Friday, 30 December 2016

Rock and roll thrush

I thought this year was about finished as far as birding was going. A year tick or two perhaps but nothing exciting. Then, the day after Boxing Day, I spotted that a blue rock thrush has been seen in Stow in the Wold. Apparently it had been there for two weeks happily feeding in a garden before a photo was posted and the bird identified. There was, shall we say, a degree of scepticism on the inter web about its provenance, with a bird park 5 miles away, and this being a relatively popular aviary bird. Photos taken the following day though showed it to be fully unringed, with little sign of cage damage, it was wary and was a 1st winter bird. All of this helped its claims for authenticity so a major twitch was underway.
At 6am when I left the house it was misty and cold. The drive up was slow, with the mist keeping the speeds down but to be honest I was really early and arrived to the car park in Stow about 8.15. Two other cars were disgorging their inhabitants who to judge by the 'scopes were after the same thing. We all walked the short distance to Fisher Close, which is part of a quite nice modern estate on the edge of Stow. There were I suppose 80 birders on site mostly in one spot where the bird was originally sighted. What the residents were thinking I don't know with a few hundred thousand pounds of optics pointing at their bedroom windows!!The lady in the house was collecting for a local charity though and another house was selling tea and coffee so all seemed good.
Over the next three hours the crown swelled then dispersed around the estate as there was no sign of the thrush. We trudged the surrounding roads, scanning rooftops and gardens, checking starlings and blackbirds but no sign of the rock thrush. There was a bonus bird of a flyover waxwing, but the general feeling was "it's done an offsie overnight". I had quite a long chat with one birder from Essex who gave up about 11.40 and headed off. I had a carpark ticket till 1 so I stuck it out. I pottered back to where I started hoping it would come back to favoured haunts but nothing.
Then, suddenly, from the top of the close was a shout of "it's showing". Twenty birders collectively scooped up their gear and ran, literally in my case, following the hordes to a nearby garden. The birders collective sense of fair play kicked in as there was a limited viewing area and we quickly milled through it so everyone "got on" the bird. Then we could relax.

The blue rock thrush is really a native of southern Europe or Northwest Africa, even as far across as Asia. It is a very rare bird here with only 5 accepted records. It should be in mountains and high altitudes, but this Winter has seen any number of rare thrushes and assorted other birds so it's not a given that this isn't a genuine vagrant.
As I said, it's natural habitat it rocky cliffs, and here it was loving the rooftops as a good surrogate.

Size-wise it is about as big as a starling but slimmer and whereas starlings perch vertically it is more horizontal. Of course, it is also blue! The colours were often difficult to make out as the fog was hanging about in the village. You could easily make out the lovely markings on the breast and the sharp, almost pointed beak. Although it is called a starling it is actually in the chat family, or old world flycatchers, hence that beak.
Over the next 45 minutes we followed the thrush around as it moved around a few hundred yards of housing estate, mainly on the rooftops then dropping down into gardens to feed,

It did keep returning though to where we first spotted it, and this was the only area where we could get it on the ground in open sight. It was a bit of a scrum to get to the front, which when owned was not given up easily so I ended up leaning over a fortunately short lady with my 500mm lens trying not to brain her. The thrush did oblige though with sitting up on a flower pot once and "giving itself up".

When it flew off again for another tour I took that as a sign to head home, as did many others. A slow but happy band walked back to the carpark for a celebratory coffee before wending their collective ways home. A stunning end to the year with a real bonus of a mega lifer. I know I said it before but surely there can't be any more surprises in the next two days!!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Not so dusky

This really is the year which keeps on giving. Up to today I'd got 10 UK lifers, 2 more than last year. Some pretty good birds in there as well - Siberian accentor, Isabelline wheatear, Stejnegers stonechat, arctic warbler, great knot, great spotted cuckoo to name a few. You never want to give up though and December can often drop in a nice bird or two - buff-bellied pipit, Western sandpiper and lesser white-fronted goose come to mind. When the internet started to go mad yesterday though it was a less predictable bird which was sparking interest.
The weather systems throughout Autumn have been mainly bringing in birds from the East - sibe's as they are known. This is what caused the influx of accentors and yellow-browed warblers, mainly on the  East coast, but over the last 3 weeks or so the weather has changed and we have been getting no real rarities popping up.
No one was predicting another true Siberian rarity, a dusky thrush, and certainly not in the middle of the country. This is what occurred though. One had been frequenting a small village called Beesley in Derbyshire for about two weeks, feeding on apples in an orchard with the local redwings. It was only when a local posted a photo of a strange bird on the inter web that someone spotted it for what it was and all hell broke loose.
Dusky thrushes are very rare in this country. There has only been 10 previous sightings  although one in Margate two years age was well twitched, but not by me!!! So, the wheels started to turn and a major  twitch got under way. Fortunately the bird was frequenting an orchard next to a local outdoor activity charity so there was parking and easy access. It was a small village though and over 400 turned up on the first day.
So, I set out just after 5 on a very foggy morning and headed up the largest area of roadworks in the UK, also known as the M1. Three sets of roadworks and one breakdown delayed me a bit, but I still got to the centre about 8. Some people regard twitches as a pain in the proverbial, here though they saw a big opportunity. Volunteers were on site to help you park (£3 donation), give access to their loos, sell tea and coffee and prepare bacon butties (£2). If the bird stays they could make a fortune!!
It was only a 20 yard walk through the carpark to the orchard, where I suppose 50 people were already 'scoping the field.

I got onto the end of the line and almost immediately it flopped out of a tree onto the floor and started munching on apples.

The bird was about twenty yards away, albeit in very dull and misty tending to foggy weather so it was difficult to get good images.

You can just about make out the main features though. Superficially like a redwing, a small thrush with a very bold eye-stripe. No red on the wing, so not a redwing, and that very striking white throat patch. 
It didn't hang about long though, with the local blackbirds giving it a hard time. After no more than 5 minutes it flew off. The crowd was building and by 9 was well over 200 now scattered around the orchard as well as other points in the village trying to relocate the bird. I stayed put and was rewarded 30 minutes later with it popping back and having a munch on an apple, this time in a tree, giving better views.

You can see a few more of the characteristics here as well. Note that really white undertail, definitely not creamy, the very large, regular chest markings and that throat patch. It also has what look like furry leggings, suitable I suppose for a bird which over winters in Siberia!!!
Again it didn't hang around and after only 2 or 3 minutes flew off strongly into the village. The crowd generally started to disperse to partake of the teas and bacon butties or wend their way home. I decided to do the same. As a footnote the bird was only very briefly seen throughout the rest of the day, so the people arriving late got very poor or no views at all. You also wonder how many other rarities might be out there. This one probably arrived with the easterlies and has gone unnoticed since then. Always pays to check the thrush flocks.
I headed off for a cross-country drive to Deeping Lakes for some roosting long-eared owls. They have been present for a few weeks but are apparently hard to see. That was not an understatement. By the time I got there the fog was really setting in. 

The owls are on the island in the mist, not exactly showing well. Fortunately three other birders were just leaving and put me onto the two birds.

The owl is in the top left of the photo, honest....
I gave up after 15 minutes with the fog getting worse and worse and headed back home a very happy person. A cracking bird and pretty surprising and even better that I didn't go for the Margate bird so a grip-back as well. Only three more weeks of the year to go, can there be any more surprises in store? Would be nice wouldn't it!!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Mopping up

With the country still in a bit of of the doldrums as far as birding is concerned, with very few truly good birds around (excepting the lingering Sibe accentor in Scotland) I had a hard time trying to work out what to do with a Saturday "off". A band of heavy rain from midday onwards across southern England didn't help either. In the end I decided to try and do a bit of mopping up of outstanding year ticks and the best option seemed to be Kent.
I set out early, though my plans were slightly put off course by over running road works on the M20 meaning I was sat in a traffic jam for 15 minutes waiting for it to open again. Still I got to my first stop by just gone 8, with the dawn being pretty grey with rain in the air.
I was heading to South Foreland, which is a National Trust lighthouse just long the coast from Dover. Despite having the postcode in Satnav it was a swine to find, as you go into a small village, down a very small road which turns into a rutted track which turns into virtually a path through a wood! NT properties are normally well signed, this one wasn't. Still, I got there ok and refreshed myself with  coffee and set off on a short walk to the lighthouse.

In the Summer I think it is open to the public to look around, but not today. It was all locked up.

Being so close to Dover you could see the ferries pottering off to France.

My main target was a shore lark, which was apparently lurking in this field, which was right next to the lighthouse. The wind was blowing a hoolie though and it was not a nice day.

Another birder arrived just as I did, so we started to work the field edge and almost immediately a small bird flew up and landed in the field about 10 yards away.

Looking a bit like a skylark or woodlark the shore larks are also known as horned larks but they only get their horns in breeding plumage. This one was still nicely marked though with it's black and yellow mask.

It brought to mind the sibe accentor in some ways. They are not uncommon birds, and at the moment there are some flocks of 50 or more birds in Norfolk. They are typical of late Autumn or Winter though. They are also quite confiding and this one was no different. It eventually moved from the field onto the path, where you could almost stand on it.
It finally moved off to the field edge where you could approach to to a few feet.

You can just about see the remnants of it's horns, the black whispy bits on the side of the head! We did wonder if it was unwell with it letting you get so close, but it was feeding well so I think it was ok. There were some snow buntings around the day before but despite a thorough search by myself and three other birders we couldn't find them.
With the weather closing in even more, I moved about 30 miles down the coast to Dungeness. I started off on the beach with a bit of sea watching. The wind was really strong and the rain starting to get quite vigorous. I was particularly pleased to pick out one of the caspian gulls by the old boats but otherwise a great northern diver and some kittiwakes were all I got on the sea.
Finally I went to the RSPB reserve, or more precisely the entry track at Bolderwall Farm. A cattle egret had been hanging about with the cattle there for a week or so. As I pulled off the road there was a small cluster of 4 or 5 cars with birders, hunkered down in the rain, peering at the cattle.

You could just make out a lone egret by the waters edge near the cattle. Just being near cattle though doesn't make it a cattle egret.

What does it that yellow beak which you can just make out in the flight shot - little egrets have black beaks. You can also make out the rain coming down. When it landed it disappeared from view into a ditch. I waited for 15 minutes or so, but it didn't reappear so I gave up and came home to watch England stuff the South Africans at rugby.
A good day all round then. Three more year ticks, so the mopping up worked well. I'm at 235 now, though 250 seems too far away with only 6 weeks to go. I have a few ticks I should be able to get like crossbill and Bewicks swan, but 240 seems more likely. Still, mustn't grumble.

Eton rifles

After all the excitement of the last few weeks, everything seems to have calmed down on the birding front. With no lifers within reasonable striking distance I've not really been out much. Still, a velvet scoter within 20 miles or so did stir me into action this morning.
Velvet scoters are the rarer versions of the common scoter, an archetypal sea duck normally seen at great distance flying past rocky headlands in gales. Strangely though, a few do crop up inland and without any scientific evidence to back me up, it seems like velvets do so more than common's. Last year 3 hung around for over a week at Grafham and this year there are 2 long-stayers in Bedfordshire and one, my target, at the Eton rowing club lake at Dorney.
I don't think I've been here since 2012 when we watched some Olympic rowing. It's a very long, 2km artificial lake split into two parts, the main bit they do the rowing on and what is termed the return lake where they can potter back to the clubhouse for a refreshing pink gin. It can be quite good for birds along with the nearby Jubilee River, and I've had roseate tern whimbrel and pectoral sandpiper in the past.
Anyway, I got to the lake about 8 in crisp Autumnal sunshine with a bit of mist on the lake. I parked up and strolled along the lake.
Everything was pretty quiet. There were no rowers on the lake although a member of the UK Nordic skiing team was going round and round the lake on what was a cross between skis and giant roller skates!
I first walked down the main lake.

There were small numbers of ducks, mainly mallards, wigeon, gadwall and a couple of tufties as well as cormorants, grebes and a few gulls mooching around but no sign of the scoter. Birdguides suggested it was near the 1250m marker, and there were a lot of ducks there as well as a cut-through to the return lake! So, I walked round the end of the lake and started off down the path separating the two lakes.
Immediately you could see there were many more ducks around, including this little group of Egyptian geese and wigeon on the far bank. It's still amazing how the Egyptians have now become part of the scenery from being rare escapes only 15 or so years ago.

 I quite quickly got onto one lone duck though, diving happily in the middle of the stream.
 Now you see it, now you don't!!

This was the velvet scoter. A classic of the type, media sized with the classic white tear-shaped mark behind the eye.

The other real characteristic which separates them from common scoter is the white wing-bar they show when flying.

As I had to get back I couldn't spend much more time pestering it to get better photos but a good bird and a lovely, if short, morning.