Saturday, 18 February 2017

Blue, blue, electric blue

We're almost into Spring, the first reports of sand martins moving through Africa are popping up, the dawn chorus is starting to play full throttle and daffodils are poking up. Doesn't mean that Winter birding has finished though. With a record start to January, the momentum needs to be kept up and if there's something good around it needs going for. So, this morning we both set out very early for a day in Fen country.
The first target was the most popular bird this week, a stunning male bluethroat in Willow Fen which is about 20 miles north of my old stomping ground of Peterborough. This is a rare bird in the UK, a vagrant normally found in Eurasia, the Russian steppes, Turkey and southern Europe. It used to be a member of the thrush family, but now like a lot of birds it has been reclassified on DNA sequencing, and is now an old world flycatcher. It occurs pretty much every year but often as a juvenile or female and often being difficult to twitch. This though was a stunning male, with full breeding plumage, and was being very accommodating partly due to copious quantities of mealworms proffered up by photographers!
On a relatively dull day we got close to the site by about 8, but had a slight detour due to a bridge being closed for repair. In fen country, this means a long trek along the "drain" till you get to the next bridge. It did mean though that we came across lovely garden full of snowdrops, another cheery sign of Spring.

Despite the delay we got to the carpark just as it was filling up and got one of the last spaces. I've never been to Willow Tree fen before so wasn't sure on the lie of the land. From the carpark though you could one main track leading up to a group of around 20 people all clustered together! So, one coffee later we set of on a relatively short and easy walk.

The reserve was typical fen country - flat, wet, lots of reeds and pools. Ducks, swans and lapwing swirled overhead.

On the one main path was the group of birders. A quick chat ascertained the bird had been seen but wasn't showing. We only had to wait about 5 minutes before it popped up.

It appeared out of the reeds and started feeding voraciously on the mealworms and insects on the grass.

It was a really smart bird. From behind it showed a very bold eye-stripe and a slightly red-rump.

From the front though, wow! The only other bird I have seen before was a dull female, this is another beast altogether and you can see why it has attracted a stream of admirers.

There are two races of bluethroats, red-spotted and white-throated, denoting the patch above that blue collar. This is clearly a red-spotted variant, marking it out as coming from Northern Eurasia.

It is very long-legged as well, standing very proud in the grass and even more so on the path. This was about 10 feet away from the closest camera!
We stayed for perhaps 20 minutes till it flipped off into the reeds to digest its breakfast, causing a small exodus of the early arrivers, only to be replaced by more admirers arriving!
Next stop was Baytree garden centre to buy a few very good value plants and then onto another fen near Thorney Toll. This time we were after a rough-legged buzzard, a close relative of our common buzzard, but a bit larger and with a prominent white-rump in flight. After perhaps 10 minutes scanning the fields, and a quizzing from a local toff farmer about our purpose on his land, a large raptor hove into view. As it banked a bright white flash came off its rump marking it out as the rough-leg. We saw it again a few minutes later but only as it disappeared off into the distance.
We then moved off for our next stop, Deeping Lakes, for the overwintering long-eared owls. We had been on the look-out for its relative, the barn owl, all morning with no success. As I was driving along though Judith suddenly stopped me with a "what's that in the field?". All I could see was a sheepdog in the distance. Judith lowered my sights though to a caramel coloured rock in the field. How she spotted it from a moving car, on the wrong side of the road for her I don't know!

This quickly resolved itself as a barn owl having a rest.
We crept up on it along the road, but eventually it decided it had enough of us and flapped off across the field.

We carried on to Deeping Lakes for the long-eared owls. They, or at least it, was there, asleep in a bush on an island. If it hadn't been for another  couple of birders who had it in their 'scopes we would never have found it. Cryptic camouflage does not describe it!
After that we had a very pleasant drive through the fens, lots of long drains, kestrels, starlings and wood pigeons.

I did try for a glossy ibis in Ely on the way back but it wasn't playing ball. Still, a really pleasant day out, with 4 new year ticks. That takes me to 158, only 1 shy of my best ever February total and 5 ahead of Martin. That bluethroat though - worth the trip alone.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A quick quiz

With Martin still 5 ahead of me, and the weather set fair, I decided to take a day off and spin down to the south coast to pick up a few year ticks. Nothing dramatically rare around, but I've now got most of the easy birds so anything now before Spring migrants arrive will be a nice bird.
My first pair of targets was at Lytchett Fields. This is a relatively new RSPB reserve on the edge of Poole Harbour. I went last year for a stilt and a glossy ibis so I knew the directions.

It is a very marshy area and was quite wet getting to it. My two targets were a long staying lesser yellowlegs and a green-winged teal. The former is an American wader and although not common it is pretty regular this side of the pond. I think I've got at least one each of the last 6 years. The tide however wasn't helping me. The water that was around was a long way back and all the birds were very distant. Amongst the 100 or so lapwings, 20 dunlin, a few redshank and a blacktailed godwit I did pick out a medium-sized elegant wader. It's legs weren't yellow, or at least the mud covering them made them brown, but the dagger like bill, pale spotty plumage and long legs confirmed the id.
The green-winged teal did not show though. They are also Americans and probably equal on the rarity scale to the yellowlegs. They are told from our teal by a bold vertical white-stripe on their flank. Of the 50 or so teal I could see though none showed this characteristic. A local birder told me it could be very elusive. Still, one year-tick in the bag.
Next stop was further along the coast to Dorchester for a rose-coloured starling. We did try for it two weekends ago coming back from Weymouth but the weather was foul. Today it was much nicer and there were a number of starlings flying around in the housing estate where it has taken up residence. After 10 minutes or so though I couldn't make it out and was thinking it might be a dip. The local postie on this rounds then accosted me with a cheery "have you seen it?". Apparently it is quite a local celebrity and has even made the Dorst Echo!. He pointed me to the best area for it and quickly I got onto a starling with a light-pink mantle. Tick number two. I actually had quite a long chat with the postie who was genuinely interested in it. Apparently even the local primary school had a trip out to try and find it one day - starting them young!
My last stop then was almost back home at Staines reservoir, where I was on Sunday. This time I was after a classic winter bird, the slavonian grebe. This is normally more of a coastal bird, but Staines does have a habit of attracting them. I got there at the same time as another birder and we both scanned the south basin and eventually found 3 small grebes together at the far end of the causeway. Two were the resident black-necked grebes, one in breeding plumage, and the other was the slav grebe.

In this photo the bird on the far right is the breeding plumaged black-necked grebe, with its smart black neck and yellow ear tufts.
These two are the Winter plumaged bn and slav, but which is which?

There are enough id features here to tell them apart. The excellent video from the BTO in the link below gives plenty of detail but what you are looking for are:
generally slav looks more like a small great-crested grebe with a longer, more elegant neck, whereas BN is like a larger little grebe, with a short-neck and dumpier appearance.
Slav is an overall more clean-cut bird. The black crown is sharply demarcated from the neck. The white cheeks stand-out even at a distance but don't quite meet at the back of the neck. The BN has a more smudged appearance with the cheeks looking greyer.You can just about make out from this as well that the head-shape is quite different. The slav is sloping at the front, coming to a peak at the read of the head. The BN is the reverse, a sharp slope at the front of the head over the bill, and then dealing more slowly to the back of the head. This is perhaps easier to see on the breeding plumaged bird.
Both nice birds and quite educational to see them both so close together for comparison purposes.

How to identify Winter grebes

So, a good day with 3 new ticks taking me to 151. I need tow more to catch Martin before he comes back from skiing, unless he fits in a sneaky trip, and 6 more to equal my best ever February total. Crack on then!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Ruddy 'eck

A few years ago the government launched all out war on ruddy ducks. Native to America, they initially escaped from Peter Scott's Slimbridge reserve and became a self-supporting naturalized population. Then in the late 90's there was a point of view starting to be held that they could hybridize with the closely related, rare and natural European white-headed duck that lived in Spain.
For reasons which have more to do with political expediency than conservation, the Government bought into this line and sent out the DEFRA inspectors with rifles to shoot all the ruddy ducks in the UK. We even had them down our little local reserve at Maple Lodge to shoot our resident pair! Despite the best efforts of the birding community to keep locations private, about two years ago the cull was practically over. There were a very few birds left, probably under 10, and it wasn't worth their while to hunt down the last individuals.
They had effectively gone off my radar now for year-listing, so it was slightly surprising to say the least when I got a text from Dave Simms saying that Paul Lewis had found them on xxxxxx reservoir! This was a out 12.45 on Sunday afternoon, so I dropped everything, threw my 'scope and camera into the back of the car and drove hell for leather round the M25 to xxxxxxxx.
For those who know xxxxxxx, there are two very large reservoirs, separated by a causeway. It can be VERY windy and cold there, but today was not too bad. It can be hard to track down birds though, as there are large numbers of ducks, grebes and gulls and a lot of water often puts them at some distance. I was very pleased therefore to spot two ducks sitting on their own in the near corner of the southern basin almost as soon as I put up my 'scope.

As soon as I had them in my field of view, it was clear they were the ruddy ducks.

This is an extreme crop, but you can make out the main points. A very stocky duck, with a stout bill and a broad white face patch. At  distance they are somewhat like female scoters. What was a bonus was the fact I got in the same frame a breeding plumaged black-necked grebe that seemed to be making friends with them! These are regulars at the reservoir here.

They never got very close, so I gave it about 20 minutes and left them to it. That wasn't before I called my brother-in-law Martin though to give him the heads up, and he did come down later to get them as well. Pretty generous that of me I thought, as it kept him 5 ahead of me in the year-list stakes, on 153 to my 148. Still, he's away skiing for the next two weekends so that gap will be in the other direction hopefully by then and I still have a full weekend of birding when Judith is away and our week in Speyside to come.
As an addendum to this, when I got home I saw that birdguides was showing the report of actually 4 of them on Saturday, with location. This is a change from a few years ago when reports were suppressed. I can only hope it doesn't make DEFRA get out their guns again as a breeding pair I would have thought would pique their interest.