Friday, 30 October 2015

Damned Americans, never there when you want them!!

The Autumn migration has sort of petered out now. There are a few nice birds hanging on, although most of them are up in Scotland. Even the "mega" Chestnut bunting in Orkney seems to have gone now, probably expired after being so weak yesterday it had to be moved out of the way of a tractor!!
Anyway, I had to go up to Peterborough this morning so I tried to combine it with a couple of birds "stops".
The first was at Eyebrook reservoir in Leicestershire where an American golden plover, a close cousin of our native birds, had been hanging out. All looked good apart from two things - it was absolutely chucking it down with rain and it hadn't been seen yesterday. Still, the car made a half decent hide with the boot lid sheltering me from the worst and I only got wet on my bottom half scanning the lake. The bird had been seen at the in-flow end, and there were, I suppose, about a hundred or more golden plovers mooching around with the same number of lapwings. A dozen dunlin and a lone redshank made up the supporting cast. Firstly on my own and later on with a couple of other birders every plover was thoroughly scrutinised. AGP's are quite similar to our birds and in the same plumage are hard to tell apart. Things like "slimmer build" are never easy to judge and "dark underwings" rely on getting them flying and overhead. Helpfully though, AGP's often keep their breeding plumage later than our birds (flash Yanks I hear you say) and this one, from a photo, had a lovely dark-belly so should have stood out well. The main word here is "should". Two hours scanning, watching small flocks fly in, the main flock lift off and come back, moving over to the other side of the reservoir - nothing....Still - well normally there is a still but apart from getting cold and wet there wasn't really an upside to that one apart from becoming an expert in subtle plumage variations of European golden plovers!!! I didn't even get the camera out as it was too wet and too dark!
Fortunately my next stop was hopefully a bit more predictable even if the birds were a lot less rare. Three velvet scoters had been loitering about on Grafham water, which is just by the A1. I got there about 12 as the weather started to improve. The weather wasn't nice, just not raining any more. An exorbitant £3 to park and a 5 minute walk and you could scan the choppy waters. As well as a large raft of tufties, three larger black shapes were lurking asleep near one of the buoys.
Velvet scoters are really sea ducks and closely related to the commoner "common" scoter seen off the east coast in some numbers at this time of year. They do sometimes stray inland, in fact the first ever one I saw was at Broadwater Lake near my house many years ago! There are a number of characteristics used to separate them, including a white wing-bar in flight, but these were going nowhere. Even when a fishing boat came near them they only just moved across a bit. Another classic i'd though is a white "ear" patch and when you combine that with a markedly larger and more orange bill you get these juvenile velvet scoters. The bill colour does not show well here as these are juveniles, but it is much chunkier in profile and the ears show up well.

Another field characteristic is a thin white line of their flank which is really the wing-bar showing through which you can see well on this photo.

So, overall a fair day. I missed the lifer but picked up another year tick and at least I had got dry by the time I got home!!

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A few house martins clinging on….

An occasional post by guest editor Judith Passingham

One of the delights of Rickmansworth is an afternoon ramble in the Aquadrome area, encompassing the River Colne, the Grand Union canal and a series of flooded gravel pits forming a lovely string of lakes along the Colne Valley, reaching almost up to the A40 area. (We can only hope that the HS2 development will not be allowed to blight this area of important wildlife habitat, and recreational facility for its enthusiastic residents. Enlightenment may occur when our politicians finally realize for themselves that business people don’t need to arrive 15 minutes earlier at the expense of the English Countryside, but simply need an adequate table on which  to place their laptop or tablet, and a really great Wifi connection….)

The canal itself is showing some hints of autumn, with hawthorn berries along its banks, and swirling patterns of leaves in the canal water. 

Along the old wall adjacent to the bridge by the stables at Stockers Lock, ivy flowers are profuse, with lovely bobbles of black and green showing against the darker sheets of ivy. Adjacent to Stockers Lake, ground ivy is changing colour, with red, orange and yellow patterns starting to emerge along the ivy leaf veins. 

Leaving the dog walkers and canal boatmen behind, by the lake, the parsleys are turning crispy brown, with soft taupe seeds clinging around the umbrella spokes of the Summer flowers. Red seeds and berries are in evidence, with rose hips starting to show, and great tendrils of deadly nightshade with vibrant red lush berries wrapping themselves around the trunks of trees.

Over the canal we see a few stray house martins flitting about catching flies. The River Colne is a well known migration route for hirundines and during the Autumn, columns of birds can be seen making their way down this watery corridor towards the South. These birds are the tail end of this Autumn procession.

On the other side of the lake there are a number of mature trees and at their base we make out one or two Autumn ladies tresses orchids, now in seed. The work done in this area to prune the trees appears to have decimated this orchid population, but thankfully a few remain.

Further along are a number of juvenile Oak trees. Their leaves are starting to crisp black and brown at the edges, making a pleasing contrast with the electric emerald colour shown through the light from underneath. The blackberry bushes are almost done, with dry black berries over large bushes. Occasionally the red jewel of an unripe blackberry, and a few tail end blackberries can be seen shining out from this sea of desiccated leaves. 

The lake was pretty quiet on the bird front but the red-crested pochards gave an exotic splash of colour.

and the sound-track of Autumn and Winter was provided by family flocks of long-tailed tits in the trees.

and pleasingly this kingfisher was showing very well nearly at Maple Lodge reserve.

Friday, 16 October 2015

What's the plural of skulking?

Autumn, winds from the East and Norfolk. Can only mean one thing - rarities!! Had to be done, so at 5.03 I left the house for the drive across to the coast.
First stop was Well's Wood. This is just down from Holkham but is really just part of the giant reserve and migrant trap that is the North Norfolk coast. The woods held one main target for me, a Blyth's reed warbler, which would be a lifer in the UK, with a back-up cast of Hume's and Pallas's leaf warblers. After a good trip down I got to the site just after dawn although the light over the whole day was never really good. The instructions for the Blyth's were to go to the toilet block and look in the woods near them - lovely. The toilets were actually closed for the Winter anyway!!
There were three other birders on site already and we spent about an hour trudging around the bushes and trees looking for a bird which had been described as "elusive". It certainly was. I think I heard it call twice, a sharp call like two stones being knocked together which is also a bit like blackcaps and even robins! No sign of the bird though.
What was present though was a stunning Pallas's warbler. Imagine a cross between a goldcrest and a chiffchaff. Bright white underneath, deep green on top with three bright stripes on the head - the three-striped sprite. Always active, never still, I got onto this one as part of a group of goldcrests in a holly bush. The goldcrests were everywhere, there must literally have been hundreds in the wood together with freshly arrived, or arriving, redwings.
I gave up on the Blyth's as a Hume's warbler had been reported 10 minutes walk away. This is similar to the Pallas's, a stripy-headed leaf warbler. This one though was hard to see. It was calling well but refused to come out of the canopy of the silver birches it was in. Strong winds didn't help and over 30 minutes or so I got only brief glimpses of it.
So, back to the Blyth's for another look. Another 30 minutes, no bird. One thing I did want to do was to get some seafood for the weekend though, so I decided to head off-site and do a bit of shopping in Burnham Market. Whilst I was in the fishmongers though the pager went off - "Blyth's reed warbler seen by the boating lake". Back in the car, back to Wells Wood. I quickly found the person who saw the bird which had shown for only about a minute or so. It was still alive though. We staked out the same tree and quickly about 10 people had joined us. Then one of people I had met earlier turned up - he had a photograph of the bird from 2 minutes ago and 30 yards away. Another quick yomp and we were watching another bush. "Is that it", no a blackcap. "just flown in", no a robin. Then a sharp "chack" call and a plain brown bird popped up in the middle of the bush. Looked like an Acro warbler but was that it. Then finally it gave itself up and sat on the top for all of 10 seconds before disappearing again. Success!!!
Most others stayed for better looks but I decided to try for my other targets. Holkham woods were about 10 minutes away by car but I had to walk for 40 minutes to get to the next bird a red-flanked bluetail. No idea why it got that name!!!! As was the theme of the day it was a skulker. I joined 8 others staring at a patch of nondescript low scrub. Fortunately after about 10 minutes the guy I had walked down with tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up into the trees. A bird with a whitish underneath but a distinct red patch on it's side. That was it. Another 15 minutes gave me no sightings so I moved on.
On the path back was an Isabelline shrike. When I got to the area it had been seen there were about 15 people staring at an empty hedge! No sign. Still, a couple of minutes later we did see a stoat hunting a rabbit. You can just see it in the very photo!! The rabbit escaped by the way!

 Finally another birder walked past and helpfully said "it's on the hedge down there" pointing us about 100 yards along the path. Another quick yomp and there it was sitting up on top of a bush. Finally a bird you see for more than 5 seconds, albeit some distance away! Still I good get a few snaps of it.

I finished the day off with a bit of sea-watching at Cley where there were hundreds of gannets passing the beach along with 5 bonxies, 4 common scoter and a pair of mergansers.
All in all though a very good day in terms of the quality of the birds if not the quality of the views of them. Still, a lifer, 4 other year ticks and up to 236 for the year.