Friday, 8 December 2017

Just like a Christmas card..

Well, we've only got another 3 weeks to go for this year. The weather is turning decidedly chilly outside and the birding is getting into the Winter doldrums. The usual suspects are hanging on - hawfinches, parrot crossbills, snow buntings - but no new mega birds turning up.  Last year we had Siberain accentors and dusky thrushes, but this year at least I had the chance to go and see a juvenile barred warbler which has taken up residence at Titchfield Haven on the South coast. These are regular visitors to our shores, but not in large numbers. They are quite large birds in the same family (Sylvia) as whitethroats and breed in Poland, Russia and down to Kazakhstan. This one was showing well in the garden behind the visitor centre at Titchfield, a coastal reserve where I saw the greater yellowlegs two years ago. Photos showed it munching away on the cotoneaster berries!
The traffic was quite light and I got there about 8 and parked up to a lovely dawn over the Solent.

It was only a short walk to the visitor centre where 4 other birders were already staking out the area. The visitor centre is quite small and the garden was accessible without going in, which was good as it didn't open til 9.30! There were 4 or 5 clumps of suitable berry-laden bushes and a number of house sparrows and assorted finches were already starting to perch up in the weak sun. Apparently the barred had one favourite bush which it fed on, so we set up in front of that, trying to keep warm in the keen wind blowing down the channel.

Gradually as the sun got a bit higher and almost came onto the berries the birds started to move around a bit more and we saw a large grey shape pop into the bush. A few seconds later and we could see it starting to appear into view.

 In breeding finery they have a light barring pattern across their chest, hence the name, but this juvenile was fairly plain grey with a white chest and throat. It soon started to tuck into the berries though, plucking them off and eating them whole. The scene seemed very Christmasy with the red berries and would have made a good card if we had already done ours this year!

I have seen these every year for the past few years but normally they are lurkers in bushes and not very showy. This was totally different, not being worried by the photographers who were no more than 10 yards away. It was just interested in shoving as many berries down itself as it could. A pattern of behaviour soon became apparent. It would feed for 3 or 4 minutes then move off, either into the hedge nearby or over our heads into another garden before returning 20 minutes later presumably having partially digested its breakfast. I do like the look in the eye of the first one as it eyes up a juicy berry!

When it did sit for a bit digesting you see how cold it was feeling, as it would fluff up its feathers to try and keep warm, something with which I very much sympathised as by now I was feeling a tad chilly myself!

After it paid a visit at around 10.30 it must have decided it was full and had not returned by 11.30. I was freezing by then so I called it a day and went for a deserved coffee and sandwich back in the car. I did see it was still around later, kept there by the largesse of berries no doubt. A cracking bird and lovely to see it so close. Lets hope it manages to find its way back home, though hanging around till January would be nice as the 2018 list isn't far off!!!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Not cross at all....

After quite a hectic weekend, including seeing Gorillaz in Birmingham, open art studios on Sunday and dropping Judith off at the station before 6 this morning, I rewarded myself with a lie-in rather than rushing around the country after rare birds (not that there's much to go for). So, after a bit of breakfast and nipping out to get my haircut, which was definitely needed, I headed out at lunchtime to try and catch up with some parrot crossbills. As well as the large flock at Santon Downham there is another group of 16 or so on the Surrey/ Berkshire border at Wishmoor Bottom. They have occasionally been showing quite well so I hoped to get some photos.
I got there about 11.30, parked up in the close and set off to walk the half-mile or so to where they are  most often seen. Within about 50 yards though two birders were heading towards me. On the upside they confirmed the direction I should be heading in and that there were about 20 others on site. On the downside though the birds had not been seen all morning. Still, the weather wasn't too cold and it wasn't raining so I carried on. About 20 minutes later I got to an area in the middle of the heath surrounded by low pine trees. Birders were gathered in about 4 flocks (?) looking disconsolately at the surrounding trees. No sign still. I got my gear set up and stood around with the rest of them. Apart from a couple of stonechats and a distant Dartford warbler there was nothing much to keep our interest up.  By 12.50 the two birders I was standing nearest to had done the "give it till 1 then we're off" conversation. I was tempted to join them. Then at the far end of the loose line a shout went up and we all gathered round to see two crossbills feeing in a distant pine tree. It was immediately obvious though they were common crossbills not parrots. The bill was small and delicate, removing the pine seeds with a surgeons grace, and there was only two, not the large flock. As we watched though from behind us came a characteristic chipping sound of a flock of crossbills flying over. Too far away to make out what "type" but a rough count of 15-20 suggested that was the parrot flock. We watched them come down in a stand of trees some distance away. Cue a gathering up of gear and the whole crowd yomped off over the heath in that direction. We got to roughly where the flock was and had one of those comedy moments as one person got onto them and tried to describe exactly which tree in the wood they were in. "Its the tall one to the left of the short one" type instructions prompted some (unnecessary) rude replies about being more specific and the fact there were a lot of trees!! We finally worked it out and headed off to try and get even closer. As the horde rounded a last corner of the forest track we saw 5 or 6 others already staring up a single tall tree and signalling us to walk further away from it. Finally we all gathered together and the flock of parrot crossbills could be seen feeding up in the tree.

They were still quit a way away and up in the top of the tree, but you could see the way they use their crossed bill to prise apart the pine cones to get the seeds within. Of course, with their thick powerful bill it is less subtle than with the common crossbills ,more bludgeon than rapier so to speak. Sometimes they even ripped off the whole cone and took it to eat elsewhere in the tree.
When they turned sideways you got a good look at that powerful bill. This red coloured male, as opposed to the greener females/ juveniles, was particularly powerful looking.

After I suppose 20 minutes the flock suddenly started vocalising and lifted off all as one to fly over a distant ridge to fresh feeding grounds.

That was also the signal for the hordes to depart. Some had been there since dawn, so my wait was relatively a short one. A generally happy thong made their way back to the road to head off home. Its not impossible that these birds may hang around overwinter. If they do I'm sure I'll be back as I'd love to get a shot of them on the ground drinking from puddles!!

Friday, 1 December 2017

An Arctic blast

How the weather has changed over the last two weeks. From a really warm late Autumn, we have now gone into a northerly airflow. Scotland and northern England have snow and we have the promise of some proper  Winter birds. One of these, told partly by its name, is the Arctic redpoll. These are part of a group of birds which keep changing their designation.. There are 3 you get in this country - lesser, which is the commonest, mealy or common redpoll, which is regular but less common than lesser and Arctic, which is the rarest. This in itself is also split into two separate races. Currently, all 3 can be treated as separate species. Clear!!
So, when a couple of days ago an Arctic (of the Coue's sub-species) cropped up in Suffolk in a flock of lesser and mealy redpolls there was no doubt where I would go today as that is potentially 3 year ticks in one flock. The weather forecast was grim though, with sleet and snow showers on the East coast. With all my warm weather gear I set out early and got to Hazlewood Common just after dawn. The site is just inland from Aldeburgh and was actually an area of set aside in a field.


There was a lane leading down past the field to a white cottage and a lot of birds seemed to using the hedge line to fly in and out of the field. The light was awful though and sleet showers kept rattling over forcing me to scuttle back to the car, which fortunately was only a minute away!
Anyway, after a bit I started to work out a pattern for the flock of birds. It was mixed - redpolls certainly, chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches and blue tits. It had been reported that the redpolls were around 30 in number, and occasionally when the whole flock lifted off I got to a count near that. They rarely settled for long in view, and disappeared totally when they were on the ground - not the weather for sitting out in the open I suppose!!!
After probably 20 minutes I caught a flash of white in one of the bushes. Arctic redpolls are very white, especially compared to their relatives. I got my binoculars onto the bird just as it turned away from me. This is actually good, as it showed me a bright white rump. This along with its overall white colouration made it an Arctic.
I stayed for about an hour, on my own surprisingly, or perhaps not so bearing in mind the weather! I got onto it 3 or 4 times and once it actually perched out in the open long enough for me get some decent shots of it.

You can see how white it is along its side and belly, with little or no streaking. That lovely red crown is characteristic of the redpoll group as w a whole.
As well as this beauty I got both the other two redpolls as well. The commonest was the lesser, a very brown bird in comparison.

There were also some mealy redpolls mixed in. These are sort-of in-between the other two. Lighter than lessers, with a greyer back pure white wing bars. This one below if the best example.

A few of the birds still had traces of their breeding plumage as well with pink/ red infusing their breast feathers.

As another heavy shower hit most of the flock lifted off and flew into the next field, so I took this as a sign to leave it to the 3 other birders who had just arrived. The flock did come back later as I saw it reported on RBA luckily for them!
I made my way down the coast to Landguard, where I was on Monday. Nothing much extra around but it was only a few miles out of my way on the way home. In between the showers I did manage to connect with the Iceland gull, which was mooching about near the abandoned jetty on the point.

 It was a day for white birds from the far North. This one stood out amazingly against the grey sky. As it flew off and yet another storm blew in I headed back home.
A cracking day. Three more to my year list taking me to 172 now. Arctic redpoll is always a great bird to see as well. Who knows, perhaps these north winds might bring down something really nice like an ivory gull!!!

Monday, 27 November 2017

What a big bill!

Finally the winds seem to be changing this Autumn. If not exactly a rush, then a steady dribble of some continental waifs and strays are starting to arrive on our shores. A few weeks ago it was noted that there were good numbers of parrot crossbills on the near continent, and it was hoped they might start coming over here. This weekend a large arrival happened, with flocks of over a dozen, and in one case over 20 birds, appearing in woodlands on the east side of the country. Parrot crossbills are regular migrants to our shores, but not all years have large twtichable flocks of them. This year looks like it may be one of them.
I set out fairly early to get to Santon Downham for about 8. This is in the Brecklands of Norfolk, not far from Lakenheath. The instructions were to a picnic site, which turned out to be a car park in a clearing in a wood.

The weather when I arrived was foul. The rain was pelting down, not conducive to birding in a wood. Fortunately though the car park has a large toilet block with an overhanging roof which made for a rudimentary bird hide. I had been studying the trees without any success for about 10 minutes when another birder turned up. Quite soon after we got the first bird, a brief fly over which could have been anything but gave  a distinctive chipping call. After another 10 minutes and the arrival of a third birder, three birds flew in and perched in the top of a nearby pine tree.
Parrot crossbills are cousins of our common crossbills but are slightly larger, have a slightly different call and most characteristically have a damn great big beak. It is incredibly large and strong.
You can almost make it out in this closer crop of the birds above. You can also see two males, the red birds, and one female, the greener one on the right.
That large bills is a bit clearer on this shot, really broad at the base making it well suited for prising apart pine cones, their favoured food.

By now, the crowds were starting to arrive, though the rest of the flock of around 25 birds were not around (though they did turn up later in the day).
I decided to move on and head for the coast, where there was another target for my year list on offer. This was at Landguard on the Suffolk coast, near Felixstowe and the container docks.
I've had quite bit of success here recently, including the red-throated pipit in September. This time I was after the slightly less exotic Iceland Gull. This is a classic winter arrival, and is termed a "white-winger" having no dark feathers in its wings or body and giving it a ghostly appearance in flight.
On arrival though, the first bird I encountered was a delightfully confiding snow bunting on the beach. It let you get down to a few feet away while it fed in the marram grass.

There was also a slightly more skittish purple sandpiper on the old jetty, feeding in the seaweed between the waves.
My tiger though, the Iceland gull, was a lot harder to pin down. Whilst looking at the bunting myself and another couple of birders saw it flying further down the beach. It was unmistakable, a bright white gull compared to the grey and brown congeners around it. Unfortunately though it was flying away from us. I waited around for an hour but it didn't come back so I drove off to the town itself. Some nice beach huts took my attention then suddenly it was there again, flying further down the promenade towards the shops of the town centre. I relocated again to the pier, chips shops and amusement arcades. There were lots of gulls around and I got my final very brief of the white-winger as it flew off out to sea. Didn't want to play, so I set off home. Those two took mw up to 268 for the year. 300 is way too far off, but another lifer and a few ticks and I should be able to get close to 275 or even 280. Lets get those east winds blowing!!!