Friday, 15 September 2017

The least shall be first

Autumn and the constant stream of Atlantic low pressure systems continues to keep giving. This type of weather can drag across rare birds from the America's and we have already seen quite a few - some I've managed to connect with like the long-billed dowitcher, others I've missed, like the yellow warbler. This weeks stars are down in Dorset. In midweek a juvenile stilt sandpiper was seen at Lodmoor. The is a pretty rare "Yank" wader I've seen once before, coincidentally at Lodmoor three years ago. The usual suspects headed down and lightning did strike twice. A little stint which had been present for a couple of days was looked at a bit closer and suddenly became a very similar and very rare least sandpiper! With my Friday non-work day arriving it was a no-brainer, 4.20 alarm, feed some confused cats and hit the road. By 7.15 I was parking at Lodmoor, a really good reserve on the outskirts of Weymouth which punches way above its size on rarities.






































It is a nice compact reserve, reed-beds in the middle with lots of nice marshy edges for waders. There were quite a few other birders wandering around early-doors trying to find the stars of the show. A vey brief and distant view of the stilt sandpiper helped the mood then the word went out that the least sandpiper was showing from the "viewing shelter", an open hide on the north edge of the reserve.
Least sandpipers are tiny birds, as you can see from this uncropped shot above!
Once you get it's a tiny wader, like a little stint, this shot, although still distant shows you why people re-assigned it as a least sandpiper - little stint have black legs, least sandpipers have green/ yellow ones like this!!! For I suppose 30 minutes around 10-15 birders watched it feed on the marsh edge, sometimes coming a bit closer but never that near.



It was a very smart bird, beautifully clean and white belly with a mottled back and a medium-sized, slightly down-curved bill - larger again than a stint. We barely even noticed the great white egret pottering about near it, a bird that even 5 years ago would have produced a twitch on it's own but now  is a breeding resident in increasing numbers.
 Suddenly, two other waders flew in on our right and we immediately saw one was unusual: "stilt sand" went up the cry.
It is the bird on the right, with a common redshank as a friend. It only stayed for about 15 seconds before flying off but we saw it land, in an area with good viewing, so a mass gathering of optical gear ensued followed by a rapid march to the western edge of the reserve.

After a few minutes of scanning we found it amongst a small flock of gulls. Photo conditions weren't good at it was into the sun, but it was reasonably close.




So what makes this a stilt sandpiper. Well, it does have really long legs for a start, which are yellow in colour. In size it is about a redshank but wades in very deep water with those long legs. It has a medium-length bill, very slightly down curved, a clear eye-stripe under a brownish cap and a mottled chest.

It you get it end-on it also has a vey tin-profile, not fat and rounded like many waders.

This video hopefully will give you a better ode of the total jizz of the bird.


Two good ticks therefore, one a lifer and it was only 9.30 in the morning.
Next stop was Portland. I hoped to see a third rare Yank wader - buff-bellied sandpiper - but it had done a disappearing trick, so I tried the quarry at the bill for a wryneck.
These are small woodpeckers, classic Autumnal migrants, and this has been a good year for them. They are notoriously skulky birds though, so I thought it might be a long wait (Martin had dipped on Sunday despite spending an hour or more looking for it!). Fortunately I totally jammed in on it. Three blokes were on the edge of the quarry and pointed me straight onto it, sitting on a rock at the back of the quarry.

It is there honest, can you see it?? I said they were skulky!!! It then disappeared for 15 minutes or so before flying across the quarry and feeding in some long grass. 
As I said, they are a nightmare to see, and it is in the photo above, feeding on ants and insects in the grass.


On the times it did show you could see why they are so hard to see - their plumage is really cryptic and gives great camouflage. They are incredibly smart birds. It never showed any better and went into deeper cover so I left it and headed back home via lunch at my mother-in-laws. One last stop though was Staines reservoir again, which continues with its purple patch of rare waders. This time a grey phalarope on the North basin. 
 In the photo above it's just to the right of the gull - another small bird at great distance. Some time this Autumn I'd really like to get a bird close and with the sun behind me, but hey, I'm not complaining with the quality around.

Like the red-necked phalarope earlier this year this is a wader that doesn't wade - it feeds on the surface of the water, as this one was doing. There are 3 phalaropes which visit this country - Wilsons, which is rare and has a really long, thin beak, red-necked and grey. The latter two are hard to tell apart out of breeding plumage and you have to look for subtle differences such as bill thickness. 
By the time I'd finished that was 4 new year ticks. That takes me to 256 which is now my highest year total so with over 3 months to go I should be able to get a really solid total. Bring it on!! 





Monday, 11 September 2017

Distant memories

Another Monday and another chance to catch up on the Autumn bird fest. As I asked for in my last post, this time there was a lifer on offer. The bird in question was a first winter citrine wagtail. A bit of a connoisseurs bird this one. In full breeding plumage a very smart yellow and grey/ black bird, like a grey wagtail but with a brilliant yellow head. First summers though are quite dull grey and can be hard to tell apart from their pied, grey or yellow cousins. They are rare in the UK, not mega but often under reported and outside of the far north often one-day wonders. It is also quite close to the top of my wanted list for birds seen by other people but not me!!
So, when one popped up in Minsmere on the Suffolk coast on Saturday and was still there on Sunday I knew what Monday morning had in store. If you leave early it's an easy drive and I was in the car-park just after 7.30. Even better the phone alerted to me the fact that it had already been seen at 6.45. This was doubly good. First, it hadn't done an overnight flit. Second, it had been seen from any one of three hides, all of which were some distance apart. This time, it was from the East hide, closest to the beach so a swift 15 minute walk got me there. Surprisingly I was on my lonesome though. On Sunday, the RSPB put out a tweet saying the hide was full and people were queuing to get in: I had it to my myself.

















The East scrape is an area of shallow lagoons and islands. It was clear there were a lot of birds there - both godwits, avocet, ruff, dunlin, ringed plover, spotted and common redshank and lots of ducks. Also, you could see quite a few wagtails but most of them were right at the back of the scrape - on the right hand side of the bund in the lower photo. Still, with my 'scope I gave them all a good going over and fortunately within a few minutes I got onto the bird - mainly grey on the back, lighter underneath and with very defined wing-bars. It's facial markings were very plain as well and no sign of a black bib. By now, a few other birders were arriving and after losing it for about 20 minutes we did get it a bit closer and could see if feeding in the long grass in front of the hide. It never exactly showed well, but well enough to be totally happy with the ID and to claim a life tick. It eventually flew off towards to some ponies in front of North hide so I called it a day and went for a stroll.
The rest of the reserve was very quiet in a stiff breeze.


Even the famous "sluice bushes", often a magnet for migrants only held a couple of chiffchaffs along with the perpetually cross resident robins.
The beach, although devoid of birds, did have a nice covering of plants on it, including these rather magnificent horned poppies.

the highly structural sea kale,
and the spiky eryngium or sea holly.

I did try for a wryneck further up the coast but that had decided to do an overnight flit, so I called it a day quite early and headed home to beat the hell that is the M25. Still, pretty pleased with that as a day. First lifer of the Autumn and bad weather all week up to Friday looks good to perhaps drive in a few birds from the USA - black and white warbler anyone!!??



Monday, 4 September 2017

Hip, hip, hoopoe

The second of my two "long weekend" days sent me down to the south coast. There weren't any lifers on offer, within reasonable distance anyway, so I has the choice of a Baird's sandpiper in Sussex or trying Dorset and hoping to pick up some birds on the sea or migrants grounded with bad weather overnight. Dorset won the competition so I ended up in the car park at Portland Bill with thick fog all around. The fog horn was blasting its warning into the channel and it looked pretty tough birding conditions. So I headed off to the observatory and joined about 10 other birders on the patio.
The fog gave us a small view of the sea close in to the coast but not much else. The main interest was centred on the observatory cat who had developed a limp overnight and was a bit grumpy. Coffee was being drunk and no one was really paying much attention to the birds.
"hoopoe"
A birder to my right suddenly called out and pointed to one of the trees in the garden..
"flying"
as a medium-sized bird flopped out of the tree and headed off towards the hut fields. This was not as astonishing as it might seem, as one had been seen the day before but no one was really looking for it. My view was subliminal to say the least, so I set off with four or five other birders to see if we could track it down. Two headed off right, the rest of us went left.
"it's flying" came the shout from the other birders as a golden bird shot over our heads.



My camera settings were all over the place but I managed to grab 3 photos as it flew over in the mist. You can see what it is anyway!!! This is only the second one I've seen in this country, after a famous incident a few years ago when I got badly shouted at by a posh lady for trespassing on her garden while twitching it!! They are regular visitors to the UK and probably one of the most exotic-looking.
The hordes split up and tried to find it, but there were no other sightings by the time I had left at 11.30. As a postscript it did fly into one of the mist nets around 1.30 and was ringed so I missed an in-hand view which is a shame.
Other than that it was really quiet. A wryneck was seen but I didn't get it. I did manage to get a year-tick in the form of Balearic shearwater on the sea but no skuas.
On the way back I stopped at the vast expanse of mud that is now Staines reservoir. The viewing conditions were better than last time I was there but the waders were still miles away. With a bit of help I got onto a curlew sandpiper amongst the dunlin flock. I finished the day by jamming in on a fourth year-tick with a little stint. We had been looking at a dunlin bathing quite near the causeway when I spotted a very small wader near it. Tiny in size, small, delicate beak and the characteristic tram-lines along its back marked it out as a juvenile stint.
Not a bad day. Four year-ticks taking me to 250. I've got to be looking for north of 270 from here now but as ever, lifers would be nice....

Friday, 1 September 2017

and so it begins......

Having been away for pretty much all of August in Sri Lanka, I've now come back to the most exciting time in the birding year - the Autumn migration. At this time of year, anything can, and frequently does, turn up. It also marks the start of my having a bit more time to catch up with them, as from now on I'm down to 3 days a week a work!
The precursors of the main migration rush are often the waders, returning back south from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. On their way north in the spring they are in a rush to get to the best breeding sites. In the autumn they are a bit more relaxed and can hang around for a few days feeding up. This certainly applies to one pretty rare bird, a long-billed dowitcher, which has taken up semi-residence at Oare Marshes in Kent. This is a pretty small reserve in north Kent, on the edge of the Medway estuary. I've been a few times before so I knew the way and got there about 7 to a beautiful sunny morning.
















The reserve is right at the end of a road leading to Harty ferry and is basically just one large pool surrounded by reeds. This view is from the road looking across the reserve to the river at the back of of the marsh. The centre ground at high tide, which was 8 today so just after I arrived, is covered with waders. The downside though is that you are looking straight into the rising sun making for, how shall I put it, challenging viewing and photographic conditions.
Still, I got out my 'scope and set up next to the 4 or 5 other birders already scanning the marsh. There were hundreds of golden plovers, dozens of black-tailed godwits, dunlin and ringed plovers as well as  smaller numbers of ruff, greenshank, redshank, spotted redshank, turnstones and avocets.


The first good bird we got onto was one which dropped in the day before - a red-necked phalarope. These are gorgeous, delicate waders, breeding in very small numbers in Scotland but normally a classic migration bird. These are horrible photos into the Sun, but hopefully give the impression of what they look like.




 They are always busy, spinning around in shallow water picking flies off the waters surface. They often do this in deep water, so swim rather than wade. They have a characteristic "jizz" of seeming to be peering curiously at the water in front of them, hunting by sight for their breakfast.
Close by was the second of my targets, the long-billed dowitcher. I haven't seen one for a few years, since a long-staying bird at Lodmoor in Dorset, and they are rare if not actually mega in this country.
They are a more typical wader, long-legged, feeding by probing the mud. Size-wise they are larger than a redshank but smaller than a godwit. The thing to look for though is the bill which is, well, long!!

The top picture here gives you an idea of size - its the 6th bird from the right on its own, with lapwings for comparison. The lower one shows you that long, dagger-like bill.

These two gives you a bit more detail, albeit you may have to take my word a bit! A medium-sized bird, with a long, slightly down curved bill. The plumage is quite brown, with distinct markings and you can just about make out a white supercilium. I was on site for well over an hour and it only moved a few feet from this spot, feeding then sleeping, but never coming out into decent light. Still, a cracking bird, indeed a good pair of birds. Despite the best efforts of myself and the other birders on site we couldn't find any other rare waders, such as little stints or curlew sandpipers, but I should be able to pick them in then next couple of weeks.
After this, with not much else around in Kent, I braved the southern M25 - awful as usual - to go to Staines reservoir.
 The south basin has been drained for repairs, turning it into a magnet for waders. It is vast however, and all the waders were on the far side, again with the sun in totally the wrong position and a heat haze making viewing awful. Luckily a couple of the locals including "reservoir Dom" were on site and over an hour of ruining our eye-sight we managed to pull out 5 or 6 wood sandpipers and a probable, by dint of it not being anything else and being there for the last few days, pectoral sandpiper. Not the most satisfactory of views but I may try again later if it stays, as the reservoir isn't due to be filled for a few weeks yet.
A good day all round - 4 new year ticks taking me to 246 and way ahead of my best ever year with the main part of Autumn still to come. Would be nice to get a few lifers in the mix though!!

Friday, 7 July 2017

Climate change! What climate change?

Despite the increasing bad news about the decline in many breeding birds in the UK - turtle doves, corn buntings, red-backed shrike, skylarks to name just 4 - there are other species that are gaining ground, mainly coming across from Europe (don't tell Nigel Farage). Lets ignore escapes like the parakeets, but little egrets are now common, great white egrets and cattle egrets, spoonbills and glossy ibis and even little bittern have jumped the channel and breed in increasing numbers.One that has been on the list of "next" has been bee-eaters. These exotic-looking birds are found on the near continent and every year small numbers come across, but are normally just "fly-bys". Two years ago though a pair nested on the Isle of Wight following 5 previous attempts going back to the start of the last century. With the climate warming though, there is a pronounced movement of our resident birds moving north and continental warm-weather birds moving in so they were mooted as a likely next candidate. So, when 2 weeks ago a group of bee-eaters were spotted at a gravel pit in Nottinghamshire it was not a surprise though it did create quite a stir.
The site is a working quarry, so strictly out of bounds. The RSPB though stepped up to the mark and very quickly set up a car-park (£5) and a viewing area. Last weekend over two thousand people visited them, prompted by national news coverage in papers and on the TV!!
My first chance came this week, with a work meeting in Warwick, about an hours drive away, at 11am. So, I had to plan on getting the birds first, which meant a 4.15 alarm call and on the road by 4.40. A blast up the A1 (the M1 was closed for smart motorway works!!) got me to the village of East Leake by just before 7. The nice RSPB man took my £5 and pointed me in the right direction.

This is the site as you walk in from the car park. It looks like a typical old gravel working, lots of disturbed soil and smallish lakes. To get your bearings, on the left side of this photo above is a solitary ash tree, which is the bee eaters preferred perch, and, though hard to make out, on the far right are about 8 twitchers/ birders/ curious tourists already on site.



This was the viewing area - the ash tree in the distance and a lake to left and right where the birds, along with lots of sad martins, were feeding.
Straight away I got onto the birds, sitting in their favoured ash tree. As the first shot below shows, it was still some distance away - this was 500mm lens uncropped!



You can see why they are so popular - exotic, colourful and full of character. There were 7 originally, but we could only see 4. Last week there was frequent copulation, so it is presumed that the other 3 are females who are now on eggs. They nest in holes in sandy banks, and are again presumed to have requisitioned old sand martin burrows.


For the first 30 minutes or so, they were flitting on and off the tree catching insects, in this case a rather juicy looking dragon fly. All are caught on the wing, with a languorous, almost lazy action in the air unlike the frantic flight of hirundines. You can also see them in this short video.

Bee-eater video

They then decided that the feeding over the gravel pit wasn't good enough, so they all decided to firstly have a fly past us. Thy never got that close but it did give a chance to see them in the air.






Most of these are pretty large crops, so not the best quality, but you can hopefully get an idea of the graceful flight pattern and those stunning Mediterranean colours.



The top one of these three actually shows on of them "lightening its load" which is an unusual shot!
They then spent half an hour in a tree on the far bank, having a bit of a groom and a general chat.



Finally they seemed to decide to split up and three headed off to a field to feed, out of our sight, whilst one came back to the ash tree and tried his luck on the gravel pit again.




By this time it was getting on to being past 9 and I had to move on to get to my meeting in Warwick. There were still cars pulling up into the car park as I left. If they do breed and raise young this will be one popular attraction over the Summer. Really great day, a superb year tick to take me to 238 and back to 16 ahead of Martin again, who saw them last week. What could be better?