Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 and all that.

In stats: 5 lifers. 215 year list. Didn't keep a local list for the first time in ages.

Overall a bit more relaxed and targeted this year with average results. The year-list did its job in keeping me going to different places.

1. Lifers. Alpine Swift, Blue-Winged Teal, Brown Booby, Canvasback, American Golden Plover. And about time too for a couple of those. But all good fun.

2. Birds I missed this year. There's a few. 

Black Redstart, Snow Bunting, Shore Lark Grey Partridge, Water Pipit. White-Fronted Goose, Goshawk, Garden Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Tree Pipit, Yellow, Browed Warbler, Jack Snipe...

A few of these I could go and see right now, and a few more could be done with a trip to Holkham. When I first started doing this more seriously back in 2015/16 it was a revelation that I could go to Holkham and see Shore Larks and Snow Buntings, and for a few years that continued to be fun, but after a while it becomes an exercise in ticking. This year's birding simply didn't involve bumping into these birds (Garden Warbler has always been scarce on my patch). I reserve the right to go and twitch these next year, as it will have been over a year since I saw them ...

Common Crossbill has become a much harder bird in the Brecks recently, but there was a record of them at Lynford so maybe next year.

3. Local. Again, back in 2015/16 one of the fascinations was to see just what occurred in the fields and woods in walking distance of my house. And whilst most trips mainly involve seeing nothing, there's been a decent list in total. But this year, particularly post-covid, has felt a bit diminishing returns. So I've done fewer trips but nevertheless saw Wheatear, Mediterranean Gull, Redpoll, Brambling, Stonechat, and even on a dog walk where I decided not to take my binoculars had a Marsh Harrier belting south over the park. I may do more of this next year.

4. Things that didn't happen: - Didn't get to see Whinchat or Redstart locally mainly due to lack of walks at suitable times. Didn't get a local vis mig passage. Didn't get a good October day in Norfolk with Yellow-Browed warblers in number and other migrants. Didn't get a strong late winter Northerly on the Norfolk coast, one of those Skua/Little Auk winds. This winter period hasn't delivered much of what one might hope for - no White-winged gulls, few geese, 

5. Good days. Had a lot of those. Frampton was great - just masses of great waders, and a memorable day at Minsmere. But again, a change of emphasis - two trips to Titchwell where we just did the reserve and kept chasing to a minimum. Great fun will do that again next year. And its no coincidence that my good days were all spent in the company of Mike and/or Dave. Am just very fortunate to have these two for birding companions - both top birders and great company. Thanks guys.

6. Memorable sights. American Black Tern and many Arctic Terns all at close range at Long Nanny. Hadn't expected to be that close. Male Hen Harrier at Eldernell. Always a fantastic sight. Grey-Headed Wagtail at Titchwell - not really expected and great views. Lady Orchids in Kent - so many! A flock of Woodlarks in a quarry on Westleton Heath, Pink-Footed Geese just arriving in Norfolk in September, Velvet Scoters at Abberton, and the sheer number of Short-Eared Owls at Wallasea. 

7. Blasts from the past. Black Guillemot - been a few years since I saw one of them. Same Waxwing, Buff-Breasted Sandpiper, and Montagu's Harrier. Genuinely though I would never see another one of those in the UK. 

... and so to next year. Am still keen. Bit the bullet and rejoined the National Trust so will do more Hatfield Forest. But as I get older and now I know what is possible, I'm feeling a bit more Zen about the whole birding thing so may just be spending more time going to places and seeing what's there rather than just chasing the list. 

Thanks for reading. Hope I can make your visits to this site worthwhile next year. 

Thursday, December 07, 2023

SEOs at Wallasea Island


We'd been reading the records from Wallasea Island of decent numbers of Short-Eared Owls and thought it worth a go. My record with winter SEOs is generally mixed - if they are showing its been brief and distant. Would we be lucky at Wallasea?

We needn't have worried. On arrival we stopped by a car with photographers in action, and a quick scan produced two SEOs in flight. One took exception to a Kestrel and mobbed it at height above our heads. On scanning we found another SEO, just behind a passing male Hen Harrier. Nice.

We went down to the car park, saw a flock of eight Corn Buntings, and then onto the reserve towards the hide but not as far. There were more owls towards the sea wall, and with this number they were constantly hunting and taking exception to other owls being in their areas, so we had a real treat. Another Hen Harrier, this time a Ringtail, quartered the fields around the hide and towards the sea wall.

We didn't spend a lot of time searching the wildfowl and waders, but still detected plenty of Pintails amongst the many Wigeon and Shoveler, several flocks of Golden Plover, and Black-Tailed Godwits and a few Avocets.

It was warm, still, and sunny, and quite fantastic. As time ticked by we got an atmospheric sunset and then with owls still quartering called it a day.

I reckon we had seven Owls. We turned up at 2pm and the owls were busy. If you are thinking of going I would get there an hour or so before then.

Finally some photos. Veteran readers will immediately assume this excellent set are not mine, and you would be right. These are courtesy of David, more on his excellent blog https://davsamp.blogspot.com

Kestrel

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl


Thursday, November 30, 2023

Twitch twitch

Not a lot of time to nip out the last couple of weeks, but when rarities turn up on your doorstep it makes sense to create a little time. So two days after the escaped Canvasback turned up at Abberton Mike and I went to see it. The football-crowd scrum of the first weekend had dispersed but there were enough people to put us on to it, and it turned out to be quite easy, convenient, close in. A very nice bird.

I managed to squeeze in another trip to Abberton a week after to see the Velvet Scoters from the Church view point. Birds can be hard from here given the expanse of water, but these three kindly swam around directly in front. Normally just a brief flash of white in a distant scoter flock, or a white wing bar on a passing sea duck, these were comfortably the best views I've ever had. Zooming in on the scope revealed fine detail on the face patches and elsewhere I'd never previously appreciated. A search through the flock of tufts managed to locate a couple of Scaup and a female Common Scoter. A Brent Goose had attracted some attention, but personally I find it hard to get excited about one individual bird at the reservoir when just over the hill there are hundreds of them.

This week saw me in Weymouth on family business, so I took the binoculars in case the American Golden Plover was still at Lodmoor. And indeed it was. On arrival my heart sank as a flock of 500 Goodies flew high overhead; my experience is these birds can remain airborne for a long long time. But they began to settle and soon it was picked out. I managed a glimpse down someone's scope - many thanks - and it was quite straightforward, being smaller, greyer, with a big white super onto the from of the forehead and a darkish cap. A touch of Wood Sandpiper in there I thought.

So that's two decent ticks for very little effort, which is always very welcome. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Nothing to see in Norfolk.

So often our trips to Norfolk involve lining up the star birds and going from one location to another ticking them off, or not, as the case may be. Generally we start at Cley and end up at Titchwell. But with nothing on offer and some interesting winds we were free to build a list from scratch. Mike and I chose to spend all day at Titchwell to give it a proper going over, out talisman and chief raptor-finder David being unfortunately laid up - get well soon David.

Our arrival coincided with low tide, and in distinctly variable conditions with low cloud drifting across we decided to hit the Fen trail. But before we'd even got out of the car park Mike had some Fieldfares over and a few Chaffinches, all going west.

There was a constant trickle of birds overhead as we made our way east; Redwings, Chaffinches, a few tight knots of Starlings, and in amongst we had some Siskins and a handful of Redpolls, which we were able to get eyes on as well as hear. There were frequent loud chattering parties of Pink-Footed Geese going over, often unseen in clouds despite sounding close. Later in the day we had large skeins of tens or low hundreds making their way south-east onto the coast. Just an everyday tick for Norfolk, nevertheless the sight and sound of these birds arriving from Iceland or Greenland is for me one of the best birding spectacles on offer in our corner of England.

There were plenty of Blackbirds around, and as we passed a reed bed lots of pinging and eventually 7 Bearded Reedlings took off and headed west, and a Great White Egret flew over.

Back in the car park for lunch we had a single Brambling call overhead and as it turned I caught its white rump. Not a bad bird to get on my 'whilst having lunch' list.

Heading out to the coast we went past a freshmarsh full of water but few birds; we had a few Pintail flying over but none we could see on the ground, and just twenty or so Golden Plover doing occasional circuits. Otherwise just the standard Black-Tailed godwits and Avocets.

All was quiet when we hit the beach, with not much having been seen, but with some patience the collective watchers assembled a list of Razorbill, Common Scoter, and a couple of Red-throated Divers all on the water. Further out just on the edge of what my scope could identify there seemed to be a line of Little Gulls constantly moving west, and we managed to get a minimum of three adults and one first-winter close enough to be identified comfortably at 60x. Other than that three Red-Breasted Merganser flew past and more thrushes flew in over the water with a few Fieldfare in amongst, and Starling must have hit the low thousands in total for the day as small parties were constantly going west. Three Sandwich Terns flew west as well as a couple of Gannets, and another tern; sea watching is one of the ultimate tests of Birding ID skill and I keep failing it so I can only record this as Commic.

There was a call of Hen Harrier! and Mike managed to get onto a ringtail hunting over the point but I was too slow and couldn't get it on my day list. Disappointment was soon washed away when Mike picked up a Short-Eared Owl over the point and we watched it for about ten minutes as it slowly got higher and higher and drifted out to sea. I'm always amazed at how these birds seemingly built for short-range hunting manage to migrate so far. 

That was pretty much it, apart from a Chiffchaff on a final sweep of the Fen trail. 

So all in this was a really enjoyable day. We may not have had the exotic buntings and warblers of a more northerly coastal point, but everything we saw we came across ourselves. Perhaps a template for future trips.

And there was a bonus from the RSPB. As a member I pay for them to maintain some decent birding habitat for folks like me to birdwatch on, but the folks presenting the overnight moth catch at the centre are very much an added free benefit. Having seen so many social media posts of Merveille-du-jour it was nice to be able to see one close up. My moth knowledge isn't good enough to appreciate the significance of what I was being shown in the other pots but some migratory ones were intriguing. Thank you RSPB. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

Rarities as MacGuffins. Brown Booby.

Family business meant I had to drive from Hertfordshire to Ilkley. A quick look at a map shows Teesside, currently home to a Brown Booby, is practical on the way! So I find myself at 2 in the afternoon driving along the desolate Road of Destruction that is the road to South Gare, a place I have known of for years since as a student on occasion I went birding the other side of the estuary, but before today have never been.

First stop is a crowd of birders looking the wrong way. They are scouring a desolate rock-strewn plane and within seconds they are putting me on to a Wryneck perched on a bush. Tremendous stuff, but just a brief view before onto the target bird.

Parked, picking my way down the rubble between buildings to the men with cameras, and I am put onto the target bird sat on a buoy mid-estuary. Fantastic. 

Target duly ticked, I start to scour the estuary and it is full of birds. Gannets, hundreds of Auks, some Kittiwakes, and amongst them some Sandwich Terns, Common/Arctic Terns, an Eider, and a couple of skuas. One of them is obviously an Arctic Skua, very agile and busy, but that other one, a pale bird with vivid flashes, well that seems a different beast all together. I should note, at this point, that the Tees off South Gare is but a narrow stream compared to the wide ocean that is the Thames off Canvey. All the birds on the far side are pretty easy to see and identify too if you have more skills than I possess.

I'd become aware the Booby had flown off, and I was annoyed with myself. Ticked but not much more; I had no idea what it looked like in flight, how it ate, etc. I spent a couple of hours looking for it and also in a break went back for the Wryneck which was once again co-operating as it quietly picked its way round boulders and small bushes, close enough to fill a scope view. It's easy to see why in cover even just slightly thicker and higher these birds can disappear for hours. 

Most of all, I just talked to other birders. To a woman down from Northumberland, exchanging children-at-university stories, and with a local birder as we looked for the Booby. During one of these chats the pale juvenile skua reappeared and satisfied us that its lazy lumbering heavy-bellied approach was consistent only with Pomarine Skua

Finally the Booby reappeared off North Gare, flying back and forth in the wind with some light harassment from gulls. An elegant flyer with a longer tail than I expected. Then it started tacking across the estuary, flying west into the gale, drifting back, flying west again, until it was on our side and it flew round the Pilots Pier a couple of times and landed. Great views of this bird, its big yellowish feet, its subtle blue hints round the eye. Fantastic views unlikely ever to be repeated by me.

A smashing trip, with the Booby being a MacGuffin. A MacGuffins is a plot device, believed to be named by Alfred Hitchcock, which serves as a driver or central theme for the plot but enables the real drama, the characters and other plots to take centre stage. Here the Booby was excellent, but the other birds and the chats with local birders made the day complete. Rarities so often seem to be the excuse for a day out, not the main reason.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Minsmere - When Birding Dreams Come True.

To be a birder is to be a perpetual optimist. Today is going to be the day. The day when rarities just pop up on front of you, when bushes drip birds, when your wildlife dreams are realised.

Mike, Dave and I did our usual speculation of what we might see as we sped crawled towards Westleton Heath hoping a SE breeze would deposit rarities. Top of my list was Honey Buzzard; a bird blown over from the continent, or perhaps, if rumours and occasional sightings were true, a local bird. But maybe some passerine migrants, or some decent waders. Mike wanted some year ticks he'd missed out on so far - Dartford Warbler, Grayling Butterfly, Common Emerald. Dave, after extended health-related lay-offs, wanted to just get out with his camera and photograph some wildlife, preferably the massive green Bush Cricket he'd read about at Minsmere.

We started at Westleton Heath, retracing last year's steps to the Deer watchpoint. We got Grayling Butterfly almost immediately performing well on heather, then were immediately into a family party of Stonechats; a harsh churr churr and a Dartford Warbler shot past my head. A family party soon appeared and gave unusually confiding views on an old Gorse bush.

Walking past the quarry a lark dropped into the open area and as I approached to investigate further a small flock lifted with quiet whistles and settled a  few yards further. We spent a good half hour enjoying this feast of Woodlarks, counting at least eight and possibly a few more. Woodlark was a possible bird on the list but we never thought it would be this number and these views.

On to the deer watchpoint and in a repeat of last year we had six Stone Curlews including one out in the open. A splendid list and we could have gone home happy at that point.

Mike and I returned to the car and David hang back to take some photos. When he eventually appeared it was to ask us why we hadn't responded to his calls when what was clearly a juvenile Honey Buzzard had flown over his head. After congratulating David we said not to worry, it was probably still around and we would surely bump into it later. Said with my fingers crossed behind my back.

We pitched up at Minsmere car park and scanned the sky for large raptors duly found one circling; dark brown back, but a white forehead and white underneath - an Osprey, and from the neat solid back probably an adult. We watched this circle for a while, had a Hobby flying underneath it, and as it slid away a gaggle of RSPB staff appeared and got a glimpse of it.

On through the Dragonfly pond - Common Emerald ticked, then onto the shore and East Hide. We had 2 Curlew Sandpipers, and good numbers of other waders. A few duck flew in and we added Wigeon and three Pintail to the list; then on to South Scrape and a Sandwich Tern and a few more waders.

On having South scrape and heading further down the dunes Mike suddenly stopped and pointed to a creature in the grass - unmistakeably a Great Green Bush Cricket ponderously crawling around. A huge insect, just a few on a skewer would make a decent serving. Dave duly clicked away delighted to have got onto one.

Then as we scanned over the reserve a large raptor appeared slowly circling over the Island Mere Reedbed. As soon as we got on it we know what it was, and through the scope it was all there. Large floppy-ended wings held flat, narrow wing base, small greyish protruding head, tail spread again a slight greyish from above. For Dave it was a case of Hello Old Friend; the juvenile Honey Buzzard was back. It was harassed by a Marsh Harrier which was notably smaller, and then as it continued out a Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard joined in. 

Books go on about telling Common and Honey apart but honestly on a good view its just not an issue. Its blindingly unmistakably obvious. The bird was seen by various groups, and all those ladies with their cameras who tag along with their husbands, the ones who can't tell a Whinchat from a Stonechat and aren't bothered about it, they were all pretty sure they'd seen a Honey Buzzard. 

On to the sluice bushes, and a small party of chats hoping around on the sward; two Whinchats, a Wheatear, and seven Stonechats. We didn't see the Wryneck reported from here, and neither did we meet anyone who'd seen it. 

And that was more or less it. A Kingfisher flew across the path. A Green Sandpiper appeared. But then as the afternoon heat reached a peak we called it a day and headed back.

wow what a list. Woodlark flock, Stone Curlew flock, Honey Buzzard, Osprey, Curlew Sandpiper plus various seasonal goodies. All the main birds self-found and unexpected. It's one thing to go on a twitch for a rare bird and to see it, but to go out with no particular expectations and fill your boots like we did today is the stuff of dreams. The best of birding with, as always, the best of company.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Hatfield Forest 1st August

A trip, with camera, round our local forest. We came across a couple of Silver-Washed Fritillaries doing their bit to ensure there's some fritillaries around next year.

Here's the happy couple, with the female on the right indicating a certain willingness to proceed.



The whole process was quite elaborate with lots of fluttering of wings. Good to have these butterflies in number in the forest.

Elsewhere there were more butterflies. There are three species in the photo below.


You can really only see two, but the Comma moved off allowing a decent view of the third.



Always amazed at the style and neatness of the Purple Hairstreak's face!

UPDATE: ** Thanks to Mike for pointing out that this is not a Purple Hairstreak but is a White-Letter Hairstreak. On checking the books it matches quite clearly. That's not just a first for me for Hatfield Forest but a Lifer - thanks Mike! **

It wasn't just butterflies. The Orchid bible Harrop states HF has Violet Helleborines. After asking some of the local Naturalists and doing a bit of hunting around I found some gone-over spikes last Autumn. This time they were in full bloom. We are indeed fortunate to have these so close to us.



Kent part 2

Bonsai Bank had a lot more than just masses of Lady Orchids and Fly orchids. We had single Greater Butterfly Orchid, several White Helleborines, and there were still some Early Purple Orchids.



The weather wasn't ideal for Butterflies, but we did get a few Duke of Burgundies.



We went on to Yocklett's Bank and then Parkgate Down. The issue at both was parking, but we managed to find places both times.

Yocklett's Bank had similar to Bonsai Bank but more. The Greater Butterfly Orchid was in flower. Also a Turtle Dove purring loudly. 

Greater Butterfly Orchid

Parkgate had magnificent Monkey Orchids in decent numbers. Just mad exploding golf-balls of vivid purple colour. Our appreciation was only slightly diminished by learning these had all been relocated from another site a while ago.




For an exploratory trip this was excellent and I think I will be back for more next year.


Monday, August 14, 2023

Going Nuclear.

I know, I know, its very bad form to observe a couple of months of silence and then return for a rant. But here we are.

I'm getting increasingly fed up with the 'green' lobby and their sheer logic-defying brainlessness. But lets not spend half a day going over that. Instead let's just consider the available options on 'green energy' and look for the best solution.

I worked on computer systems in banks for many years, and my experience is that lots of people are keen to sell you there latest wacky idea as though its the future, but if you want actual results on a realistic timescale, you go with something that is proven to work.

And what is proven to work, if you are shopping for an energy form that doesn't emit Carbon Dioxode, is available whenever you need it, doesn't need non-existent storage solutions, is Nuclear. It is proven in many places over many years. We start from a point of known technology, known results. 

If you want to invest in new 'green' energy generation methods that would be Nuclear Fusion. Lawrence Livermore Labs in the US have repeated the process of generating energy over a short period, which gives real hope that developments can extend the performance. It's in as good a position for an experimental technology as one can reasonably ask for. 

This is just obvious isn't it?

Thursday, June 01, 2023

In Kent with the Ladies (part 1)

To Kent to see orchids. If you have an interest in wildlife beyond just birds, then Orchids appear on your horizon, and then the reserves in Kent near Canterbury and their fantastic flora get mentioned, so it was very much an ambition to visit at the right time. 

We got excellent directions from Peter Alfrey's blog here and also consulted Orchid Hunter's video. These made all the difference and meant the day went smoothly. Thanks to both of those.

And what a day. First up Bonsai Bank in Denge Wood.

There were Lady Orchids well scattered in excellent condition throughout the bank. It is frankly weird and wonderfully bizarre to go into an English woodland and see flowers like this in this number. As if a stately home over the fence had accidentally seeded some exotic flowers. And in close-up the ladies in their bonnets are a real picture.





We had been hoping to see Fly Orchids and we were told of a couple of spikes just round to the left after entering. We saw those and more. Orchid Hunter (see above) says when you see a Fly Orchid get down and look carefully, and by following that advice we ended up with twenty spikes in clusters throughout the area. A cracking flower.








There was more to see, which I will reveal in a second post



Sunday, May 28, 2023

Year list. Bird 172. A lump of flint.

First trip this year to the Norfolk Coast, and with both Mike and David. Would we get a special bird for a special day?

First stop was North Point Pools to get our bearing and check Birdguides. Twenty Blackwits, Avocets, Redshank, Shelduck, a couple of Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper. A wing-tagged Marsh Harrier and distantly a Cuckoo calling. A decent first stop. 

Titchwell seemed to be our best bet so we headed west. But first we stopped at Choseley Barns for the remaining Dotterel that had been reported that morning. We scanned with no luck but were saved when a birder found it sat down. We could just see a very peachy breast and a darker head but the heat haze made getting more detail difficult, but even in the heat haze I could see it turn its head.

With year tick 172 in the bag we went on to Titchwell. The three 1st year Little Gulls put on a decent display both on the ground and in flight. Our search for more birds was rudely interrupted by Mike who had found a Grey-Headed Wagtail on the bank. This bird had been seen yesterday but not so far today. We managed to get terrific views, even down to the gorget of dark feathers indicating its first year plumage. We managed to get a few others on to telescope views of this before it flew off over the reserve centre.

We got a few more birds - Mediterranean Gulls, Spoonbills, a couple of Little Terns on the tidal lagoon, Sanderlings on the beach, and then sat down on a bench by the reed bed; three old men on a day out, talking nonsense and pulling each others legs, and inbetween whiles we got first class views of Bearded Tit and Reed Warbler. So often birds ticked on sound not sight.

Just time to go back and check on the Dotterel. We decided that if it was still sat in the same place I would have to admit defeat. And there it was. Number 172. A lump of flint.


Phone scope pic of Grey Headed Wagtail

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Stellar Day at Frampton

We chose RSPB Frampton as our venue on the basis of a stellar list from the previous day. We arrived at a packed car park and saw the fantastic wader habitat that now stretches from the car park to the back of the reserve. We had two Wood Sandpipers on a small near-by pool before we'd even got out of the car, and went on to add a Spotted Redshank in dusky summer plumage, many Ruff, a pair of mating Little-Ringed Plovers (the first of five pairs on the reserve) and as we moved towards the centre added two Black-Winged Stilt in the corner. Frankly we could have gone home then more than happy. 

Down the path on the NW side we added Lesser Whitethroat singing, Cetti's and Sedge Warbler, then on the walk along the western edge we added Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper, a few Yellow Wagtails, many Whitethroats, along the sea-wall a few Mediterranean Gulls flying around, a line up of birders fruitlessly searching for the Blue-Winged Teal (see previous post), a few Pale-Bellied Brents amongst the thousand plus Dark-Bellied out on the marsh then along the road back to the centre we had about fifty Dunlin and a cracking Spoonbill feeding in a channel. 

Lunch then back for another go at the Teal which proved successful, and that was more or less our list for the day, but we had two further sightings of the kind that make birding a challenge not just wildlife tourism. The Temminck's Stint had been seen the previous day rom the road, and as we went through the Dunlin I picked up a likely candidate; nice pectoral band, spangly back, all white belly, and called a few people over as a likely. But on comparison with a Dunlin thats arrived it was the same size and had a longer curved bill than the Stint, so we had to write that one off as a Dunlin. 

Almost back at the centre and a large bumble bee appeared, a real whopper and all black. On checking this later it matches the black form of Bombus Ruderatus, the Large Garden or Ruderal Bee. I'm not going to claim it as I know from experience bees are tricky creatures and you have to get very good photos to be sure, but exciting to see this beast nevertheless. 

The lasting impression was not the list but the quantities. I haven't even mentioned the Shelduck, Shovelers, a few Wigeon, flocks of Black-Tailed Godwits, the many Avocets, the vast gull colony; the feeding Brents across the fields, and the 60+ Ruff, many males in splendid black and orange. One was so near even I could get some photos. Just imagine if these were taken by a decent photographer, or even someone with a basic knowledge of the settings







Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Birding Etiquette Fail at Frampton

RSPB Frampton Marsh. A stellar list of birds (more of that in the next post) was topped by Blue-Winged Teal. It had been seen early somewhere on the vast expanse of channels and ditches that is Marsh Farm Grassland but by early afternoon despite many people looking (including myself and Mike) there was no further sign. 

So it was with some excitement that, on encountering the chap who had re-found it, we walked to the knot of birders on the sea wall staring through scopes at the target bird. And it was with some horror that as we and others were making our way to this group we saw them pick up their tripods and head off. 

We managed to get the last one off to try and help us locate it, but on that plane where everything looks the same, and with our only references being cows which were all moving, we were left cluelessly back at square one scanning the ditches in the vain hope of somehow reconnecting with a bird that had evaded birders for the most part of the day.

I was furious, loudly quietly complaining to anyone unfortunate enough to be near me. To me, when a rare bird which is not co-operating is pinned down, you don't walk away until you pass the location on. Particularly when you yourself have been given the location by someone else.

This state of Meldrewesque grumpiness continued unabated until, by sheer chance, the target duck appeared swimming in a channel, whereupon I was deeply grateful to the departing birders for giving me the opportunity to experience the excitement and joy of rediscovering the bird. Even at this considerable distance it was a cracker, all white blaze and white thigh spot. It gave distant but reasonable views as it swam around, flapped once, and waddled around on the bank. And the biggest pay-off for me, never having seen one outside of a collection before, is that given its behaviour and circumstances the bird is clearly unequivocally 100% wild. Fantastic.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Durlston Deja Vue

Durlston. I've been here before, and I managed to persuade D#2 that it would be a great idea to stop off here again. 

This time I managed to sprint round before the rain came down snapping the key species. First off the Early Spider Orchids. I had forgotten how small they are (we've done this detour to see those?) and also how like Spiders they are. The numbers had improved since last time. 




Early Purple Orchids were everywhere, but particularly on the lower slopes. they were approaching their peak but not quite there. 



But of the third target species Green-Winged Orchid there was no sign. I made up for this by photographing some of the dumpier more solid looking Early Purples. 


and as you will have noticed, this is in fact a Green-Winged Orchid. Those big wings, whilst not being at all green, are fairly diagnostic.

The strange thing is this mistake is exactly what happened last time I was here. Clearly a lesson not learned.

Monday, April 24, 2023

On Chesil Beach

Sat high on the shingle. The sweep of the Jurassic coast stretching out all the way to East Devon , bookended on my left by the majestic cliffs of the Isle of Portland. Is there a better place to be? Back to where this blog started. 

My relationship with Weymouth is based round this being Mrs D's ancestral home. We were regular here for a while, then we weren't, and now I'm back for just one weekend only. Hence Saturday evening and I'm parked at Ferrybridge.

Wheatears all over the vegetation, Sandwich Tern, Bar Tailed Godwit, then that walk up the Chesil beach shingle ridge. Two steps up two steps down. I'd forgotten how hard that was. There was a birder on a seat with a scope so I went and imposed myself on him. More Sandwich Terns, Gannets, Guillemot. Strangely after ten minutes of interrogation about local stuff the other birder left and me and my bins were left by ourselves ... some dark geese came in from the west which local social media later informed me were Brent Geese, but in front was a flock of six birds slowly making their way east. Could have been skuas ... I'll never know. A Whimbrel flew past and then that was it.

Sunday morning I managed to grab a couple of hours at Portland. It was pretty quiet by recent standards, but back on the top I found several years of patch watching had slowed down my approach to birding, taking time to watch fields for movement, and I was pretty pleased with my haul of several Wheatears, female Redstart, Sedge Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, and a handful of Whitethroats and Blackcaps as well as Willow Warblers in every bush. Little Owl in its usual place and a Peregrine over completed the set. 

Great to be back, and fingers crossed there might be more such trips. But over too soon and D#2 and I were heading back to Hertfordshire with just one more location on our itinerary.

My Little Patch of Joy

I've had my foot off the pedal this year, and that includes the local patch. Just a few visits with Barn Owl and Lesser Redpoll the highlights. But with spring migration in full flow I thought it time to get out and walk the well worn path once again.

The walk was predictably quiet and I got to the limit with not much to show. I looked up the rough track towards the local B road and had my usual 'Why isn't there a Wheatear on this track?' thought when I noticed up at the far end a promising blob on an old concrete slab, and a few moments later I was a watching a male Wheatear from a comfortable distance. It's a common enough bird elsewhere in spring (see next post) but is a jewel of a bird in my landlocked area and I spent a happy half hour watching it flick around the patch.

I enjoyed it so much I went back next evening. The Wheatear had moved on, but the field was being ploughed and a scan showed c20 Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, no less then 5 Buzzards sat in the field and plenty of corvids. Then on the scan back two gulls flew in with solid black heads and vivid red legs and beaks and whahay 2 Mediterranean Gulls were flying around the field! One a full adult and one a near-adult with a couple of spots on the wing tips. I've had them on the patch twice before but not prolonged views in sunshine like this! A fantastic half hour was spent on this unexpected delight until they drifted high and north. A Treecreeper, Water Vole and Raven completed a spectacular patch list.

The always enjoyable and wise Steve Gale blogged about his local patch with the title Comparison is the Thief of Joy and he is as so often absolutely correct. The ability to enjoy what is in front of you and not think about what its in front of some other birder somewhere else is an essential mental capability for any inland local patch watcher. These two visits delivered the best of local patch watching.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Windy day in the Brecks

We headed to the Brecks in cloudy weather conscious of incoming wind and rain in the afternoon. No time for hanging around.

First stop Lakenheath. The water levels were very high following heavy and persistent rain. I assume that in these conditions muddy margins are found on puddles and boggy areas of the surrounding farmland so no surprise not to see any Garganey and very few waders; we did pick up a loan Avocet, and a flock of c30 Sand Martins with a couple of House Martins and a Swallow

At the Joist Fen lookout we connected with a Bittern in-flight and I caught a tantalising glimpse of a languid flick of enormous wings disappearing in the distance - surely my fourth Common Crane sighting of the year. But the Marsh Harriers were putting on a display with at least four males and as many females patrolling the reserve. 

With the sun out we headed for Lynford. We did our usual walk round the tall pines, but the wind was making finding Firecrests difficult until Mike picked one up in a pine. It eventually gave great views at head height in a holly bush, just a stunning bird. We are lucky to have reasonable numbers at this 'local' site. 

At the beginning of the year we had resolved in a half-hearted way to spend less time on the usual spots and try some unexplored areas. In that spirit we headed north from the car park and found some very promising open areas. We got Stonechat, Willow Warbler singing in plain sight in a tree, the first Blackcap of the year for me, and a single Woodlark.  A thrill to be searching through a new area for us for birds with each sighting a notable event. We will be back.

Finishing up at Weeting. The weather was closing in now with a lone Stone Curlew on show looking miserable as a burst of rains and hail came horizontally across the field. We finished at the feeding station with a lone Brambling. And not just any Brambling; this was a male in spring plumage. The head and shoulders a solid black, and the rest of the plumage vibrant orange with deep brown and black markings. I've seen hundreds of Brambling and never seen one like this. The kind of bird you expect in North America or Africa. just fantastic.

I keep reminding myself I'm a birdwatcher because I like watching birds. So wherever I am, just watch what is in front of me and enjoy. On days like today, that philosophy worked out fantastically well.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Gull ID. Lumpers and Splitters.

In the last post I queried the ID of the Kumlien's Gull at Dernford. Why is it not a straightforward Iceland Gull given the complete lack of any spots or marks on the primaries?

The answer, so far, is that this is a returning bird, and in its juvenile plumage it had features which identify it as Kumlien's rather than Iceland.  Although in its adult plumage it looks exactly like the nominate Iceland, its plumage when a juvenile marks it out as a Kumlien's.

This is a clear unsatisfactory position. We can no longer find a bird and identify it from the plumage we see at that time. We have to know the history of the plumage of that individual. This now leaves us in the position that a birder seeing an adult Iceland Gull drifting past on a sea watch cannot identify between Iceland and Kumlien's because they have no knowledge of that bird's history. 

Furthermore, the decision to make the Dernford bird a Kumlien's on the basis of the juvenile plumage raises the obvious question; why is the juvenile plumage the one that determines the race classification? Why is it not the adult plumage that determines the race and we accept that individual juvenile plumages may vary?

Species is objective (nearly), but race is a matter of opinion. Two creatures are different species if they cannot mate and produce fertile offspring. Although gulls (why is it always gulls) seem to test this as I believe there are chains of gull species/sub species that can breed successfully with nearest neighbours but not with further species/sub species. But race? Humans have many 'races', but they can all interbreed successfully, and they have gradation of features not binary division of features, hence where one draws the line between race A and race B is a matter of opinion and conjecture. 

And so we are back to Lumpers and Splitters. Splitters seek to divide a species into many races; /Isabelline/Daurian/Red-Tailed/Turkmenestan etc. Lumpers say there is one species, features may vary according to region, but differentiation is not sufficiently robust to assign all individuals conclusively to a given name. My personal inclination as you can probably guess is to favour the Lumpers.

I suppose my biggest bug-bear is Caspian Gull. No sooner had I learnt the essential criteria for this new race/species than people starting encountering 'hybrids' supposedly from colonies somewhere in central Europe that showed 'features of both'. What happens when the intermediates start breeding with pure birds and we get quarter-birds? It just becomes impossible to assign all individuals to a race, hence the notion of a 'race' becomes less useful. 

But back to this gull at Dernford. It has to be the case that a birder seeing a bird can, on the basis of the features visible on that day, arrive at a species identification in the absence of the plumage history of that particular bird. And on that basis the bird we saw at Dernford has to be an Iceland Gull. Simple as that really.        

In search of four year ticks.

It's that end-of-winter period where we are waiting for the temperature to rise and the birds to stream in. But there were four on-off decent birds within a couple of hours reach so Mike and I set off in search of year-ticks.

First was the Stanborough Little Bunting. Having handed over my children's inheritance to the car park machine we followed Birdguides directions and found ourselves at the reed-bed feeder. After two hours of intensive study of about fifteen Reed Buntings, we gave up. It was fun, watching them slowly work their way out of the reeds into the bushes then onto the feeder. And a chance to admire the variety of their plumage. But when we reached the point where we felt we knew every Reed Bunting we were seeing personally and with no change in the population, we cut our losses and headed off. 

Next up the Bedfordshire Waxwings. A flurry of sightings on BG gave us hope, but when we turned up  was no-one there - not a good sign. Slowly people arrived with cameras large and small, and we assembled at a corner and waited ... we reasoned we could wait all day and they might not show, so we cut our losses and headed off.

The on-off Great Grey Shrike was on again. We headed off into heaven-knows-where and having located a line of cars we deduced we had arrived at the site. Again, birders and telescopes in profusion, looking everywhere, but no firm news for a couple of hours. We have history with Great Grey Shrikes and large stretches of farmland, none of it good. So we cut our losses and headed off.

It was mid-afternoon now and just one target left, the Dernford Res Kumlien's Gull. Could we make it a full fat four-out-of-four Dip? As we took our position on the bank with the sun over our shoulder we noticed a distinct absence of birds, but as a flurry of snow swept around Mike shouted it was there, and we spent the next hour admiring this bird at close quarters. Wow, what a stunning bird. 

Just one issue. This had been touted as a Kumlien's Gull, but as we watched it at rest, preening, flapping, flying, neither of us could discern any features that made this anything other than a full one-hundred percent Iceland Gull. The primary tips were complete white. There was not a hint, anywhere, of the primary spots  or shading I would associate with a Kumlien's Gull. If this is a Kumlien's, every adult Iceland I have ever seen is a Kumlien's.

Just time to admire a couple of Yellow-Legged Gulls and we were on our way.

It sounds like a fiasco, but it was a great day. We were looking, searching, for most of the time, and had a great hour with a fabulous bird. I'd do it all again tomorrow. 

Postscript

Decided to post it in Birdguides as an Iceland Gull, but at the time of posting it hasn't appeared on the site.

Here's a couple of very poor photos, as you would expect,  but you can see the primaries. Not a hint of grey in there.


Monday, January 30, 2023

Casual Year Listing.

It's been a while. And I guess that does reflect a certain loss of enthusiasm, a change of tack. 

Not that I haven't been out. A couple of trips to Hanningfield Res at the tail end of last year were notable for the excellent camaraderie and banter in an almost birdless hide (Goosander, Goldeneye, Grey Wagtail) and it did finally deliver excellent views of a Spotted Sandpiper.

2023 opened up with a leisurely trip to Abberton, and Bewick's Swan, Black Necked Grebe, Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Great-Northern Diver, Smew, a brief Merlin and a dashing Peregrine. Oh, Abberton, with this list, you are surely spoiling us.

Then a semi-birding trip to a flooded Welney with Friends; a walk round Lady Fen produced three Short-eared Owls briefly, a lovely sparkly Spotted Redshank, great views of Barn Owl, and of course Whoopers and Tree Sparrow.

A visit to Eldernell for the UK's most photographed Long-Eared Owl (is there a better bird?) plus its two mates, a fantastic male Hen Harrier (is there a better bird?) , a Water Rail on the ice, and a couple of Common Crane flying across (is there etc etc). We finished up at Dernford Farm Res for the gull roost, but had chosen a no-show day for the Kumlein's but found a Caspian Gull and two Mediterranean Gulls.

Then a couple of days ago a walk round Old Hall which was excellent for its classic coastal birds but had no particular outstanding birds, then a couple of new sites: Rolls Farm then Goldhanger, both on the Blackwater estuary. We added Slavonian Grebe, Red Breasted Merganser, Common Scoter, and Corn Bunting to the year list with another Peregrine dashing through a flock of Golden Plover.

So its been good, nice and relaxed. Fun

But I am doing less, for a variety of reasons. Norfolk is great for some star birds, but I've done that a few times in recent years, and if I went I'd have done it again. So I'm looking for something a bit different, a new angle to keep things fresh and challenging. Will let you know how that goes.

Hello Old Friend

What a year its been for notable birds. It started off with Canvasback at Abberton, then Northern Waterthrush at Maldon, then Surf Scoter at...