Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Glaucous Gull in Leicestershire

Albert Village Lake,  Leicestershire.

As it is still 'the season to be jolly', you know Christmas and that, it was time to celebrate the occasion by hunting down a 'white-winged angel' or two.  The first trip of the day was a sojourn just over the border into Leicestershire to search through the Laridae at Albert Village Lake.  On my stroll down to view the lake, good numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare were logged along with the odd Bullfinch and Lesser Redpoll.

Initially it was not looking to good at all as the nearby landfill site did not seem to be fully operational.  As a result there were not many larger gulls knocking about.  There were however plenty of Black-headed Gulls loafing around along with around 40 Common Gull.  After further scrutiny an adult Yellow-legged Gull popped into view amongst a small group of Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Following a bit of disturbance at the tip a small influx of Herring Gulls occurred but there was still no sign of anything more interesting.  I was about to call it a day when at last I picked up a near adult Glaucous Gull taking part in a bit of a wash and brush up.  The northern brute showed well for just ten minutes before it took flight and disappeared towards the old landfill area.     

Iceland Gull in Staffordshire

The gull roost at Chasewater, Staffordshire.

With an earlier Glaucous Gull under my belt I was hoping to add a further trio of gull species to my day's tally including another 'white-winger'.  Upon arriving at the bitterly cold moonscape of Chasewater it was not too long before a third winter Iceland Gull was picked up bobbing around amongst the numerous Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the odd numbers of Great Black-backed Gulls.  It was at this point I was joined by some familiar local faces - Snapper Richards, Phil Locker and Dan Pointon all appeared in order to help sift throughs the steadily increasing raft of avian scavengers.  Despite their help though all we managed between us was an adult Yellow-legged Gull. There was no sign of either the adult Caspian Gull that Snapper had found earlier in the afternoon nor the regular adult Mediterranean Gull that sometimes appears in the roost.

Other species of interest included an immature Peregrine harassing the Lapwing flock and a small group of 6 Goosander

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Alvecote Pools SSSI

At a cold, wet and miserable Alvecote this afternoon a drake Mandarin lifted my spirits slightly. It was only my second ever sighting of this exotic, oriental species down at the patch.  The bird has been in the area for a few weeks now but is quite elusive and mobile. I finally stumbled upon it around the willow island on Upper Pool displaying to a female Mallard.

Over on Mill Pool there were 11 Shelduck, 18 Goosander, a single Little Egret and a single Common Gull.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

DESERT WHEATEAR in Shropshire

After deliberating for over a week we finally decided to brave the elements and head over to Shropshire to see if we could track down a female DESERT WHEATEAR.  The bird had been present in the area since last Friday when it was initially thought to be a PIED WHEATEAR until the identification was clinched the following day.

We arrived on site at a blustery Titterstone Clee Hill during early afternoon to find up to seven Raven tumbling around the summit in the powerful and bitterly cold north-westerly wind.  I could have quite easily sat in the car and admired these wonderful birds all day but a rarity was beckoning just a short distance away amongst the old quarry buildings.  

Desert Wheatear habitat - the abandoned quarry at Titterstone Clee Hill

At 533 metres above sea level this particular hill is said to provide one of the best all round views in the whole of England.  Despite the murky conditions we could easily make out the Malvern Hills to the south however on a clear day it is also possible to see Snowdonia to the west, the Peak District to the north east, the Cotswolds to the south east and the Brecon Beacons to the south west.  The scenery is quite stunning and the area is well worth a visit whether you see any birds or not.

An impressive view south towards the Malvern Hills

There were a few other birders milling around when we arrived but unfortunately there was no sign of the bird after it had flown up towards the summit earlier on in the afternoon.  Almost immediately though Nadia picked up a small, pale passerine flying towards us before disappearing out of sight.  After a careful, quiet stalk towards the general area Nadia then picked the DESERT WHEATEAR feeding happily just a few metres away.  Despite it being very mobile the bird showed extremely well at times.  We managed to get a few other visitors onto the rarity but no other birders tended to hang around for long due to the Arctic wind chill factor.  Braving the elements I hung around until the bird once again flew off high towards the summit.  I headed back to the car before hypothermia had chance to kick in enjoying the sky-dancing Ravens as I went.

DESERT WHEATEAR (female) - Titterstone Clee Hill, Shropshire
Photo kindly provided by Dave Hutton

A total of three different subspecies of DESERT WHEATEAR have made it to Great Britain however assigning a bird in the field to a specific race is not really safe.  Out of circa 120 individuals that have occurred here just seven of those that have either been shot, found dead or trapped have been pinned down properly.  The Central Asian Desert Wheatear deserti has been proven twice whilst the North African Desert Wheatear homochroa has been recorded on four occasions.  In addition there has been a single example of Kazakhstan Desert Wheatear atrogularis.  It is open to debate but I would suggest that all birds which have appeared during this autumn's influx are more than likely to originate from the Central Asia bearing in mind the recent conditions that have brought us our first acceptable Eastern Black Redstarts in a while.

DESERT WHEATEAR (female) - Titterstone Clee Hill, Shropshire
Photo kindly provided by Dave Hutton

DESERT WHEATEAR fact file

As touched on above this species breeds widely yet discontinuously across the arid and desert regions of North Africa from Morocco to the Middle East, north to the south Caucasus and across central Asia from central Iran and northern Pakistan to Mongolia and northern China. Some African birds are resident but many winter in the Sahara and Sahel region from Mauritania east to Ethiopia and Somalia. Asian breeders winter from the Arabian peninsula to north-west India.

The first records drilled down to subspecies level in Britain are as follows:

  • Central Asian Desert Wheatear - male (shot) - Fair Isle, Shetland - 6 October 1928
  • North African Desert Wheatear - female (shot) - Spurn, Yorkshire - 17 October 1885
  • Kazakhstan Desert Wheatear - male (killed) - Pentland Skerries, Orkney - 2 June 1906  

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Alvecote Pools SSSI

Life amongst the sterile winter wheat fields at Bramcote
Photo by Adam Archer

It was a pretty enjoyable birding session down at the patch today. What looked like the smaller, sub-adult Azorean Yellow-legged Gull or hybrid from the Chasewater roost made a brief appearance on Gilman's Pool. Unfortunately it flew off south-east before I could grill it with my scope properly.  Also on the same pool was a flock of 9 Little Egrets, a site record, as well as 49 Goosander and a Kingfisher.

Over the road at Mill Pool there were 13 Shelduck, a female Pintail, 8 Shoveler, 12 Gadwall, 26 Common Teal and just 2 Eurasian Wigeon.  Around the margins a Water Rail and 4 Common Snipe were present.  

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Alvecote Pools SSSI

The common wildfowl numbers are still way down at the patch but it was great to see fifteen female Goosander fresh in this morning on Mill Pool.  The Shelduck numbers have also increased to eleven birds from just two last week.  Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard are all pretty low on the ground however Gadwall, Shoveler and Common Teal numbers were all up very slightly.  Around the margins of Mill Pool a Water Rail and 3 Common Snipe were flushed.  Over on Gilman's Pool there were 3 Little Egrets and a few Goldcrests hanging around with the mixed tit flocks.

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) - Alvecote Pools.
Bracket Fungus species - Alvecote Pools.

At this time of year I enjoy mooching around for some interesting funghi.  Above are just two examples of many I found today.  If anyone knows the name of the bracket fungus above please let me know.  It was found on a mature Willow tree above three feet from the ground.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Eastern Black Redstart in Northumberland

Lindisfarne Castle - Holy Island, Northumberland.

With two trips up to Northumberland within a week and a marathon twitch to an offshore Scottish Isle sandwiched in between I was beginning to physically resemble Phil Mitchell during his heroin addiction phase.  My planned score today however consisted of a delightful little fix, freshly smuggled in from the mountains of Central Asia - a Black Redstart of the subspecies phoenicuroides or Eastern Black Redstart as it is sometimes known.

We were unable to gain access to Holy Island until around midday due to the high tide so we headed across to Embleton in the first instance.  Whilst driving slowly down one of the weaving lanes we finally located a large flock of Pink-footed Geese resting up in a stubble field.  Due to the distances involved we failed to pick out any Tundra Bean Geese but there were a scattering of Eurasian White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese amongst them.  Unfortunately there was also no sign of the two adult Ross's Geese either but most of the geese remained out of view in a valley.  Just before we left the area a further 60 Eurasian White-fronted Geese flew in off the sea to join the flock, no doubt attracted to the constant calling of those that were already present.

The Eastern Black Redstart twitch.

After an enjoyable drive across the exposed causeway we quickly located the school in the village and made our way down to the nearby beach.  After a quick rope climb down the small cliff we were all soon admiring one of the rarest birds to reach Britain this autumn.  The first winter male Eastern Black Redstart showed exceptionally well for the next few hours as it fed on a glut of insects that had emerged in the glorious early afternoon sunshine.  This subspecies is a long distance migrant that breeds predominantly in the Altai and Tien Shan mountain ranges in Central Asia.  Its wintering grounds can be anywhere from the central plains of India across to Iran, Arabia, Somalia and Ethiopia in the west of its wintering range.  Even though it is not a 'tickable species' this bird along with another in Kent earlier in the month are the only thoroughly examined examples that have ever appeared in Britain.  Four historical claims of this subspecies were rejected by the BOU on the basis that Redstart x Black Redstart hybrids could not be ruled out.  

I did my own little bit for scientific research by scraping a nice 'stool sample' from one of its favoured rocks.  Hopefully DNA analysis may lead to this particular bird being confirmed to subspecies level but who knows?  For a fantastic in depth discussion of this particular race on Surfbirds please click HERE.

Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) - Northumberland
Photo by Adam Archer
Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) with its eye on the fly.
Photo by Ashley Howe
Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) amongst the barbed wire.
Photo by Adam Archer
Eastern Black Redstart (first winter male) amongst the seaweed.
Photo by Adam Archer

Other species of note in the area were the wintering groups of both Dark-bellied and Pale-bellied Brent Geese as well as 4 Long-tailed Ducks and the occasional Red-breasted Merganser.  Further towards the sea a Red-necked Grebe was found along with the odd Red-throated Diver amongst the large groups of Eider.  A magnificent Short-eared Owl quartered the rough grassland between the village and the pool where small flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover were spooked by a male Peregrine that eventually showed well perched up on the impressive Lindisfarne Castle.  With the light quickly fading we headed back to the car to commence the long journey back south.

A view from Holy Island at dusk.
Special thanks to Mike Feely (driver), Snapper Richards (entertainer) and Jules Allen (last minute substitute for Stevie Dunn who preferred to stay at home due to an alleged north east curse involving missed ticks for Nottinghamshire) for contributing to yet another epic ASBO outing.

Eastern Black Redstart in Northumberland - Video Footage

Friday, 18 November 2011

MEGA ALERT: The VEERY on the Isle of Muck

Where there's Muck, there's class!
Photo by Adam Archer

As I sat there at work on Thursday afternoon aimlessly tapping away at my keyboard, I received a call from genuine Premiership twitcher Steve Nuttall asking if I was up for a trip to Scotland.  To be honest I had not even considered twitching the VEERY that had made landfall up on Muck but Steve is a hard chap to say no to.  After having a quick word with my understanding boss, before I knew it I had booked a place aboard a mystery charter boat.  What the hell was I doing?  We eventually set off north at 10.00pm from Belvide in Staffordshire and finally arrived in the small port of Mallaig just off the Isle of Skye at around 7.00am the next morning.  Our driver for the trip, Phil Andrews was like a birding cyborg, only stopping to lubricate his joints with a spot of WD40.

After a short wait in the early morning darkness our transport for the final leg of our journey arrived and without delay a lucky few of us were being whizzed across to one of the smaller inner Hebridean islands at pace.  Due to the speed of the catamaran Orion, not a great deal bird species were spotted on the crossing except for a few startled Razorbills and the odd fleeing Kittiwake.  The lack of birding opportunities from the craft however were soon forgotten as news filtered through that the bird was still present.  What a relief!
  
The view from Gallanach Farm, Isle of Muck.
Photo by Adam Archer

Just over a hour later we arrived on the wet, windswept Isle of Muck, disembarked the craft and promptly marched off in the direction of Gallanach Farm on the other side of the tiny island.  Along the way a few Hooded Crows were present along with the odd Raven and a marauding Peregrine.  Towards the end of the only road on Muck we arrived at the farm and were quickly hustled towards a steaming dung heap by a few of the farm workers.  Within a few seconds up popped a sweet, little VEERY, a diminutive thrush all the way from North America.  Within minutes all twelve of us were enjoying the bird as it picked its way around its temporary food source.

The famous VEERY dung heap... can you see the bird?
Photo by Adam Archer

The bird continued to show exceptionally well for the next few hours around the same place often down to just a few feet.  It did fly off into the nearby garden for a short while but with such a concentrated amount of food amongst the manure, the dung heap was way too much for it to resist.  A superb bird in a stunning location.  It just does not get any better.  Despite the fact that we were all soaked to the skin and covered in cattle excrement it was smiles all around as we made our way back to the harbour. 

VEERY - Isle of Muck, Highland.
Photos (above & below) kindly provided by Steve Nuttall

VEERY - Isle of Muck, Highland.
This is only the 10th record of this species for Great Britain. 

VEERY - Isle of Muck, Highland.
Photo kindly provided by Ashley Howe

Whilst we celebrated onboard the Orion with a welcome cup of hot coffee and a few Ginger Nut biscuits we noticed a few familiar faces from the West Midlands running towards us.  The CalMac ferry had already lifted its ramp to depart the island but this bunch of 'tick & run merchants' needed to get on it.  After a brief verbal exchange the ferry staff eventually agreed to lower the ramp again and the numpties who had spent no more than ten minutes of quality time with the VEERY made their escape with the tails between their legs.   

The Orion (left) - the fastest pleasure cruiser in the whole of Scotland!

With a hour of daylight remaining we then made our way back south zig-zagging our way through the dramatic Highland glens through to Fort William.  The base of Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis was just about visible through the mist as we passed through the town.  After a brief stop for a fish supper in Callander and an even shorter stop to refuel I finally arrived home in North Warwickshire just before midnight on Friday night.  I was suffering from a terrible case of 'bird-lag' but I was extremely pleased that I had took the gamble and made the trip.  He who dares wins...... sometimes.

Veery on the Isle of Muck - Video Footage

Sunday, 13 November 2011

MEGA ALERT: The GREATER YELLOWLEGS in Northumberland

It was Saturday morning.  I was just preparing for a trip to the local patch when news came through of a probable Greater Yellowlegs up in Northumberland.  I began to feel a little twinge of excitement. In this game a 'probable' is a good 80% better than a 'possible' and a whopping 325% better than an 'wholly unconfirmed'.  Then around twenty minutes later, the heart-stopping wail of the pager could be heard resonating around the cottage. There was indeed a GREATER YELLOWLEGS fresh in at the Wildlife Trust reserve at East Chevington.  It was now 11.00am and in the mid afternoon traffic we would probably not arrive on site until around 3.00pm.  Taking into account the bird's skittish nature we made the calculated decision to head north the following day.

As I approached Dunnster Towers in Derbyshire at around 7.20am I received a call from the Aled Jones of birding, Andrew Kinghorn.  From what I could discern from the Cheryl Cole type drawl the bird was still present and even better it was showing down to just a few yards from one of the hides at  Hauxley Nature Reserve.  The trouble was, we were nearly three hours away from our destination.  It would be a nervous few hours as Mikipedia Feely sped up the A1 like a cross between Mr Magoo and Maureen from 'Driving School'. If you do not know what I am blathering on about then click here.

With Snapper entertaining us with his excellent impressions of various birding personalities en route we finally arrived at a muddy Hauxley Nature Reserve during mid-morning.  We burst into the Wader Hide to find the usual glum-faced, scowling numpties hogging the best seats. We could either barge our way to the front like a bunch of hooligans or locate an alternative view point.  With no sign of the bird anyway we opted for the latter and continued along the track to the next hide.  At this point our luck changed as I noticed an old dear and her husband beckoning me into the Eric's Hide. Within a few seconds we were all set up watching our first ever GREATER YELLOWLEGS in Britain, feeding along the shoreline in tandem with a first winter Grey Phalarope.  To make it even better there was not another soul there..... heaven..... but not for long! 

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (first winter) & Grey Phalarope
Photo by Rob Capewell

Amazingly both birds then decided to fly even closer and landed right in front of our hide.  Excellent views were enjoyed before they continued to feed along the edge of the lagoon and out of sight.  Before long both birds reappeared but kept their distance due to a gang of twitchers taking up temporary residence on top of the bank.  It did not matter though as prolonged scope views were soaked up to the maximum.  After the much publicised Daventry debacle and the brief appearance of this species in Cornwall earlier this year, we were all as pleased as punch to finally nail this species.

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (first winter) - Hauxley, Northumberland.
Photo by Tristan Reid

After a quick bite to eat on the outskirts of Newcastle we then decided to head down to Cleveland and try our luck at Seal Sands.  Upon arrival at Greatham Creek we soon picked out a smaller wader amongst a scattering of Dunlin.  Upon closer inspection it was a smart, juvenile SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, a new British bird for the East Midlanders in the crew and our second American rarity of the day.  Also on site were good numbers of Curlew and Redshank, a pair of Turnstone and a single Grey Plover.  Another highlight was a pair of Short-eared Owls sparring with the odd Carrion Crow over the rough pasture in the distance.  As always the Common Seals also put in a pretty good performance.

With the light fading quickly we headed around to the other side of the River Tees to Redcar.  After a brief search we eventually found a pair of Tundra Bean Geese feeding in a winter wheat field at Kirkleatham.  We headed back home to the Midlands extremely happy with our brief time in the hospitable north east.

The ASBO crew for the day.... or is it 'The Dingles' from Emmerdale?
Mikipedia Feely, Archie (me), Snapper Richards & Stevie Dunn

Greater Yellowlegs in Northumberland - Video Footage

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Bewick's Swans at Alvecote Pools

Whilst making my way down to the patch this morning a female Merlin passed through.  This means there are both male and female birds wintering in the triangle of villages between Seckington, Shuttington and Newton Regis in the north of Warwickshire.

Down at Alvecote Pools I stumbled upon a real local rarity in the form of 9 Bewick's Swans, my first in the area since 1984 and the first ever to be found on the Warwickshire side of the reserve.  The small flock consisted of 7 adult and 2 juvenile birds stopping off to refuel after their long and arduous 2,500 mile migration from the tundra regions of Russia.  These birds will probably continue their journey south and spent the winter with up to 320 other birds of this species at the Wildfowl & Wetlands reserve at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire.

Bewick's Swans (adult & juvenile) - Alvecote Pools.
Bewick's Swan (adult) - Alvecote Pools.
Other species of note included just 2 Shelduck on Mill Pool along with a single first winter male Common Pochard.  This species along with Tufted Duck are here in surprisingly low numbers so far this year.  It is no doubt linked to the relatively mild conditions on the continent this autumn.  Over on Upper Pool a Little Egret was still present and around the feeders at Gilman's Pool a Coal Tit and 4 Bullfinch were spotted. 

Saturday, 5 November 2011

MEGA ALERT: The ISABELLINE WHEATEAR in East Yorkshire

This species has been a nemesis of mine for longer than I care to remember.  Most that have occurred in Britain have been 'one day wonders' during the week and twitchable ones have often turned up when I have been at opposite ends of the country.  A perfect example was the time a group of us decided to head down to Cornwall for a weekend of rarity hunting during September 2006 and a bird appeared at Carmel Head on Anglesey.  After planning the route we estimated that it would take us nearly seven hours to drive the 430 miles from Penzance to Anglesey.  Needless to say we soon knocked any idea of twitching that particular bird firmly on the head.  After an enjoyable few days in the south west seeing such rarities as WILSON'S PHALAROPE and scarcities such as Dotterel, 2 Pectoral Sandpiper, Wryneck and Melodious Warbler I decided to head over to Anglesey the following Monday morning.  After showing well for the previous two days I well and truly dipped. To rub salt into the wounds there was another alleged sighting of the bird during that evening as I crossed the border into England.

Just a few weeks ago I was over in North Norfolk chasing a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL around Holme when an 'Izzy Wheatear' turned up in Sussex.  The disappointment of missing out on the RUFOUS-TAILED ROBIN from the previous day increased slightly but at least the handsome Bluetail eventually showed well as a consolation prize. To add to the frustration not a year goes by when a pallid looking Northern Wheatear is misidentified as this species.  The plumage differences are indeed quite subtle but having studied plenty of ISABELLINE WHEATEARS on their breeding grounds on the Greek island of Lesvos, the structure and feel of this species is something quite different.

So late on Friday afternoon news filtered through of a probable ISABELLINE WHEATEAR in East Yorkshire.  Considering the bird was at Spurn and was no doubt being scrutinised by a handful of skillful birders I was very optimistic. My faith was rewarded when it was initially confirmed as such in the field before being trapped and ringed.  Now would the bird hang around until the following morning?  With a staggering 76% of all British mainland sightings of this species making just single day appearances, the odds were stacked firmly against me once again.

On Saturday morning I woke up early and half-heartedly sorted the birding kit in anticipation of sheer disappointment. There was no point in getting up to Spurn for first light and anyway, if the bird was still present there was little chance that it would depart during daylight hours.  At around 7.15am I received a call from Spurn regular Adam Hutt.  Amazingly the bird was still there and showing very well!  We left North Warwickshire within minutes, collected Snapper Richards and Stevie Dunn from Tibshelf and we were on our way.

A few tense hours later we finally arrived at The Warren on the Spurn peninsula.  We abandoned the car and made our way towards The Point at a brisk pace.  Arriving back in the opposite direction were a stream of smarmy early birders including Mike Feely, Rich Challands, and Ash Howe.  We also bumped into Rich Collis and grilled him about the birds habits and favoured location.  What came back in reply was a indiscernible, garbled South Yorkshire drawl reminiscent of Vic Reeves's 'pub singer' impression.  It would have been more useful asking Chewbacca his recommendations regarding a rare Oenanthe species.

ISABELLINE WHEATEAR - Spurn, East Yorkshire.
Photo kindly provided by Craig Shaw

Eventually we arrived on site to view the bird on the River Humber side of the strip.  Just as we set up our scopes though the bird flew along the beach and kept heading off into the distance. Panic set in briefly before it settled down to feed once again.  In flight the bird was pale and slightly larger looking than an immature or female Northern Wheatear. It also showed the bright, white underwing as it whizzed past. Some young female Northern Wheatears can show a light coloured underwing too but nothing as striking as this bird did.  All of the group had scored with a new addition to our British Lists however better views were needed.

ISABELLINE WHEATEAR by Craig Shaw

As it fed nimbly around the sandy terrain the bird often showed a long-necked, upright stance as well as a longer tarsi and a shorter tail.  In the field the bird had a pretty prominent paler supercilium before the eye rather than behind, a feature not particularly present in these photographs.  The differences between the colouration of the upperparts and underparts were not substantial and the dark alula often stood out.  We were also lucky to see the bird preen when it once again showed the white underwing along with the prominent wider dark tail-band. 

ISABELLINE WHEATEAR by Craig Shaw

We continued to soaked up the bird for around ninety minutes in total as it moved up and down a section of the beach.  Except for an impressive array of common waders and a few flocks of Fieldfare and Redwing arriving in off the sea there was not a great deal of other species to choose from in the blustery conditions.  After a fruitless search around the Blue Bell Inn area we decided to head off into Hull and celebrate with the customary ingestion of assorted junk food before heading back down to the Midlands.  After years of pain and disappointment ISABELLINE WHEATEAR had finally been nailed in Britain.  It was smiles all around.

Spurn success!  Me, Stevie & Snapper all scoop a British List addition.

Isabelline Wheatear in East Yorkshire -Video Footage

Thursday, 6 October 2011

SANDHILL CRANE in Suffolk

With some time off work and not a great deal on the mainland to get excited about, we decided upon a quick trip to Suffolk for a 'first record for England'. I had already added SANDHILL CRANE to my British list a couple of years back with an epic trip to Orkney. Click HERE for a run down on how that particular twitch went. This trip however went a whole lot smoother and despite the bird being all the way over in Suffolk, it was considerably closer to home than my last experience of this species in Blighty.

After waiting on news before travelling we headed east at a steady pace. With the bright and clear weather conditions looking pretty good for the bird to take off at any time the long drive over was quite stressful especially as it had been in the area for a whole five days already. I had visions of it soaring high on the thermals and disappearing towards the Netherlands at any moment. We finally arrived on site at around 1.00pm and were told that it flown and disappeared out of sight amongst some cattle. It was not too long however before the bird strutted into view, an elegant yet very distant SANDHILL CRANE.

A beautiful day at Boyton Marshes RSPB - just below the sea wall.
Not satisfied with the far off views, we made our way down towards the sea wall to see if we could get a little closer. With a little patience and using a hay bale as shelter from the strong breeze we were eventually rewarded with some great views as it fed out in the open in a recently tilled field.

SANDHILL CRANE (2nd winter) - Boyton Marshes RSPB, Suffolk.
Photo by Adam Archer
After enjoying the spectacle for a while we headed off along the sea wall where we picked out a few more species for the day. Highlights included a single Dark-bellied Brent Goose, 30 Wigeon, 6 Little Egret, 25 Black-tailed Godwits, the odd Curlew, 2 Snipe, a scattering of Redshank and Dunlin as well as a single Wheatear.

After a bag of fish and chips in the picturesque village of Aldeburgh it was then time to head back home. A thoroughly enjoyable day all round.

The 2011 Sandhill Crane's movements in Britain

This bird may well have been the same individual that was initially spotted in Finland as it flew south-west over Espoo on the 5 September. It was then located in Estonia the day after where it stayed until the 8 September. The movements in Britain however are as follows:

Lothian, Scotland - 16 September - in flight south over Dunbar at 8.15am.
Northumberland, England - 16 September - in flight at Berwick-upon-Tweed over the A1 at 10.45am.
Aberdeenshire, Scotland - 22 September to 26 September - Loch of Strathbeg RSPB.
Northumberland, England - 29 September - various sites from Blyth to Whitley Bay in the morning.
Cleveland, England - 29 September - various sites from Marsden to Boulby late morning until early afternoon.
North Yorkshire, England - 29 September - south over Kettleness at towards Whitby at 2.00pm.
Lincolnshire, England - 1 October - south over Rimac at midday.
Norfolk, England - 1 October - at Snettisham RSPB late afternoon.
Suffolk, England - 2 October - initially at North Warren RSPB but settled at Boyton Marshes RSPB until 7 October when it flew high south at 10.25am.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

MEGA ALERT: The NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH on the Isles of Scilly

After the thrill of Monday's successful trip to St Mary's, the lure of the islands was too much considering the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH was still present. So last Wednesday I plucked the old flexible friend from my barren wallet and booked a flight over to the Scilly Isles. To be honest I was pretty convinced that the bird would depart. That way I could enjoy a relaxing weekend in the Midlands and claim the majority of my borrowed cash back. Then again some other special American vagrant could quite easily turn up, after all a female BALTIMORE ORIOLE had been located on The Garrison on Tuesday.

Then on Friday morning an early report filtered through that the pond-dwelling nearctic warbler was still present. The trip was well and truly on. By 6.00am on Saturday morning myself, Steve Richards, Russ Berger and Nick Smith were hanging around the helicopter terminal in Penzance, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed yet full of hope. Before departure we picked up a trio of Mediterranean Gulls (first winter, second winter and adult) loafing around the helipad amongst the Black-headed Gulls. As we thundered our way past Land's End and over the Atlantic Ocean our hope turned to shear excitement, the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH was still present.

Within ten minutes of the chopper hitting the tarmac at St Mary's airport our taxi had dropped us off at the incinerator. Just like on Monday, I was the first off the blocks and sprinted towards the Dump Clump as fast as my Wellington shod feet could carry me. Passing us in the opposite direction were a steady stream of satisfied birders who had already seen the bird. With just a few yards to go I had a choice to make. The trail to the left would take me to a slightly elevated position over-looking the Project Pool. The path to the right however would lead me to the small make-shift hide where I had watched the SOLITARY SANDPIPER from a few days before. I carried on towards the hide and almost immediately I had the target species in my scope. There it was, tail-bobbing away amongst the stagnant water, clumps of juncus and swarms of biting insects was my first ever NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH in Britain.

NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (first winter)
Lower Moors, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photos kindly provided by Will Soar


I spun around to share my delight with my travelling companions but none of them were to be found. They had taken the path to the left where Higgo was standing. I carried on enjoying the bird for no more than two minutes before it flew off low to the right. It was at this point that Steve Richards appeared, his face full of abject disappointment. From where the other guys had stood the bird had not been visible! We all knew from the history of this particular bird's behaviour that the only real window of opportunity was to nail it early in the morning or early in the evening. It had been almost impossible to connect with during the remainder of the day.

To make matters even worse the heavens opened and within minutes we were all soaked, miserable and ankle deep in rotting vegetation and stinking mud. We had little choice but to head off to Lower Moors and the relative shelter of the ISBG hide until the rain abated. Hopefully whilst we were cooped up inside the leaky wooden box the elusive little critter would pop into view for the three depressed dippers.

As the rain poured down we all sat patiently in the hide for nearly two hours. The uneasy mood and disappointed silence was only interrupted by the occasional sigh and the squeak of a lens cloth wiping away condensation from either end of someone's optical equipment. The only bird species we had for company was a single Greenshank probing away in front of us. As the showers subsided we decided to head into the quagmire near Shooter's Pool where the bird had spent some of the previous week. As we trudged around checking every possible passerine movement amongst the stunted sallows, Steve Richards looked at his pager, "NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH still 10.05am at Lower Moors from the ISBG hide!" We shot off leaving a trail rather smelly trail of swamp slime behind us.

Greenshank
Lower Moors, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.

As we re-entered the hide we were relayed the heart-breaking news none of the guys wanted to hear. The bird had spent a few flighty minutes a few yards outside the hide just seconds after we had left. Maybe it was us that disturbed the bird as we made our way down to Shooter's Pool? We then spent the following three hours crammed inside the hide once more. This session was slightly more entertaining however as a small, dark-rumped tringa passed high overhead and dropped down towards the Project Pool. It had to be the SOLITARY SANDPIPER and a quick call to one of our contacts on site confirmed it as such. Around Lower Moors itself a Green Sandpiper dropped in briefly but apart from the odd Chiffchaff flitting around, a single Sedge Warbler and a lone Grey Wagtail there was not a great deal of anything else to look at.

The face says it all!
Snapper Richards looks on in hope from the ISBG hide at Lower Moors.

Just after 2.00pm another message was received. The bird was present in the quagmire that we had explored earlier. The hide quickly emptied resonating with the sound of clanging tripod legs, involuntary bowel movements and wheezing birders. Amongst the panic I located a small pool away from one of the main tracks. Just as I steadied myself on a clump of relatively dry land a passerine scampered for cover over a tiny weed sodden area of water. From its behaviour it was a good chance that this was the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH but despite a thorough search we failed to locate it again. It was all beginning to get rather frustrating and to make matters worse we were running out of time. At this stage Steve took the decision to call the airport and ask them what the latest check-in time would be. There was hope. Due to a series of delays caused by weather earlier on, all of the flights were running late. We could all nail the bird as it returned to the Project Pool as it usually did during early evening. The lads remained quietly optimistic.

At this stage the weather was glorious and the waterproofs were quickly packed away. After a quick rinse of my wellies in the sea on Old Town beach we made our way up to the airport to have a quick look around and clear our heads. Unfortunately there was no sign of a first-summer Woodchat Shrike but a Grey-headed Wagtail was a nice find amongst the large numbers of White Wagtail and Wheatear that were feeding around the landing strip. Soon afterwards we located a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper around the windsock as it was disturbed by the landing aircraft.

THE Scilly birding hotspot of 2011 - Higgo's Pool!
This is not included in any literature issued by the Isles of Scilly Tourist Board.

We then returned down to the Project Pool for a second bite of the cherry. Luckily the juvenile SOLITARY SANDPIPER was still present and tremendous views of the bird were enjoyed as it fed just a few yards ahead of us. As the clock ticked away there was still no sign of the waterthrush though and at 5.55pm we had no choice but to head back up to the airport. Despite my delight at connecting with this elusive rarity I was absolutely gutted for the lads who failed to see it. A large part of the joy of birding for me is being able to share in the thrill of encountering such a special creature with your mates. That part of the experience was missing from this trip and left a void that could not be filled.

SOLITARY SANDPIPER (juvenile) - St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Mark Payne
As if this story is not tragic enough as we collected our baggage at Penzance airport, Steve received a message from a source who was staying overnight on St Mary's. The NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH had dropped into feed on the Project Pool just a few minutes after we had left the site. As I write this blog a few days later, the bird is still showing well during early morning and early evening. At one stage on Sunday evening both the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and the SOLITARY SANDPIPER were joined on the tiny pond by a LESSER YELLOWLEGS. Birding can be so cruel at times!

Northern Waterthrush on the Isles of Scilly - Video Footage

Monday, 19 September 2011

MEGA ALERT: The BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER on the Isles of Scilly

With both a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and a BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER still showing on and off on the Scillies it was all becoming way too unbearable to cope. I could handle life without the glorified Water Pipit but that bark probing, little barcode was twisting my melon. I needed to connect with her at any cost. After receiving the green light from my understanding boss I attempted to gather a crew together for the risky journey south-west.

With the usual suspects unable to juggle prior work commitments, I finally located a travel companion who was not so career minded. Due to the threat of disciplinary action by his current employer, this individual will be referred to as 'Bill Focker' for the remainder of this blog. Unfortunately poor 'Bill' had been in poor health over the course of the weekend and upon consultation with his doctor he was prescribed a full 24 hours of refreshing sea air in order to assist his recuperation. Via the medium of a well known birding based chat group we also managed to enlist another reprobate for the trip. Now ordinarily I would much sooner spend ten hours in a car with Michael Barrymore, a blister pack of Rohypnol tablets and a bottle of poppers than in the company of a good 83% of Birdforum users. My fears were soon dispelled however when I found out a like minded chap called Martin Smyth from Coventry would be joining us.

So I left North Warwickshire at around 1.30am, picked up Martin from Solihull and connected with 'Bill Focker' on the M5 for the remainder of the long journey. After a good old natter we quickly found our way to the traditional birding watering hole of Exeter Services where we chanced upon another trio of Warwickshire birders. Like ourselves they had also failed to confirm travel arrangements over to the Isles of Scilly. We therefore decided to team up and enquire whether an extra plane could be sourced to fly us over to St Mary's as soon as the booking office opened.

After some sterling driving work by 'Bill' we found ourselves at a rather damp and misty Drift Reservoir, just east of Penzance at around 7.00am. After a long walk down into the western arm we soon picked up our first American vagrant of the day as a juvenile LESSER YELLOWLEGS popped into view accompanied by a single Dunlin. We then turned our attention to the eastern side of the reservoir where we encountered a juvenile Spotted Redshank, a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, another Dunlin and a lone Northern Wheatear. Unfortunately though there was no sign of the juvenile SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER that had been showing so well the day before.

LESSER YELLOWLEGS (juvenile) - Drift Reservoir, Cornwall.
Photo kindly provided by Brian Field
We then made our way through the murk to Land's End Airport to beg a plane seat. Just as we arrived though 'Bill' received a call from Phil Woollen. The scumbags at the Isles of Scilly Steaming Shit Company were far from interested in laying on additional flights. After a quick U-turn and a frustrating wait in a queue we found ourselves sitting on the dock of a bay like a trio of caucasian Otis Reddings. It was time for a three hour involuntary sea-watch aboard the 'Sickonian III'.

The crossing was a pretty smooth affair and a few good birds were logged along the way. The highlight was a single Leach's Petrel not too far off Land's End with a scattering of Storm Petrels and Manx Shearwaters thrown into the mix. As we approached the islands the weather improved a great deal. As the boat negotiated its way between St Mary's and the Eastern Isles you could be forgiven for thinking you were cruising somewhere around the Caribbean as opposed to the extreme south-west of England. As we approached the harbour I made sure I was in prime position to disembark and as the gangplank hit the quayside I was off like a greased weasel. Within minutes 'Bill Focker' and I had hailed a taxi and soon afterwards we were both knee deep in mud at Lower Moors.

Just a few birders were present amongst the tangle of lichen covered branches and amazingly a couple of them had enjoyed a tantalisingly brief glimpse of the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH just seconds before we arrived on the scene. At this stage I was frantic and to make matters worse there was no sign of either rarities. After what seemed like an eternity but in reality was probably about ten minutes, a call went out a short distance from where I was searching. After a quick, squelchy scramble and a jostle for a viewing spot I was watching my first BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER in Britain. I was completely speechless, rooted to the spot and totally oblivious to everything around me except for the amazing monochrome gem that picked its way around the gnarled trees just feet in front of me.

BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER (first winter female) - Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Ashley Powell

The American beauty continued to show exceptionally well on and off with a little patience and a touch of common sense. Unfortunately though its nearctic cousin was the complete opposite. Despite a thorough search of the Lower Moors area none of us could relocate the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH. To be honest though I had clinched the main target so I was far from disappointed. A juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper showed well from the hides along with a single Greenshank but the only other species logged were the odd Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler amongst the usual resident species.

With the clock ticking away 'Bill' and I decided to head over to 'Higgo's Pool' behind the dump clump. Whilst John Higginson was working on his latest water feature, the SOLITARY SANDPIPER that had been present on the island for a while dropped in to feed. After a trek through the scrub we were enjoying tremendous views of yet another transatlantic vagrant.

SOLITARY SANDPIPER (juvenile) - St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Ashley Powell

After admiring the bird for a while we then traipsed up to The Garrison and along the Lower Broome Platform. Almost immediately we were admiring a stunning Red-eyed Vireo methodically feeding around the sycamores. The bird continued to perform well until it was time to head back to the quay for the return crossing to Penzance.

RED-EYED VIREO (first winter) - St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
Photo kindly provided by Andy Hale

There were a few disappointed faces aboard the Scillonian III due to the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH failing to show. This disappointment then turned to rage with some of the guys as the bird was relocated just as we were heading past Peninnis Head. To be honest though I was still buzzing after the previous four hours of high octane birding.

Apart from a single Sooty Shearwater and a few Great Skuas the crossing back to the mainland was pretty uneventful until we reached Land's End. At this point the seabird action started to heat up a little. As we approached Tater-Dhu lighthouse a feeding group ofCommon Dolphin were spotted and trailing them were a small group of plunge-divingGannet, a trio of Balearic Shearwaters and about a dozen Storm Petrels. A superb end to another memorable day in this magical part of Britain.

After the recent taxonomic announcements by the BOU, both HUDSONIAN WHIMBREL and SIBERIAN STONECHAT became a couple of appreciated 'armchair ticks'. This meant the BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER became my 450th species for Britain. What a species and what a location to reach the milestone with. The T-shirt is at the printers, hope that it is not too tight!

Special thanks to 'Bill Focker' for his driving and patience, Martin Smyth, Jules Allen, Mike 'The Dog' Doughty for their good company, Dan Pointon for his stake-out of Lower Moors and both Ashley Powell, Andy Hale and Brian Field for use of their excellent photographs.

Scilly Rarities Video Footage - September 2011

Saturday, 17 September 2011

EUROPEAN SHAG in Staffordshire

After the news of a possible NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH on the the Isles of Scilly late yesterday, it was almost impossible to enjoy a decent night's sleep. To frustrate me even more an update came through again early on to say that it was still present on St Mary's at 7.00am. To make matters worse LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH had still not been ruled out, a potential first for Britain!

There was only one cure, to get off my arse and see some birds pretty quickly. The morning started pretty well around Seckington with a male Merlin chasing migrating Meadow Pipits up at the old castle mound. A Tree Pipit also passed through and a Spotted Flycatcher was a fresh arrival. Thoughts of Scilly had all but melted away.

Down at Alvecote Pools a Hobby was spotted sparring with a male Sparrowhawk over Gilman's Pool whilst on Mill Pool there were 2 Shelduck and 57 Shoveler. As I made my way up Laundry Lane towards Pretty Pigs Pool I received another huge kick in the balls. Whilst some lucky birder was attempting to relocate the elusive Waterthrush species at Lower Moors they had stumbled upon the second American warbler in two days, a much desired BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER. This is one of my most favourite species in the whole World so to see one in Britain is a dream I have had since I was a kid. Why the hell was I grafting away at the patch when I could be sitting on the deck of the Scillonian III well on my way to birding heaven?

Anyway back to reality. A Common Sandpiper was on the north shore of Pretty Pigs Pool and an elusive Common Redstart showed in the Old Orchard briefly as did an impressive 30 Chiffchaff. Nearby a lone Green Sandpiper fed around the muddy margins of The Decoy. As I made my way back to The Cottage for lunch there were large numbers of gulls feeding around the ploughed fields between Shuttington and Seckington. Amongst the Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls a second winter Yellow-legged Gull was a nice surprise. As I arrived back home my second Hobby of the day passed through chasing the small groups of House Martins and Swallows that remain in situ.

News then filtered through of a local scarcity to keep me entertained. A juvenile Shag had been reported from a tiny pool on the outskirts of a housing estate just down the road in Stonydelph. Upon arrival at Kettlebrook Linear Park I was guided to the bird by a couple of young kids who lived nearby. It was great to see their energy and enthusiasm for a species they had never seen before...... it was a bit like I would have been if I had been on the Scillies!

It was strange to see this bird of rocky coastlines hauled out on the side of a small duck pond in the company of Mute Swans and Mallard as far away from the sea as it could possibly get in England.



European Shag (juvenile) - Wilnecote, Staffordshire - September 2011
All photos by Adam Archer

Saturday, 10 September 2011

SABINE'S GULL in Staffordshire

The morning started with a visit from the East Midlands chapter of the ASBO fraternity to my new abode in the sleepy hamlet of Seckington. The purpose of their visit was to console me regarding the near miss I experienced the evening before down at Alvecote (more to follow shortly) and to hopefully connect with a local wind-assisted seagull. Whilst we explored the nearby Norman motte and bailey castle for any new migrants, we received a call from Gailey Reservoir stalwart Snapper Richards. It was the news we had been waiting for. The juvenile Sabine's Gull that had been present at Belvide earlier on in the week had dropped in at Snapper's patch once again. We were off!

Upon arrival we made our way along the causeway to where a few birders had assembled. I soon noticed though that as we got closer all the birders were looking in our direction. It was soon apparent that the bird had flown and that they were tracking it as it departed high in the distance. Soon enough Snapper came jogging towards to tell us the bad news. The bird had done a bunk just as we arrived. After dipping 2,500 Great Shearwaters down in Cornwall as well as a Kittiwake in Warwickshire within the last week, my bad luck with seabirds continued. After a quick jaunt to check out a flock of plough-following Black-headed Gulls nearby we returned back to the rez where we consoled ourselves with a nice summer-plumaged Red-necked Grebe and a couple of Arctic Terns (adult & juvenile).

We just started to enjoy ourselves in the afternoon sunshine when I spotted a couple of bored looking bird photographers creeping along the shoreline. Their target was a couple of obliging Ringed Plover that had dropped in. Much to our amazement they repeatedly took turns to flush the birds in order to grab a ridiculously close-up shot or two. Bearing in mind there was only a tiny area of suitable shoreline for these birds to feed in, the behaviour of these SLR wielding numpties was totally out of order. To make matters worse Snapper informed us that these birds were the first Ringed Plover at Gailey for an incredible 17 years. It was all too much for one of the crew and soon enough Nadia stormed over to give them a piece of her mind. Well done flower! As a Hobby passed overhead Snapper received a call from Steve Nuttall up the road at Belvide Reservoir. The Sabine's Gull had returned to its favoured feeding area there along the dam.

As we pulled into the car park we were greeted by a grinning Steve Nuttall who welcomed us and our cash with open arms. Sabine's Gull was a welcome and well deserved patch tick for him. The last bird of this species at Belvide was back in October 1982 when Musical Youth were number one in the singles chart with 'Pass The Dutchie' and Mr Nuttall still had a fine head of auburn hair.


As we arrived midway along the dam this smart juvenile bird could be found feeding unconcerned just a few feet below us. Getting a decent photo through the scope though was pretty frustrating due to the high winds and the unusual in-land surf. The Sabine's Gull seemed pretty much at home though as it picked up dead insects from the surface of the water.

Sabine's Gull (juvenile) - Belvide Reservoir, Staffordshire - September 2011
Just the ninth ever record for the County.


After enjoying the bird for a hour or so we headed back up to the car park via The Plantation where a nice selection of woodland species were encountered. Amongst the usual species we picked up a few Nuthatch and Treecreeper as well as Marsh Tit, Willow Tit and the odd Goldcrest. In the car park itself we found Steve again rattling the cash bucket. With the weather set to continue with strong south-westerly winds I predicted that he would get a long awaited Manx Shearwater on his patch pretty soon. The following day he duly nailed one, the first site record since August 1985. Congratulations Mr Nuttall!

'Archie's Theory on the Origin of Birding Man'
From left to right - 'plankton birder', 'shark birder', 'baboon birder' & 'gorilla birder'!