Sunday, 26 June 2016

All quiet on the Southern front

It may be a bit controversial to make a reference to Europe at this moment. I am still feeling a bit raw over the referendum vote and the potentially disastrous consequences of that. We have managed to get away from it a little bit though, by going down to Dorset to see Judith's mum for the weekend.
We are seriously into the doldrums though where birding is concerned, and so I had little expectation of anything exceptional or even vaguely interesting when I got up at 5.30 to head down to Portland.
First stop was at Ferrybridge. The tide was out and there was a lot of mud on show, but little by way of birds. The nice bit though was the number of the little terns around. Seriously depleted in numbers now, they nest on the shingle beach with a constant watch from local volunteers to ensure that the nests aren't either disturbed or predated.

 The day was turning though into one of those typical Summer days this year, dark, dull and cold. This was as good as sunrise got!
Next I went down to the bill to see if there was anything around. The answer was, not a lot. On the sea there was a bit of a movement of Manx shearwaters going down channel, but they were a long way out. Gannets and auks, razorbills and guillemots but no puffins, and 6 common scoter added the supporting cast. On the land the only birds of note were a large flock of linnets by the lighthouse.

I tried the top fields as well hoping for the over-summering short-eared owl but nothing. There were good numbers of skylarks singing though

and a pair of kestrels were hunting vigorously, presumably trying to feed a hungry chick somewhere.

Finally, I tried Lodmoor, but even this normally reliable little jewel of a reserve slightly let me down. The terns were nesting on the islands and were flying in and out to feed their chicks.

a lone common sandpiper was pottering about

a pair of oystercatchers were probing in the mud

and a few whitethoats were scratching away on the bushes.

Otherwise it was as quiet as I think I have ever seen it.
The highlight of the day was probably when I got back to the house and baited in a few rooks with a bit of stale bread!

So overall not exactly a day to make you feel full of the joy of a new dawn rising in Europe but better than nothing I suppose.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Up close and personal

One of my Xmas presents from Judith was a "meerkat experience", one of those experiences you get in Boots and Smiths in boxes - fast cars, ballooning, pampering days etc. This was the opportunity to interact with some iconic small furry beasts. I booked it at a place in the middle of nowhere in the Fens, near Ely. It's called The Animal Experience ( website looked "interesting" and I had no idea really what to expect when we got there.
On arrival it looked interesting. A carpark and a few wooden huts. Once we got in though it was really good. It's a small operation run by one extended family and they have a variety of creatures on site you can meet - snakes, coatis, spiders, lizards and of course the meerkats.

We were given 10 minutes to look around and then taken into to meet the stars of the show. Lee greeted us and showed us around. There were 3 in our cabin (it was a log cabin converted into a meerkat enclosure), a female and a mother and youngster. Lee, who was showing us around sat with us for about an hour whilst we were with them and was very educational. As you can see from the photos we just sat on the floor or on a seat and the meerkats crawled all over us! The vocalisations were amazing - you could immediately hear different ones for food or fun or calling each other.

After a very enjoyable hour with our new friends the meerkats, and really recommended.
On the way back, we stopped off near Royston for another bit of up close and personal - this time playing with a macro lens and some insects on flowers. It was windy and there wasn't that much around, but we did manage to get a few decent images, mainly of bees and hoverflies.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Get knotted!

It's really starting to get quiet now. With a big low pressure system over the country there is nothing coming across from the continent and the Yanks aren't arriving either. So, when two day ago, there was a mega alert in Norfolk it got not just me but most of the twitching community well, twitching.
The bird in question was a great knot, an Asiatic cousin of our commoner red knot and a very rare bird. There have only been 4 previous records and one of those was nicknamed the great dot as it only showed at massive distance on a mud flat and most observers could barely recognise it as a bird let alone a great knot!
Day 1 was Wednesday when it was first sighted at Titchwell on the fresh marsh then the beach causing a localised migration of birders to the coast for it. Thursday and it was still there, commuting between marsh and beach in the company of the local flock of red knot. Amusingly, Boris Johnson was in Norfolk on the same day and apparently the great knot attracted larger crowds!
So, Friday was a 5am leave the house and a blast down to Titchwell. By the time I got to the car park at 7.15 it was already pretty full, probably 40 or so cars. I pulled in at the same time as another birder, Mike, who lived locally and who had dipped on Thursday so the two of us yomped down to the beach together and spend a pleasant morning together. If you know Titchwell, we walked down the bank to the beach and turned right for about half a mile to get to a group of around 100 birders.
Everyone was looking at a flock of waders, mainly red knot, about a hundred yards or more away on the edge of the surf.

You can immediately see the challenge - somewhere in there is one bird, roughly the same size and shape as the others which you need to find. The bird we were looking for is closer in appearance to a turnstone, with a reddish mottled back and white underside, and boldly marked face - but where is it?
Over probably an hour we scanned the flock. One bird looked good but we could only see it partially, and at extreme distance. The tide was also going out so every 10 minutes or so the flock took off and moved out with us following them at a suitable distance.

Eventually the flock though started to disperse as feeding grounds were exposed. This also meant the birders dispersed to check all the different sub-flocks. Eventually the bird was tracked down and we all clustered together as it moved along the tide line.

These two give a good impression of what we are seeing. There is one great knot and a lot of commoner red knot. Hopefully you can see the difference. The great knot is larger,  but only just so and hard to tell at distance. What stands out though is the plumage - the dark chest band, the red mottled back, the longer beak. Once you got your eye in even though it moved you could get back onto it relatively easily, well with the help of many other birders anyway!
For about an hour or so we all followed it up and down the beach as it fed on the rocks as they appeared with the falling tide. Sometimes it got a bit closer, most of the time it was a long way off. The photo below, as with all the others, is with a 500mm lens, 2x converted and heavily cropped! It's on the left of the flock, 4 birds in.

The series below hopefully gives you a better idea of the jizz of the bird. Easily mistaken for a turnstone, it was feeding happily with it's plainer cousins, but that mottled almost chestnut back, bright white rump and head pattern made it stand out.

Apologies for the background noise, but finally this short video shows you what we were all getting excited about - a great bird in many ways.

Great knot feeding at Titchwell

About 11.30 the early starters began to disperse back to the car park, although there was a good numbers of new arrivers as well. As a post script, it flew off about an hour after this and was not seen again on Friday, so I may have been a very lucky boy. Certainly the drive back was not a chore. Only need 5 more lifers now to get 350 - would be nice to get that by end of this year as a stretch target!!