Saturday, 28 December 2013

Mega rare, mega views....

Along with what seemed like the rest of the birding world, I took the pilgrimage down to Portland harbour for the Brunnich's guillemot. First twitchable mainland bird ever and a major blocker for many. This is similar to our common guillemot but normally lives in the Arctic. Diagnostic features are a larger and bulkier body with a white "gape".
An early start got me to the harbour by about 7.45, and there were already well over a hundred on site! The bird had been seen in the marina, so a nice sheltered spot. Viewing was along the path by the side of the jetty. As I arrived the bird was just disappearing around the corned and I didn't get onto it on time. A very anxious 30 minutes passed as the bird was not seen. Gradually the crowd spread out covering most parts of the marina. A few false alarms, mainly a razorbill and a supporting cast of great  northern divers kept us on our toes.
Finally, there it was. It was fishing and diving actively, giving everyone the chase around. It was quite amusing really. The crowd was spread out over I would guess 200 yards or more. It would appear, stay up for about 15 seconds then dive. The crowd would gather, wait for two minutes, and then the bird would reappear 50 yards away. Repeat over the next hour!!!!
Most of the time it was quite close in, but never on the surface for long. As a bloke next to me said "it's rendering a quarter of a million pounds of 'scopes redundant" which basically was true!!!
I took a lot of photos, most of which were of a birds arse disappearing under the waves but a few were ok.

Amazingly, as well as this, there was winter-plumaged black guillemot in the harbour as well, which I had already got in Scotland, but was a first in England for me.
Not satisfied with this I then went off down the coast to West Bexington where a glaucous gull had been reported on the beach. This needed about a 10 minute yomp along soft shingle. Another two birders had it about a quarter mile away. It stood out, very larege and very white. No signs of black or grey on the body. We then lucked out. Saving us a further yomp some dog walkers flushed it and it flew straight over our heads and settled on the mere.
One lifer and two year-ticks, so not a bad end to the year!! 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Well that was unexpected....

End of my first week back at work (god, commuting, aaaaaggggghhhhhh) and I was looking forward to getting some fresh air. Saturday morning so as usual down Maple Lodge for the work party. Weather was a bit dull but not too cold for December. got down to the reserve about 7.30ish as it was getting light for a quick look around. Very quiet. Few winter thrushes around, mainly redwings I think, a family group of goldcrests, 2 kingfishers on Clubhouse lake, otherwise not a lot beyond the usual.
Main tasks for the morning was the nest box survey - checking the boxes for signs of nesting, clearing them out, repairing damaged ones etc. Generally we had a very bad year, I think. Only two boxes had obvious signs of young - eggs, feathers etc. A lot had nest material in, but nothing else. I suppose we cant really say whether that was a failed nest or just a very tidy but successful one!!!
Anyway, unexpected 1. occurred when we were near Teal Hide. A small woodpecker flew overhead and landed in the top of a tree about 50 yards away. It immediately looked different to a great spot and I got Derek and Colin, who were with us, onto it. Luckily Colin had bins with him (mine were on the tractor some yards away) and he lent me them and I could see it was a lesser spotted woodpecker. These are much smaller than the great spots, being between a small starling and sparrows in size. They are also really uncommon now, and even when about hard to spot. The leaves off the trees helped! I had a year tick for this, but it was a heard only and only a probable at that so nice to convert to a full-blown definite!!!
In the afternoon I couldn't go out birding as we were getting our Xmas tree and then doing a bit of shopping. I did have one giant stroke of luck though. For the past week a Cackling Goose has been in the valley, around Maple Lodge. These are also known as lesser Canada geese, and are similar to our common Canada geese but are MUCH smaller, almost duck sized. I did have quick look for it on Lynsters Lake but nothing doing. In the afternoon though, with Judith driving the car we just got to the roundabout by Maple Cross when I saw 4 birds flying low over the road. Three of them were Canada geese, the other was TINY. Goose shaped but a miniature version - the cackling goose. In flight it looked no more half the size of the others it was with. Judith confirmed the sighting, even though she was driving and swerving slightly!!! A great stroke of luck, these geese have only recently been split as a full species and this being a full life tick.
Just goes to show you should never stop looking.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Powering along

Last weekend before I have to go back to work so I skived off work party duties and paid a visit to Kent with Judith. Surprisingly she'd never been to Dungeness and the Kent coast nearby, so as the weather was set fair we decided on this as our destination. Saturday traffic was light so we only took just over 2 hours to get to the power station.
To be honest, there wasn't much of any note around on the birding front, so this was more about the bleak scenery and a new place. As usual, first stop was "the patch". This is the hot water outflow from the power station which attracts large numbers of gulls and, in the summer, terns which feed on the upwelling of warm water. Today, there was probably a couple of hundred gulls, mainly herring, greater and lesser black-backs.
A few cormorants were joining in as well, and there were flocks of common scoter on the sea further out. The scoters numbered about a hundred I would guess but were quite mobile and never came close in. Over about 45 minutes we picked up a couple of divers passing, probably red-throated, and a few great-crested grebes.
On the way back to the car I picked up one of the resident (?) black redstarts feeding in the verge by the boundary fence. Dungeness is a very reliable place for these birds as, I imagine, they are resident around the reactor buildings. I think I've seen them in most seasons here anyway. This was a very smart male, but I couldn't get close enough for a photo.
There was nothing much around the observatory, so we moved down to the beach by Derek Jarman's old house. This is a much photographed area, with lost of old wrecked boats, large stretches of shingle and in the spring lovely flowers. All with the backdrop of a nuclear power station. This is in the process of being decommissioned but it will be years before it has all gone.

As a last stop we nipped in to the RSPB reserve. This is normally good for migrants, and is where I got my first red-backed shrike and great white egret a few years ago. Was quite quiet now though, with just the usual ducks around. Smew and GWE were around but we didn't go looking for them. We only went to the first hide but did pick up a marsh harrier hunting over the lagoon, a ring-tail hen harrier passing over and a chiffchaff in the bushes.
On the way back home, via Tunbridge Wells for a bit of variety, we drove along the coast via Wallend and Denge Marsh. I haven't really explored along here before, and it looks very good for ducks and geese. What was nice was a flock of about 30 barnacle geese. These are I presume a feral flock rather than wild Svalbard birds but they all count as they are on the D list (naturalised populations of escaped birds) like parakeets.
With the geese and the black redstart that takes me to 228 (229 400 club) for the year. With work restarting on Monday I wont beat last years total of 250 now but respectable nonetheless with a few more ticks I should get, like the Thursley common shrike! 

Monday, 25 November 2013

All's well at Amwell

I thought i'd take the chance to do another quick spot of year list topping up. Amwell in the north of Hertfordshire has been graced by a female, or redhead, smew for the last few days and marsh tits are apparently coming to feeders. Both of these are birds I haven't yet seen this year.
Traffic on the M25 was surprisingly good so I got to the reserve about 8.40. Weather was overcast and a bit nippy but light winds so not too bad considering. There were a lot of birds on the main lake (Hardmead) including a few goldeneye. One of the local birders pointed me in the right direction though for where the smew normally lurks, in front of the Gladwin hide. Almost as soon as I opened the viewing slits up I got onto the bird, preening happily right in front of the hide. Smew are diving ducks of the sawbill family, related to goosanders and mergansers but much smaller being only about the size of a teal. The males are one of the most sought after birds as they have an incredibly smart black and white plumage. The females look very different, having a mainly grey body but a rich chocolate brown head, although they are called redheads. The shot below gives you all the details you need to identify one, apart clearly from the size - think very small duck!

After a while and having got her plumage into good condition she drifted off towards the centre of the lake, presumably for a late breakfast so I drifted off as well, in search of my other target bird the marsh tit.

Marsh tits are one of those birds which used to be much more common than they are now. As a kid I remember seeing them, and their now very rare cousin the willow tit, often in woodlands and even in my back garden. Nowadays you have to seek them out. They are classic woodland birds, preferring deciduous over conifers. To identify them, look for a plain coloured tit-like bird, buffy on the back,  whiter underneath the body with a solid black cap. There are subtle differences between marsh and willow tits but the best way to tell them apart is by call (and the fact willow tits are now VERY rare!).
Anyway, I walked round to Hollycross Lake where there are a few bird feeders out, which were attracting great and blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches and goldfinches. no sign of marsh tits though. So, I resorted to plan B and fired up my ipad and played a marsh tit song. Almost immediately I got a return call and within a few seconds two birds were in the hawthorn bush next to the gate. They weren't fooled for long, only a out 30 seconds and they were gone, but long enough to grab one photo. Not brilliant you can see the body colour, the black cap and the white cheeks. As I had to get back for a delivery that was it. Only other birds of note were a few snipe on the muddy edges, a slightly reticent water rail half-calling from the reeds and a Cetti's warbler giving voice. Two more for the year list, taking me up to 227 for the year (400club list) or 226 against BOU.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Swanning around

Nice weather forecast, winter setting in and I've still not managed to see either of our two winter visiting swans yet this year: whooper or bewicks. These long-distance travellers visit us from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia (whoopers) or almost entirely from Russia (bewicks). Unlike our mute swans with orange bills they are distinguished by having yellow and black on the bill. In the case of whoopers it is mainly yellow with a black base and reversed for the bewicks and is nicely shown in the attached link.

Anyway, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Welney in Norfolk is home to large numbers, in the thousands for whoopers and hundreds for bewicks) and they have started arriving. A regular evening feed ensures some are always around the centre with others scattered in the fields eating rotting potatoes, their favourite food!!!
So, we set out on what should have a 90 minute drive but which took almost an hour more due to an accident on the A1!! Still, refreshed with a nice of cup of tea and a slightly disappointing stale scone from the cafeteria we went into the main hide. If you haven't been there it is bird watching in luxury. Entirely indoors with seats, central heating and large panoramic glass windows the birds are on the flooded meadow in front of you, or at least they should be.

With the weather still mild only about 30 or whoopers and barely 2 or 3 bewicks were around. There were plenty of ducks - wigeon, teal, pintail, pochard, tufted, mallard, geese - mainly canadas, and a few waders - lapwing, black-tailed godwit, redshank and dunlin.

Even though we walked the length of the reserve swans were pretty much always distant. To get them closer you need to be early, but the reserve doesn't open till 10, or late for the evening feed from about 2.30 onwards.

On the way back we did catch a gorgeous marsh harrier quartering Lady Fen behind the reserve and at great distance saw the flocks of swans, numbering into the many hundreds or more. With the 'scope you could make out both types but way too far out for photos. We did agree to come back over Xmas or when the weather gets cold though when they should be a lot closer. Anyway, 2 more year ticks so up to 225.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Be careful.....

Another early start, this time to south Norfolk rather than north. Had a very optimistic plan which if it came off would have got me 5 year ticks all within a few miles of each other. Weather wasn't great, misty, drizzly, cold bot workable.
First stop was Caister for a rose-coloured starling. Directions were "beach road car park" and I got there about 8. Only problem was all the starlings, about 200 or so, not in the car park but on the roofs of the terraced houses behind it. Hence being careful - bloke with binoculars staring up at peoples roofs just as they are throwing back the bedroom curtains!! I tried to lurk around corners which probably made me even more suspicious. I certainly got some strange looks from ladies in a hairdressers and  man with a dog. The bird itself was quite easy to find - like a starling only with a very light rose-coloured breast. Would have given quite good photos but I didn't want to push my luck and point large lenses at ladies bedroom windows!! Nice bird, only my second ever so a good start.
After that I nipped along the coast to Winterton dunes where a Lapland bunting was reported. These are like a rarer cousin of our much commoner reed bunting and lurk around in sand dunes in winter. When I got there it was a very large area of dunes though and only me and one other birder around. Unless it flew over we didn't stand a chance. I gave it an hour but no luck so I cut my losses and moved on to Great Yarmouth.
Here, shore larks (or horned larks to some) have been on the beach by the pier for a week or so in some numbers. This time I was luckier - got pretty much straight onto the birds. They were reasonably confiding allowing me to get quite close for photos. Unfortunately it was almost dark, despite it being 11am, and raining. Hence the photos are a bit grainy as I was up to ISO2500!!

After this my luck changed. The next stop was Hamilton Dock in Lowestoft for a glaucous gull which had been shoeing well and coming to bread over the weekend. The weather was getting slowly worse, cold and misty/ drizzly. The dock is where he few remaining fishing boats dock to unload their catch, hence why it is popular with gulls  I had an Icelandic there 2 years ago). Over the next 3 hours me and a succession of about 5 other blokes (and even one lady!!) studied every blasted juvenile gull. We used up 2 loaves of bread and two of my cheese sandwiches but no show. Must have moved on over night. There was good number of turnstones and about 7 purple sandpipers on the rocks nearby and a couple of rock pipits kept us entertained. The highlight was a smooth hound swimming around below us. We figured it must have come off a fishing boat (thrown back for being too small?). For scale, it was about a foot long.

My last stop was only two miles away at Munton. On the way I checked out the Links road car park, which can be good for gulls, but it only yielded two med gulls in addition to the normal suspects. At Munton, firecrests were reported in the church.  Think very like our much commoner goldcrest but with a very marked balcn and white eye-stripe and more colouration on the head/ neck.This was nice, old building with lots of yews and hollies in the graveyard. As soon as I got out the car I could hear them calling, so I fired up the ipad and tormented them with a continuous burst of song. They all responded quite well and as with the shorelarks would have given me some half decent photos if it wasn't almost pitch black and I was up to ISO 3200 now!! They do show most of the features you need to look out for if you are comparing against goldcrest though. Still, a good if long day. Three of my target birds bagged taking me to 224 for the year.

Friday, 15 November 2013

What a beautful day

Taking the chance of a. some decent weather, b. a gap in the diary, I had another trawl down to the South Coast. First stop was Brands Bay, near Poole. There has been a surf scoter lingering around in the sheltered bay for a week or so (in fact it was there last weekend when I was in Weymouth, but family duties meant I couldn't nip across!!). The dawn was stunning if a bit nippy. Almost flat calm, blue skies, perfect for sea-watching. The bay is a sheltered tidal lagoon between Poole, Sandbanks and Brownsea Island. It was clear there were a lot of birds around - my first goldeneye of the Autumn, grebes, at least 3 great northern divers, loads of mergansers (is it me or are there a lot more of them around now?), brent geese and a smattering of waders including dunlin, knot, oystercatcher, redshank, curlew and turnstones. Also, although it took a bit of finding, the one lone surf scoter. It was quite distant but you get the main id features - large bill and characteristic white spots on the side of the head. Nice, as it's a lifer as well. On the way back to the car there were a good number of Dartford warblers chasing each other, and the stonechats, around on the heath.

After this I had the excitement of a trip on the Sandbanks ferry and a short hop along the coast to Lepe CP where there was a long-staying lesser yellowlegs (shame it wasn't a greater!!). Although not a lifer I've only seen one before, at Port Meadow on Oxford with Derek two years ago, so a good bird. I had to get there the old fashioned way by using maps as the sat nav battery had died, which added a bit of interest. When I got there I was greeted by about 5 blokes with cameras and 'scopes leaving and sharing "not been seen all morning" . It was about 12 so that was a 5 hour no-show. Never to be put-off I walked down to the pools where it liked to hang out and set up the 'scope. 5 other souls were sticking it out. After 45 minutes of watching a redshank, two oystercatchers, a med gull and not a lot else it felt like time to leave. The bloke next to me was literally packing up his gear as his parking ticket was running out. Then another birder about a hundred yards away with a different angle on the pools called across - it has just flown in!! Quick dash and there it was. I watched if for about an hour together with about 20 others, most of whom were those who had left earlier!!! It was feeding vigorously but never that close to us, so the photos are not brilliant. You can see all the features though - mainly the bright yellow legs, the strongly marked back, straight medium length bill and a nice eye-ring. All this together probably makes it a winter plumaged adult rather than a juvenile.

Finally, and almost unnoticed by the hordes, a green woodpecker was feeding almost beneath our feet.

So, with two weeks of sabbatical left to go that takes me to 221 of the year and adds another one to get me to 324 on my life lift. Norfolk on Monday, so I hope my luck holds!!