Thursday, 5 January 2017

Owls well that ends well

So, 2016 moves into 2017 and the tyranny of year-listing starts all over again. Although there was a good list of rare birds around (rock and dusky thrush for instance) without any lifers in getable range I decided to concentrate on going a bit more local. Apart from a few garden ticks on the first two days the first trip out was with Judith to Welney on the 3rd.
This is about 90 minutes away and is cracking for winter swans - mainly whoopers but also Bewicks. The weather had been quite mild though so that normally means the swans will all be out in the fields rather than on the reserve. Still, we like a trip here as it has a heated observation hide, always nice in the Winter.
On the way up we stopped once or twice to look at the frosty fields, and saw a couple of very distant hares and some red-legged partridge and corn buntings  but otherwise not much. We got to Welney at 10 just as it opened (never know why it opens so late) but were rewarded with a nice cup of tea and a muffin!

There is a short walk across a bridge to the reserve, which is basically a series of hides overlooking a flooded field. In front are lots of wildfowl, mainly pochard and tufties, with whooper swans round the edge.

Whoopers are one of the two winter swans in this country, both told from our resident mute swans by their yellow rather than orange beaks. Whoopers are larger than Bewicks and have more yellow on their bills. The birds in the heavily cropped photos below are Bewicks. They are a lot shyer as well and only a few were on the lagoon, most were out in large flocks in the surrounding fields.

The rest of the reserve was really quiet, a few waders such as this bar-tailed godwit were around
as well as snipe and dunlin around the edges - extra points for spotting the snipe below!

What were present in good numbers though were raptors - kestrels seemed very numerous all around in the Fens, and there were a lot of buzzards scouting around for opportunities.

Most of the swans though, as I said, were out in the fields which looked lovely with the fresh green growth counter-pointed against the rich black soil and the white of the swans.

After this we went to Burwell Fen, which has been a local hotspot for short-eared owls this Winter. We got there at 2pm which was when they were supposed to start flying.

It looked great territory for owls as well, but it was very cold and quite windy. One rather grumpy bloke had been there for 6 hours and seen them for about 20 seconds! We hung around for an hour and eventually Judith with her eagle-eyes spotted one at great distance! Still, a tick is a tick so we headed home reasonably happy. We were made even happier by a pair of weasels we saw near the carpark, chasing each other in the grass and squeaking loudly. Not sure if it was mating or territorial but it certainly got our attention.
Our second trip was on the 5th, out to Dungeness in Kent. This was an early start as usual and we arrived to a very frosty but beautifully clear morning on Dungeness beach.

It was really quiet though, without even any gulls about. Guillemots, gannets, brent geese and red-throated divers were year ticks. We moved down to the patch, which is the hot-water outflow from the nuclear power station and found the gulls. There must have been a thousand on the beach and in the water. I was lucky and managed to pull out a juvenile Caspian gull, a big long-legged brute of a bird, before it flew off.
Next we moved onto the RSPB reserve, firstly stopping for a very confiding ring-necked duck at Bolderwall farm on the entrance track.

These are really badly named birds, they don't have a ring on their neck, its on their bills, but this was a particularly confiding and popular specimen. The long-eared owl which roosts on the reserve however was not playing ball, and was, presumably, so deep in cover that no one could find it, which was a shame. So, on a bit of a low we set off for our final target, a stonechat. Not just any stonechat, but a Caspian stonechat, and not just any Caspian but a newly split sub-species, Stejnegers stonechat. I got one of these last year at Landguard, and that one and this were only confirmed by DNA analysis!! In the field they are just about inseparable.
FOLLOW UP - this bird was retested after I had seen it. There had been a mix up in the laboratory with samples being mixed up. It was only a very plain common stonechat. Ah well.
Initially there was no sign of the bird, but I did find a pair of common stonechats in the quarry, as well as a black redstart. Then two birders came back to the small carpark with news that it was showing on the fence about 300 yards away. A quick sprint and there it was, feeding happily on the ground and flitting up into the low scrub or fence posts.

It was described as "washed out" and by crikey it was. Compared to the normal brownish stonechats it was positively white, reminiscent in some ways of Arctic redpolls. I watched it for I suppose 15 minutes and it seemed quite unconcerned with the small crowd it had attracted.

This is nominally a really rare bird in the UK, and with DNA require to prove provenance will be tricky to nail down in the future, but you suspect more claims will come in now so many people have had good views of this specimen.
So, a reasonable start to the year. After 5 days I'm up to 84 species, but this is still 14 behind my brother-in-law, who has got off to a flyer. Still, its a marathon not a sprint so lets see how we go. I'm pleased with what I've got so far anyway, but lets look out for more lifers to come in the Spring!