Thursday, 12 October 2017

Well spotted

The Scillies and the Northern Isles are still picking up all of the goodies this Autumn, leaving thin pickings on the mainland. It does come to something when you have a full day to go anywhere in, say, 3 hours drive and you're struggling to find a tempting target. Norfolk is dead as a dodo, Kent has a few nice birds, the long-staying ones I've already got though, Midlands only has an American wigeon, so I opted for Dorset. First stop was down at the Bill, hoping for a bit of movement on the sea.There was a clustering of sea watchers at the observatory early-doors but apart from a good number of gannets and a few auks there was nothing on the sea or indeed on the land. So, I left at 9 to go to Abbotsbury for a long-staying spotted sandpiper. Nice bird, I've seen  few before and a lot in their homeland of America but not had one for a couple of years here. As I was leaving though RBA came up with "no sign". With the swannery only 20 minutes away and nothing else to tempt me I carried on. The big down side of twitching here is the entry fee - £10! Still, when I got the entrance desk and told the nice lady I was there for their star bird she radioed down to the warden who confirmed it has just been seen. I handed over my money and headed down to meet him and he pointed me to an area normally off-limits to visitors. opposite the relic of WW2, the tank-traps!

I was the only person in the isolated hide and initially I was struggling to make out any birds along the lagoon edge.

Eventually I was joined by a Welsh birder and we found two sandpipers at extreme range. Spotted sandpipers are extremely similar to our common sandpipers when they are not in breeding (spotty!) plumage.

This is massively cropped in and we were trying to make out whether it had yellowish legs and whether its wings stuck out beyond its tail or not! Not a chance. Eventually though a few of the local Portland birders turned up and by looking out the other side of the hide we got onto another bird which looked a lot better.
 It is in the photo above, which is cropped in below.

The top photo shows you the habitat it was in. The edge of the lagoon was its favourite spot and it fed along the tide-line but this was below our line of sight, so we were playing hide and seek with it as it occasionally poked its head in the open. We all agreed it looked good but there was still a bit of doubt.
Occasionally though it did show properly and you could make out the key features. It's legs were certainly yellow.
 The plumage was quite dull grey and most importantly as you can see from the side-on shot it has no tail! More correctly its primary wing feathers do not stick out beyond its tail giving the impression of no tail! It eventually flew off to the far side again, showing one more characteristic feature, its wing bar. On a spotted sandpiper the wing bar tapers out before it reaches the wing whereas on a common sandpiper it reaches close to or at the body.

I stayed in the hide for probably 3 hours and it never came very close but finally did show for more than a few seconds at a time - fortunately for me but not for the other birders who had all left by this time!

Whilst I was waiting there were a few other things to keep me amused. Swans were of course ever present, but mainly waiting for their feeding time and only occasionally flying around.

One of a pair of dabchicks came fishing long the edge of the lagoon.
Meadow pipits were present in good numbers, coming down to the edge in search of food.
Eventually I headed off home, but I did stop on the road out to look at the two cattle egrets in the field with, well, the cattle!

It makes a nice change to sometimes stop in one place and not rush around, watching the scenery and the activity around you, as I did today. Still got a year-tick but the enjoyment was a bit more rounded than just the tick.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Sergeant Wilson

This has been the week to be in either the Scilly Isles or the Shetlands - vireos, grosbeaks, Cedar waxwings, parrot crossbills and lots more. The rest of the country has been in relative famine. Norfolk has had nothing, Suffolk not much, even Portland has been struggling to get anything rarer than a little bunting. The only possible was the Scops owl in Northumberland, but that is one helluva drive and it is showing about every other day so that was discounted. With thin pickings around elsewhere the news of a Wilsons phalarope at Oare marshes in Kent was enough to get me out of the house early doors.

I had left early and it was a harvest moon night, and it was still showing well by the time I got to the car park. As I walked down to the viewing area, basically a lay-by on the road past the marsh, the sun was just starting to pull above the horizon. This made for  a gorgeous golden sunrise.

The light was clear and it was interesting to watch all the birds start to wake up and become active. The first was a small murmuration of starlings who suddenly came up out of the reeds and flew over our heads.

With the sun still coming up and the mist over the estuary giving a glow to everything even electricity pylons can look beautiful.
However, I wasn't there to just admire the scenery and one of the three other birders with me even at this early hour called out "phalarope has just flown in". There are 3 phalaropes we get in the country, all migrants, usually in the Spring: red-necked (which I saw here) and grey (which I saw at Staines) are the commoner ones. Wilson's is the least common, not rare or mega but worth a trip to see.

Even in this shot you should be able to make it out. Small to medium sized wader with a very thin dagger-like bill. The other phalaropes have much thicker, stronger bills. The main issue with Oare is that you are looking straight into the sun so photography is horrible but gradually it came closer and you could get half-decent (well quarter-decent perhaps) shots.

It was doing the classic phalarope behaviour of feeding in quite deep water, spinning around picking up insects off the surface. There were a few other waders around, the nicest of which were 3 or 4 little stints. You can see why "little" when compared to this ruff.

Other than that there were godwits, avocets, dunlin and a probable curlew sandpiper around.
I left just after 9 to go about 20 miles along the coast to try and find a Lapland bunting but it was a no-show, much to the dismay of the assembled birders. Still, a kestrel  did put on a display hanging in the wind nearby (the German name for them translates as "windhover"). 

Really nice day, very pleasant weather and a good bird, but it will be nice when the wind changes to get a bit more easterly in it and bring some sibes across to the East coast. Shouldn't complain though, year list now up to 261!

Monday, 2 October 2017

A real success story

I've had a look and you only have to go back to 2011, at Lakenheath, before I saw my first crane in the UK, one of a pair nesting there. Move on six years and they have undergone a massive growth in their numbers. East Anglia has always been the centre of both a natural colonisation from the near continent as well as the site of a reintroduction programme from captive bred birds. Move on to this Autumn and there is a flock of between 25 and 35 birds regularly seen at Welney. Consequently, I decided that this morning, with the lack of any decent birds around locally, I ought to pay them a visit. Despite heavy traffic I arrived just about on time as the reserve doesn't open till 9.30. A quick chat with the pleasant lady on the reception desk confirmed the flock was still there, so I pottered off to the  Lyle hide to see what was what.
There was no one else in the hide when I got there but the first thing I noticed was how different the reserve was. Normally we go in the winter for the swans when it is flooded. Now it was an arena of grass with the odd pool.

Towards the left out of the hide I could make out a series of grey shapes in the grass. They are a really spectacular and statuesque birds, quite exotic looking for the UK.
The flock of cranes were feeding happily away on the edge of the reserve. Typically, they were some distance away but at least with them standing 4 feet or more tall you could see them well!

For the first 30 minutes or so they didn't move around too much but the flock was quite noisy, trumpeting away. Some would half fly, half jump up into the air when one of their neighbours got a bit too close though. The adults are the ones with the black and white crown, the juveniles are much plainer.

The link below is a video of the flock busy having their breakfast.
Gradually though, despite the fact it was quite windy, some of them did decide to go for a fly around. It was then that you really get an idea of the size of them, with a massive wingspan and legs and necks sticking out fore and aft. I'm not sure what they were doing, as they would fly around and come back again, but one was clearly a family group with 2 adults and 2 juveniles. Bit of flying practice for the youngsters perhaps?

After the fly around. they would land which in the high wind did not seem to be very easy, and as they came down they almost landed on some of the other birds, creating a bit of an upset in the flock!

The only other bird of note, apart from a few early whooper swans, were the marsh harriers. These are another success story, with their numbers massively increased from the 1970's. Now you see them on many of the "marshy" areas especially in East Anglia. Again, the wind was creating problems for them as they quartered the marsh looking for food, but occasionally one would come quite close to the hide.

Another good day, only one "tick" to add to the yearly tally, but really nice to see these two different birds both doing so well.