Friday, May 20, 2016

Norfolk - Monday 9th May

What could be better than a hot sunny Monday in May on the Norfolk coast? Well the previous day would have been better, but such is birding.

Early doors at Pat'sPool. A distant Temminck's Stint, but well lit and good views, then a selection of waders - Greenshank, Ruff, Little Ringed Plover, Black Tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, and of course Avocet and Redshank but those pass unnoticed now. A White Wagtail in the corner, and a spectacular Marsh Harrier over. Then everything went up, or off, as a Peregrine came over. Later a Hobby had a similar effect.

On to Titchwell and a packed Parinder Hide. Both stints are here today hidden on the far bank of the near island. One emerges, but which is it? We almost take a vote, but the consensus is Little Stint; black legs, rufous in the back, slightly tatty breast patterning. Then someone points out that the Temminck's Stints are sat in front of us, and indeed they are; like mini Common Sandpipers, dull grey-green. Fantastic views. Less than fantastic photos below.

Just time for Red Crested Pochard from the screen by the Fen hide, and then onto Cholesely Drying Barns. There are some other birders, and we peer through the hedge. A Dotterel, barely visible in the dip of a ploughed field. Then another, and as our eye gets in we get to 13 Dotterel. Great views, less than great photos.

The stand out birds of the day were the Ruff. About 6 males in total plus one Reeve. The males all in spectacular breeding plumage. On return I dug out my copy of "The Ruff" by Johan G Van Rhijn, one of the Poyser series. I recall something about the colours of the ruffs signifying social status; that the black ruffs are dominant at leks, that the white ones are pages to the dominant males, and the more pages a dominant male has the more successful it is at breeding, and there are a third group of males who go from lek to lek challenging the dominant males. However on re-reading it is not as clear as this. The colour combinations of ruff and ear coverts are not fixed or limited, and social position is not fixed. Some pages can step up to be dominant if the dominant male disappears, for instance. This seems to be a current theme of sociology; that we had a phase when we were able to identify rules of behaviour for certain species, but now we find increasingly that, as in humans, social rules of the animal kingdom are there to be broken. Nevertheless, whatever the actual details of the lek, to see the males in that brief period when they have the full mating regalia is really something special.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Portland sea watch - Wed 4 May

7am and I am in prime position by the Obelisk, looking west towards Pulpit rock, a prominent tower of rock on the end of a short spit. To the right is a gap (known as "the gap") which looks west toward the North Devon coast. I am joined by one other person. And so it begins.

Gannets are in evidence drifting by in small numbers, there are a few Manx Shearwaters, lots of auks (the settled birds are mainly Guillemots but there are a few Razorbills), and Fulmars and Kittiwakes in low numbers, Larger gulls, Cormorants and an occasional Shag make up the supporting cast.

7:00 Great Skua E

7:15 is that an owl? In the distance a large pale bird with round wings is flopping along low over the water. No its not an Owl, its a male Hen Harrier which slowly makes its way east. A group of regulars turn up from the Obs just in time to get their eyes on what is a Portland rarity.

7:25 Great Skua E quite close in, coming from Chesil. 3 male Common Scoter E

7: 30 Great Northern Diver, summer plumage, overhead going west. Nice.

7:40. Common Scoter 6E, Sandwich Tern 2E, then 15 Common Scoter E.

8:00 10 distant terns going E are Commic Terns. Then 2 Sandwich Terns, another Great Northern Diver, 8 Common Scoters

8:20 Common Scoter 8E, Commic Tern 20E

8:25 Little Gull called in from the Obs, and we pick up a first winter steaming west. It latches onto a small party of feeding Commic terns and feeds. The less experienced of us (i.e. me) get the opportunity to see why this is not a Kittiwake which has similar plumage in its first year. Its all in the flight.

8:30 Commic Tern 7E

8:45 Common Scoter 3E, and the Little Gull departs.

8:55 Great Northern Diver 1W

9:00. This is officially the start of Skua Hour. Anticipation is high. 20 Commic Terns E in two flocks.

9:10. A tight bunch of waders coming in from SW at medium height. 8 Grey Plover, easy to pick out with their resplendent black bellies, and 12 waders which it is eventually agreed are Barwits (Bar-tailed Godwits) on account of their medium size, straight bills, and general browny-grey featurelessness.

9:20 5 Common Scoter 5E

9:30 20 Barwits east, and a Whimbrel by the Pulpit playing with its food.

9:45 distant diver E

10:00 am. Skua hour has finished with none of the hoped for Poms. Some of the regulars head back to the Obs and we remaining few are concentrating extra hard as departing birders normally mean a good bird is about to appear! A tern drifts by from the east close by, a Commic Tern. I have a brief look, call it out, and return to scanning the distance for that elusive rarity. One birder notices long streamers - is it an Arctic Tern? The bird turns ands comes back. It has an all black bill, and a local makes the call on what should have been obvious the moment it came past; its a Roseate Tern. It disappears through the gap, but fortunately remerges more distantly with two commic terns and fishes for a while. We get to see the smaller size, the paler more uniform plumage, and those never-ending tail streamers. It feeds, and we see the faster wingbeats, the more buoyant bouncy flight and the dipping down to the surface. and whilst we are enjoying the sight of this rare bird gracing our sea watch I am thinking of the patch Black Redstart , and that this is the second time in about as many weeks when I have screwed up the id of a scarce bird, on both occasions because I did not expect that bird, there, at that time and I identified on the basis of my preconceptions, not the evidence in front of me. As a wise man once said, the hardest lessons to learn in life are those you thought you had already learnt.

10:45 a summer-plumage Black Throated Diver emerges from behind the Pulpit and steams east. The throat patch and sparkled back are clearly evident. A fantastic bird to effectively end our sea watch. A few more Common Scoter come through, but there are just a handful of us left, and the tourists have arrived and one after another they come up and ask the time-honoured question "what on earth are you idiots doing?" "what are you looking at?" It is time to go.

The top fields are empty apart from a Sedge Warbler, a few Whitethroats, and a handful of Swifts and Swallows over-head. I have a large Full-English breakfast in Weymouth, even though its mid-afternoon, then take a walk round a sun-drenched Lodmoor. It is rubbish, with just a Ringed Plover and a Common Sandpiper, but the Marsh Harrier does a fantastic leisurely circuit of the reserve and a pinging Bearded Tit flies past, so its just a nice way to end the two-days. Then its the 180 miles to East Herts. I set the cruise control, and sit back with the incomparable Richard Hawley on the cd player and the early evening sun behind me lighting up the beautiful spring countryside and the by-now clear roads.

Here's a appropriate song for the trip.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Durlston Orchids

A leisurely trip down to Weymouth. Departure delayed to post 9am to avoid the M25, then detour through Bournemouth, Sandbanks, and the Chain ferry to Swanage. Poole Harbour and the Purbeck Hills looking fantastic in the bright spring sunshine.

And so to Durlston Country Park where I spend a couple of hours in search of Early Spider Orchids. eventually I find a couple of assistants in the shop who tell me, contrary to my experience, that they are all over the place, particularly in the Lighthouse field and in the top fields. Once you get your eye in of course ... so back I go and eventually I find a few by a pit. Little gems they are too, and close up quite scary little gems. Anywhere here's a few pics with my super new Sigma Macro lens.

Other orchids were not hard to find. Early Purple Orchids were widespread with their longish purple spikes all over the site. 

I found a couple of orchids without spots on the leaves and more clustered flowers, and subsequent reading confirmed these as Green-Winged Orchids. Needless to say, it appears not to be a cast-iron rule that Early Purples have spotted leaves and Green-winged have unspotted leaves, just a general case with exceptions. But those wings with the veins are really something!

There were lots of Cowslips, in fact fields full of them, and some bees buzzing round. Photographing bees is proving to be quite a challenge as they are either whizzing round or else are deep in a flower with only their lower halves sticking out. Here's one, and I'm thinking Carder Bee but am open to suggestions.

Then off to Arne. at this time of year it is full of fantastic wildlife, but late on a windy spring day most of it is hiding. A few deer (I assume Sika Deer) at ease in the presence of people, and then in the car park a Fox. I stood still hoping it wouldn't notice me and run off, but inevitably it saw me. It looked at me, came over and stood two yards away looking impatiently at me as if to say "where's the food?". And so I met Derek the fox, famous resident of the Arne car park. Needless to say in this metro-sexual world, Derek is a vixen.

Finally I rolled into Ferrybridge in the early evening and in the low sun had 9 Wheatear, 6 Sanderling, 2 Whimbrel, 3 Little Tern on the mud with more flying around and lots of Dunlin and Ringed Plover. The Wheatears were looking quite soft-toned and plump, so I'm guessing Greenland Wheatear?

So overall not much of a bird list, but a cracking day overall. The main reason for coming down is that overnight the wind swings to the south. Migrants will pour onto Portland, seabirds will stream past, and from dawn tomorrow I will be in place and surely will absolutely clean up. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Patch update - frozen migration

Brrr - an extra layer today. I'm told that local beekeepers are feeding their bees on syrup to stop them consuming the honey as they have stopped going out. Just one butterfly today, in contrast to a couple of weeks ago when they were seemingly ever-present. Showery and windy kept many birds well hidden, and for the end of April there are still some noticeable absences - Garden Warbler, Cuckoo, for instance.

The sky was the highlight on today's walk round the patch. Some real drama as the showers headed past, massive grey clouds and sun shining in the gaps

Warbler numbers are beginning to build up. They have been variable recently with some Chiff passage along the river recently. Today a Willow Warbler singing from the usual location, which is somewhere in the impenetrable centre of the overgrown field, and 3 singing Chiffchaffs. Lesser Whitethroats are almost the commonest warbler with 5 singing recently. Today a Cetti's Warbler from below Feakes Lock, a Sedge Warbler singing at the pond, and 3 Whitethroats.

Lesser Whitethroat from a couple of days ago. A terrible photo, but shows they don't always sit in the middle of dense bushes.
8 Swallows over the pond were joined by 2 House Martins which became the 77th species on the patch this year. 

Finally the Little Owl was found again. Everyone else gets a Little Owl sat out on a stump or the corner of a building, so why do I get one that sits in the middle of a bush? And hides behind a lichen-covered twig to boot.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Monday morning hangover

It was never going to be as good as Sunday. Nevertheless, some observations worth recording.

First to Ferrybridge at 7:30ish. Nothing much on the water (8 Oystercatcher and a few Sandwich Terns) so I climbed up the shingle to join local watcher S. He effortlessly picked out 10 Common Scoter and a Fulmar out on the sea. Portland Harbour was millpond-flat, and we picked up 2 Great Northern Divers, another Common Scoter, and in the far corner a Black Throated Diver. Even at this distance it had that snake-like appearance, and was clearly still in winter plumage.

S pointed out some hares and a pair of Ravens further up Chesil beach. The Ravens indulged in a spot of pecking; one bird stood motionless, and the other gently pecked round the first bird's head, presumably taking nits or ticks. we've all seen chimpanzees do it, I haven't heard of birds doing this before though.

On to Portland. It was quiet, but birds started to come through; male Redstart, Whitethroat, Stonechat, a few Willow chiffs. A peregrine appeared twice, once taking a small bird and sliding off over the cliffs. Peregrine was the commonest raptor of the weekend in terms of views.

Finally Lodmoor in search of a Wood Sandpiper.  The water level was high, and there was some wader activity on a pool in the centre; a summer plumage Black Tailed Godwit, and something that could have been the target bird flew in but was out of sight when it landed. Oh well. There was still enough to see - 2 Marsh Harrier, a Wheatear, a White Wagtail, 2 Lesser Whitethroats including one singing out in the open, Cettis close enough to touch. A nice way to finish the weekend.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Amazing Portland Day

Looking up the East Cliffs toward Purbeck
The sky was clear blue all the way down to Portland. Whilst undoubtedly making for a beautiful day walking the island, a clear night is usually the signal for migrants to depart. Would there be any migrants left? Would new ones arrive?

Male Ring Ouzel on the slopes near the neolithic site was a promising start. Then down to the Bill car park and Swallows were in off the sea in a constant stream. Probably low hundreds during the day, with a House Martin and 5 Sand Martins. There was a Wheatear near the bill - the first of 12 during the day and a hint of things to come. The sea was largely void as expected, with some Guillemots lounging near the cliffs. I thought a distant large brown bird was my first skua of the year, but no it was a Creamcrown Marsh Harrier making its way to landfall somewhere along Chesil beach.

Up the west cliffs to the Top Fields. A male Redstart was the first of 4 seen during the day, and a White Wagtail was present, identification of this presenting no problem now I am an expert (see previous post). On to the top fields proper, and more Wheatears, another Redstart, 3 White Wagtails on a strip of freshly ploughed field, and two Short-Eared Owls in a bush showing fantastically well. A Peregrine zipped around amongst some Buzzards and a Raven. the first of a number of views of Peregrine as they hunted over the bill area presumably looking to feed the growing chicks somewhere down the West Cliffs.

Shy SEO in bush
A lift to the Hump - thanks - where there were Blackcaps and a female Redstart (carefully studied for future reference) then a Hoopoe in Suckthumb Quarry. A fantastic bird, quite close, looking almost prehistoric with its crest. It picked out a few grubs then sat quietly under a bush. I called a Whinchat on a bush, but it was a smart male Wheatear, joining my small but rapidly expanding list of Birds That Sit In Bushes For No Other Purpose Than To Confuse Me. Thanks

Hoopoe heading off to the dusky periphery of my scope view.
At this point someone mentioned the Subalpine Warbler was showing well down by the huts, and Tick Fever kicked in strongly. I set a fierce pace, ignoring all possible migrants and arrived at a large crowd surrounding some low vegetation near the huts. Showing regularly round the fringes according to a departing birder. Two hours of watching several Willow Chiffs flitting around followed until the target bird flew in to give tantalisingly brief views. It showed once later for slightly longer. A really neat little bird, the back surprisingly olive-grey I felt, vivid purple face and breast. Some Mediterranean magic for our cold island.

The crowd waits for the Subalpine Warbler to appear ...
Off to the Privet Hedge to spend a couple of hours not seeing the Bluethroat, with just Wheatear, Redstart, and a very close male Sparrowhawk as reward, but even this dip could not take the gloss off a fantastic day. Finally a Little Owl in the jobs quarry to finish.

Great weather, great scenery, great birds, good chat with other birders. The kind of day that you wish you could repeat over and over, step for step, bird for bird. Fantastic.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Patch Migrants

Another walk round the patch to see if any migrants had made their way to my few fields. 

First up was a Lesser Whitethroat singing in a bush. Quite common locally, it was nice to see one this early belting out its song as it picked its way through blackthorn blossom. then down on the river a Kingfisher whizzed by and a Jay shrieked. On to the horse field, and a Pied Wagtail. I haven't had one on the ground on the patch so was pleased to get this, but on close inspection and note-taking and after consulting books and the net it was a White Wagtail. Pale grey back, abrupt change into the black cap, distinct and bold black bib, not much other black on it.

A Mute Swan on the river was a patch year tick, then down by Feakes Lock a female Black Redstart! It was sat in a tree, and then hawked insects and moved to the bushes by the river bank, finally sitting on a fallen log.

I initially identified this as a Redstart, but sent the photos below to local birders who confirmed it as Black Redstart. I never thought I'd see one in a tree in a field outside Sawbridgeworth! Here's the pics, one enlarged and one as taken through the scope.

A Cetti's warbler sang from the reeds behind the Black Redstart. That's a different set of reeds from the ones up by the pond, so I make that 2 Cetti's warblers on the patch. A Bullfinch sat in the hedgerow, and a Redpoll was amongst 25 Linnets. Then the rain came, and that was it. After the latest flurry of migrants, the patch year list stands at 72.