Friday, October 20, 2017

Birding Disaster Recovery at Spurn Head.

After an eternity of westerlies, a brief window of South-Easterlies. Spurn Head was clearly going to be the place to be. Time to visit my mother in Leeds with just a small detour to see some birds on the way.

Late morning found me at Spurn Head with just one problem. Thick fog. An Olive Backed Pipit and a couple of Little Buntings had been seen, but by 2pm I reckoned given the number of people there that out 100 man hours had been collectively spent birding, of which thirty minutes had been spent looking at rarities and 99.5 hours at been spent staring at bushes through the gloom.

This was clearly a birding disaster. As the rain began to fall and I contemplate a list that was worse then an average morning in my back garden, I decided emergency action was called for. Time to put Birding Disaster Recovery into operation, which is basically to just go and find some birds, any birds, and look at them.

Kilnsea Wetlands is just north of Kilnsea. the first hide has a few ducks, mainly Wigeon and Teal with some Shovellers, and a couple of eclipse Pintail. I could just make out 3 juv Little Stints through the gloom, and a wader that seemed bigger than the stints but smaller than a Dunlin, like a large Temminck's Stint, but I was peering into thick fog round a corner and getting nowhere so I moved on. I walked round the wetlands toward Beacon Lane Ponds, stopping for some decent views of a small flock of Reed buntings - sadly no Little. On walking up to the top of the bank I realised the fog had lifted and I could see the sea. The ponds and dunes looked just ideal for a Merlin to fly though. A Merlin flew through and stopped on a low branch long enough for the scope; a vision of brown and white monochrome hunting perfection. four Whooper Swans in a field were the first of the autumn for me, and then out onto the beach where the sea had a few Gannets and three small parties of Common Scoter heading south. Then back to the wetlands where waders were gathering for a high tide roost. 3 Ruffs joined over a thousand waders, mainly Redshank and Dunlin but also Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit. The birds went up and the air filled with white as about 30 Little Egret flew round prior to landing

From the end of the wetlands onwards, Thrush numbers had been building. Mainly Redwings, but small parties of Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, and a couple of Fieldfares. Stood on the beach there was constant calling as small parties flew over, and scans showed some flying in; one black bird had a silvery sheen and some white on the breast so was almost certainly a Ring Ouzel. a scan on returning to the car showed fields full of thrushes. I must have seen in excess of a thousand, with Blackbirds over a hundred and sing thrushes over fifty. So at the last, a decent list for the day and some classic Spurn October migration.

I could have done with my birding mates. Apart from the company and two extra pairs of better birding eyes, at times like this I tend to start dashing around, trying to see everything but ending up seeing nothing and they would probably have calmed me down. Perhaps we would have spent longer looking at that bird with the stint as today I see a White-rumped Sandpiper was recorded at Kilnsea Wetlands. Oh well. I think trying to make sense of that bird in the murk would have meant missing out on the Swans and the Merlin

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fingrinhoe and Abberton - 5th Sept

I pick up David at the uncharacteristically early time of 8:15 and we head off to Fingringhoe Wick. Our aim is to be in place for the incoming tide, hopefully not too far to the back of what is sure to be a packed hide. On the way down to the "intertidal zone" we can see from the mud that we are not too late. Nor are we too late for the Osprey that is flying slowly over the river, then casually drifting down over the reserve woodland. A pair of partridges fly up and whirr over the hedge, and a certain amount of bickering as to which variety they are ensues.

We settle in the hide where there is only one other person, but surely it will pick up later. Redshanks, Ringed Plover and Dunlin are scattered around on the exposed mud, and there is a smattering of Greenshanks amongst them. Slowly the large lagoon begins to fill, and more and more waders appear and begin to settle on the nearby purpose built piles of mud. There are some sparkling summer plumage Grey Plovers, a party of about 20 Golden Plovers again a few with large amounts of black, and some Black Tailed Godwits come closer. Then Knot appear too, with some still in red, and Bar-tailed Godwits. soon it is a mass of just about every common wader in just about every plumage. Avocets are slightly more distant, Curlews are on the river's edge, and a Whimbrel flies past. A kingfisher whistles and zips round the hide into a bush. The tide builds and more waders come in and two juvenile Curlew Sandpipers appear with that distinctive long-legged appearance and a gorgeous peachy wash on the breast.

Periodically the waders all fly up as raptors appear. The first time it is the Osprey back for more fish, the second a Merlin zooms through quickly followed by a Peregrine that zips back and lands briefly in a tree before continuing on, then two Hobbies, all wings and tail, zip down river.

It is high tide so we head off.  Still buzzing from the spectacle of so many waders in fantastic plumage at very watchable distances, and from the show put on by as good a selection of raptors as one could wish to see. And all watched by just three people.

We head off to Abberton and call in to see the two juvenile Red-Necked Phalaropes from the church. Still distant, still hard to see, but this time we get some decent views of a couple of very neat birds. Down to the centre to establish that there is not much here. David insists we stop at the Layer De La Haye Causeway which I know will be a waste of time but surprisingly we find a Black-Necked Grebe in winter plumage working its way up the right hand bank, mainly under water. We go down to Billet's Farm and then round to the screen overlooking Wigboro Bay. There is a juvenile Whinchat on the fence, 3 Spotted Redshanks and 20 Ruff in the bay with various more common waders, and a further 4 Black-necked Grebes in the bay. We meet a couple of birders who tells us what they have seen at Hide Bay so we go back to the centre and head off. I ignore David's directions and set off to the hide by what ultimately turns out to be a circuitous route ending up exactly where David suggested we go in the first place. From the hide is a Great White Egret patrolling the bank. We get excellent views of the yellow beak and pale yellow green loral patch, and the legs starting pale but becoming blackish round the knee. I haven't seen these details before. Slightly further away is the rare and unusual sight of 2 Spoonbills actively feeding and a couple of Pintails in the small lagoon.

What a list. And not just ticks on the page but a real birding spectacle. The intertidal zone at Fingringhoe Wick is, at the right time for these few weeks, surely one of the best places to see birds in the East of England. It is almost criminal that so few people were there to witness it.

Here's an excellent shot from David of a mixed wader flock getting squeezed whilst the tide rises. See if you can spot the Curlew Sandpipers!

Monday, September 04, 2017

Birders and Steely Dan

So. Recently I've started going birding with a local birder on a regular basis. The trips involve quite a lot of sitting in a car where I talk rubbish and my birding mate politely listens. But in the course of talking rubbish, it transpires that despite being different in age, background, interests (other than birding), we have the same all time favourite album; Aja, by Steely Dan.

Yesterday Walter Becker, one half of said duo, died. Another birder who I follow on the side bar to this blog, paid a couple of paragraphs of tribute. I'm pretty sure this is the first time said birding blogger has commented in this way on anything other than birds. I got wondering if there is something about birders and Steely Dan.

Much of Rock Music is a fairly straightforward display of maleness, like a colossal lek. Rock bands compete to be the ultimate male, singing songs of prowess, strength, and masculine vigour, advertising their heroic status like a male bird advertising for mates. In this world, Steely Dan stood out. They were the nerds on the edge of the playground pointing out the ridiculousness of it all.

If you haven't seen the Classic Albums episode on Aja, it is well worth digging out. Steely Dan come across as a couple of misfits who found each other and started wrote songs together. They eventually formed a band and started singing because no-one else would sing their songs. They formed a rock band because that was the popular medium, but their heart was in fifties jazz and r&b. Aja was the album they made for themselves, to put down somewhere the things that mattered to them, not the things they thought would sell. Famously, they didn't just rotate session musicians, they rotated entire bands until they got the precise sound they were looking for. They succeeded magnificently.

So what does this have to do with birders? Well, as a general rule, we are the boys who stood on the edge of the playground whilst the more popular lads played football or bragged about their latest achievements. Whilst everyone else was clamouring for attention, fighting for their place in the testosterone hierarchy, we were looking in the other direction at a bird and asking the four basic questions all birders ask: What is it? What is it doing here? Why is it doing that? Can I tick it?

So I think birders have a natural affinity with Steely Dan. An instinctive empathy with sarcastic observations, an indifference to things other people think matter a lot, and obsessions about perfection in areas that other people think don't matter.

I could post a Steely Dan song here, but there are lots on YouTube and you can find them if you want. Part of the fun of browsing youtube is ending up in areas you didn't know existed. Through Aja I came across the drummer Bernard Purdie. I could listen all day to Bernard Purdie playing the drums. I could listen all day to him just talking. Here he does both.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The Perennial Patch Optimist.

Today, surely, is the day when it all happens. The day I'm watching a Shrike, just above the Redstart, when a Wryneck pops out and I'm distracted by a passing Monties.

I've been out almost daily recently, and I'm getting into a decent rhythm. Taking more time, just standing watching the bushes. I've had a couple of Spotted Flycatchers, regular Lesser Whitethroat, and the Little Owl and Kingfisher have been refreshingly active. Willow Chiffs have been again in decent numbers with some Chiff-chaff singing, and Blackcaps are still active. Green Woodpeckers number about 5 round the patch including young ones, there's Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker in the woods and Buzzard overhead, Bullfinches and Greenfinches in the hedgerows, but these are all the standard sightings.

More irregular birds have been a Peregrine through from the south on 22nd, a patch first for me, a Ring-Necked Parakeet in a tree, a Hobby scything through and a leisurely Red Kite over the park on 29th, a Swift on 31st may have been the last of the year, and a smashing Whinchat in the overgrown Little Owl field 1st September, so there is migration action.

Then last night we had a sudden thunderstorm. It was light up like bonfire night with rain bouncing off the roads and thunder rumbling all around. Surely no self-respecting migrant would fly through that? Despite the lack of appropriate winds I set of with my scope confident of bushes heaving with Shrikes, Starts, Wrynecks etc.

There was a Spotted Flycatcher on the edge of the park, being given grief by a Chiffchaff that tried to spoil every sally from the wires. The Kingfisher was calling loudly and I got to see its rear end a couple of times as it motored away. The Little Owl, often just a fluffy child's toy discarded on a low branch, was this time busy flying around from perch to perch, and although I was at a distance it always seemed to be looking directly at me. Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting were on the patch, and a Cetti's Warbler song was the first for a few months. A first for the year was Jay with an acorn in its beak.

So a decent walk. Lots to admire, but not the big one. That'll be along soon for sure. And when it comes, you can read about it here.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Sunday morning listing

Up early Sunday morning, and Abberton Res still has its star birds. I can be there and back before lunch so I'm in the car and heading off. 

I arrive and have no real idea where to start. I go to Billett's farm but there are only a couple of cars here; surely there would be more here, so I carry on to a lay-by pull in over Wigborough bay and in the distance I see several Avocets, lots of Black-Tailed Godwits, some Ruffs, some Wigeon, but I'm on my own and I have the feeling I should be somewhere else. I drive round to the Pegdon side and down to the screens and have a spectacular couple of minutes with a juvenile Peregrine and a juvenile Marsh Harrier exchanging pleasantries. The Harrier is superb, chocolate brown apart from a bright cream crown and a fine line of orange feather edgings down the wing. However again I am on my own and not seeing the star birds, so after checking Twitter - I should have done this a while ago - I go round to Abberton Church and meet a crowd of happy smiling faces coming away "yes - down there". And the star birds, 2 Red-Necked Phalaropes, are indeed down there and out of sight behind some tall vegetation. For the next fifteen minutes we make do with glimpses of distant birds through the foliage. Phalaropes they clearly are; near they clearly aren't.

I am sent back to Billet's Farm where I am reliably told the Pectoral Sandpiper has been on display all morning. We are staring directly into the sun and doing birding-by-silhouette. We find a couple of candidate birds, even agree on the same one, but end up thinking it is a ruff. Strangely I enjoy this more than I think I would enjoy being shown a distant Pec. Such is birding.

Then it is back home for lunch. I'm left with that familiar Abberton feeling; Abberton is not so much a reservoir, more an inland sea. Good birds seen distantly, but never the full list. That feeling that someone somewhere else is seeing something really good. My Abberton list is excellent given the few visits I make, but my list of Abberton misses is even better. 

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Murder on the patch

A mid-morning stroll round the patch on this the first day of August. A kingfisher the main avian sighting - a couple of months since I saw one of these on the patch - and a flock of 30 Swifts high over the park evidence of migration. Otherwise it was the camera not the binoculars that did the work again today.

An Ornate Digger Wasp at the colony by the bridge, this time with paralysed prey about to be taken down the tunnel to feed a growing grub. Insect life is just brutal.

A couple of new dragons for the year on the patch today (for me). A black-tailed skimmer whizzed by and what I believe is a female common darter perched briefly.

Finally a hoverfly. This thing is tiny, under a centimetre. I think it is a female sphaerophoria interrupta, which is "common and widespread" as well as small and beautiful.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bramhope revisited - and the importance of comprehensive note taking

A bright morning walk to revisit old haunts round Bramhope. I walk I used to do periodically from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s. Walking down Long Meadows a loud screeching turned out to be from a Little Owl sat in a tree on the edge of the field. Then past Old Rushes Farm. This used to be a tumble down couple of barns but is now all done up and inhabited, not just by people but by a small flock of Tree Sparrows. Up to Paul's Pond and a Little Grebe in with the Tufted Duck and Canadas. Up to the slopes of Golden Acre Park, and where once children sledged down a grassy slope there are now trees of all shapes and sizes, and consequently a family party of Bullfinch and a Nuthatch. Up to Lineham Farm where two Willow Chiffs hooet-ed in the bushes, back to Bramhope where an Oystercatcher flew high over.

I checked my records. I used to have Little Owl at the tumble-down Old rushes Farm, clearly not one there now. My records showed Tree Sparrows at nearby Adle Dam but no records from anywhere on the walk, and to be honest I have absolutely no recollection of seeing Tree Sparrows at the Dam. And no flying over Oystercatcher records either. Add the Ubiquitous Red Kites and that's four new species-records for the walk. In addition I had Nuthatch calling from all reasonable size bits of woodland (about 5 in total). I have Nuthatch records from Adle Dam but not anywhere else.

So has there genuinely been an increase in Tree Sparrows and Nuthatches? I'm just not sure my old records are comprehensive enough. If I'd done then what I do now, which is to regularly record all birds seen on my standard patch walk, I may have a reasonable basis for comparison.

If I could go back in time and have a word with my younger self, I would say - just once in a while, record everything you see. Things that seem commonplace and dull today may become of great interest in later years. And you will need to know that if its not on that list, that means it wasn't observed, not that you couldn't be bothered to note it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

July photos

A couple of trips. Firstly Rainham Marsh RSPB. Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tits notwithstanding, it was all about the insects. There were masses of workers on the Lavender in the car park and I think these were Brown-Banded Carder Bees, mainly because at least one of them was a carder bee with a brown band. Difficult to photograph in a suitable pose, I am nevertheless quite pleased with the art in these photos.

Then a few Shrill Carder Bees, an Emerald Damselfly in the Cordite area that I am told is a Willow Emerald, and some more common stuff - the Hornet Mimic Volucella Zonaria which I now see more often than I see Hornet.

Shrill Carder Bee worker
Willow Emerald

Then with David today to Stansted Airport Lagoons for waders followed by another trip to Hatfield Forest to see Purple Emperors. Needless to say this did not go as planned. There was a lone Lapwing at a very full lagoons, but there were up to ten damselflies on algae pads on one of the lagoons. David was sure these were Small Red-eyed Damselflies and having looked at photos the step on the end of the abdomen does match the photos and is quite distinctively different from Red-Eyed. A flicker in the foliage turned out to be another Willow Emerald.  We left the lagoons quite happy with our haul and went to the Forest. We walked round the NW corner of Hatfield Forest finding little new in the way of Butterflies, and no sign of the Emperors but did see plenty of Ringlets and Gatekeepers sunning themselves. We paused from looking down long enough to see a Raven fly over which is a good record for the forest.

Willow emerald

Gatekeeper sunning itself
Finally a reminder that wildlife is exploding all over. David's eagle eyes spotted a freshly emerged Six-Spotted Burnet Moth. Quite fantastic it is too, with its damp wings still creased.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Patch Summer Doldrums

A mid-day mid-summer walk round the patch. It's Groundhog Day. Everything that was here yesterday is here today, and will be tomorrow. So not much of note today? Well, that depends on your perspective.

Bird-wise it was hard. Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat all present singing away, but unseen. Reed Bunting and Greenfinch a bit more obvious. A Herring Gull over was noteworthy for the patch. Buzzard and a pair of kestrels less so. Plenty of young birds - family partiers of Chaffinch and Long-Tailed Tit, and a Little Owl in its usual tree was on its own, although I am told a pair fledged young here this year.

There were plenty of odonata by the river as well, but nothing new; Emperor, Brown Hawker, lots of Banded Demoiselle, and from the Damselflies there were Red-eyed, Azure and Blue-tailed. The canal had lots of vertical blue damselflies I guess ovipositing on vegetation - quite a sight.

There were butterflies too - a Marbled White, plenty of Meadow Brown, Ringlet, a Small Tortoiseshell, and Essex Skipper and Gatekeeper were new for the patch for the year.

Essex Skipper showing off those Black-tipped antennae

There were bees too. My favourite the male Red-Tailed was out for the first time this year, and there was a hairless bee as well. I can see some tufts on the body so it may be a bumble-bee that has lost its hairs, or it may be a mining bee of some description. I'm thinking the latter, as I don't see too many semi-hairless bumble bees, just fluffy bees and these hairless ones, so I'm thinking they are a separate genus altogether.

male Red-Tailed
hairless-bumble or  a mining bee?
more of that hairless bee.
then by the bridge over the canal some freshly dug holes, and some insects using them! There was a black-and-yellow wasp-like thing going in and out. Very hard to photograph but miraculously I got one hovering, and also one digging out the entrance to the burrow.

I think these are some kind of Field Digger-Wasp. They drag paralysed flies into the burrow for the young to feed on. I didn't see anything being dragged in to day, but I did see some smaller wasp-like things with reddish bodies. The closes I can find is a kind of Sawfly. Again I think these are parasitic.

UPDATE: having posted this I'm now not so sure about the ID. Field Diger Wasp has yellow on the thorax just behind the neck and at the base, but this has a completely black thorax.
SECOND UPDATE: tweeted the picture and got a great response back from Ian Beavis at @TWBC_Museum - Ornate Tailed Digger Cerceris rybyensis - isolated all-yellow segment is distinctive

in-flight hovering wasp
digger wasp digging
tiny wasp-like thing showing keen interest in the burrows.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bee IDs

I've been taking lots of photos of Bumble Bees recently. Here's a few that have me stumped, and one firstly that I'm reasonably happy about.

1. I think this is male Vestal Cuckoo Bee (Bombus Vestalis) due to the yellow on the edge of the white tail and the faint yellow midriff band. On the brambles near my house this seems to be the commonest bumble bee. Odd that a parasite should outnumber the host, but there we are.

2. Again on brambles in a local wood. Two shots of a completely smooth bee apart from a yellow frill. I think this is just a completely hairless worker bee of a common species, but only because I cannot find an alternative explanation.

3. And two more from the same area. Again, I think this may be a bumble bee with hair loss, but it may not be a bumble bee at all. I have no idea.

 4. This was taken at Thursley Common in Surrey. A dark bee with a greyish white tail. On close inspection it has a faint collar and midriff so I suspect it is just a variant of a common bumble bee. There were at least two like this.

5. From a recent visit to Hatfield Forest. It looks like a common bee except for the profuse yellow on the head. I thought at first it might be Early Bumble bee but on looking in my book Barbut's Cuckoo bee also has lots of yellow on the head. So I'm confused, again.

6. And finally another from Hatfield Forest, and all black one. I couldn't get round the right side of the bush to get a decent photograph so sadly these will have to do. My book indicates there is a form of male Field Cuckoo Bee that is black, but I don't think there is enough on this to confirm an id.

Having spent a few decades watching birds and being pretty confident about identifying any British bird on a good view, its fun to go back to the start with a new group of creatures. I haven't yet got a feel for what is variation within a common species and what marks out a different species. And I still haven't been able to point at a bee and say "thats a Garden Bumble Bee" event though I'm sure they are all around.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mindfulness in Surrey

D#3 going on what now appears to be an annual pilgrimage to Thorpe Park. This gave me most of the day to do with as I pleased. Last year I did Box Hill but this year David came along and we went to Thursley Common.

Redstart - a beautiful confiding male by the Moat Pond Car Park, Hobby, a brief Dartford Warbler, and singing Tree Pipit gave us what would be a pretty decent list by itself, but we were primarily interested in the Odonata. A first go at some of these for me. My Id guesses in the photos below.

We saw Small Red Damselflies, but I think this one is a Large Red Damselfly due to the bronze on the rear segments.

Four-Spotted Chaser, so called because its wings have eight spots. Quite common these. 
I think this is a female Keeled Skimmer due to the two yellow stripes just behind the head.
A poor flight shot of Downy Emerald, showing the green eyes an club tail.
Emerald Damselfly, appreciably larger than the more common Azure and Common Blue. 
Then on to Oaken Wood for butterflies. We saw Silver Washed Fritillary, some high-up Purple Emperors, and lots of White Admirals. Its been a while since I saw this, and was fortunate to have one pose for me.

Some White-Legged Damselflies. The breeze meant getting it in focus wasn't easy, but here it is anyway.
 I found the searching for odanata really quite relaxing. A gentle stroll with lots of looking, then when seeing one waiting for the dragon to return to its post or complete its circuit. Mrs D tells me this is Mindfulness. I think I can quite happily have some more of that.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Verging on madness

Possibly the only thing to be said for the snail's pace of traffic in this area is that you get plenty of time to look at the road-side verges, and with this being early summer there are lots of flowers to admire.

I though I spotted some Bee Orchids today so returned mid-morning to find 22 spikes by a local main road. Further up the road the flowers I had thought were Common Spotted Orchids were indeed that species. Also a couple of Pyramidal Orchids out on a local roundabout. It turned out there were Bee Orchids at all three sites I stopped. I guess the shorter spikes are not that easy to pick up from the car.

I'm not sure how these got here. It is tempting to think these flowers naturally occur here, and the occasional mowing and attention from rabbits makes a supportive habitat. The alternative explanation that I've heard from a Landscape Gardener is that when a new road is constructed the contractors buy a load of mixed seed which contains daisies and various other standard species and a few orchid seeds for good measure, so these are effectively introduced. Whatever the explanation, these beautiful and intriguing flowers liven up our local environment.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Summer on the patch

Summer on the patch. Birds are busy raising young, so not much change to report, but insects are beginning to appear.

Bramble bushes in particular are insect magnets. Here's one in a wooded area so protected from wind, and it was alive with bees.

This looks like a male Vestal Cuckoo Bee (bombus vestalis).  It has the distinctive yellow tinge to the edge of the white tail, and has a band round the top of the abdomen.

This and the one below look like a female Vestal Cuckoo Bee (no middle ring).

I don't know which this one is. It is a female worker bumble bee (has pollen baskets) but has no middle band.

This is a worker (pollen baskets again) and is straightforwardly either a buff-tailed bee or white-tailed bee.

Then a couple of hoverflies, both of which are I believe Volucella Bombylans. These mimic bumble bees, the first one mimicking red-tailed bee and the second white-tailed bee.

Now on easier ground. A male Large Skipper - first of the year.

Finally a Whitethroat, and then one of the more notable birds of the patch. Please leave a comment when you have found it!

Rarity chasing in Cambridgeshire part 2.

Last post left you on the edge of your seats as your intrepid birders ticked off the first of three potential rarities and headed off in sea...