Saturday, 28 March 2015

A southern red-neck

If you go to the Norfolk coast or Portland harbour in Winter you may come across a red-necked grebe. It will probably be miles away though and looking pretty dull in its Winter plumage. Summer plumaged birds, and ones inland always attract a lot of interest as they are really smart birds.
One fitting all these descriptions had taken up semi-residence at Farmoor, a series of artificial reservoirs near Oxford, for the  last few days so early this morning I set out for it.
When I got there about 7.45 it was dank and blowing a hoolie across the causeway. The bird was normally listed at "western bank, F2" which in English means right on the far side from the car park. So, off I trotted. It took about 30 minutes as I was stopping to scrutinise every grebe but it was 90% gcg's and the odd little grebe. After an hour on the west bank I saw some other birders and they told me it had been seen right back by the car-park. As I was walking back this was then confirmed by another birder. When I got to the car-park I was just in time to catch it moving back to the west bank. So, I sort of followed it across the reservoir. It was always a long way out but did seem to be moving with purpose. Of course, this did mean I was now walking back  round again!!
I eventually got to a spot where you could watch it and slowly it kept coming closer and closer. It was fishing all the time and but over 30 minutes it went from a scope view to bins view to naked eye view. Eventually it settled down about 40 or 50 feet off the bank and was fishing and preening.  The light wasn't brilliant and it was windy and choppy but it gave great views.

Either there is a lot of fish there or it is a particularly good fisher.

It seemed to have a very high success rate. I reckoned it was over 75% for it diving and coming up with a fish. With it so close you got good views of both the fish and it struggling to manoeuvre them down.
There wasn't a lot else there. I was hoping for an early sand martin or a tern but apart from gulls it was pretty empty. There were a few chiffchaffs singing in the woods though which was nice.
Nice bird anyway. Only my second breeding plumage bird after one at Staines a few years ago and that was always miles away.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

double dipping

It's only fair to post about those days when it didn't go as well and not just boast about rarities. So, with Judith at the Country Living Fair I decided to nip over to Essex to go for the long staying serins at Battery Park. To cut a long story short I spent about 3 hours trudging around some scrubby bushes looking at a wide variety of goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, blue tits great tits and long-tailed tits. At one point I had persuaded myself that two birds flying over were the serins but sanity kicked in and I discounted them.
So, I cam back to Ricky and went to West Hyde where corn buntings have been seen on the same territory they nested in last year. The weather was drab and grey and not conducive to singing and displaying your love for your territory so a double dip. Hopefully they should be easier to get on a nicer morning in a couple of weeks.
The only highlight was this red kite which was drifting low over the field. Beautiful birds and I still can't get over how common they are now. I think back to the first time I saw one, almost causing me to crash on the M40 when I saw it.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

A gull sandwich

Three or four times a year I go up to Manchester to present to the Co-op on how good or bad their advertising was. The debrief on their Xmas advertising coincided with a spell of really nice weather and some nice birds around the North-west so I decided to make a trip of it.
I left the house at 04.15 on Wednesday and ploughed my way up the M40/ M6. It wasn't a great drive as it was pretty foggy but the lack of traffic helped and I was at my first stop by about 08.15. This was New Brighton which is along the coast from Liverpool. The target was a laughing gull which has been around for 3 or 4 weeks and is a UK, but not world, lifer for me. It was one of those typically glamorous locations for twitching - a rather scruffy looking boating lake with a Morrisons and Iceland on one side and some dodgy looking bingo parlour on the other.

Anyway, as I was on a tight time-line as I had to get to Manchester to do my presentation I didn't even bother with coffee but got my kit out and scanned the gulls. There were a lot of small and large gulls about but it wasn't too difficult to pull out the laughing gull.
You can see how it stands out against the black-headed gulls. This one is a juvenile bird and should be in the USA. Not a good first effort at migration!!
It first of all flopped off the rail onto the water
and then decied to come back and sit on the rail surrounding the lake. It let me get really close so you can get good detail on the key identification features - the giant black bill, long dark legs, sooty-grey mantle and the start of if its dark head, although still needs a bit of working on.

So, after grabbing a well deserved cup of coffee I said goodbye to my lifer and headed off to Manchester. In case anyone is interested the Co-ops Xmas campaign worked very well and even if I say so myself I was on fire presenting!!
Two o'clock had me on the road again. Next stop was in theory 45 minutes away at Burton Mere but Manchester seems to have a unique set of traffic lights designed to annoy the hell out of you! Anyway, by about 3.15 I got to the reserve. It is an RSPB wetland reserve and quite a new one. I was expecting something small but the car park had about 30 cars and there was nice visitor centre. In the centre was a very nice lady who gave me directions to what I had come to see - a long eared owl. One had been roosting for a few weeks almost in the open. It was straight-forward to get to, follow the path for about 20 minutes and look for the people with cameras. Indeed that was exactly what it was and the owl was sitting in the bush. However, I had forgotten to check my camera and hadn't noticed the battery was dead! So, I yomped back to the car and changed battery before yomping back again. Keeps you fit I suppose!!
The leo was still there, almost motionless in a hawthorn bush and totally ignoring everyone and not moving even when a train went past about 30 yards away . Not easy for photos as it was in deep shade but it was so motionless I still managed to keep a sensible ISO and slow speed.

Lovely bird and I stayed there about 30 minutes and saw it blink twice I think!! Seemed very unperturbed by everyone anyway.
A good day and from here I was taking Thursday off in Anglesey and so I set off to stay near South Stack at the Trearrdur Bay Hotel, which if anyone is round there is very good and perfectly located. A large gammon steak and red wine finished off a very good if tiring day!

Thursday dawned with a beautiful day. Totally still and clear and actually warm! First stop was South Stack which is famous for its choughs. These look superficially like crows but have long curved red bills for probing like a wader for grubs. They are birds now limited to the Welsh and Cornish coasts. I got to the car park and got my gear out and was looking around the cliffs wondering where would be the best place to find them - by the cliffs, on the tops, in the rocks???
The answer was, on top of the telephone post behind me!!
Two of them were sitting just warming up in the sun. Basically they sat there for 20 minutes. I got right underneath them and they totally ignored me. So, not great photo wise but they are lovely birds.

Elsewhere on the reserve the seabird colony was in full swing. Guillemots and razorbills packed the cliffs together with fulmars and kittiwakes. Shags were on the rocks. In the gorse, meadow pipits and stonechats were all in full song. It was a truly beautiful place and a totally gorgeous day.

After chilling for a bit and watching the world go by I set off my next stop, Cemyln Bay. The target was a lapland bunting but it hadn't been seen the day before so I wasn't hopeful. It took me about 30 minutes to hop across the island. The weather was getting better and better and by the rime I got there it was not even jumper-on temperature. The bay is quite small and not much was around. The bunting had gone, confirmed by a local birder who said it was almost eaten by a whippet two days ago!! Aren't dog walkers wonderful.
There were a few waders around, including purple sandpipers and grey plovers. oystercatchers and ringed plovers.
One nice bird was my first wheatear of the year. I also got a possible otter in the bay but it disappeared never to be seen again, almost certainly therefore proving it was an otter!!!
My final stop on the way home was along the Welsh to Pensarn where an iceland gull was showing well.This is one of the "white-wingers" recognised by the lack of black in their wings. They stand out even at distance as being very different to the other gulls and are gulls more of the high arctic and occur in the UK in winter.
Again it was still perfect weather and the sea was almost glassy. The gull was sitting in a rather scruffy carpark!! Just like it's cousin the day before it as really confiding. Most of the time it was just sitting on the pebbles on the beach.

You can see the typical look of the bird - very pale, brown mottling on the back and wings, pink legs and crucially totally white wing tips. The only confusion species is glaucous gull but they are real brutes like greater black-blacks and this is more like a small herring gull.
When not on the beach it came into the car park to drink out of a rather horrid looking puddle.

You could get very close, a lot of the time with my 500mm lens you had to back off! Eventually it would get bored with you though and fly off, but only a few yards, although that did give you the chance to see see it in flight.

Elsewhere there was a very large scoter flock offshore, a few hundred birds at least. They were so far out you couldn't make out if there were and velvet scoters amongst them.

A really good two days. One lifer, ten new birds to the year list taking me to 158, some cracking photo opportunities and all in beautiful weather. What more can you want!!

Friday, 6 March 2015

A lesser spotted bird

Just a very quick post. I was working from home when news of a lesser spotted woodpecker at Stockers Lake came up on Herts Bird Club. As it would be rude not to, I grabbed my bins and hightailed it over to the yacht club.
No other birders were around, which was a bit strange. Lesser spots have gained an almost mythical status as being almost impossible to see. They are small birds, about the size of a sparrow or a bit bigger and once the leaves come on the trees will totally disappear. They are also one of the birds whose population has declined drastically in recent years.
Anyway, I hung about and after 20 minutes or so I heard one call in the trees. They have a very distinctive call, almost like a cross between the yaffle of a green woodpecker and the yicker of a kestrel.Often that is all you get and they never appear. This one however almost immediately flew onto a dead tree about a hundred yards away. Good bins views followed but as I got my camera onto it a parakeet also flew into the tree and flushed it.
Over the next hour I saw it, or another bird as two were seen earlier, on two more occasions and heard it call again. Would be a coup for the Aquadrome if they paired up and nested!!
I also spotted a treecreeper in the woods, which is a first for the year taking me to 147.

I also went back on Saturday morning (07/03) and the birds were still there. Pretty elusive as two hours only got me two views and two calls. Speaking to others on site, including Geogg Lapworth, they've been around for a couple of weeks and range as far as the cafe though the oak tree on the island seems to be their base.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Surfs up

I think I've created a monster. My brother-in-law, Martin, who two years ago was mad keen on mushrooms has now become a lister. Last year he got 199 for the year and this year he's really keen. So keen, i'm struggling to keep ahead of him. After a trip to Dorset he got to within 8 of me so I decided a spurt was needed.
Judith was off on a day trip to Brussels so I left about 6.45 to head to the south coast. First stop was Gosport for the male surf scoter. I've seen juvenile/ females before but not a smart male so I was particularly looking forward to it. I got to the Pebbles restaurant car park about 8.45. The weather was a tad chilly but the wind wasn't too bad so the waves were manageable. I almost immediately got onto two diving ducks. One looked pretty plain but the second, even with the naked eye, had a bold white patch on the nape of its neck. I spent about 30 minutes watching them. They never got close in, but scope views showed the almost bizarre beak of the surfie.

You can see the bulbous beak with its orange banding and the white neck. Nice bird.

Second stop was only 30 minutes away at Southsea Castle. This was much closer as the scoter flew but you had to navigate the estuary to get there. The target was a group of overwintering purple sandpipers. You were pretty much in the centre of the town but the castle, more of a fort really, was nicely on the waters edge with rocks and seaweed. A perfect habitat for purple sandpipers.

Unlike a lot of waders these are very confiding and so it proved. A group of 7 let me get quite close, along with a sanderling who was hanging about as well.

So with two year ticks I headed off for a third. At Chichester Gravel pits a bean goose (race tundra) had been hanging around with the feral greylags. I went here last year to not see a dusky warbler, but this was altogether easier. It was just mooching about on the lake.

Superficially these look quite similar to our much commoner greylags but they are smaller, have a smaller bill with dark markings as you can see here and their legs are a different colour, although with geese that often not very useful!! Anyway, three year ticks and all easy-peasy.
Next stop was to go to Thursley common. This is a good wintering spot for great grey shrikes and one was in residence. By now the weather was gorgeous and felt quite warm. I've been to Thursley often, and know the area where the shrike normally feeds, an are known as "shrike hill" for obvious reasons. There were about 5 or 6 other birders looking but no one had the bird. I went for a bit of a stroll and as i got of the top of the hill a flash of grey went past me and settled on top of a tree.

That was the shrike adn for the next 10 minutes or so it flew around the area going between trees and bushes and dropping down to grab what I presume were small beetles.

My last stop was to the short distance to Farnham Country Life Park. I was there last year for the 2-bar crossbill but there nothing exotic on offer today.The farmland artefacts weren't of interest but this is a good spot for heathland birds. One especially is very good here, and it probably my favourite chorister of the bird world, the woodlark. They din't disappoint, despite it being late afternoon. Three or four birds were in good voice with their flutey rise and fall song.

One of the other speciality birds was also there, the Dartford warbler. As ever you heard them more than seeing them but I did get occasional fleeting glimpses of purple shapes in the heather. No signs of any crossbills though which was disappointing.

Still, a good day all round and back well ahead of Martin...