Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Importance of Parking

What makes for a successful day out? After yesterday's trip with David round the insect hotspots of Essex, I'd say Parking.

First stop was Langdon Hills, a large area of woods and meadows with a number of recent records of butterflies of interest. I had pre-selected an excellent place for parking for this venue - or so I thought - the Essex Wildlife Trust Langdon Visitor Centre. We had excellent parking close to the centre, and then found out that the areas of interest were a forty minute walk away. We relocated a bit nearer and wandered off to investigate, but long story short we had lots of glimpses of butterflies and dragonflies in the meadows but never made it to Marks Hill for the Purple Emperors.

We cut our losses and headed to Canvey Island for the dragonflies. We had some excellent parking at West Canvey RSPB and saw what was probably a Southern Migrant Hawker, but after walking around had only Common Darters, Black-tailed Skimmers, 4 Black-Tailed Godwits and a Lesser Whitethroat. We headed off to the mecca of Douthern British odonata, a ditch opposite the domestic waste centre on the Benfleet Road.

There was a pull-in by a gate with a few cars but no spaces, so we spent a while driving round and eventually parked in the public car park behind Benfleet Station. Having navigated the administration involved in paying for three hours rather than the whole day, (short-stay bays, yellow button) we then walked back through the mediterranean heat to the ditch to find some mediterranean dragons. In the comparatively brief time we had left we managed to find a few dragons, and even managed to take photographs of them. David, our official photographer, will have better, (and anyone looking for odonata photography excellence will of course look at Marc Heath's wonderful site),  but here are my efforts including some "atmospheric" (i.e. out of focus) shots.  I am informed these are Southern Migrant Hawker, Scarce Emerald, and Southern Emerald. If I go to my guide book published a mere 21 years ago, it has the Scarce Emerald in it, mentions the Southern Migrant Hawker with one picture, and doesn't mention the Scarce Emerald. 

Southern Migrant Hawker in flight

mating Scarce Emerald. The reason I know these are Scarce Emeralds and not Emeralds is because a bloke at the top of the ditch said "there's lots of Scarce Emeralds down there mate."

Southern Emerald
Southern Emerald close-up

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Summer on the patch

Spring has been and gone with hardly a migrant to mark it. We are into summer now and everything is settled, although I could do with the Garden Warbler that sings in the impenetrable forest to show itself so I can get it properly on the list, and for a local Hobby to appear at some point.

Today there was Common Tern fishing along the river, Grey Wagtails at the lock, and some Swifts and House Martins overhead. The Marbled Whites have emerged in decent numbers, and I added Large Red Damselfly to the patch list - long overdue.

An average/excellent day at Minsmere/Dunwich

To Minsmere with David. A windy and cloudy day after yesterdays sunshine. Nothing too much of significance; Bittern from the Bittern hide, the usual Marsh Harriers at Island Mere and just a fly-through Hobby for variety. Spotted Redshank at East Hide the pick of the waders, Kittiwake and fly-over Fulmar at South scrape, a few Mediterranean Gulls, a Greenshank on North Levels, another flying Bittern from West hide, a pair of Stone Curlews as we left the reserve and then a trudge round Dunwich had just one sighting of Dartford Warbler. An average visit.

Lets replay that as it doesn't seem to do justice to the variety of birdlife on show. The Bittern flew close to and slowly past Bittern hide and landed in the reeds, so as good a view as I've had in the last couple of years. There was a constant stream of birds crossing the levels with flocks of Black-Tailed Godwits, Shovelers, and a few Little Egrets. From Island Mere hide at least 4 Marsh Harriers, some coming quite close, and the Hobby gave an exhibition of hunting as it did a fast-pace circuit of the hide. East Scrape was a mass of bird-life, with Mediterranean Gulls everywhere;  a male Pintail, an intriguing Knot in a strange brown-and-white plumage, and Spotted Redshanks in glorious summer plumage giving views as good as I can remember. South scrape was a mass of birds again with 300 Black-Tailed Godwits huddled together, sparkling summer plumage Grey Plover and Turnstone, and an unexpected flock of about 30 Kittiwakes. The beach was pretty empty apart from a fly-over Fulmar. Good views of the Greenshank and then another close-up of a fly-by Bittern. On departing, an RSPB ranger told us where to park to see one of the pairs of Stone Curlews in the area which we duly saw, if rather distantly. We then walked round Dunwich Heath, heard a distant female Tawny Owl, and then had excellent views of Dartford Warbler in heather, and then with a young bird. So all in all, an excellent day's birding at Minsmere.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A year's rarities in one morning - Birdwatching Lisbon

D#1 and D#4 wanted a short break in Lisbon. I went along too and negotiated a morning off from parental duties. A quick google, a couple of emails, and at 7:30 am on Wed 30th May Rui from Birdwatching Lisbon was outside my hotel to whisk me off for a few hours birding. Would there be much worth seeing so close to a capital city?

We drove across the Tagus river and shortly after turned off the highway down a rough track to an area of rough land with a patchwork of lagoons near Bracieira. Straight out of the car there was Black Redstart singing, Zitting Cisticolas, and a flock of 100+ Swifts. Rui pointed out the more relaxed flight, paler throat and scale appearance of Pallid Swift distinguishing to from the more nervous Common Swift. A Black-Winged Kite sat atop a pole looking for prey, a Black Kite flew through, a Hoopoe Flew cross, then some Flamingoes flew past. We saw more of these pre-historic looking creatures during the day, easily visible from a long way off including a flock of c250 out by the estuary and some wading much closer. 7 Black-Tailed Godwits flew over, then 3 Black-winged Stilts flew in to a lagoon, A quick scan revealed a Squacco Heron on the bank of a lagoon - apparently a rarity at this site, and a Spoonbill in full breeding kit feeding in a lagoon. A distant building had Spotless Starlings - the local variety but new to me - and a pair of Sardinian Warblers flitted through some bushes.

Mention should be made of the first escaped bird established here - Waxbill. A male with a very nice raspberry-red breast appeared close to, but other ones were around.

We drove on to our second location, some (dry) rice fields and dykes with reeds. A couple of Little Owls were around a farm building, then in a ditch the second of our escaped local birds - Yellow Crowned Bishop. The males had just come into full summer plumage and were chasing the females. They looked like slow-moving luminous tennis balls. A really vivid and beautiful bird. Three soaring raptors turned out to be Black Kite and two pale-phase Booted Eagles. A Crested Lark called from a field and flew briefly. We moved on to a reed-filled dyke alive with the sound of Great Reed Warblers. We had a brief view of a bird flying along the back, then an Iberian Yellow Wagtail perched close by enabling the white throat and eyestripe to be clearly seen. The song of the Serin is a constant accompaniment in this area, and was finally made flesh as a male did a song flight and sat in a tree next to the car. Rui picked up a Red-Rumped Swallow amongst local Barn Swallows and we watch this for a while admiring this spectacular hirundine with its seemingly stuck-on tail. There were Corn Buntings and a pair of Marsh Harriers, and then onto the next and final stop

The final location was a road moving north parallel to the estuary with farmland to the left and open cork woodland with bulls and cattle to the right. At the first stop a Nightingale flew past and a Crested Tit moved through a pine tree - a bird that had simply not been on my radar as occurring here. Then at the next stop Rui could here Rock Sparrow. A pair briefly appeared on a tree stump but I missed these as I was looking at a Western Bonelli's Warbler as it sang in a tree. A distinctive "prutt prutt" call got us searching and a pair of Bee-eaters flew into a nearby tree with fantastic scope-filling views. We spent some time here and had Short-toed Treecreeper and Nuthatch. Another Booted Eagle appeared, this time quite near and low giving great views of the head and back instead of the usual under-wing views. As we moved on another raptor appeared low over the trees. It was a species I have been looking to renew my acquaintance with for a few years now, often wondering whether I was watching this or the common variety, but as so often happens when the real thing turns up, I instantly knew we were looking at a Honey Buzzard, apparently not a regular bird here. As we watched, it circled round giving spectacular views, then floated away on flat wings giving a view of its brown back and greyish head.

Shortly afterwards another raptor came over. Large, cruising slowly, as it came near we could see the deep-russet brown head and breast and speckled white underwing and body of a Short-Toed Eagle. This happened as we were watching a singing male Melodious Warbler, Rui pointing out its mimicry and also the start of the song sounding like an engine slowly getting into gear.

Then 8 Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage amongst cattle, a fly-thru Cuckoo, and then the final stop by some electricity pylons where White Storks were nesting on special nesting platforms, the bill-clattering and black-billed youngsters made for quite a site. Just time for one last bird - Cirl Bunting singing in a bush, then back to Lisbon.

I don't know about you but I'm quietly amazed at such a list. The countryside is much-less intensively managed, and correspondingly full of birds. It goes without saying that Rui did a fantastic job and was a pleasure to spend time with. Most of the birds gave excellent views and I'm still feeling a warm glow from the trip. If you find yourself in Lisbon with half a day to spare, you know what to do.

Short-Toed Eagle overhead - photo taken by Rui

Friday, June 01, 2018

Dipping in Yorkshire 21-22 May

A trip to see my elderly mother in God's Own County gave a couple of opportunities for birding. First a detour on the way to Blacktoft Sands RSPB reserve to see the Montague's Harrier that had been consistently seen over the last few days. I used to visit this regularly in the 1980s and 1990s and had birds such as White-Rumped Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, Red-Necked Stint, Spotted Crake, as well as lots of other waders. Like many similar places, it seems to have gone off the boil a bit, so it was really an all-or-nothing trip for the Harrier.

Long-story-short, the Montague's decided not to appear. I gave it several hours, mainly spent in the Singleton Hide, and had a brief bit of excitement when a medium-size brownish raptor with white on the tail appeared, but it was a female Sparrowhawk.

Nevertheless, it was a good day. A pair of Garganey, many Avocets, lots of Tree Sparrows - a bird Northerners stroll past without a second thought but that Southerners like myself always enjoy seeing, having none of our own. Bearded tits, Reed Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, but stars of the show were Marsh Harriers. I settled on 3 males and 3 females. There was hunting close to the hide, talon grappling, food passes, and displaying. One of the males was as fine a bird as I've ever seen; silver wings with heavy black tips and a chestnut body and coverts, then an orange tail. It looked like it had wondered over from the Indian sub-continent.

Worth noting Little Egret, Cetti's Warbler, and Buzzard. All birds I saw on this visit and I'm pretty sure I didn't see in my visits of the 80's and 90's.

The 22nd dawned cloudy and windy. I visited Norwood Edge for the Iberian Chiffchaff and found a couple of others there looking for it. It sang nice and clearly, and distinctively. Should I tick it? Well firstly, I didn't see it as it remained in swaying treetops, but if I had seen it I would have seen a chiffchaff, or possibly a silhouette of a chiffchaff. Secondly, part of me refuses to recognise these variants of chiffchaffs as real species. But on the other hand, a tick is a tick ...

On to The Strid at Bolton Abbey with now bright sunshine, and a repeat of last-years walk; up to near Barden Bridge then back down the other side. It was marginally less successful than last-year; no Dipper, and no Wood Warbler, but I did get Redstart (just 1), Spotted Flycatcher and many Pied Flycatchers, singing, perching, going into nest boxes, a truly spectacular sight. There was a nesting Treecreeper, Goosander with chicks on the stream as well as Mandarin there too. Then whilst walking down the far side, a flurry of activity in a small ravine just forty yards away. Three medium-sized round-winged birds flying at each other and giving repeated 'tic' sounds. Finally one settled and wandered round briefly with its large eyes and enormous beak. How often do you see Woodcock in the middle of the day? How often do you see three? As always with birding, it is the unexpected that puts the icing on the cake.

The strid in full flow.

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...