Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Playing it cool

This is the year which keeps on giving as far as birds are concerned. Numerically there have been 454 birds seen in the UK so far this year, which puts it 4th in the all time list of highest totals and we're are only half way through October.
Last week we had another 1st for the UK - the 5th of the year. This was a Siberian accentor, a bird touted as being a possible in the past, and a probable this year with a dozen or so in the near continent brought in with the persistent easterlies. It is a relative of our dunnock, sparrow-sized but with clearer facial markings.
This first bird was in Shetland, found in a quarry. It produced a major twitch for Shetland, with BA making a fortune taking people to Aberdeen then onto the island, but the distance meant only 300 or so connected before in did an overnight flit!
Last Thursday another bird turned up, this time in Easington which is near Hull. This produced a massive twitch though, with around 3,000 birders connecting over the weekend, when another 2 birds also appeared further up the coast to dilute the crowds.
I couldn't get away though due to various reasons including a very long lunch on Friday! The bird seemed to be sticking though, so with it still being reported on Monday I made the decision to go for it.
This meant a very early start as it was a drive of over 200 miles. The weather was bad overnight though, so I was hopeful it would be still be there. Traffic through Hull was slow so around 7.45 the phone went with the first alert of the day - still showing - taking the pressure off.
I got to the village at about 8.20, parked up and headed off down Vicars Lane to a patch of waste ground which used to be a carpark for the school where the bird had been showing well.
I lucked out on two fronts - first when I got there it was showing very well and secondly there was only about 12 other birders there. On Saturday and Sunday birders were escorted to the spot in groups of about 20, given 5 minutes viewing time and then moved on for the next group!! We had as much time as wanted.

The bird was feeding happily on the ground with a group of dunnocks and robins. It seemed totally impervious to people and came to around 5 or 6 feet from us at times. Its natural habitat is in Siberia so it is not entirely inconceivable that we were the first people it had seen!!
It is a very smart bird, sparrow like in shape with a plain brown back like a dunnock. The head though has those bold stripes in yellow and black giving it an almost piratical look.

Apparently, on talking to one of the locals, people weren't putting down food for it, there was enough around to keep it there feeding away. Certainly there were plenty of ground-feeders around and the trees were almost dripping with goldcrests and phyllosc. warblers like this chiffchaff, which even came down to the ground, which is quite unusual.

It did disappear for a few minutes causing some concern for a couple of new arrivals, but then I spotted it sitting up in the top of a tree opposite, even looking like it was singing!!!

and i even managed to miss another flight shot!!!

I watched it for I suppose 45 minutes and there was never more than 15 people there, so much better than Saturday.

Wow, what a bird. It's not the normal procedure to play it that cool and leave it 4 days before going to get it, a strategy doomed to disappointment but not in this case. As I left phone went with another accentor in the UK on Holy Island. Five for the UK, 77 for Europe, mainly Norway and Sweden, but this is unprecedented numbers of them and shows how weather can affect things.

To make it better there was a second lifer there as well. About a mile away was an Isabelline wheatear. Closely related to our species, it is leggier with a much more defined black-band to the tail. It is another majorly rare bird in the UK and would have got a crowd on its own, but here was the second course after everyone got the accentor!
It was also in the middle of a large field with about 5 normal wheatears which gave the crowd above an interesting 30 minutes as we scrutinised each bird before settling on the one we were happy with!!
The day finished on a bit of a low after that as I spent 2 hours not seeing the Western swamphen (aka purple gallinule) but that only put a slight dampener on proceedings.
2 lifers in one day, both rare birds, one a first for the UK and my life list in now up to 350 (or 359 if you use Lee's more generous 400 club list). I'll have to reset my ambition for the year end.

Friday, 7 October 2016

When the East wind blows

The UK is stuck in a weather system at the moment which is driving rare birds from the continent onto our East coast. During the week a variety of rare thrushes and a showy Eastern crowned warbler pitched up. Mostly though they were a long way up the coast into Yorkshire. This weather is supposed to stay for another week so it could be a mega time for rarities. It does mean though that you need to be able to drop everything when the alert goes as a lot of them don't hang around for more than a day.
So, when on Thursday a Siberian stonechat was first seen and then ringed at Landguard in Suffolk it piqued my interest. Even more as during the day it was thought to be an even rarer Stejnegers stonechat. Both are only recent splits from our common stonechat and can be very tricky to tell apart. Indeed whether this bird is a Siberian or a Stejnegers will only be confirmed after DNA analysis is done on a feather taken when it was ringed!!!
UPDATE: bird was confirmed by DNA analysis to be stegnegerii!!
I have history with this bird this year, having spent about 3 hours not seeing one at Titchfield Haven. It was showy in the evening before I went but disappeared overnight. At least it was cloudy last night so the bird was less likely to move on  and there were about 20 birders already on site to help find it.
The weather wasn't great, cold, windy, a bit wet and very overcast. As I got to the area it was mainly seen in the previous day everyone was staring at one patch of brambles. Apparently one birder claimed to have seen it and then said he had to go to work and cleared off. No one else saw it and there was a bit of chuntering going on about "stringers" (people who make false claims). One person approached the bramble patch with a view to "giving it a bit of kick" to see if the bird was hiding in it. He got shouted at by a couple of other people but not before it was clear that no self-respecting, or living, bird was hiding there. Hmmmm, don't say it's going to happen again and its cleared off.
We started to spread out and check out the many other bushes but only a few pipits and goldfinches briefly excited us. Then there was a call from one group of birders and some frantic waving. Everyone rounded on the spot. A bird, possibly it, had been flushed by a dog walker and gone to ground again. A line was formed and we covered the area it flew to. Nothing. This was one tricky bird, if indeed it was there. Then finally, someone found it about 30 yards away, showing on a bramble bush. How it got there without us seeing it fly I've got no idea.

Everyone quickly got onto it and for then 10 minutes it was pretty mobile but showed well.
So, what makes it a Siberian as opposed to a normal stonechat. The photos I took don't help as they are truly "record shots" taken at distance and in poor light as the uncropped version above shows.

The bottom photograph gives you on clue as to whether this was the bird from yesterday - its got leg-irons aka a ring on its right leg. That helps.
What else, well, I will be honest I would not see anything unusual at this distance. The beak is apparently thicker! The white on the neck forms  patches not a complete collar, the rump when you see it is plain and unstriped and the eye-stripe looks a bit like a whinchat. The image below isn't mine, it was from yesterday when it was caught and ringed (courts of LBO) but you can see some of the id features, especially that eye-stripe.

Everyone seemed happy though so I now just need to wait for the DNA to come through to finalise the identification.

I didn't hang around much longer, and although the bird stayed all day it sounded like it was pretty mobile all the time. I went about 30 miles up the coast to Minsmere. There was nothing rare reported but its always a nice walk.
When I got there, the weather wasn't getting any better and showers kept blowing through with a strong wind. The reserve was very quiet as well, both in terms of visitors and birds.

There were the usual suspects around - black-tailed godwits, a nice group of 10 spotted redshanks, this smart greenshank pottering about on one of the scrapes

but the star was a solitary purple sandpiper. I'd not seen one this year so that was a bonus. This one was on a concrete groyne by the sluice gates and like many of its kind was totally approachable.

The only problem from its point of view was that the concrete it was on, and which was providing good feeding for it in the weedy mess,

was being swamped with water every couple of minutes.

It didn't drive it away although it did cause it to have to scuttle around sometimes in a quite comic way, as you can see in this short clip.

Purple sandpiper evading a big wave

So, Autumn continues to deliver, with another lifer taking me to 348, 2 short of my target of 350, and up to a semi-respectable 228 on my year list. Still plenty of time to get those other two I hope!!