Thursday, 15 March 2018

Changing of the guard

We're right on the cusp between Winter and Spring. There are birds arriving every day but not all our Winter friends have left yet. It's a really exciting time of year and one where you need to make the best of time out to get to see some lovely birds.
My trip out today started on one of the classic spring birds, garganey. The males are gorgeous ducks with a brown head and a white eye stripe. They are also known to be pretty elusive birds. This one had been hanging around a pool at Farlington Marshes, a lovely little reserve on the south coast near Portsmouth. I timed my arrival well, just as the overnight rain was clearing away and walked the 15 minutes or so to the pool. There was lots of movement on the marsh itself with birds flying up and relocating but only a couple of swans and 6 teal on the pool itself. On the grassy edges though there were still about 20 brent geese, classic Winter birds still hanging on before moving North.

Within about 5 minutes a duck swam off from the bank and I quickly saw the eye-stripe and confirmed it as the garganey. It promptly disappeared into the reeds and though I waited another hour it didn't appear. The photo below is of a different bird from 2014 at Little Marlow. You can see that eye-stripe showing well.

I toyed with waiting for it to show, as I haven't got a decent shot of one, but it had been reported as elusive so I decided to move on. Next stop was about 40 minutes away at Acres Down in the New Forest. Apart from the ponies this area is well known for its raptors and in Spring especially for goshawks. These are large versions of our commoner sparrowhawks and in this part of the world at least are doing really well. In Spring the male and female do display flights over their territories, wheeling up into the sky and sometimes even locking talons. Today though myself and the two other birders at the raptor lookout only had very distant views of a single male bird over the wood. This is good for honey buzzards in a few weeks though so I will have another visit at least.

These were not the only birds around. Woodlarks, new for the year, were in full song and stonechats were patrolling the heath. I even had a pair of hawfinches overfly us. Star of the show though was a particularly aggressive firecrest in the holly by the path. They are closely related to our goldcrests but have a bold black and white eye stripe. They also have a distinctively different song which was what alerted me to its presence in the first place. 

For a tiny bird they have a lot of attitude and that crest raising is hilarious. 
Rather than carrying on around the coast I finally headed back towards home. The first little gulls of the year had been reported at Staines reservoir so I stopped off there. There were two other birders on site and they pointed me to the 3 or possibly 4 gulls. This is Staines so of course they were miles away!!! Occasionally they came a bit closer though, actively picking food of the water surface allowing me to study the classic id features.

There were two plumages present. The bird above is an adult, without its full black hood yet. Of course it is a lot smaller than the other gulls but on its own at range this is hard to determine. What does show though are those really dark, almost black underwings and that white tail and fringing to the wings. The beak is also a lot more delicate and blacker.

This 1st winter bird shows the other plumage type often seen. Look at the pattern on the upper wings, the V shape mid the leading black edge on the wings and the terminal black band on the tail. 
There were no other true spring birds present, but there was one in spring plumage. Black-necked grebes are regular's here and they are now in their breeding finery.

 Finally I caught up with the long-staying American horned lark, still seeming to be thriving on the bank of the reservoir.

A good day all round and the real feel of Spring in the air, though apparently it will snow on Sunday!!!!

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A tale of two twitches - part two

After dipping on the Ross's gull on Friday, it was still around over the weekend and was starting to try a new routine. Still showing intermittently it had now discovered Radipole Lake. This is in the centre of Weymouth, about equidistant between Lodmoor and Ferrybridge, it's other two haunts. It could also be seen fishing in the bay but normally only late evening and at great distance. Monday, being my day off, was therefore decided as another trip to Weymouth. I initially set the alarm a bit later than normal as Judith was doing an airport trip. I woke up though about 4.15 and decided to just go so I flung on my clothes and headed off.
Same problem as before though, where to go. On Sunday it had appeared at Lodmoor early doors and had stopped going to Ferrybridge. Radipole seemed to be its stop after having a feed when it took a bit of a bathe in the fresh water there. Lodmoor it was then.
I got there at first light and it was real groundhog day time. Andy and Mr charity shop coat were both already there having also dipped on Friday. A few more arrived by 7.30, including some familiar faces from the Staines reservoir regulars, and we had camped out near the sea-end of the reserve as the scrape was frozen over. There were probably 100 or more black-headed gulls all fresh off their overnight roost having a good bathe. We scanned through and looked up expectantly every time a new bird arrived but nothing. Then I spotted a small bird drop into the throng. Two others saw it as well and we alerted the throng "probably just dropped in, left hand end". A few frantic seconds of searching and we got onto it - the Ross's gull had indeed landed!!!!!

This was the challenge though, as you see this photo. It is one gull and a small one at that, in the midst of a lot of other ones, all moving around. It was really tricky and we all kept losing it then refinding it. Lots of "anyone on it?", "I can see its legs" and, helpfully, "its just behind another gull"!!!
What were we looking for though?

In these two above, and they are all heavily cropped in so not brilliant photos, you can see it. A smaller gull than those around it. It's head stands out and being pure white (they turn pink in full breeding plumage!) and it has really short legs. Unfortunately with the wind from our backs the gulls were mainly facing away from us so it was hard to get side on views.

Especially in the last one of these you can see its short little legs, which actually were quite good for picking it out from the crowd.
After only about 10 minutes I suppose if lifted off with about 10 other gulls, did one circle and then headed off towards Weymouth.

These snatched flight shots show it's pearly white trailing edges to the wings and that hood starting to form. Some observers think they can see a bit of pink but I'm not sure, looks clear white to me. 
Still, a brilliant 10 minutes and lots of very happy birders. We all broke out the coffee flasks and most of us headed back to Radipole to hopefully catch it later, where it might show really close.
Things didn't work out the way though. I spent another 3 hours standing waiting for it but no show. Again a few members of the supporting cast tried to keep us amused including a lovely kingfisher and an almost breeding plumage cormorant but no star.

I gave up about 12. It did pop in very briefly much later in the day. On the way back I tried for the stilt sandpiper at Stanpit but missed it by about 5 minutes. Still, I'd much rather have it that way round than miss the Ross's again. First lifer of the year and what a beautiful bird to boot. Really happy with that. Now, with the "beast from the east" arriving this week perhaps a few more Arctic specialists might drop in - ivory gull or a Stellers eider anyone??

Friday, 23 February 2018

A tale of two twitches - part one

A snap of cold weather across the country has certainly made it feel more like Winter. To make it even better the weather has brought down with it a real cold weather specialist in the form of a Ross's gull. These are real high Arctic birds, normally associated with northern USA and Siberia in Summer  and wintering in the Bering Sea on the edge of the pack ice. They are not known as long distance  migrants but a very few have reached our shores. This bird rocked up in Dorset mid week, initially at Ferrybridge then also at Lodmoor and fishing out in the bay at Weymouth. It's a lifer for me, and the first one truly on offer this year. So, it had to be done. Friday was a 4.20 alarm call and on the road straight away.
The gull had, over two days to be fair so not much of a routine, shown just after dawn when it came out of its roost, then would disappear out to sea to feed. So, I wanted to be in Dorset at first light, which I was. The problem was, where to go. On the Thursday night it had shown really well at Lodmoor, but had been at Ferrybridge in the morning. For those who don't know Weymouth, they are about 5 miles apart, but the drive takes you through the town so it's a good 15 minute drive, though much more with traffic.
I elected to try Lodmoor first. Early doors there were two other birders on site. One, Andy, from Portsmouth, the other, Moira, had driven down from Glasgow overnight!!! There were a few gulls around but no sign of the Ross's as we looked out over the west scrape.

The Ross's is a small gull, about 2/3 the size of our black-headed gull so should stand out well. What did stand out in the early light was a stinking great glaucous gull that dropped in for a preen - a real white brute of a bird.

By 8 we were getting cold but the crowd had swelled to about 20 and we were expectant. Then my phone pinged - "Ross's gull on the mud at Ferrybridge". In the words of the Clash "should I stay or should I go". I stayed. For 10 minutes anyway, till the alert went off again. Still on the mud. About half of us decamped and drove off. Trouble was two schools, traffic lights and roadworks were all between us and Ferybridge so it took almost 40 minutes to get there. As I drove into the car park I could see there were no birders on site. I found out later from RBA it had flown off about 5 minutes before I got there and everyone was chasing it down to Bowleaze cove. I checked the mud for a bit but disconsolately got back in my car and went back to Lodmoor - through the same traffic jams.
I resumed watch again on the scrape with my friends - including one who had forgotten his coat and had to stop off in a charity stop to buy one before he froze. Then of course it happened again - "on the mud at Ferrybridge". We all agreed though not to risk it again and so we stuck it out. Gradually a few others birders arrived who had seen it earlier, and were very pleased to show us their photos of it. Why do they think that helps? We know what it bloody looks like and we don't need you gloating thank you. Even Lee Evans turned up having done the same as us - missing it both times though due to the traffic.
Although it was sunny it was perishingly cold standing around but there was nothing else for it. A few other birds tried to keep us entertained including a beast of a greater black-backed gull, a small murmuration of lapwings and good numbers of Mediterranean gulls.

No sign of our bird though. After lunch came and went the crowd had grown to about 50 or 60, spread out along the path. A heavily ringed spoonbill did come past us, busily feeding in the icy water.

Apparently in was ringed in Holland, but why quite so many I don't know. As ever on Lodmoor there were a lot of snipe in the reedy margins and a few came out into the open in the weak Winter sun.

No sign of the Ross's gull though, either here or anywhere else. I finally gave up about 3 headed home slightly, no very, despondent. Not only did I dip on the bird, it was there and it was my bad choices not to go to Ferrybridge first up and then to not stay for a bit longer which caused the dip. Definitely unfinished business there though.

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.