Thursday, 29 June 2017

Reeling in the years

My company has been part of the recent ransomware attack. So, with my pc in lock down and the office out of bounds and all my emails sent on my phone I had some time on my hands. Only a bit of time though as the phone still required me to make a call at lunchtime so I had to work out what to do locally.
One possibility was a grasshopper warbler which has been seen for the past few days at Heartwood Forest. This is near St. Albans and was where we saw the wintering short-eared owls two years ago.
It only took about 20 minutes to get there, to find a car park full of dog walkers - never a good sign when looking for birds but they were all well behaved and kept to the paths.
The "gropper" was reported as being between the farm and round wood. I knew where the farm was but which one was the round wood was a bit of a guess. So, a 15 minute yomp got me to where I could see the farm but there were three possible woods and all looked quite, well, round! With no clues I carried on down the fence line. Near a stile, and close to a wood, was an area of low, scrubby bushes. This is perfect gropper habitat.
Elsewhere the fields were alive with birdsong - linnets, whitethroats, skylarks, goldfinches and lots of butterflies. More importantly I then heard a very loud and strange bird song, the characteristic reeling of the grasshopper warbler. The link below shows you why it is called reeling, being just like the sound of a fishing reel spooling out. This link is actually a bird I saw two years ago, but you get the point.

Grasshopper warbler calling

Now groppers are normally known as birds which you can hear but are hard to see. They both skulk and throw their voices. This one started off like that.

You could see it in a bush, but it was hard to really get onto it. It made it easier though as it was singing incessantly. Gradually with a bit of patience it started to become braver and come out into the open.

It is a typical lbj. No colour, no real distinguishing marks. Very streaked on top, plain off-white underneath. That round-tail is pretty characteristic though.
Finally, it came out onto a nearby branch and showed itself in all its glory. As it turned its head, where the call came from moved as it threw its voice around. When it looked straight toward me I could see right down its gape!

Quite surprisingly there were no other birders around so I had it all to myself. I stayed for probably 30 minutes, twice about to leave till it struck up its song again calling me back. I eventually dragged myself away though and went back home for a bit of phone-calling. Nice bird though!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Elegantly done

There is a clear hierarchy in the world of birding - patch list is worth less than year list is worth less than lifer. Best of all is a lifer which is also a country first.
Elegant tern fits into this category. This normally breeds on the Pacific coast of the US and winters further south into Peru and Chile. There have been two or three putative records of it before in the UK, but it is very difficult to separate in the field from lesser-crested tern and is known to hydridise with other terns, including our own sandwich terns. So, the putative records have been left as that - verdict not proven!
Last week another "putative" popped up on the south coast in the wake of the big storm that brought in the stormies mentioned in my last blog. This one however was seen to have a series of coloured leg rings. Even better, those identified it as "bird c" which had been ringed in France and also present here for a number of years. Even, even better it had been DNA tested and was shown to be a pure elegant tern!! The full story to this can be found in the link below, a great piece of scientific detective work.
Genetics and provenance of elegant terns
The bird skipped around a couple of locations without allowing the masses to connect though. Finally on Saturday it decided to drop into the tern colony at Church Norton near Pagham. It clearly felt at home, hardly surprising seeing as it had already hybridised with a sandwich tern in France. By all accounts Saturday and Sunday were a bit mad as the hordes, including Martin P, descended. Photos showed upwards of a hundred people but the bird was very elusive, moving out to sea or spending large times out of sight on an island in the estuary. This was also at some distance and with heat haze it could take 3 or more hours to get only half decent views.
I played it cool though as prevailing wisdom was that it would stay put! Finally, on Wednesday an opportunity arose. With the awful fire in London closing the A40  I was wfh'ing. The message also went out that there was work being done on the tern island over lunchtime, so no one was around spotting it and the terns would all be displaced. By mid-afternoon though I cracked. I figured that by late afternoon or early evening all the terns would be returning and there wouldn't be too many people around - a factor as parking is limited there and the alternative is a 3 mile round trip walking along the coast!!!!
So, I set off mid- afternoon to head down south. On the way though there was another potential stop. At Frensham, a red-footed falcon has been in residence and showing well. I've surprisingly only seen one before but this year there has been large influx of them and Frensham was virtually on the way.
I made my way to the heath and stood on top of Kings ridge surveying the area. Five other birders were around so we covered a lot with all those eyes. I was in luck - after only about 20 minutes a bird flashed across where we were standing and landed in a tree a couple of hundred yards away. A quick 'scope check and that was the bird, and what a bird it was.

 It is actually in the tree to the right of this photo. As ever with Summer birding, great distance and heat haze do not make for good bedfellows with photography.

These are all horrible photos but hopefully you can see enough of the bird. First thing is those red, or more strictly orange, feet. It also has a beautiful slate-grey back and a very piratical stripe through the eye. It often hunts more like a kestrel, even hovering once, than a hobby, and it kept pouncing down from its perch to the ground to grab prey. Beautiful bird and I would have loved to have stayed a bit longer and got some better shots but this was only the supporting, or hopefully supporting, cast. The tern awaited.
About another hour got me to Church Norton. The car park was about 2/3 full, but that was only 10-12 cars. Literally as I was parking though the phone alert went - it was back!! I grabbed my gear, threw a bottle of water into my rucksack and yomped the few hundred yards to the beach where 6 others birders had their 'scopes pointing out to the island.
I quickly ascertained that it was seen about 10 minutes earlier but was now out of sight in the long-grass. In the photo above we are looking out towards the white house you can see on the horizon. The tern was apparently almost in line with that. Even with a 'scope though all you could see was a large number of gulls and terns wheeling around. We were looking for one with a bloody big orange bill, totally different to everything else around. My mind went to the stories of people waiting hours to see it, and the fact I probably now only had about two or perhaps three hours before it got dark! My luck was again in though. After perhaps 10 minutes one birder got onto it, or he got onto its beak. As it was preening, from one particular angle you had a gap in some tussocks and you could just about glimpse this large orange dagger-like beak. Enough to claim it but not exactly a crippling view. Gradually it started to show a bit better and even flew up landing only about 5 yards away. Good views but now totally out of sight. Another 10 minutes and then the whole colony went up as a crow overflew them. Cue frantic searching before it was located out in the open.
Well, when I say out in the open, about half a mile away!! The photo above is as good as it gets. Its the bird on the right hand side here. For the next few minutes it preened away then lazily flew back into the tussocky grass. Absolutely nailed this time. After another 30 minutes of no show I decided to brave the drive back home so left as the evening shift of birders were arriving. I noticed on birdguides later that evening that no one else connected and it was a no-show for the rest of the evening!
Very happy drive home, even the queues on the M25 were bearable. Not only a lifer but the first definite elegant tern in the UK! Very happy. My life-list is now 356 vs. BOU or 365 vs 400-club rules. That 400 mark is edging closer but a few more years yet I fear. My year list is romping away - that takes me to 235 way ahead of my best ever year and more importantly 18 ahead of Martin!! Should go quiet for a bit now till Autumn kicks in, though you never know whether a cheeky rosefinch might drop in or even that Royal tern in Guernsey might pay us a visit.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The fields are on fire

As Judith was in the country and could take a day off, we visited one of our favourite reserves - Lakenheath Fen in Norfolk. This used to be the prime site in the UK for nesting golden orioles but they disappeared 5 or 6 years ago. You would rarely see them but the fluting, haunting call of the males coming the woods will always be redolent of the reserve.
We weren't after anything in particular, just a nice walk, apart from our first stop. Every year the pilgrimage is made to Weeting Heath to see the nesting stone curlews. These large waders are peculiar in that they do not nest in wet habitats but prefer dry, open fields. Weeting is ideal for them but has one issue - in the Summer it gets vey dry and the heat haze over the field is awful for seeing let alone photographing the birds, and they can also disappear down a slope out of sight very easily as well. So, we made this the first stop, getting there before 8 when it was still cool and no one else was around. It is only a short walk from the car park to the hide and we struck lucky. On the edge of the slope leading away from the rise, amongst dozens of rooks, cows, jackdaws and rabbits were two stone curlews. They spent most of the time hunkered down, but did occasionally stand up, showing us their very peculiar and striking yellow eye. Nice year tick to add to the growing list.
Lakenheath was the next stop, only about 15 minutes away. By the time we got there, the weather was very unusual for the time of year. It was quite warm but the wind was blowing a right hoolie. Out of the shelter of the trees the reeds were whipping back and forth and any birds which took off went sideways! As ever it was a lovely walk round the large reed bed and along the canal bank, but birds were noticeably absent. The only one who really showed himself was this wren, shouting the odds from the reed bed. Everyone else was keeping down out of the wind.

After Lakenheath we moved to Ouse Washes RSPB. This is not far away and is contiguous with Welney WWT reserve. I've been here a few times before, notably dipping on an oriental pratincvoel by 10 minutes but it was a new site for Judith. The reason for visiting was a pair of black-winged stilts who had just been announced to have a pair of young. These are very recent and rare breeders in the UK. A pair at Welney lost their young to crows two week ago.
Ouse Washes is basically a linear reserve, out along a river bank with a series of hides overlooking the marsh. I misread the map so we overs initially and had a slightly longer walk than necessary but eventually we found the right hide. There were a dozen or so avocets pottering about but quite quickly we got onto the stars of the show.

The two adults were feeding on the edge of the pools then disappearing into the reeds, presumably to feed their chicks. The strategy seemed to be working, along with the help from the avocets in seeing off predators.  I'm writing a week after visiting and the chicks are still there so fingers crossed. It is hoped that they will join little egrets and crane in becoming regular breeders, perhaps being joined by cattle and great white egrets and glossy ibis in the near future.
Finally, as we pottered off home we came across a glorious field of poppies. This part of East Anglia is very good for wild flowers and this was a spectacular display. Justin took all the photos which I hope do justice to the spectacle.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Storming away

Around mid June the birding scene starts to dry up. Most of the commoner or regular birds are all breeding or have been here for some time, and without any change in the weather systems not much new turns up.
Last week though there was one of these weather events, with a large storm in the English channel and on-shore winds forcing lots of displaced marine birds onto the South coast. Among these were good number of storm petrels. This in one of my bogey birds - I've been on the coast when they are around but not connected and I was starting to think I might have to make the long trip to Mousa Broch on the Shetlands where you can visit a colony in an old building on an out-island. The chance therefore to make the slightly shorter trip to Dorset was not to be spurned. Although they were being seen from Dungeness to Cornwall, the best spot seemed to be Hengistbury Head in Dorset, where over a dozen were seen on the Thursday feeding in the surf. So, another early morning trip had me in Dorset before 7 (I was up early anyway to catch the election result, so the radio kept me entertained with analysis on the way down!!). I had set my satnav for the postcode for Hengistbury, but when I was about 5 minutes away I realised it had gone wrong. Hengistbury is a spit of land on one side of Mudeford harbour, and satnav thought I could drive across the estuary mouth - no more than 30 yards wide - to get to it. Damn, I thought. It was a 20 minute drive round, but the birds were also seen off Mudeford quay and I needed a coffee so I went into the carpark there first - a good call as it turns out. A local birder was already there and got me onto the stormies almost immediately. They are also known as sea-swallows, and were displaying why as they flitted across the surface of the sea catching small insects and the like. They are tiny birds, dark with  characteristic white-rump and always active. We saw at least 6, probably more though, as they did oval circuits around the river mouth where the water was churning around. On talking to the other birder I realised I had been doubly lucky. Although you would probably have been a bit closer to the birds if I had gone to Hengitsbury Head, it was a long, 30 minute walk from the car park there to the point!
With all that time saved I had time to catch up on another local speciality, or specialities - goshawk and honey buzzard in the New Forest. My new friend gave me a suggestion of a good site for honeys - Pig Bush car park in the New Forest. Sat nav this time worked and it was only about a 30 minute drive to get there. This a typical southern heathland area - woods surrounding open heath and is perfect for honey buzzards, which are summer migrants to these shores. The heath was alive with birdsong - woodlark, tree pipits, dartford warblers - but it was a very windy morning and so not good for raptors. Whilst scanning the treeline though I picked up two large raptors  - long tail, short neck, big wide wings. Although I couldn't see the breast pattern it was clearly a pair of honey buzzards. As with the stormies though you couldn't get close to them. As I walked nearer, the woods also got closer and they were actually further back in the forest than you thought so they disappeared from view. You may think, why would buzzards be over a wood and not over an open area hunting? Well, firstly it is probably their nest site. Secondly, they feed not on rabbits but on honey - hence the name. So, they prefer wooded sites where they can plunder bees nests. No sign of goshawks though so I headed off the sort distance to Acres Down, which is the premier raptor watching site in the area.
It looks similar to the first site but you have an open area on a ridge to look out from over the forest. There were three other birders already there, locals and very knowledgable. Almost immediately we had a honey buzzard on the ridge line opposite us - again very distant but this time you could see the mottled underbelly. Over the next hour we also had at least 3 goshawks in the air. I would have struggled to ID them, but my new friends gave the jizz you look for. Firstly, sparrowhawks are almost totally absent, which are the main confusion species, but you can't just go on that. Whereas sprawks flap, flap, glide, goshawks are very infrequent flappers and glide much more. The females are also very much larger than any sprawk would be.
No photos I'm afraid as everything was so far away in record shots were out of the question, but a really good day with my third lifer of the year and two other really good year ticks.