Monday, 29 December 2014

Post pending

On what is probably the last post for this year, I took a day off to grab a couple of new year ticks. I had planned to go to Yorkshire for the Blyth's pipit but 3 hours on an ice-bound M1 wasn't that attractive.
So, on a very cold and frosty morning I headed for Priory CP outside Bedford. A penduline tit was reported yesterday as showing well. I've only seen one once before and it is a bit of bogey bird for me. I reckon I must have dipped half a dozen times on other birds.
I got to the site about 8 just as a beautiful frosty dawn was coming up. The park is on the outskirts of a housing estate and looks not very attractive. A smallish lake was surrounded by grassland with a river on one side. There were two things that looked good though - a lot of bullrushes, the favoured food of penduline's and 4 other birders already on lookout.
On chatting to them we worked out where it was last seen and staked out a small areas of reeds. No sign for about 20 minutes. A clear night is often a sign for birds to move on and pendulines are notorious for being one day wonders. Then there was a sharp call and a small bird flitted out the reeds and settled on the far bank. We all got onto it just before it dived into cover again. After another stressful 5 minutes it then popped up onto a reed and settled down happily to feed away.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes it moved around normally showing well as it shredded the reedmace tops.

Then as suddenly as it arrived it flew away over a hedge and out if sight. That was my cue to leave and head off for other birds. It did return later on in the day for the eager hordes which were gathering though.
My second stop was 40 minutes drive away at Billing in Northamptonshire. A ring-necked duck had been present for a couple of days apparently behind a car showroom. When I got there there was a garden centre complex with a car sales place backing onto a medium sized lake. There were about 20 ducks on the lake but they were right into the sun so you couldn't make out any detail. By walking onto the main road and 'scoping through a hedge I could make out a female ring-necked duck. They are quite similar to tufted ducks and are badly named. They do not have a ring on their necks but do have a band on their bills and a peculiar almost domed shape to their head. No photos though..
Finally I headed to Aylesbury to another housing estate. This one had been home to a pair of black redstarts since Xmas day but despite 90 minutes of searching by a number of us we couldn't find anything.
Still, a good end, if that is what it is, to the year, with 253 on BOU and 258 on 400 club rules. Only two more days and it all start again!!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

You're barred

I had a very brief window of opportunity to do some birding this morning. We were down in Weymouth to pick up Judith's mum for Xmas and I just had enough timer to nip over to Portland. The target was the barred warbler which has been in residence for over 3 weeks. What should be a rare Autumn visitor to the east coast is now coming regularly to apples put out in the observatory garden. It's so late in leaving you have to wonder if it will over winter? Would be very popular in the 1st week of Jan for year listers!!
Anyway, with time at a premium I was pleased to see Martin Cade had tweeted that it was there just before I pulled up. There were about 6 people in the obs watching the garden. The barred warbler was there already, pecking away at the apples. It is a large warbler, almost reminiscent of a chaffinch. The colouration is overall quite grey, but on it's chest it has the eponymous barring.
The photos below hopefully give an impression of the bird. Apologies for the quality but they are on very high ISO and even then it was hard to get the speed up.
You can make out the scalloping on it's flank which in breeding adults turn into full bars. It certainly loves the apples!!!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Goose for Xmas

It seems ages since I've had a day out birding. Work gives me a day off for my birthday so as I was unable to take it on the day itself itself I rewarded myself with a trip out to the Norfolk coast.
To be honest, there's not much around at the moment but the weather looked good and I had a couple of targets to add to my year list.
The first one was taiga bean goose at Cantley marshes. Bean geese are a problem. They are part of a complex with pink-footed geese and as well as being closely related are very similar in structure. Bean geese are currently two sub-species, taiga and tundra, although they may well be formally split into full species eventually. The easiest way to tell them apart is that in Norfolk if it's at Cantley it's a taiga, elsewhere it's a tundra. They are very loyal to areas!!! I got to Cantley about 8.30 and the geese were easily found by the railway track, but were miles away!! So, without any photographs I wont go into the fine details of telling them apart and move on to the coast. Oh, but with a slight gloat that this took me to 250 for the year again.
Winter on the north Norfolk coast means geese. You get massive flocks of brent and pink-footed geese. Anywhere you can finds them in the fields or the sky, often numbering thousands. These are pink-footed geese which form the largest flocks. The lower one was probably over 2,000 but they get up to 8,000 or more!

  One of the rarer geese it the black brant. This is still a sub-species of the brent goose but again will probably be upgraded to full species eventually. The flock below is all common brent geese - dark neck, paler flanks and a white collar.

Black brants are very similar but you have to look for two characteristics. The first is a very sharp demarcation between the white-flanks and the dark back. Compare it to the bird behind and in the photo above.

The second thing to look for is the white collar. In "normal" brent it in only partial. In black brants it is much wider and prominent and forms a complete circle on the front of the neck.

Add them all together and you get this handsome bird present on the eye field at Cley.

 To be honest there wasn't a lot else around. The wind was blowing very strongly over the marshes so a hoped for short-eared owl didn't appear. With decent light ~I did take a few photos of waders at Burnham. In order you have turnstone, redshank, grey plover and curlew.

So only another week or so to go of this year. Been a pretty good one so far but would be nice to finish with a lifer before starting all over again next year!!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

When the wind blows.....

if it's from the East and it's November then birders head to the coast. Out in the North Sea there are lots of birds moving along the coast and if the prevailing wind is onshore then they come close in. This is probably the first time this Autumn when all the signs came together so it was another early start and heading East.
My first stop though wasn't the coast. At the start of the year I had targeted Richard's pipit as a lifer to get and there was one at Fordham which was only a few miles off the normal route to Norfolk. This is a large pipit, structurally similar to a meadow pipit but much more robust in build. It's large beak especially makes it stand out as does it almost sparrow-like flight call. They are notorious though for disappearing into long grass for long periods. This one was no exception. It was reported as being in an area of rough grass and that was indeed the case. On arriving on site two birders had got it on the ground on a path 20 minutes previously but it then relocated into the rough ground and promptly disappeared. Five of us waited about 30 minutes and the only excitement was when a mipit tried to persuade us it was it's larger cousin until it flew with a very distinctive sharp flight call.
There was only course of action. After a brief "shall we, shan't we" conversation we formed a line and took a stroll through the long grass. Tow hundred yards and success. A large pipit flew up with a very different call, almost sparrow like. It also had a very different flight pattern compared to mipits, floating down to earth as if it was doing a display flight. We had it in flight again 10 minutes later but it was clearly not going to settle to I called it and headed for the coast. Lifer in the bag though and it wasn't even 9am!!! There was one other bird on site, this really confiding snow bunting. I should have stopped longer for more photos but the light was rubbish and I had bigger fish to fry!

I had two targets on the coast to get my year list going. First was stopping at Thornham for twite. There was a flock of about 20 on the salt marsh mixing with their very similar cousins linnets. By the time I got there it was good and bad news. Both were that the wind was really getting up. This would be good for later on the coast but bad for here as standing on the bank was challenging and the birds were really flighty. A small group had gathered though near some puddles in a field and it was clear small groups of finches were coming down to drink. 'scoping the pool soon revealed a number of twite. My phone was already going off though with reports of a big movement happening on the coast so I hightailed it back to the car and sped along the coast to Cley. Well, sped is not possibly along the A149 as you have lots of people wearing hats in very sensible small cars driving at 37mph! Still, got to the beach car-park by about 11.30.
Cley is basically a large shingle bank looking north/ north west onto the North Sea. There is a small shelter which is the favoured area for sea-watching as it does provide some shelter. Already about 15 people had gathered slightly below the shingle ridge but with 'scopes pointing out to sea. A quick questioning and it was clear I had made a good choice. The sea was hot! Viewing conditions were good to average. There was a fair swell running with surf breaking in-shore. Visibility was good to a least a quarter mile and fair up to a mile. There was lots of stuff moving though. As usual, coming from rural Hertfordshire it took me 30 minutes or so to get my eye in with picking up birds moving by quite fast but with good teamwork between about 6 or 7 of us we were soon picking up birds moving in both directions.
Rarest were little auks. These are small relations of guillemots but almost starling-sized. Some years you get hardly any down south, other years you can get thousands. Today was in-between. I guess I had 20 or 25 but missed many more. They were reasonably close in and moving from right to left. A few settled on the surf but most were just heading North, presumably into the Wash.
Mainly moving from left to right though and generally further out were the skuas. Great skuas or bonxies, told by their brown plumage and white "mirrors" on the wings were coming past every 10 minutes or so. We were limited to only identifying stuff up to about a half-mile out with any confidence so we probably missed many more. As well as bonxies, pomarine and arctic skuas were also going by, some in singles and one flock of up to 12 birds. These are much darker with more swept-back wings, almost resembling a hawk or falcon in shape. Most we tentatively id'd as poms with most just being "skuas" as they were too far out. Pom's are larger, with a deeper chest but the plumage of both are quite close. A few were called as arctic based on size and slimmer profile.
Other birds moving included a group of 4 Velvet scoter, told from their common cousins by obvious white wing-bars. Common scoters would have been in the hundreds. A few dozen eiders flew past, including one flock of 15-18 birds. I only had one shearwater, a manx, but again you had the feeling there were a lot more about. Hundreds if not thousands of kittiwakes were also on the move, often with skuas in close attendance. I tried to study them to see if there was a Sabine's gull, whose plumage is similar to juvenile kittis but it was pretty much a lost cause at distance and speed. Guillemots and razorbills made up the supporting cast, again with numbers in the hundreds. Three hours of solid sea-watching had added 3 new year-ticks the best being little auks.
I did pop into the marshes to see if the grey phalaropes were still there but no sign. There was lots of the normal birds but nothing on any rarity.
Overall a great day though. Sea-watching is either a very special day or a very dull one. Today was special. It also took me to 248 for the year, only 2 short of my personal record of 250 which is now well in sight (or 252 against 253 on 400club rules!!).Sorry about no photos but everything was way too far away!!!1

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Shrike, rattle and roll

There are some things which auger well for bird-watching. October and a low pressure over Scandinavia normally means a good fall of migrants onto the East coast. So it transpired, but that was on Tuesday and I couldn't get there till Thursday. Yellow-browed (y-b)warblers all over the place, Raddes and Pallas's warblers, olive-backed pipit, Isabelline shrike and the long staying Steppe grey shrike were all there. Two cloudy nights meant I left home at 5am with a reasonable hope of being able to connect with at least some of them. First stop was Wells' woods. My main target was the olive-backed pipit, which would be a lifer for me, but the back-up cast was y-b warblers and a possible Raddes although that was no show on Wednesday.
As ever this Autumn the weather was ridiculously warm if overcast. All the action was in an area called the dell, which is basically a large open area of ground surrounded by mixed conifers and deciduous trees, mainly silver birch. Right from the car-park there was loads moving. Flocks of long-tailed tits numbering into the few dozen, quite a few goldcrests mixed up with them and not insignificant numbers of chiffchaffs. Quite a few birders were on site as well, so many eyes made light work. By the east end of the dell there was a stand of silver birches which held a sizeable flock of small birds. Quite quickly I heard the distinctive call of a y-b warbler but it took a good 10 minutes to track it down. Everything was very mobile near the tops of the trees and the light was very dull with the cloud cover. Consensus was that there was at least two birds there, which showed briefly in the canopy. I also picked out 5 bramblings feeding in with them. Of the olive-backed pipit though, no sign. Talking to others on site it was apparently a swine to see as it was very un-pipit like in that it stayed in the trees rather than coming into the open.
By about 9.30 I decided to move off and try my luck elsewhere. I went only about 5 miles or so to Burnham Norton where a Steppe grey shrike had been holding court for some weeks. This is a very rare bird, itself being a sub-species of the southern grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis meridionalis). Initially it attracted crowds of a few hundred but now there were about 20 at any one time.
Many birds of this species are incredibly tame, perhaps coming from the Russian steppes they don't meet many people. This one was no exception and made more so by being baited in with mealworms!!
First of all it was perched on a bush about 50 yards away, nice views but distant.

After about 15 minutes it decided it was hungry and flew down to an area right in front of us, then back to a bush but slightly nearer.

Finally, it plucked up courage and spent about 15 minutes feeding on the ground on the mealworms and on flitting onto perches (both put there by photographers!). It gave great views just a shame the light was so flat it didn't bring out the colours of the bird.

By now my phone was alerting me to the fact that the other star bird of the area, an Isabelline shrike, had been refound at Warham Greens. So, I bade the SGS goodbye and moved about 20 minutes along the coast. There was a much bigger crowd here. I would guess 50 cars parked along the lane plus I saw other groups at other tracks down to the coast. There was a constant flow down and back, and those coming back had all seen the bird. It took about 10 minutes I guess to find around 50 people all looking at a bush. I could see a bird in it, which I was assured was the shrike. It only took 30 seconds for it to pop up and sit right out in the open. Same family but a very different looking bird, and this one not being fed mealworms.

This was a young bird, without any distinctive facial markings and showing the lovely scalloped pattern on the breast. It only stayed for about a few minutes then flew off along the coast. I was lucky on that one. It was refound again later but, as for the SGS, didn't stay much longer so I timed them both right.
So, what else did I manage to connect with. I had another go for the olive-backed pipit without any luck. Moving long the coast though I stopped near Holkham looking out over the freshmarsh. This is a well-known spot for rough-legged buzzards and there was a crown onto a bird in the field a long way out. The views weren't great but the jizz of the bird, the very light plumage including a very pale head and a hint of a pale-rump in flight were good enough for me.Finally I moved onto Holme where there were 2 Pallas's warblers feeding in sycamores in the car park. No chance of a photo as they were moving like lightning and rarely showed well but when they did you got glorious views of what is termed the 7-striped sprite. This is so-called because of distinctive pattern of stripes on its head.
Overall a very good day. One lifer, 4 more years ticks, taking me to 242 for the year against BOU and 245 against 400 club rules. Two and a bit more months to get another 10 birds to break my personal record.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Having a high old time

One of the first things they teach you in the Army, apparently, is never volunteer. Same applies normally in business, but when I learnt that my company was hosting a conference in Scotland my cogs started to turn. My year-list is empty of all the Scottish specialities so what if i could do a talk and combine it with a few days in Speyside!!! Plan hatched.
So, Sunday  29th Sep, the last day of the Ryder Cup, had me driving up to Speyside to stay for 3 days in Boat of Garten. I did actually pass Gleneagles on the way up, but fortunately whilst they were playing so no traffic problems. The drive was long, about 8 ½ hours, but by 4.30 I was parked up by Rothiemurchus estate. Boots on, ‘scope and bins out, coat on and straight into it.
This was the same track where we had good views of capercaillie and crested tits last year so I was hoping I could get the trip off to a good start. Sometimes luck smiles on you and within about 10 minutes I was onto a flock of crossbills feeding high up in the conifers. There were I guess about 20 or 30 in 2 or 3 groups, and over the next 90 minutes they were constantly present though mainly flying over. Mixed in with them were siskins and coal tits, ever presents in the speyside woods. About half a mile in I heard a loud crashing in the wood on my right. No people around. I stopped and ventured a short way in. Suddenly from about 20 yards away two large birds flapped off a tree about 10 feet in the air and crashed through the understorey. One kept going but one stopped briefly in another tree low down. Not great views but tick number 2 – capercaillie. They were within a few hundred yards of where we saw them last year, and I think where there is a spring lek so a reliable spot. As a slight caveat to this, I did go back twice more and saw nothing though.
Finally, walking back to the car a bit tired but pretty pleased I came across another small flock of birds. Mainly siskins and a few coal tits but then I saw another shape high up. I got my bins on it an saw the unmistakable shape of a crest! Got 3 of my targets within 90 minutes of getting to Scotland and on a day when I thought I would just be travelling. I watched the crestie for about 5 minutes but the light was going and I was a bit tired so back to the hotel.
Next day I was out fairly early. It was a superb morning, light cloud, chilly first thing but soon warmed up to a light jumper day. First stop was Loch Garten. The ospreys have long gone, but the car park is normally good for cresties and the woods hold more capers. No one else was around so I had the place to myself. By the hide is a large bird feeder, but this had a lovely red squirrel feeding on the nuts. It seemed totally unperturbed by me.

The woods around were quiet and no sign of capers. The car park though, or at least the woods by the side of the Loch, had a nice mixed flock of coal tits, treecreepers and 2 or 3 cresties. Mainly they were very mobile and stayed high but this one did come down for long enough for me to grab a half-decent photo.

Next I thought I ought to go high as the weather was so good, so I carried on up the road to Cairngorm. Things have changed here over the years. You used to be able to get the chair-lift up to the ptarmigan restaurant and then walk the tops. This was the best way to get ptarmigan and dotterel. About 10 years ago though they decided too many people were doing this and the mountain was being degraded. So, now, you can go to the restaurant but can't go outside. Still, I bought a ticket for the funicular railway and went on up. You can get ptarmigan from the trip up, but not today. There were a few red grouse around but nothing else. The only other option was to sign up for the guided walk, which lets you out for 90 minutes on a fixed route to the top. I signed up and we had a very pleasant stroll in warm sunshine with superb views but no birds - literally - were spotted. It does make it hard as the only way up now is from the car park, but more of that later.

My second day, with more fine weather, was a trip to the Findhorn Valley. This is one of the premier spots for eagles. The long valley holds a number of pairs and with the high concentration of prey species you are not exactly guaranteed golden eagles but it's a good shout. In the spring it is raptor central and you can, on a good day, pick of 6 or 7 species in one walk. Combine that with a day in late September where the temperatures were in the mid-teens and sunny giving good thermals then you start off in an optimistic frame of mind.
If you've not been, it is about 30 minutes from Aviemore with a lovely drive along the river valley. You get to the head of the valley and park up near some cottages then walk off between the mountains either side of you following the river. Immediately I saw ravens on the ridges near the car park and there were buzzards and kestrels in the air. This is also a good place for the red deer rut. There are good numbers on the hills. I was a bit early though and a few males were starting to bellow a bit but I think another week or so, or even a bit of cold weather, might have got them going. I was a bit surprised in some ways that I was the only person there all morning, at least as far as birders were concerned.
The walk is pretty much straight out and back, with one turn-off. I kept going straight for about 45 minutes. As I was almost at another small group of cottages, I presume for shooting or fishing parties, a large raptor flapped off a tree and over the ridge. It looked bloody big but it was gone. I felt in need of coffee though so I got my flask out and sat on a rock for a rest. Within a minute the bird came back over the ridge. Long, straight wings, very "fingered" at end, white tail feathers and enormous. No doubt about it, a juvenile goldie. I was desperately getting my camera out it was followed by one then two other birds. I had three in the air all at once. They gained height rapidly and moved off down the valley. I grabbed a couple of rubbish photos but the top one is a good id photo. Note the square wings with almost flat leading edge and the white tail, marking it out as a juvenile. You can just about make out the head with massive bill.
 This was clearly a second bird, probably an adult as it has no white in the tail. The wings are bent back in a dive so don't just just look for a straight edge!!

After the eagles I set off on one of our favourite drives, the drive across the moors to Farr. This is a small road, crossing open heather and moorland and is normally good for red grouse. What it does afford is the opportunity for using the car a a photo hide as the grouse are often close by the road which itself is slightly higher than you. Unfortunately it sounded like a shoot was in the neighborhood so I didn't get great chances  this time but a few did come close enough to test out my new 500mm lens.

 I do like this one, with it cocking it's head to one side in a very inquisitive way.

Apart from the grouse the only other birds of note were lots of mipits. I continued on to the coast after this towards Lossiemouth but whereas the nice weather helped with eagles it killed the sea. A few waders were around but nothing on the sea apart one lone eider, which was a year tick albeit a very late one.

For my last day I decided to head back to the mountains after black grouse adn ptarmigan. One my guided walk the guide said that going up towards BenMacdui from the car park could be a good bet so that was the plan. On the way I stopped at the Coire na Ciste car park which is good for black grouse in the lek. I had tried it twice already with no luck. This time it seemed someone smiled on me. I didn't see any black grouse in the heather but as I drove out one flopped up from the side of the road and stopped on the crash barrier for a few seconds!! A good omen??
I got to the Cairngorm car park about 8.30. The weather was still pretty good, but I was starting at 2000 ft and planning on going above 3000 so I got my full kit on but travelled light. No 'scope, no 500mm lens, just my bins and 100-400mm lens.
The path up is clearly marked and mostly good going. You just keep going up and up. On the lower slopes were lots of mipits and a few red grouse sitting around.

As I got higher and higher the birds thinned out. No sign of ptarmigan though, which is what I was after. Another walker knew the area and told me to keep walking up. Eventually, just as I was getting really knackered, I got to the plateau. This is a relatively flat area leading off towards the lower slopes of Ben Macdui. It looked really good ptarmigan country - boulders, heather, not much cover, but no birds in sight. The weather was starting to get a bit lively as well. The wind was getting up and cloud was moving in. I was sorely tempted to keep going as there was a snowy owl on the Ben, but that was another couple of hours and I wasn't kitted out for that. So, with rain/ low cloud setting in I turned round. Just as I got to the start of the path down though I heard a distinctive call. Then I saw a flock of about 30 or birds burst out Of the heather and fly away from me. They behaved in a very grouse-like manner but they were almost all white. Ptarmigan???

The calls carried on and I spotted a bird hopping onto a rock. Grouse-like in shape, but showing a lot of white and a very grey back. No doubt about it.

 Over the next 20 minutes or so I stalked around in the heather and the scree-slope. I saw two more flocks of birds fly off, probably a hundred or so ptarmigan in all, amazing numbers. I got close to a few of them. They weren’t particularly skittish just they were much better than I was moving around on steep slopes. Lovely birds, the relatively still valley echoing their calls as they flew around. A great end to my short trip with all of my targets in the bag, some superb weather and great walks in the hills and mountains.