume it had gone to sleep somewhere. I finally gave up and made my way back home. Good start to the Autumn migration with two good year ticks and another trip to Norfolk this week already booked in. I never did get onto the dowitcher but both birds were seen later on in the day.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Que serin serin

Some birds are seemingly in terminal decline whilst others are potentials for increasing their numbers. Little and cattle egrets and parakeets are clearly in the latter category. Unfortunately there are many more in the former and a lot of them are our farmland birds. One in very steep decline is a classic bird of the British Summer, the turtle dove. Their purring call used to be a common sound on warm Summer evenings. Now they have declined by well over 90% and are absent from most of their old sites. Even 10 years ago they bred in Hertfordshire but now only are only passing through, and even then in small numbers. Many reasons are given from habitat loss and altered farming practice in the UK to hunting pressures on migration. As ever, it will be a combination of all of them driving them close to extinction and going the same way as red-backed shrikes.
One site where you can still almost guarantee them is the Oare Marshes in North Kent. This small reserve has had some cracking birds over the years, including the infamous tufted puffin, seen for 20 minutes  by 7 lucky birders. Near the entrance though is an area of scrubby bushes next to some cottages where a few pairs of turtle doves return every year. With my usual more local spots such as Fowlmere not delivering the goods this year I set out early for a quick visit.
I got there by 7.30 or so having driven through some torrential rain. Fortunately, the sun was weakly poking through the clouds and it was dry there. I parked up and had a quick coffee and walked the short distance to the cottages. The doves are often seen on the roof or the adjacent telephone wires. After 15 minutes scanning though there was no sign, or sound, of them. I started to walk back towards the car to have a bit of breakfast when I glanced across into the hedgerow. There sitting staring at me was a beautiful turtle dove!

It was no more than 10 yards away, really close for a normally shy bird. We eyeballed each other for just long enough for me to get off a couple of grabbed photos before it fluttered off into the recesses of the bush.
After that they all seemed to wake up a bit and I got good views of two or three chasing each other around the adjacent farmland. They also started calling, their characteristic purring call echoing out from the bushes and trees. One even started calling from a tall tree nearby but was soon moved on by a local pigeon!
Elsewhere the bushes were alive with small passerines many clearly feeding young, as with these common whitethroats.

Normally I would then go round the marsh and the estuary but it felt quite quiet and I had another target to go for and I didn't trust the weather to hold out. I set out for south Kent near Dungeness. Here, a bird which may end up becoming more common had been holding territory for a week or so. This was a serin, a relatively common breeding bird on the Continent but a rare visitor here. It took me about an hour to cross Kent in rush hour and I arrived outside Littlesea golf club just as the heavens opened. I parked by its favourite stand of pine trees and waited for the rain to pass. Almost as soon as it had and I got out of the car I could hear the distinctive rattling song coming from high up in the tree.

It was a male bird, singing and claiming territory but without success as no females were around. If the movement of some birds northwards continues it may be that in years to come it may have more success.
I watched for about 30 minutes and it was singing almost constantly and occasionally came down to the lower branches where you could see it gorgeous lemon-yellow plumage.

Finally with the weather turning again I was driven back into the car and decided to call it a day. The drive back was quite long with the rain slowing everything up but I didn't mind too much. Seeing turtle doves always makes it a good day and a singing serin added the cherry on top. Up to 235 for the year, pretty much in line with my best ever even without Scotland!

Monday, 10 June 2019

A two-shrike day

It's now well into June and I still haven't had a lifer yet. Last year I had, by this time, got Ross's gull, snowy owl, white-winged black scoter, Savi's warbler, green heron, American bittern and white stork. This morning there were two potential targets on offer - a black-headed bunting in Flamborough and a lesser grey shrike in Horsey. After a quick conversation with Lee the night before we decided on the shrike as it had a better back-up cast and was closer! The weather forecast was dire though and I had an early start, picking up Lee and Tony first.
By 7.30 or so we were pulling up to the end of the track leading to the field where the shrike was seen the night before. Fortunately the weather, despite drenching it down during the journey, had cleared to be just being dull and cold but dry. It was a fairly short walk down the track to where we could see a small herd of cows by a fence. Perched on top of it was greyish bird darting down onto the grass to grab breakfast before returning to its perch.

Lesser greys are closely related to our more common grey shrike. They should be in southern Europe but you get one or two most years overshooting during the Summer. They are becoming much less common compared to twenty years ago. This one has a beautiful crimson tinge to its plumage making it a full adult together with its piratical eye-stripe.
This one spent the 30 minutes we were watching it feeding off the bushes and fence line but was quite wary.

Certainly whilst we were there it kept its distance and would fly from one corner to the other of the field. Good start to the day though, a lifer in the bag finally.....
With the weather still holding out we set off for our next target, another shrike. This one was female woodchat shrike 30 minutes down the coast at Kessingland. We had rough directions for the bird but once we got onto the beach where it was last seen we struggled to make sense of them. Fortunately a local birder managed to put us right and we finally connected with it sitting in the scrub on the under cliff.

This is a female but is much more strongly marked than the lesser grey. The bold brown cap stood out very well. Like its cousin from before it was feeding voraciously, flitting from bush to ground and back again.

Again it was wary but it let us get a bit closer before diving off to another bush. By now the weather was starting to turn and the rain was setting in. The happy trio set off back to the car by which time it was drenching it down.
We did have one last target before heading back, a quail. This had been seen and heard at Hazlewood common further down the coast. I had been here before for Arctic redpoll so it looked reasonably familiar. This time the field was full of pea plants rather than stubble. We found another local who had just heard the quail calling. We stood by a bush in the rain and finally heard the "wet-my-lips" call coming almost from beneath our feet. Quail are notoriously hard to see and so this one proved. For 10 minutes it called and we were standing on it but you just could not see it, even in short grass. Finally though it gave up and flew out of the cover into the next-door pea field. By now very wet but very satisfied we retired to the car for coffee and sandwiches before trekking back home. We got away with the weather  and saw all 3 of our targets. The Flamborough bunting was no show so we made the right call as well. Finally off the mark on the lifer front but still a lot more to get hopefully.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Put him in irons

I'm not having much luck since I got back from holiday. I know it's my own fault for not going immediately a good bird is seen but I've got away with it a few times in other years. Since getting back, I've gone for the great-spotted cuckoo on the day after it was last seen after a long stay, and the same for the red-spotted bluethroat. I tried again today for the broad-billed sandpiper, a lifer, which had been showing well on the Orford estuary in Suffolk. It was there  very late evening the previous day so I was quite hopeful. As I got into the car-park just after 7 though two birders were already leaving - no show. I stayed for an hour or so with 4 or 5 other other hopefuls but there was only a small flock of dunlin and ringed plovers on the falling tide. Gone overnight! I really must make more effort to go when birds are there and not leave it!
Anyway, I was in Suffolk and Minsmere was only 20 minutes up the coast. First stop was Dunwich Heath on the north of there reserve. An Iberian chiffchaff has been in residence (see a pattern developing here!) for a few weeks, singing in the bushes near the car park. This is quite a rare bird, though getting commoner, partly as people get more used to the subtle variations in song. They are almost impossible to tell from common chiffchaffs on plumage alone. This time I managed to be a bit luckier. Almost as soon as I got down from the car-park ridge I could hear the song, like a variation of a chiffchaff but with more complexity in it. It even showed a few times as it made circuits in the sallows.

As you can see from the photos it is wearing a bit of leg jewellery. One of the locals informed me that it had been ringed that very morning after being caught in the mist nets. Good job it didn't get spooked and decide to decamp elsewhere.
Apart from this the main reserve at Minsmere was very busy with nesting gulls and terns, including little terns which were a year-tick. Oner thing of interest was that a small colony of kittiwakes have taken up residence on the scrape and are ground-nesting. This is very unusual as they normally frequent high cliffs.

In the last photo they are pitot-bombed by a lesser black-backed gull which has stolen a chick! I did try for the two Savi's warblers behind Island Mere hide but they normally only sing early or late and so, guess what, I dipped again!!
My last stop was for the stone curlews on the heath behind the reserve. The weather was starting to take a turn for the worst and as I got there the rain spots were beginning to fall. Myself and two others managed to spot up to 4 birds from the bridle-path crossing the heath, including a group of 3 displaying and calling.

The call is an almost banshee-like wail, very unusual!
Finally the heavens opened and the grey skies told me it was time to leave. Two more year ticks but a shame I missed the sandpiper! Still no lifers at all this year which is appalling seeing as it is now into June.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

A consolation prize

I set off very early in  the morning with the idea of seeing a red-spotted bluethroat. This is a rare Siberian vagrant but there have been decent numbers over here this Spring. This one had been singing its little heart out near Weybourne in Norfolk for a couple of days. It was still present early evening the day before so I figured it had a reasonable chance of hanging on. I got to the car park about 7.15 and yomped along the cliff path where the bales of hay and an old pill-box were. Two birders, including local celebrity birder Penny Clarke, were already there. Well, one of them was leaving as the bird had not been since dawn! I hung around for an hour or so with Penny but it had clearly done an overnight flit. This is only about a mile away from where I dipped the greater-spotted cuckoo last week so this bit of coastline is not doing me any favours.
There wasn't a lot else of rarity value around so I mooched along the coast for a bit hoping it or something else might get found. Eventually my phone alert went off with something to get the interest levels up. Two black-winged stilts at Wells. They were at the same pools where I had seen the wood sandpipers last week so I knew the location and headed straight off, luckily getting one of the last car parking spots.
There were already 20 or so people on site and I headed off to join threm. The stilts were showing very well.

They are a true pair - the male is in the upper photo. It had a much darker back and a set of head and face markings. The female in the lower photo has an almost brown back and a clean white head.
They were mainly feeding away on the marsh but the locals, especially the avocets who had chicks, were not so keen.

 Although they kept getting moved on they never went very far. Stilts used to be very rare birds in the UK but have been moving North with the changing climate. In recent years they have bred successfully in the UK and with this being a true pair you must hope they will settle down here. They certainly are going to be trying as at one point the male mated with the female.

 Mostly though they were pulling insects off the surface of the water and feeding.

With a long journey ahead of me going back home I left them to have a post prandial snooze (them not me). Looking at posts later they hung around till about 6 then flew further long the coast to Holme where they spent the early evening. Hopefully they will find somewhere to nest but they do need to keep away form existing colonies I think!