Sunday, 12 July 2015

An unexpected lobster

This weekend we went down to Weymouth to visit Judith's mum. Not exactly a hardship as Dorset has some beautiful landscape and is probably second or third in the birding excitement stakes after Norfolk and Suffolk. Saturday was taken up by visiting Bridport and sorting out Rita's garden so not much birding. Sunday though allowed me to get up early and go out to see what was around.
Alarm went off at 6 and I staggered out to a damp and windy morning. It took me about 30 minutes to get down to Portland Bill for my first stop. It is mid July though and birding is heading into the Summer doldrums. Migration hasn't started, breeders have bred and without major weather systems it's hard work to find anything unusual. So it proved at the Bill.

I set myself up near the Pulpit rock and started scanning the sea. Basically it was quiet.
 The wind was blowing a few gannets near the coast which were closer than normal but it wasn't quite Shetland or Bempton cliffs.
Otherwise apart from some guillemots and razorbills coming in and out of the colony there wan't a lot moving. I did pick up a few scoters but interestingly no signs of puffins. A few years ago there was a healthy colony here but like many on the south, or even northern English coasts, they have declined to the point of invisibility. There were a few ravens floating about the cliffs which were nice. So, I decamped off to Ferrybridge which also was very quiet. As I got into the car park a peregrine did fly over, and the little terns which nest on Chesil were pottering about on the Fleet.
Finally I gave up on Portland and headed off to Lodmoor. This is a brilliant little reserve, only 5 minutes from Rita's house. It's a central reed bed with pools and a scrape on the seaward side. I've had some great birds here- long and short billed dowitcher, stilt sandpiper and lots of good views of commoner waders. It didn't disappoint. Nothing rare but some nice stuff. As well as all the common ducks I quickly got onto two marsh harriers over the reedbed. One was a juvenile - they nest locally. From the viewing platform there was a greenshank loafing on the edge of the mud.
 and this heron was lurking in one of the side channels.

The main interest though was two relatively common wading birds - bar-tailed godwits and oystercatchers. The godwits, about 10 of them, were feeding on the mud. These are large waders with straight or slightly up-turned bills. They were a mix of ones still in semi-breeding plumage with their reddish hues and non-breeding more duller birds.

These three are non-breeding birds. A few id features are present. Firstly, in the one where you can see the tail, it is barred and not a solid black, making this a bar-tailed and not a black-tailed godwit. Also, the bill has a slight upturn to it, diagnostic of this variation of the family. They also look brown rather than grey, but you need more a comparison to see this.

These birds are in post-breeding plumage, so you can see the reddish-hues still present on them. They are very smart birds.

One interesting bird was this adult Mediterranean gull with a juvenile behind it. These used to be rare here, but common in southern Europe. Now they breed in reasonable numbers. Look for the full black hood, large red bill and bright eye to separate them from our black-headed gulls.
Finally, the other nice birds were oystercatchers. A pair had nested and their two young, juveniles now not balls of fluff, were mooching about on the mud.

They were old enough to probe for their own food now but their parents were still in position looking after them, especially when 4 ravens flew over!!
Eventually the weather set in and the rain came down. We finished off not be going to Abbotsbury Swannery as I had hoped but to the Hive cafe at Burton Bradstock for lunch. If you are in the area it is REALLY good. Judith rated her lobster as at least 8/10 and my brill with peas and broad beans was superb!! It does get packed and everyone, their dog and child does go but a packed restaurant is always a good sign.
Never a bad weekend down in Dorset even if the rares stay hidden!!

Friday, 3 July 2015

Sing a sweet melody

After a late night watching nightjars I had an early start today. Due to hitting our first half target at work the powers that be had given us the afternoon off. I did a swap and took the morning off as I had some calls to make in the afternoon. Even so, early was still only about 7am as I headed off up the M40. The target this time was the midlands to near a reserve called Marsh Lane. I went here in 2013 for a dusky warbler but today was a long staying melodious warbler.
The bird had been there for a few weeks already and was a male in full song. The last one I've seen was at Portland 5 years ago, and that was a very brief view. With light traffic I go there about 8.45 and it was only a short walk down a bridleway to the "corner of the recycling area". This basically meant a tip where there were lots of bulldozers!!
From about 100 yards away though I could hear it singing. This must be a very frustrated bird. They are pretty much annual in the UK but have never bred and are pretty rare. So, even though it was singing constantly for the 3 hours I was there, and has been doing that for weeks, the chance of it finding a Mrs Melodious is pretty slim. Another birder was already there with a big lens pointing at the bush, Paul Coombes and we spent a very pleasant morning watching the bird and chatting.
Superficially it is like a chiffchaff, but is larger and has much brighter plumage as well as a characteristic large dark eye, plus other subtler differences.

Most of the time it was lurking around in the bush, so although you could hear it your views were minimal. At least it limited itself to one bush though so we could camp out in front of it.
Occasionally, once every 15 minutes perhaps it would either come out into the open or, more probably, its random movements took into our view. Then you could get to see it a lot better.

It has a much more yellow plumage than other similar warblers, although not as much as,say a wood warbler. It's beak is a whopper though and when it turned towards us you could see the bright orange colouration inside.
All the time it was singing. The call it amazing. Initially it was thought to be a marsh warbler, another bird with a varied repertoire but a view quickly dispelled that thought. It did seem to have many different other birds it was mimicking though. I got blackbird alarm call, goldfinch, linnet, what sounded a kestrel whicker and a few others mixed in.
A few other birders came and went, including one gentleman who apparently is on 565 for his life list and this was only his second melody!!
As the heat built it gradually became more elusive but did favour one or two perches to keep us interested.

  Occasionally a pair of linnets would pop into the bush, although the melody seemed quite territorial and chased them off his territory.

With it getting quite hot and other things to do we decided to pack it in but the melody kept teasing us. First it flitted behind us into a lone tree where it sat out briefly, although this was almost
into the light so not great for photos but probably our clearest view.
Then to add insult to injury as we both had our cameras put away it came and sat out in clear view on the gorse in front of us. Still no complaining. A great bird, with great views and good company. What more can you want!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

An educational evening

Every year I make my annual pilgrimage down to Chobham common in Surrey. This is a lovely bit of gorse and heather sort of behind Wentworth, so getting there involves going past some VERY posh houses.Of course, my reason for going is more esoteric - nightjars. There are a number of pairs on the heath here, in fact they are reasonably wide spread all round the south east if you get the right habitat and this is just perfect for them.
They migrate here from Africa, arriving about mid May and stay till late August or early September. The issue with them though is that they are pretty much nocturnal, or at least strongly crepuscular. A trip to see them means getting there late and waiting till dusk.
I left work about 5.30 and with the usual awful traffic it took me 90 minutes to drive 25 miles. Still, no rush as the sun was still high. I parked up and trotted off fully laden with camera gear, mozzy repellent and sandwiches for my tea. The common is part of the wider heathlands round there and has a nice circular walk taking you first of all on top of a low ridge then round and below it. Apart from a rather annoying group of cub scouts it was pretty quiet. I did bump into a family party of Dartford warblers though and this youngster was particularly confiding.

I spent the next couple of hours happily wandering around the heath whilst the sun slowly sank, producing some lovely colours in the grasses and heathers.

I suppose you could say this is my version of a selfie!!

Finally the sun started to hit the horizon and the light levels really faded.

I grabbed what I thought was a good spot to watch for nightjars from and really struck lucky. Another bloke came along and asked me to move stuff from a bench I had plonked it on as he "wanted to set up his equipment". My first reaction was "find you own bench" but he then explained that he is a keen amateur who is doing a study of nightjars, and has been doing so for some years. He is trying to understand their behaviour and what causes them to become active in the evening. In order to do it he takes things like light, temperature and wind readings and so for comparison purposes needs to do them in the same place. For the next hour I suppose I had a very interesting lecture, and I use that word in a complimentary way, on the habits of nightjars and woodcock. Light is the key factor. They wont become active until it falls to about 105 lux and lo and behold almost as it hit that they started churring. This is their call, which is a very strange noise and, fact #2, they make it on breathing in and out and so do it continuously. Eventually a couple flopped up out of the heather and started flying around. It was now effectively dark as it was gone 10! As we were on the low side of the ridge though I did get the chance for one photo when one stopped in a tree giving a lovely silhouette against the fading light.

On cue the second typical of Chobham bird appeared, a lone woodcock. It was predicted that they would be later as they only become active when the light drops to 30 lux, which was almost perfect again. This one did a couple of circuits before heading off. With the light gone, the midges biting and a big day tomorrow I headed off, not only satisfied with some really good views but a lot better educated on these mysterious birds.