Thursday, 15 February 2018

Much standing in the marsh

Although the year started off pretty well I've been having a bit of a shocker recently, missing more stuff than I've been seeing and my year list has stalled quite dramatically. So, with a day off in lieu from last week I headed for two targets on the south coast. One was in theory easy, the other was promising to be a bit tricky.
The first target was a black guillemot which has taken up winter residence in Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne. These are birds you normally associate with rugged cliffs or edgy working harbours in the far north of Scotland. Occasionally though one decides to glam it up a bit down south and this one had certainly gone all out for luxury. For a few weeks now it has been living in the very upmarket  harbour at Eastbourne, surrounded by expensive yachts, even more expensive apartments and waterside brasseries!

The traffic was good and I got to the harbour just after dawn. No one was around apart from a few dog walkers. I walked up and down the assembled boats for about 15 minutes without seeing anything apart from a few cormorants. Eventually I spotted a smaller bird fishing near one of the yachts.

This was the black guillemot. For most of the winter it has been in a juvenile spotty grey plumage but it is now starting to get into its breeding finery, with a bold white wing bar.
You can just a out make this out here, along with it's breakfast which it has just caught. Apparently if you hang around it does come ridiculously close but I had other fish to fry and the word on the web was this could a long wait so I headed off.
My second stop was only 10 minutes drive away, a small wetland, marshy area on the outskirts of Eastbourne. A bluethroat had been spotted there a couple of weeks back. All the info on the web said two things though. One, you absolutely needed wellingtons to get to see it. Two, it was very shy bird and a long wait could ensue. Well, on the first bit they were not wrong. It was only about a 15 minute walk to the designated area of the reed bed but you were up to your ankles in mud most of the way! When I got there two other birders were already there. One was a very rare sight at twitches - a woman and not only that under 40 years old! She was relatively new to birding but lived locally and so had taken a day off to twitch the bluethroat. The three of us staked out what we thought was the right area and waited.
I became very familiar with this view over the rest of the day. It was really quiet, nothing much else around apart from a couple of reed buntings and stonechats. By about 10.30, and I got there at 9, four more birders had turned up who confirmed we were in the right place. Of the bluethroat though, no sign. They are gorgeous birds, roughly robin sized or a bit bigger, with a lovely blue throat patch with in this case a white spot in the middle.
About 11 one of our group called out "its showing, edge of the reeds". By the time we turned round though it had gone back in! Only the one bloke saw it, but at least it was there. By 12 our numbers had swollen to about a dozen and we had spread out a bit to cover other bits of the marsh. Some came and went and the crowd thinned a bit. The original bloke had cleared off but the female birder was sticking it out. I tried down the side of the marsh and got a bit excited by a couple of stonechats but saw nothing like the bluethroat. With me about 100 yards way I saw the group all move together and point their bins at one patch. I scarpered down but got the same message. One bloke had seen it and then it disappeared again. I was starting to get a bit depressed now but I was determined to keep positive and to stick it out. I stood with the group and we all chatted about exploits past!
Finally, at about 1.40, so almost 5 hours after I got there it decided to play ball. It hopped almost out into the open on the right of the photo above. It only stayed out though for I guess two minutes, not helped by two guys rushing round to get a better view and spooking it back in. Still, we all had a good enough to see the eye-stripe and the colouration on its throat to make it a definite view.
I stuck it out till about 2.30 but it hadn't shown again so I called it day and headed off.
The journey home was a nightmare. First the M23 was closed so I kept going down the coast and looped up to Guildford. Then they closed the A3 for a fuel spillage so I had to keep going sideways to pick up the M3. By the time I got to the M25 it was a car park. It took me just under two hours to get there and almost 4 hours to get back!! Still, a good day and at least it wasn't raining. Year list back under way but I still have a lot of catching up to do if I'm to beat last years total.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Winter gull-fest

This winter is still carrying on being really flat as far as birding is concerned. The weather is not bringing anything new in, so another Friday off was dedicated to catching up with some Winter specials I've not got to yet. I've not been to Kent yet this year, so another early start got me to Dungeness just after dawn.
In some ways it is a very bleak place - a nuclear power station and a long shingle beach. It is also really atmospheric and is a great migrant trap for birds. At this time of year it is really good for gulls which hang around the fishing boats. The boats are there because of the fish, which are encouraged to hang around because of the hot water pouring out of the nuclear power station at "the patch". This attracts thousands of gulls at the right time. Today though there were a few hundred gulls hanging about at the overflow.

This was my first stop because a glaucous gull has been hanging around here. They are classic winter gulls. Breeding in the arctic they move down south in the winter and a small number make their way to the south coast. They are big brutes of a bird - as large as a greater black-backed gull but with a washed out plumage. When I walked down to the hide overlooking the outflow there were a lot of birds around, on the sea, on the beach and in the nuclear power station as well. What could have been a long job though was made quite easy as the glaucous was mooching around on the beach below me.
Even in this long range shot you can see it stands out - large and almost lacking any distinct plumage compared to the gulls around it.

As I got a bit closer you can see what makes it different. It is a member of what are called "white-winged" gulls. Look at the other gulls and the end of their wings (primaries) have dark feathers. The glaucous doesn't, it is pale all the way through, as is the rest of its plumage. For a large gull it also has a delicate look to it, unlike the greater black-backs who look a bit aggressive....
After that I moved onto an even trickier target in the gull world - a caspian gull. These are closely related to herring gulls and are a bit of a specialist subject. In many plumages they are VERY difficult to separate. Dungeness though has a 1st winter bird hanging around and they are a bit easier to pull out. You are still poking for subtle differences amongst many other birds. Fortunately when I was at the glaucous one of the locals turned up and gave me some pointers for where I could find it. So, I headed for the beach and the fishing boats pulled up on it. A few turnstones were around to keep me interested initially.

Problem though was that one of the boats was just off the beach cleaning their catch and all the gulls were around them not on the beach where you could study them.

 The boat did come into the beach to land its catch and the gulls dispersed inland to clean and have a rest. As the flock came together you could study them and try and find the caspian. You are looking for a juvenile large gull, so brownish overall and there were quite a few of them.

Flying around is too much for me to identify them though so I waited till they came to ground. Finally I found what I wanted.

This is the madness of laridology. In the photo above the caspian stands out if you know what you are looking for. Only one of them is a juvenile gull that has a stand-out totally white head.
Unlike the glaucous gull this has dark primaries but look at that head. No colour on it at all.
Occasionally it stood up and you can see another key feature - it has REALLY long legs. Also you need to look at that almost shawl-like plumage on its neck.
It has very long wings as well, and better people than me could comment on other plumage features here but I've had it confirmed that this is the real-deal.
One thing for certain it that is has a very large gape!!!
After that I moved to move to the RSPB reserve and got two more nice birds. The first was a slavonian grebe on the pit by the main road. Unfortunately you can't stop there so I couldn't get any photos!! The tree sparrows on the feeders at Boulderwall farm though were a bit easier to photograph.

Finally I went down to Scotney gravel pits, about a couple of miles away. There is a large flock of feral barnacle geese there
but what I was after was a pair of bean geese.  They were really tricky though, as they were in the greylag goose flock, and all of them were asleep. I waited about 45 minutes and got a couple of decent views of them - dark beak , orange-legs but not enough for a photo.
Finally gave up on a better view and headed home. Six new year ticks in closing peregrine in the power station. I'd still like to get a sniff of a lifer soon though but I'm not complaining, well, not too much!!!

Monday, 29 January 2018

Winter flocks

With a task to do this afternoon, I didn't have time to go out and do a long distance twitch. Herts bird club did put up though that there was a reasonable sized flock of brambling in a field near Bramfield, which also has hawfinches in the churchyard.A local trip out seemed like the order of the day therefore. Despite awful traffic getting past St. Albans I got to Bramfield about 8.30. It wasn't totally clear where the field was but I drove down what seemed the right one and I did come across Bramfield wood and a set-aside field opposite it.

It was actually a scrubby field with old brassicas and weeds growing in it - ideal habitat for finch flocks!!! After a quick coffee I wandered into the field. It was initially quite quiet and I wondered if I had the right field. Eventually though you started to see a few small birds flying around. Finally a small flock lifted out of the field and settled in a tree a couple of hundred yards away on the far side. Through my bins I could see a lot were linnets but you could also see the distinctive patterns of both male and female brambling mixed in with them.

Male brambling have a smart black/ grey head, like a few in the middle photo. Females are more like a washed-out chaffinch, in this lower photo. I spent about an hour there, but the flock was always very skittish, not helped by the wind and a couple of dog walkers and they never really settled for any better photos. A judicious application of bird seed might help if you really wanted close-ups!! I did find a few yellowhammers mixed in as well to add to the year list.
After that I moved the mile or so to the church in the village. I did go here in the first week of January to get the hawfinches but a combination of bonfires and torn g wind meant I got really poor views. This time I had the churchyard pretty much to myself but the birds still didn't want to play ball. Initially all I got was a nuthatch staking out his territory from a suitable nest hole in one of the trees.

Finally a larger bird alighted in one of the pollarded trees and you could see it was a female hawfinch. Look at the size of that beak! No wonder they are likened to mini parrots!!!

I eventually got about 5 or 6 flying around but they never settled in view. Still , nice to see them carrying on with their influx this Winter. Would be great if some decided to stay and nest locally.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Birding from dawn to dusk

Rather than do a long distance twitch today, I decided to go local and see what I could find. First up was a trip out to Cassiobury Park in Watford for a little owl which has taken up residence in an oak tree. I left early as the light was coming up hoping to avoid the crowds in the park!The directions were not that precise, but I got to to the car park and headed down towards a couple of likely looking oak trees near the cafe.

I was lucky. In the slightly gloomy early morning light I could see a small greyish shape sitting out in the branches.

Little owls are the most diurnal of all the owls, and even though this one wasn't hunting by the daylight it was quite happy to just sit there whilst this strange man lurked about near its tree. I spent about an hour with it, whilst the assorted dog walkers passed by. The light was awful most of the time but the owl was sitting so still I could slow the shutter speed down to 1/60 to keep the ISO low. I was pretty pleased with the outcome.

After the owl I went home for a warming coffee then headed out to Maple Lodge. It was really quiet there although the clubhouse was full up with retired gentlemen having tea and biscuits!! The only thing I spotted was this mallard having a great wash from Teal hide, ending up with its feet in the air at times.

A friendly robin also kept me company.

I was heading to the exit for a cup of tea when I checked my phone. Top of the list was horned lark at Staines Reservoir. This was another old friend, having been around in early December but then disappeared. We know its the same bird as it is not our commoner race but the rarer American race. Anyway, it was now heading towards late afternoon so I hurried up and sped round the M25 to get to the reservoir. As I was walking up though Dom Pia (aka reservoir dom) the finder was leaving. The bird had been spooked by a peregrine and disappeared. Now Staines is a giant place and you can lose a small bird very easily. For the next 20 minutes or so about 6 or us staked out the causeway but only a few linnets and meadow pipits kept us interested. Then, a birder about a 100 yards away actually rang one of us, rather than shouting, to say he had it. Cue a rather amusing dash by old-enough-to-know-better birders down to him .

The bird was in the gravel below us, but it was some distance and the light was poor. Horned larks, or shore larks as we also know them, are really cryptically camouflaged and can vanish in the pebbles.
It wa quite happy though and started feeding amongst the pebbles.

It has a gorgeous yellow bib and an almost piratical look to it. I lasted about 30 minutes with it before the light really started to fade and I headed back round the M25 for my cup of tea. Really nice surprise that though you have to wonder where it has been for those weeks it disappeared.