Friday, 31 March 2017

Singing in the rain

With a burst of fine weather over the last few days, Spring really does seem to have sprung. It's a big change from last weekend, when I went down to Weymouth for the weekend. I was quite excited about getting a few early Spring migrants, but in the end there was a horrible cold easterly wind blowing and the only thing I got, apart from cold, was a long-staying Humes warbler on Portland. Good bird, quite rare and normally a "Norfolk in Autumn" speciality, this one has been lurking in buddleia bushes near Suckthumb quarry. Lurking is the right word - it took me over 2 hours to track it down and then I only got a view of a few seconds!
Anyway, with the season moving on, I decided to take an early start today and go back to Dorset for a quick spin along the coast. Three target birds in mind, all either resident or long-stayers.
First stop was at Lytchett fields for a green-winged teal. I've been here before, in February, for the same bird and it's companion an over-wintering lesser yellowlegs. I got the lesser legs but not the teal. The reserve is on the edge of Poole harbour and it quite new. Basically a series of tidal pools, low-lying and marshy. There are dozens if not hundreds of teal lurking around and if the tide is low they disappear, which is what happened in February. This time, I had checked the tide tables though and 8am, when I arrived, was a rising tide. It was clear the difference. The teal were very active in the filling pools. The first problem, there was a lot of them. The second, you can only tell green-winged from our common teal by a small vertical white-stripe on their "shoulder" - not easy. After 30 minutes I had found the lesser legs that was still there, along with many redshank, lots of shelducks and a few water rail calling in the reeds. I had gone through the teal many times but nothing. Suddenly though a mass of them, probably a hundred or so, lifted off from the far side of French's pool and landed a bit nearer on one of the open-water pools now forming. This at least made it easier to see them, and they were very actively swimming around.
I felt it had to be there somewhere though, so I kept scanning as they swam around and eventually I found it. It's in the photo below - can you see it?
No? Well, with an extreme crop and a bit of lightroom magic it's top row, third duck from the left. If you look very carefully you should be able to make out the vertical white stripe on it's shoulder. See why it was so bloomin difficult to find!
So, first target in the bag, and still before 9, so I headed around Poole harbour to Arne. Surprisingly, seeing as this is one of the RSPB's premier reserves and not far from Weymouth, I haven't been here in ages. My targets were spoonbill and Dartford warbler, both of which are regulars here. Spoonbills have become something of a speciality here, with large numbers congregating in Autumn and Winter.
I arrived just as a very friendly warden was opening up the visitor centre. He gave me the lowdown on the reserve and with a useful map I set off. First stop was the lagoon. The tide, as I already knew, was pretty high, so not much mud was exposed. In the distance though, on an exposed tip of a sandbar was a shaggy white shape standing on one leg. Even without seeing it's bill you could tell it was a spoony. After 10 minutes or so, it did give a slight hop and lifted it's head, then went straight back to sleep again. Not exactly a marvellous sighting, but a year tick all the same.
Next stop was the nearby heath, with the gorse in full flower. I wasn't hopeful as it was blowy and starting to rain. I walked up and down, listening and watching for a small blur of feathers darting between bushes, which is the normal view of a Dartford. After I suppose 30 minutes, and with a shower moving over, I was beginning to wonder if I would dip. Then from right nearby came a distinctive scratchy song, and a marvellous male warbler sat up on top of a gorse bush.

I hadn't even got my camera out, as I had put it away when the rain came across, so a frantic minute followed as I got it out and fired up. The Dartford though was oblivious to my panic. It just carried on singing. As you can see in the bottom photo, the white flecks are the rain coming across, but it didn't seem to worry.
Eventually it lifted off that bush and landed even closer to me, affording stunning views.

Finally,it gave up and moved across the heath, where I could still hear it singing away happily, so I left it to it.
Not a bad day at all. With those three ticks, all good birds, that takes me to 181 for the year, 8 ahead of Martin as it stands. That is also my best ever March total by 11 so could be a big year coming up! Lots of arrivals should get to our shores soon, and only two weeks to Scotland. Let's hope there's some nice megas hanging around as well.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Pining for the fjords

With Judith flying to Hong Kong on Friday afternoon, I had the whole weekend to myself. What to do - a bit of shopping, lazing in bed, perhaps re-dig the flower border. Oh no, two full days birding ahead. With the maxim of sticking to lifers in mind, the plans were laid on Thursday. Day one would be up North for a pine bunting, day two back down south for egrets and assorted year ticks.
The pine bunting was near York in a village called Dunnington and initially I was going to go up on Saturday morning. Then I looked at the map and thought about a 4am start. I then booked a nice pub for Friday night in the village and went up on Friday afternoon.
I had plans for stopping on the way up, but in the end the M1 was awful, the weather was disgusting and so only one stop was available - a red-necked grebe at Draycote Water. One in the midst of about 50 great crested grebes took a bit of finding but in the end it gave itself up. After that it was just a slog up the M1 to Dunnington. The Windmill pub was nice - clean new rooms in an annex by the pub plus a giant portion of haddock and chips with a couple of pints suitably refreshed me. The only down side was that breakfast wasn't served till 7 at the earliest and that meant valuable birding time wasted! So, at 7am I was in a field, all alone, but in position for the bird.
The pine bunting is a cousin to our yellowhammer, and is pretty rare in this country, normally being found in Scandinavia over to Siberia. This one had been hanging around for a couple of weeks but was described as "elusive". Also, Martin got it two weeks ago, so it was a good if challenging target.

My only company for the first 15 minute or so were a courting pair of pigeons.

There were two areas where the bird was normal seen - the field above, lurking about in the hedge, or a paddock about 15 minutes walk or 30 seconds bird flight away. By about 8 it was clear the assorted twitchers were split - half of us in the field, half in the paddock. I chose the field as it was having seed put down and was attracting a good supporting cast of birds - yellowhammers, bullfinches, tree sparrows, reed buntings and assorted tits, robins and thrushes.

By 9.30 or so there was probably 25 of us at the site, scanning every bird in the hedge, but no sign. Then someones phone went - the bird was showing in the paddock. Queue a mass exodus of camera and telescope wielding birders across a very muddy field. We were literally running at one point, not very sensible with the soft-going underfoot and thousands of pounds of optical equipment on our shoulders! We got there two minutes after the bunting flew off. The crowd was now 50 strong but no bird in sight. This was not helped we thought by a tree surgeon in a garden backing onto the paddock who was chainsawing and mulching a large tree!! Then the phones all went off again. Bunting seen back in the field in the hedge. Another mass cavalry charge back to where we started. "It showed briefly but was flushed by a dog walker". We all staked out the hedge, started to discuss past exploits, split up to check hedgerows but by 11 no bird. That was 4 hours in. At least it wasn't raining. Then, it happened again - phone went off, bird back in the paddock. What to do? Half of the group went back but I stayed with a small group who had all bonded and thought the best tactic was to wait. There was almost a fight though as one bloke who left walked straight past the hedge where the birds were feeding, flushing them all and being shouted out by our group. He very aggressively turned back and gave us a mouthful before heading off. We did talk about waiting till he was virtually out if sight before calling him back and saying the bird had been seen. He looked a bit big and cross though so we decided against it.
By 12, a few new birders had arrived, sone had left but still no bird. Then suddenly the bloke I had been working the hedge with shouted out "there, on the seeds". Before I could get onto it though it was "flying, over us now, second bird" as two birds dark shapes shot over and landed 100 yards in a hedge. Queue small cavalry charge and finally we had it.
Trust me, it is in the centre on this photo. A really smart reddish-brown bird, with a beautiful striped head. It stayed for only about 30 seconds though before it relocated back to the hedge with the seeds. Many, many happy birders though with lots of hand-shaking and back-slapping, especially the guy who found it. I got the message out on RBA and the crowds in the paddock returned. I gave it another 20 minutes but we couldn't re-find it so I headed off to try and get a couple more ticks on my way home. Still, over 5 hours for one bird may seem mad, but boy was it worth it for the brief view.
With it now being almost one and over 200 miles to go I only had time for one stop - Carsington Water in Derbyshire. The target here was a willow tit - the rare cousin of the pretty scarce marsh tit. They used to be hard to find, now there are a few hot spots left, otherwise they have gone from many of their old haunts. I haven't seen one for probably 5 years.
About 3 I got to the reservoir and headed for the wildlife centre, looking for some bird feeders where they apparently hang out. This was the total opposite of the bunting though.
Almost immediately I saw a little brown bird with a distinctive back cap in the trees near the bird feeders. There were probably 4 or 5 birds hanging about in the trees.

They looked really nice against the catkins, quite spring-like.
On the way back to the carpark I also picked up a surprise year-tick in the form of a ruff on the lagoon. Not rare but a nice bird.

and there were some feral (?) barnacle geese around as well, although I had already got them in Kent!!
After this I headed back home and was in bed really early for the next trip on Sunday.

So, 6am saw me on the road again, this time down to Somerset and Dorset. No lifers on offer but I was after some more year ticks to get ahead of Martin. First stop was at a village called Box, where Martin had seen a dipper last week. This is apparently a good site for them, and it looked good with a nice river, but despite searching for 20 minutes up and down stream they weren't playing ball. I moved on to Ham Wall about an hours drive away. I've been here before - Hudsonian godwit and little bittern being the stars. The weather today though was iffy, with strong winds and showers so the only things I managed to find were great white egrets, which breed now on site and one lone bittern. Still, two more ticks. Adding to the mileage I then moved down to the south coast at Abbotsbury. Two Richards pipits have been overwintering behind the cafe at the Swannery. They are regular visitors to our shores, but only in small numbers and are pretty elusive. I've only seen one before so well worth having.They are larger than pipits and quite distinctive and leggy but in long grass that can be hard to see. In between the rain showers I trotted out into the fields and started quartering the long grass. On my own, the only chance was to flush the bird. First field - nothing. Second field though proved more productive. Only just into it and a pipit flew up. No call and in flight, who knows. Luck was on my side though - it landed on a stone wall and perched for a few seconds allowing me a good enough view to nail it. Then to confirm it, the bird flew over my head calling. Really good tick and again without hours waiting. Last stop before heading home was at Radipole to get a tick of Meditteranean gull in the car park. A short stop with the mother-in-law for tea and cake and the long journey home.
What a weekend though. One lifer, 6 other year ticks, not a bad haul for March. I am only one behind my best ever March, on 169 birds birds now, which will be gettable with Spring migrants starting to arrive. More importantly, I'm 6 ahead of Martin!