Monday, 22 December 2014

Continental Colonists Make Themselves Known

Over the last decade an increasing number of herons (and their allies) have decided to follow the example of the little egret in the nineties and call the UK their home with what appear to be the first tentative steps towards colonisation being taken by several species, perhaps in part due to our changing climate. Most have made some attempts to breed and some have been more successful than others. Spoonbills have set up a nice little colony on the Norfolk coast, whereas glossy ibis appears only to have managed an unsuccessful breeding attempt in Lincolnshire. One or two pairs of little bitterns and great white egrets have been breeding on the Somerset Levels, and purple heron and cattle egret have also bred in the south of England very recently. Indeed Dungeness seems to have found itself a little niche as the best spot in the south-east for some of the species. Purple heron has bred and multiples of both great white and cattle egrets are currently in residence there.

In the Cambridgeshire fens we have seen bitterns and common cranes doing increasingly well but the new colonists from the continent are largely yet to arrive. Little bittern is pretty much unheard of in the county but there are two species, glossy ibis and great white egret, which have become more regular in this region. Now, a great local milestone has been reached – have they started breeding? No. Have there been double figure counts which might lead to the start of a small colony? Not just yet. Have I ‘found’ any on my occasional local sojourns round the county? Yes!

For me at least these two have finally moved from being birds that might occasionally be twitched to those I’ve been able to find myself locally and so the development has become something I’ve not just read about but have begun to personally witnessIt’s sometimes difficult to tell if you’ve ‘found’ a bird yourself, particularly with these species which are often long-staying and mobile, moving between multiple sites over a large area. In these circumstances a reasonable gap of both time and distance since the last sighting is perhaps necessary to claim ownership of a sighting, along with a genuine degree of surprise and delight, that may be alien to those who simply ‘twitch’ birds and therefore know what exactly they are about to see. Such a sighting should get most observers rummaging around for a record submission form, destined now of course for the county recorder rather than the British Birds Rarities’ Committee which has stopped reviewing records of these two species due to their increasing regularity here‘My’ recent ibis and egret had both been sighted elsewhere earlier in the autumn but I myself had stumbled upon them unexpectedly within a week of each other, and both at times when I was looking for something far commoner.

The ibis materialised overhead at the RSPB’s fairly recently acquired Fen DraytonLakes in late November in silhouette as it headed west towards a fiery horizon. The local starling murmuration of 20,000 birds had been not only my intended target, butalso that of a surprising crowd of birders, none of whom appeared to notice the ibis – I told those nearest me but received blank gazes in return. The actual starling turnout was a less than impressive single individual which comprised not even a murmur as itcircled round like a lost kid who had not been told where the party was.


The egret, presumably one of the two I saw at nearby Wicken Fen in September, flew high over Burwell Fen as I scanned for short-eared owls. I tracked it for about two miles and watched it land in the distance, before resuming my owl hunt. A respectable four short-eared owls and a single barn owl put in an appearance. These were also seen by my three year-old son Ben, although he missed the GWE, not that he needed it!

Neither bird stuck around for nice photos, unfortunately, but I managed to get 'something for the record'

Burwell Fen is an area which could be a bit of a local patch if my planned house move goes ahead, so the idea of exotic herons over the house for me at least may not be so far-fetched. All have a long way to go before matching the success of the little egret here but with habitat restoration projects such as that of the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire, they stand every chance, and are helping to generate a new chapter in UK wetland bird populations.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Tawny owl 100% Pheasant 0%

This is the comparative survival rate of species encountered in contact with my car during the early period of November 2014.
I don’t hit many birds but nevertheless it was no great surprise to take out a pheasant in the gloaming on the way back from the Herts rough-leg. It didn’t stand a chance. The owl on the other hand landed on the road between my car and the one in front (being driven by wife Liz) causing me to swerve slightly. Not being sure whether I had hit it or not I performed some slightly dangerous manoeuvres and returned to the spot to find the owl squatting on the road. I stuffed it into my car boot and drove home.
By the time I arrived home there were sounds of movement from the boot – surely a good sign. This time I armed myself with some thick gardening gloves and opened up the boot. Out flew the owl. A happy ending, and if one bird had to die, then from an ecological perspective it’s probably best it was the owl that survived. The pheasant may well have ended up being blasted out of the sky anyway by some sadistic, trigger-happy individual (don’t get me started on that!)
As well as having an owl fly out of my car that day I also had aforementioned car towed out of a ditch. The Honda Civic Type-R is not known for its high ground clearance and would not have been my first choice of motor to try to park on the slightly mountainous verge with adjacent cavernous ditch. But it’s all I had and it soon came a cropper.

Ben oblivious to the rough-legged buzzard being mobbed in the background!
Two hours later the AA saw me right, and it actually worked out rather well. With more time on site I got progressively better views of the rough-legged buzzard and ended up with some good shots. Even if I had had earlier to put the AA operator on hold while I threw my phone into the car to photograph the fast-approaching buzzard. Oh yes, I also had to entertain a 3 year old while all this was going on. Young Ben got rough-leg on his list, too. Though I’m not sure if he was able to rule out common buzzard on his views.

Three days later and I was off chasing ducks - a drake green-winged teal at Berry Fen to be precise, followed by a ring-necked duck which tempted me over the border into Northants. I then headed to Grafham Water where I met up with a radio producer making a programme about gull enthusiasts. The gulls insisted on roosting approximately 47 miles out, so it was unsurprising I picked out little of interest. We eventually headed back, noting woodcock and tawny owl en route, only to find we had been locked in.

ring-necked duck, Kettering. Put out as a an ad female, but with that indistinct bill pattern, surely more likely a 1st winter bird?

And who can forget the two much appreciated garden ticks I've already had this month? Monday's flyover male bullfinch was certainly on the prediction list but the skittish black redstart which zipped around the rooftops one afternoon wasn't on my radar at all, being as it was just the second I've had in the county. It was even twitched by a local birder who needed it for his county year list. What an excellent year it has been for garden/ window additions!


Monday, 27 October 2014

SHETLAND! Part 3 Days 7-10

Day 7

Another quiet day, at least for rarities. After yesterday's fall there had clearly been a clearout and only about 10% of the previous day's robins and thrushes remained. The rubythroat had finally gone. A small low pressure system brought N - NE wind and it was overcast with occasional light rain. Highlights included a YBW, 26 barnacle geese (over the house), tree pipit, 3 slav grebes and a peregrine carrying a small wader, probably a dunlin. It was clearly a brambling year, with plenty of small groups about.

Adrian Kettle, founding member of the Hoswick Grass Appreciation Society

George Cross 2 - Bandanaman helpfully looks on

Day 8

A small to moderate arrival of redwings today. What had come in with them though? It had been an excellent autumn in the Northern Isles for little bunting and OBP and we'd already found one of the two. We headed north to Voe and had a poke about the gardens.

After a while with not much seemingly around, the four of us converged on a garden where a spotted flycatcher was showing. As we were watching it, Young George suddenly exclaimed, 'OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT'! We were all very impressed by this quick call made without a hint of hesitation. The bird had snuck onto the lawn in front of us and instantly flew with a second (mystery) bird. We had very brief views of it as it landed on a wire, before dropping out of sight into long grass, still inside the garden. Things were looking up!

We spent more than an hour trying to get better views and trying to confirm the identity of the 2nd bird which we suspected was another OBP. We had a couple of glimpses but even after permission from the homeowners to go into the gardens we couldn't refind them. Eventually I was summoned back to the car over the radio. It was time to move on. Reluctantly I started along the road towards the car but after a few paces I stopped. I radioed to indicate I'd be another 10-15 minutes as I wanted to walk back the long way to do a final check of the gardens.

As I rounded the corner the two pipits lifted off the ground and went into the lower branches of a conifer. They were both behaving, and calling, like OBP's, rather secretive with a liking for long grass with small conifers. Fieldcraft was now of utmost importance to avoid flushing them. I dropped to the ground and alerted the others. The rest went according to plan and soon we all had excellent views of one bird as it tail-pumped low down in a pine, as well as confirming the second as being of the same species. We were delighted. George had made an excellent find and the whole team worked hard to confirm the second bird's identity. These two were even twitchable with a number of birders travelling to see them later that afternoon.

With news of a Western Bonelli's warbler at Scalloway, we headed back south, feeling rather positive. On arrival it was apparent the warbler wasn't easy to see. There was an extensive area of gardens with mature sycamores to hide it. But after a couple of hours we played Western Bonelli's call and Baggers to his credit, got straight onto it. It showed reasonably well but didn't respond to the playback, remaining silent throughout.

In the evening we met up with about 10 other birders and had a curry in Lerwick. Baggers sported his trademark headgear and when we stopped to ask locals for directions their first response on seeing Garry in the car was an astonished, 'Is that a bandana??!'

It was an enjoyable night and although I didn't discuss the warbler's I/D with anyone, it did become apparent that no-one knew anything about its discovery and doubt grew in my mind about the certainty of its correct identification. After the curry I told the others we should go back for another look in case it was actually an Eastern but my suggestion was met with apathy. Baggers was more keen on seeing shelduck and snow bunting as we had started competing with the Sumburgh-based Boozy Birders in the trip listing stakes. In true Baldrick fashion however, I had a cunning plan!

Day 9

For the second time this holiday, drastic action was called for. I started a Birdforum thread, highlighting the possibility the warbler might be an Eastern. My evidence may have been flimsy but it had the desired effect in turning attention on the bird. We returned to the site armed with orientalis playback, and it responded with the same call! Local birder Phil Harris even relocated it from its call round the corner to where we were stood. The call was never easy to hear, and was only picked up by about half of the ten or so people present, though some of us heard it more clearly later on in nearby gardens.

With the bird now MEGA'd as EASTERN BONELLI'S WARBLER, birders started arriving and a crowd of perhaps 30-40 people assembled. The bird showed on and off but remained stubbornly silent and was now wise to the playback. Paul Harvey turned up with some rather hi-tech-looking sound recording gear but the warbler wouldn't play ball.

I couldn't believe I'd had a tick!! The warbler went on to stay for another couple of days and was heard again by one or two experienced observers but in general it remained silent. I learnt it had actually been found by an old friend of mine who had heard what sounded like a YBW and followed it, only to find the Bonelli's. He retracted his original I/D, believing he had in fact originally heard a yellow-browed.

We drove to Hoswick where we had excellent views of a SIBERIAN STONECHAT, found just that morning. All too soon our holiday was at an end and we caught the evening ferry back to Aberdeen.

Day 10

We journeyed home via Norfolk to see the Steppe grey shrike, my fourth, but my first (in fact THE first) for this county. It was the seventh BB rarity of the trip and the 4th MEGA, and it showed like a dream. We went home very happy. Scilly V Shetland? No contest, I'm afraid!

Friday, 24 October 2014

SHETLAND! Part 2 Days 4-6

With the SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT still just down the road it would have been rude not to continue to pay our respects, especially as it was now somewhat easier to see. The storm was building but this spot was sheltered so it was worth a visit regardless of what the weather was doing. Consequently we popped in on days 4 and 5 of our trip, before it departed overnight, leaving a handful of long faces among those who had travelled up for it on our Day 6 (8th October).

Day 4 saw us visit Channerwick after breakfast. With little shelter from the blustery wind it was difficult getting decent views of anything put up. There were few birds, but one that did get up was a big grey warbler, clearly one of the two barred warblers present here the previous day. There was also a handful of blackbirds and song thrushes that were new in.

We checked out Boddam where as well as finding something good the previous day I had also lost something... my iphone. I tried to re-trace my steps but it was negative news - the phone wasn't showing. I had dipped, though I found a yellow-browed, and yesterday's little bunting popped up in flight only, to say a brief hello and offer its condolences. Maybe I'd lost the bloody phone at couldn't have been at the rubythroat garden, surely, as someone would have found it and put news out?

To keep my mind off the lost phone (which incidentally is still lost) I had to keep birding. We went back to Sumburgh where a small fall of birds had taken place, mainly thrushes, but with a couple of robins and a few goldcrests. Birds were coming in and they were from the east. Hopefully the rare stuff would follow.

A few bits and pieces kept us entertained - a long-eared owl sheltered in grass beside a stone wall at Sumburgh; a dozen or so long-tailed ducks were in evidence nearby, and a slav grebe popped up at Loch Spiggie. We soon headed up the west coast to St Ninian's Isle where at least 3 great northern divers and a few bramblings were located.

The weather was seriously deteriorating now and it was no longer possible to look for birds. We'd resorted to doing more and more from the car but eventually we threw in the towel and headed for home. Only I didn't quite throw in the towel, doing the odd scan of the bay opposite from the front door while the others set about cooking or putting their feet up.

Suddenly I spotted something just beyond the white surf, between the troughs, about 200 yards out. 'LEACH'S PETREL!' I hollered and the others joined me. To my surprise they all got onto it, perhaps because it was making slow progress in what must have been 40-50mph winds (gusting possibly to 100 at times). An hour's seawatch then ensued, and we were rewarded with a continuous passage of whimbrels and a couple of little gulls. Hugh Harrop turned up after hearing about the Leach's (a scarce bird up here apparently) and moved on to the point. Shortly afterwards we heard the petrel was still lingering off the point and in fact it (or another) was reported again there the following morning.

Day 5

A quiet day in terms of rare birds as we continued to battle the elements. The wind was still as strong but was now ESE, eventually turning NE. It rained for most of the morning but we didn't slack and continued to kick every ditch and patch of bushes we came across. One of the first birds we saw in our rather modest garden while it was still getting light, was a fieldfare. It was the only one of the whole trip, surprisingly, yet further south at Sumburgh, thrushes were arriving in much larger numbers to the previous day - mainly song thrushes with smaller numbers of redwings and blackbirds, and lots of robins, too. 3+ yellow-broweds were in the burn at Geosetter, with one particularly showy bird there, and we came across ring ouzel, whinchat, jack snipe, woodcock, black redstart and short-eared owl throughout the day. Oh yeah, we saw a rubythroat, too. Again.

Day 6

Back at base at close of play on day 5 the big news was that a probable PG Tips had been found at Quendale. We'd seen very poor photos on Twitter and had all expressed doubts regarding the I/D. In fact we all agreed it looked more like a lancey, and this sentiment was echoed later on Birdforum when pics were posted there. I couldn't see the bird being a Tips, yet there was nothing on the photos to stop it being an aberrantly heavily streaked grasshopper warbler. The finders stuck to their guns on the I/D, believing the bird to be too large and dark-tailed for a lancey. Another crew who'd seen the bird before it got dark had also had this impression. Whatever it was, we really wanted to see this Locustella!

We arrived at first light to find no-one else present. We worked the burn, kicking up 4 or 5 reed warblers (trying unsuccessfully to turn each into a Blyth's) and after a couple of hours' searching we found the Locustella. We were joined by other birders but nailing the I/D was tough on flight views. I thought the bird looked small and so did most of the others present. Then Andrew got a record shot of the bird in flight. The tertials looked good for lancey and it was rung in as such. Soon afterwards the bird landed in the open below a fence. I was quick with the camera and grabbed some record shots. The bird scarpered but I had evidence on my screen it was a LANCEOLATED WARBLER -  those tertials didn't belong to a gropper, and no one was in any doubt now.

By now Baggers was beside himself. He needed lancey and it was to be his 500th BOU bird. Everyone was happy with the I/D but it was only when the bird flew to a small iris clump then proceeded to show in the open on the edge that everyone got the views (and photos) they were after. It was smiles all round, particularly from the original finder(s). There was no shame in not making the right call the previous day as their views (and pics) simply hadn't been good enough, especially as they were of a wet, bedraggled bird in poor light. This is the reality of field identification of many elusive birds (particularly skulking, flighty warblers) and anyone who thinks otherwise probably spends most of their time on their computer, where the birds are easy to identify in photos. In the field at the time, it's not always quite that easy!

At least it WAS in Britain this time, Garry!
Chris Griffin finally nails his superb find with the camera

celebratory drinks at Quendale
It was a nice day by late morning, sunny and settled, with a light north-east wind. We had bagged 2 'SIBERIAN' CHIFFCHAFFS earlier in the quarry along with a blue tit - normally a Shetland rarity, but that day 17 were seen throughout the archipelago, clearly (given the winds and supporting cast) Northern birds from Scandanavia.

We headed off to Virkie where Andrew popped in to Rob Fray's to see some moth or other. Baggers and Young George stayed in the car stuffing their faces with pies and pasties. Drastic action was called for at this point - I'd have to look for some birds, so I worked the famous line of willows, then the ditch behind Rob's place. Eventually something decent got up ahead of me - a GREAT GREY SHRIKE! I'd left my radio in the car again, and had to go back to get the others. They all eventually saw it but it remained mobile and was generally distant.

I spent the next hour or so working more ditches and fence lines. I found a hedgehog in a ball, and a few jack snipe got up. A nearby pipit initially claimed as an OBP turned out to be a tree pipit. More woodcock were seen that day and more yellow-broweds. Most other birds had been frightened off by Baggers' T-shirt (yes, THAT T-shirt). Or maybe it was his cheesy grin which was still stretching from ear to ear!

In Part 3 there are more good birds and Garry commits further crimes against fashion. Will we stay the course or get chucked off the islands by traumatised residents? And could I really have been jammy enough to get a 'lifer' up there on this particular week? Standby for the final gripping instalment in Part 3!

The George Cross - a unique way of traversing a large Shetland ditch involving a long rest in the middle, typical of today's birding yoof who wear low-slung trousers to be cool. Only joking George!
Geosetter Burn - always smells rare (except last year when I dipped a thick-billed warbler there!)

The local twite sheltering from the gale force wind, while Andrew gives them a good grilling

not everything on Shetland that looks rare IS rare!

Monday, 20 October 2014

SHETLAND! Part 1 Days 1-3

Shetland is quite simply THE best place in Britain to see rare birds. Every year on Birdforum there is a thread comparing its birds with those turning up on Scilly. Every year (almost) there is no contest. During the month of October, Scilly was the traditional holiday destination for birders in the eighties and nineties. Now numbers of visiting birders have dropped off, as the islands have priced themselves out of the market whilst delivering fewer good birds. It's a viscious circle, with fewer visitors resulting in fewer rare birds found, which in turn puts off more birders from visiting. Shetland however is becoming increasingly popular and a similar process applies in reverse.

I did Shetland in the spring of 1998 and had a week on Fair Isle in 2002. This was to be my first Autumn trip based on Shetland mainland. And so it came to pass that on the evening of 2nd October I was picked up at home by Andrew Lawson (hereafter known as Marcus just to piss him off) and in the company of George Kinnard (hereafter known as Young George or George the Younger) and celebrity birder Gary Bagnell (hereafter known as Baggers) we headed north in search of feathered waifs and strays that would hail from the far off land of Siberia - or so we hoped.

Day 1

The morning of 3rd saw us scouring the scoter flocks off Blackdog near Aberdeen. With no obvious surfers present we headed to the Ythan Estuary where a good variety of waders and wildfowl kept us entertained. Baggers found a Slav grebe and the stakes were upped further when we found a rather  elusive yellow-browed warbler on the north side on the edge of the Sands of Forvie nature reserve. A good start to the trip but we wanted those scoters so headed back South and tried again, this time off Murcar Golf Course. 

We scrutinised the distant bobbing dots on the water and after some time Marcus picked out a male SURF SCOTER. Nice! We closed down the distance and I eventually got some rather poor record shots. Well, it was about a third of a mile out! After prolonged observation it became apparent there was a female-type in attendance - an educational bird at that range, sporting a compact look when compared to the neighbouring velvet scoters, along with a squarer head shape and less concave head and bill profile. Job done. We left feeling satisfied and headed for the boat. Things were really looking up. Dan Pointon had just found a rubythroat about 3 miles from where we staying on Shetland. Thanks Dan, that would do nicely as a starter!

f/imm surf scoter

pair surf scoters
Day 2

It was an uneventful crossing on which for some reason I awoke at 3am and couldn't get back to sleep. On arrival we went straight to Levenwick for the SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT which was still present. Now to say this bird was a bastard to see would be an understatement. In fact it took me nearly 7 hours waiting to get a view and it rained the whole time. Luckily my waterproofs held out and we then had the luxury of a car ride as far as Tingwall Airport where a juv PALLID HARRIER was showing, often hunting around the runway. From there we returned to Levenwick and stuck it out until dusk by which time we must have been there about 9 hrs in total. All this for a bird I've seen twice before in Britain. But then a rubythroat isn't just any bird, now, is it?
Day 3

With a big storm approaching the wind started to get up on day 3 - a freshening SSW blow which gradually moved round to a southerly. We were becoming increasingly excited as the storm would bring SE gales, conditions sure to bring in good birds. The price we would pay for this would be a couple of days where the weather would be extreme enough so as to be 'unbirdable'; but for now we could get out into the field. We headed again to Levenwick where again we struggled to see the star bird. We were spread out around a garden with three vantage points that gave observers a chance of a glimpse. But when around lunch time we realised there had been no sightings for some two hours or so it was time to question whether it was even still in the same garden or not. We needed a break and repeated our move of the previous day, heading again for the PALLID HARRIER at Tingwall. This gave similar views to those of the previous day but this time there was an added bonus nearby - a HORNEMANN'S ARCTIC REDPOLL at Veensgarth.
Arctic redpoll race hornemanni (prob 1st wint f), Veensgarth
The redpoll was duly collected though it was considerably less 'classic' than the only other I'd seen, at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Some people leaving as we arrived remarked on this and I too initially had doubts. My first view of it came when I put it up with two mealies round the back of the willows - it looked the same size as them! But it did have the distinct contrasting golden-buff hood so characteristic of 1st winter Hornemann's and it seems likely it's just a small one after all, rather than an exilipes as some of us had started to consider.

We were still after that second rubythroat fix and when the news filtered through it had been refound in another garden half a mile or so from the original one, it was with renewed optimism we headed back South to Levenwick. Here, after a bit of a wait, we had slightly better views but birders were tightly packed in at the bottom of the drive and it was difficult to be in the best place for viewing.

We headed off and decided to check Boddam. We'd done enough twitching and it was time we started to find our own birds. We split up and I left the road, heading up a short track which came to an end just before some houses. What took me up that path I'm not sure but it was a good move. Near the end, a small bird came out of the long grass and circled round behind me. It didn't call but it looked like a small bunting!! Luckily it landed on the path 30 - 40 yards behind me and I raised my bins. A little chestnut face met my gaze and I thought I could even just make out an eye-ring. A LITTLE BUNTING!  A good find for so early in the trip, I knew the others would want to get a look at this. I'd left my radio in the car and found to my dismay my phone battery was dead. Luckily Young George was approaching along the road and I signalled to him there was something good on the path. Within minutes all 4 of us had converged and had good views. We put out the news and as a few birders (filthy twitchers!) started arriving, we headed south with a new-found confidence. What else was out there still to be found was anybody's guess. 
Little bunting, Boddam (photo Paul Hawkins)
Little bunting, Boddam (JH)

We spent the rest of the day working various sites near Sumburgh and seeing a few noteworthy birds including great northern diver, YBW, merlin, jack snipe, barnacle goose, arctic tern and brambling. Then it was back to our (somewhat cramped) digs at Sandwick for a relaxing evening and speculation on what the coming weather might bring in.

Would Premiereship twitcher Baggers be caught off-side for a rarity down south? If there was a fall to remember the next day would it be Scandanavian migrants or Baggers coming off worse after taking on a barbed wire fence? Or would the only productive winds here be those originating from Marcus? And would being with three ol' codgers talking about the good old days eventually drive George the Younger insane and cause him to give up birding for good? To be continued...