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.

Commonly Spotted Orchids

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