Sunday 19 December 2010

A Day at the Natural History Museum in London

The snowy exterior of the Natural History Museum viewed from Cromwell Street. 

I was due to head to London today to watch Manchester United play Chelsea.  Unfortunately though this pathetic Country of ours fails to function properly in adverse weather conditions and the biggest football match of the season was amazingly postponed.  I reckon the 'rent boys' just didn't fancy playing us right now bearing in mind their current atrocious form.  So with a return rail ticket to London already purchased I had to think of something else to do in the snow covered capital City.  Christmas shopping on Oxford Street was a definite no, so I opted for a day of culture and quiet contemplation in the salubrious surroundings of South Kensington and the Natural History Museum.

The Central Hall of the Natural History Museum complete with its cast of a fossilised Diplodocus skeleton.

It is not just the exhibits that have always enthralled me about this museum, it is also the amazing architecture that surrounds you.  I have a special interest in the fabric of this stunning building as the thousands of terracotta tiles and stone sculptures that adorn every nook were manufactured in my hometown of Tamworth between 1873 and 1880.  I like to think that one of the ancestral 'Archers' of yesteryear helped to handcraft some of the pieces depicting various flora and fauna of the World, some still with us but regrettably some now extinct.  The company, Gibbs & Canning Ltd closed in the 1950's.

My homeboy Charles Darwin!

Obviously it is the birds that I'm most interested in so I made my way straight to that particular section of the museum.  It wasn't too long before I was admiring stuffed examples of the strange Shoebill of Eastern Africa and just opposite a daunting looking Harpy Eagle of Central and South America.  These are just two examples of those special species that I hope to see in the wild before I depart this World.  

There are also some excellent examples of birds that I, or anyone else for that matter will never see again.    One of the highlights of these extinct species is the fossilised remains of a Moa species (see below).  It is thought that all eleven species of this giant resident of New Zealand died out after the islands were colonised by the Maori in the 17th Century.  Up until the arrival of man the only predator that these birds had to concern themselves with was the equally impressive Haast's Eagle, another species that became extinct around the same time. 

The Moa of New Zealand - my reflection in the glass tells you just how huge these birds were!

Premature extinction is not just confined to exotic, distant lands or restricted to ancient history.  A prime example of this is the relatively local Great Auk.  This flightless alcid was once abundant in the far North Atlantic where it had been hunted sustainably for over 100,000 years.  Unfortunately though, with the bird being relatively easy to hunt combined with the opening up of trade routes with North America the species was over exploited.  It was used readily for food and oil but the European populations suffered mostly due to the huge demand for down filled pillows and mattresses.  The nearest breeding colonies that existed were as close as Papa Westray on the Orkney Isles and on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda.  It is from this island that the last British sighting was made.  In July 1840 a trio of local men caught a Great Auk and kept it tied up for three days until a wild storm swept in.  Believing that the bird was a witch and had caused the sudden change in the weather, they then beat the unfortunate bird to death with sticks! 

Great Auk - an example of one of only eighty complete specimens left in the whole World.

The egg below belongs to the extinct, flightless Elephant Bird of Madagascar.  This species was slightly smaller in height than its ratite cousins of New Zealand but still stood at an impressive three metres tall.  Its body weight however was thought to be a third more than that of the Moa.  They are believed to have become extinct during the middle of the 17th century, again due to over hunting.  There are only 36 complete eggs of the Elephant Bird in existence.  Amazingly the size of the egg is larger than any of the dinosaur eggs ever found and has the equivalent volume of 160 chicken eggs.    

The impressive egg of the Elephant Bird, imagine what a great omelette it would make.

So with the birds all but done it was then time to take in the other areas of the museum.  There is something for everyone, of all ages and it was great to see some of the looks of wonder on the faces of those that were visiting for the first time, especially the kids.  The dinosaur section is pretty amazing as is the 'Our Place In Evolution' display.  One of my favourites however is simply the cross section of the Giant Sequoia tree that stands at the top of the Central Hall.  This five metre slice of history was once part of a 1,300 year old coniferous tree that lived in the old growth forests of central California until it was felled in 1893.  It's crazy to think that this mighty tree may have continued growing for another 1,000 years and was a seedling in the year 557.

Entry to the museum is completely free of charge, so for the price a pre-booked £30.00 train ticket you can enjoy some of the natural wonders this planet has to offer all under one roof.  I'd recommend a visit just as soon as you can..... but please leave a generous donation.

My main man Thomas Huxley shows his support for the ASBO theory of birder revolution!

Thomas Huxley was one of the first people to support Charles Darwin and his theory on human evolution despite the ridicule he would have to endure.  During a heated discussion at Oxford University with the sceptical Samuel Wilberforce in 1860 he was asked whether he had descended from an ape on his mother's or father's side of the family.  Huxley quickly responded that he would sooner be descended from an ape than from a man who mis-used his great talents in order to suppress debate.  This is one of the greatest come-back lines in history.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Alvecote Pools SSSI - Snow Snow Snow Innit?

There was not a great deal to report from the patch today amongst the Arctic weather conditions.  On Mill Pool there were 12 Common Shelduck, 10 Goosander, 55 Eurasian Wigeon and 8 Northern Shoveler.  A flock of Northern Lapwing roosted on the ice and an adult Yellow-legged Gull dropped in briefly.  The escaped drake Hooded Merganser was still on the River Anker just north of Shuttington Bridge.

Just what you need at the moment...... a snow shoveler!

Saturday 11 December 2010

AMERICAN WIGEON in Rutland... or is it Leicestershire?

I attempted to 'half inch' this impressive sculpture for my nan's Christmas present but I failed to squeeze it in the back of the old Skoda.

With the chance to add to the year-listing insurance policy, I took the opportunity to head over to Rutland Water today.  The reason being, I woke up in a cold sweat the other night in a blind panic.  I had dreamt that just before midnight on New Year's Eve the BOU announced that the pesky redpoll complex had been re-lumped and I ended the year on 299!

It was the first time I had visited the Lyndon part on the reservoir and I was surprised just how quiet it was.  Maybe it was because visitor centre was closed or perhaps it was due to the icy access road only just being re-opened.  Whatever the reason I was loving it, peace and quiet on a sunny and tranquil winter's afternoon.  There's always something to spoil it though.  Upon entering the Teal Hide I was faced with a couple of the usual manic-depressive birders, you know the ones.  They are the type that never respond to your polite 'Hello', they avoid eye contact at all costs, they communicate amongst themselves in a series of quiet grunts, they rarely break into a smile and they give the impression they would rather be anywhere else other than out birdin'.

Anyway I stuck to my year long rule of not asking them if the target species was showing, I wanted to find it myself.  To be honest though judging by the expressions on their sour faces I don't even reckon they'd spotted it.  So after grilling the various wildfowl for a while I eventually picked out a handsome drake AMERICAN WIGEON (301).  The bird eventually showed well close in shore just to the west of the visitor centre amongst its Eurasian Wigeon cousins.  Other web-footed treats included 7 Smew (2 adult males, a first-winter male and 4 sexy females) as well as 3 Greater Scaup (adult male & 2 females) and a single female Goosander.  Other species of note included 2 Black-tailed Godwits and a Water Pipit.

A Tom Tom eye view of Rutland Water!

Thursday 9 December 2010

'Thou Shalt Always Bird' by Gyr Crakes

Check this shit out, it's the work of a genius....... and before anyone spreads any rumours, I had nothing to do with it...... whoever it is though should be nominated for a 'Golden Globe' or summut!  Don't forget to keep watching it to the end for footage of two of Britain (& Ireland's) most infamous bird-spotters making some serious shapes on the darrrrnce floor of the Porthcressa Disco!

Saturday 4 December 2010

Pink-footed Geese at Alvecote Pools SSSI

 A thawing out Gilman's Pool at Alvecote Pools SSSI - December 2010

A small flock of Pink-footed Geese were found by Roy Smith amongst the Canada Geese earlier on the week.  After last night's heavy snowfall though, I was worried that there might not be enough exposed 'fieldage' available for them to feed on and that they might move on.  Only the odd single Pink-footed Goose of dubious origin has ever lingered at the patch so I was praying that they would stay put until the weekend.

After pulling up onto a snowy Dingle Hill this morning I soon picked up the Canada Goose flock and not long after that I had also picked out the first of six 6 Pink-footed Geese in the distance.  Tom 'Dom Jolly' Perrins then appeared briefly before it got too cold for him and he fled to the comfort of his cosy car.  For the more hardcore amongst us though it was time to use our stalking skills and creep close enough for a few record shots..... and here they are.....  

Pink-footed Geese - Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire - December 2010

In the same field I also stumbled across a small covey of 4 Grey Partridge, a species that is unfortunately now very scarce in the area.  There were also good numbers of Fieldfare around and a single Brambling passed overhead.

Down on a mostly frozen Mill Pool the Common Shelduck flock had increased to 13 birds and there were also 6 Goosander.  Around Gilman's Pool there was a Willow Tit and a Goldcrest amongst the mobile mixed Tit flock.

By the way, no geese were harmed (or fushed) during the making of the above photographic evidence.

Sunday 28 November 2010

300 at last! ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD in Lincolnshire

The Humber Bridge viewed from South Ferriby, Lincolnshire.

Well that's it, 300 genuine British bird species notched up during 2010.... and with over a month to spare too.  After missing out on the Hatfield Moor bird a few weeks ago, I decided to head up to South Humberside this morning for a slightly more reliable ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD.  During the drive across the temperature dropped to a chilly -7oC and the road conditions were pretty scary.  As we approached the River Humber, the snow became deeper and the highways became icier but we had to struggle on.  As we carefully pulled into the layby just west of the huge cement works, an obvious Buteo silhouette graced a nearby chain-link fence, a quick glance through the bins confirmed that it was the species we had hoped for. 

ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD (juvenile) - various dodgy record shots of the obliging bird on some of its favourite perches.

This scarce raptor from Northern Europe showed and performed superbly whilst we dithered in the extreme temperatures.  It pulled out all the stops in order to entertain us by posing upon various perches, taking short flights around the area, hovering in the chilly breeze and even pouncing on unsuspecting prey items.  It may have not been one of the rarest species to reach 300 with but it was certainly one of the most memorable sightings of the year.

Other species in the area included a flighty flock of around 1,000 Pink-footed Geese feeding in the adjacent fields, a Common Buzzard and 2 male Goosander on the Humber.  The only waders of note were the odd Eurasian Curlew, a few Common Redshank and good numbers of Dunlin.

After a quick thawing out session in the car we then drove the short distance to Far Ings LWT reserve.  We failed to locate a drake Smew due to the onset of a severe snow blizzard but a few Bearded Tits were heard 'pinging' around the reserve.  As the weather deteriorated it was time to head west out of the snow before we became stuck for the night.

My beloved 'telesnowpe' and 'snowpak' at Far Ings LWT.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Alvecote Pools SSSI - Return to the Patch!

A mostly frozen Pretty Pigs Pool at Alvecote Pools SSSI - November 2010

A couple of patch MEGAS were reported during the week but with it being horrible and dark when I head to work and with it being even nastier and darker when I finish, there was no I could pay either of them a visit until today.  Initially it was not looking too good amongst the snow and ice.  There was no sign of the female Greater Scaup on a frozen Pretty Pigs Pool and there was just the regular escaped drake Hooded Merganser and the even dodgier Whooper x Mute Swan hybrid to keep me entertained.  There were plenty of Fieldfare and a few Redwing around the Old Orchard and the odd Lesser Redpoll passed overhead.

Hoping that the Red-breasted Merganser was still on Mill Pool, it was this area that I visited next.  There was no sign unfortunately but I was thrilled to eventually locate the female Greater Scaup amongst the Common Pochard and Tufted Ducks in the extreme north-west corner of the lake.  Also in the area were 9 Common Shelduck, a drake Goosander and 6 Common Snipe.  A trio of Little Egrets were also a nice surprise flying north at midday.  Over on Upper Pool there was nothing of note except a female Goosander.  Whilst strolling around Gilman's Pool the MEGA alert sounded on my pager..... there was a drake BAIKAL TEAL in Cambridgeshire..... I needed to make a move!  

'FAKEAL TEAL' in Cambridgeshire

After a quick glance at the road map and clumsy fumble with the old 'fat chav', I calculated that it would take around ninety minutes to reach the Cambridgeshire hamlet of Cambourne from Alvecote Pools.  With a British lifer at stake it was a pretty easy decision to head east, especially considering that a handsome adult drake BAIKAL TEAL would also become my official BOU bird species of 2010.

After a quick call to Steve Richards we decided to meet up on site.  As we raced along the A14 the news filtered through that we were both waiting for, the rare duck from the Far East was still present happily swimming around on Whomping Willow Lake with a few Eurasian Wigeon and Gadwall for company.  This time though the bird was aged as a first winter male, adding a bit more weight to the proper vagrant argument.  I smiled to myself and applied my foot to the accelerator with a touch more force.  Just thirty minutes later as I just entered the village I received a call from Steve.  From the tone of his voice I knew it was not going to be good.  He then dropped the heart-breaking bombshell that the bird was a f*cking hybrid!  I was that disgusted that I did not even pay the little web-footed freak a visit, I turned around and headed back along the A14.


I did not fancy burning my retinas by viewing photographs of this vile individual, however rumour has it that it could well be a Eurasian Wigeon x Northern Pintail hybrid.  Whatever it is, it just goes to show that CAMBRIDGESHIRE BIRDERZ ARE WACK!  You got my back Smestow Gaz?

Sunday 14 November 2010

RED-BREASTED MERGANSER - a NEW Warwickshire tick!

At long last a County 'bitch tick' was nailed today.  This species has given me the run around in Warwickshire for nearly thirty years.  I have missed out on quite a few local Red-breasted Mergansers over the years including one pesky individual that refused to be tempted over from the Staffordshire side of Alvecote Pools in 1995.  This particular bird showed remarkably well at the west end of Shustoke Reservoir this afternoon.

Red-breasted Merganser - Shustoke Reservoir, Warwickshire - November 2010
Photo kindly provided by Dave Hutton

RICHARD'S PIPIT in Derbyshire

With a much needed, tricky 'year tick' up for grabs just a hour away from home, efforts were made to head up into deepest, darkest Derbyshire this morning.   I teamed up with fellow ASBO soldiers of fortune, Steve Dunn and Rich Collis for an SAS style assault on Matlock Moor and the mission proved a great success.  Thanks to us administering a classic 'Pointon Pincer Movement' the target was soon exposed.  The RICHARD'S PIPIT had no choice but to surrender under the onslaught as grassy fields were trampled, stone walls tumbled and a plethora of native British wildlife fled in all directions.

Seriously though, the scarcity from the east proved relatively easy to see in flight and gave us pretty good views.  It was also nice to hear its passer domesticusesque flight call too in order to clinch the identification.  Other birds included the odd European Skylark and Eurasian Siskin as well as good numbers of Meadow Pipit.

Rich Collis is sworn in as the official 'Head of Birder Relations' for the South Yorkshire Chapter of ASBO Birderz.  Welcome aboard Rich!

Photograph thanks to Steve Dunn

Taking into account the dodgy H*use Finch that I had the misfortune to see in Devon and the tricky Empidonax flycatcher that I spotted in Norfolk then you could say that this RICHARD'S PIPIT was my 300th British Bird of 2010.  Due to my strict Catholic upbringing however, I refuse to celebrate until I reach 302..... just to make sure.  I'm sure you'll all understand.

Saturday 13 November 2010

PIED-BILLED GREBE in Greater Manchester

The adventure started last Tuesday was news of a PIED-BILLED GREBE filtered through from the Republic of Mancunia.  The last British twitchable individual was way back in 2001 when one hung around for seven weeks in Cornwall.  The only recent birds relatively nearby though have required a passport to see them as they have all turned up on the Emerald Isle.  Anyway a quick text was sent to my birding comrade Steve Richards to see if he was skipping work to head north.  Unfortunately for him though he had just touched down in Norway with work and would not be able to pay the potential lifer a visit until the weekend.

So with Mike Feely lying drunk and naked on his living room floor with various aviform related pornography strewn about his person, it was just Steve Dunn and myself that made the trip this morning.  Upon arrival at Hollingworth Lake near Rochdale we immediately bumped into a few familiar faces including fellow ASBO birderz Steve Richards and Julian Allen as well as Nick 'Dip' Smith and former Warwickshire bird photographer Steve Seal.  The yank vagrant was initially asleep but after a short while it started to buck up its ideas and performed very well indeed, swimming back and forth along its favourite inlet.       

Upon adding PIED-BILLED GREBE to his British List, Steve Richards (above) became over 'avi-aroused'.  Usually his eyes just bulge with excitement like those of Garry Bagnell upon hearing he's gained promotion to the 'British Birding Premiership'.  On this occasion though poor Steve managed to get his swollen 'ASBO member' wedged within the fork of a lakeside tree.  It took a trio of Lancastrian fire-fighters and a melted Chap Stick to free him. 

PIED-BILLED GREBE - Hollingworth Lake, Littleborough, Greater Manchester.
Both excellent portraits have been kindly provided by Steve Seal

The only other species of note were a distant Peregrine and a marauding Sparrowhawk.  With nothing else to see in the north west of England we headed back to the car park to plan our next move.  We briefly suggested heading up to Northumberland for a SQUACCO HERON but a potential three hour drive soon put us off that idea.  I did suggest heading out onto Saddleworth Moor but Steve hates birding anywhere where you are likely to have kids underneath your feet......  God I'm sorry.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

GREY SEALS in Lincolnshire

It was time to forget about the birds today and concentrate my efforts on a moaning collection of stinking, bloated mammals.  No, I was not heading to work in Birmingham today, we were paying the RAF bombing range at Donna Nook a visit.  The wildlife spectacle of over 3,000 Grey Seals did not disappoint. There is always something to enjoy in a seal colony whether it be bulls squabbling over a particular patch of beach or a cute, little baby being scratched on the head by its attentive mum.  A number of young showed incredibly well in the dunes, including one curious youngster that came within inches.  It is so tempting to give one a quick fondle but it is important you step away.  If the mother smells human scent on a youngster it will quite often abandon it.  

A Grey Seal pup gets some nourishment from its mammy.

Just a sample of the huge Grey Seal colony at Donna Nook.

A recently 'squeezed out' Grey Seal pup..... complete with birth gore.

As well as the seal spectacular the bird life is also pretty impressive along this stretch of the Lincolnshire coast.  Wildfowl included around 450 Dark-bellied Brent Geese on the mudflats and skeins of Pink-footed Geese passing overhead as well as the expected Common Shelduck.  Waders included 25 European Golden Plover, 30 Eurasian Curlew, around 180 Common Redshank, 25 Knot, 80 Dunlin, 25 Sanderling and the odd Turnstone.  Unfortunately there was no sign of any Shorelark or Snow Buntings on this occasion but a group of 40 Twite were great to see, especially as the group surprisingly contained a stunning adult Mealy Redpoll.  Other passerines included a single Water Pipit and a Brambling as well as good numbers of European Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Tree Sparrow.  A probable Lapland Bunting also whizzed overhead at one stage.

The bonus bird of the day was a CATTLE EGRET that we stumbled upon just inland of the car park near the farm buildings.  The bird showed well at times but was quite flighty on occasions.  Eventually though it would return to its favourite cow fields to feed.  All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day out in the stunning, autumn sunshine albeit with an icy northerly wind thrown in.

A Grey Seal pup gets a back scratch from mum.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Last Day in Cornwall - Yellow-browed Warbler & Firecrest

The weather was pretty awful as we awoke from our slumber in Penzance.  It is always tempting to just stay in bed during those wet and windy Cornish mornings but to be honest I can never resist the lure of those nearby coastal valleys.  The first stop was Nanquidno where almost immediately I heard the distinctive call of a Yellow-browed Warbler.  Unfortunately though, it was nowhere to be seen in the blustery conditions.  After a thorough check of the plantation near the ford we decided to head further down into the valley where a few Goldcrests and the odd Chiffchaff was spotted.  Near Nanjulian a slightly different regulus call was heard and a few seconds later a stunning Firecrest appeared.  The bird was pretty elusive but showed well at times, especially when it perched up in a small Monkey Puzzle tree briefly.  Upon our return to the car the Yellow-browed Warbler (294) was heard again near the plantation. Eventually I managed to catch a brief glimpse of the elusive pest in one of the nearby gardens.

Firecrest - Nanquidno, Cornwall - October 2010
Photo loaned from Cornwall Birding

With the weather deteriorating we then headed down to Sennen Cove for a quick brew and a stroll up to Mayon Cliff overlooking a windswept Land's End.  Gannets and Kittiwakes passed by offshore as well as the usual selection of Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Shags, Cormorants and Rock Pipits but nothing more interesting was picked up.

Land's End viewed from the old coastal watchpoint at Mayon Cliff.

With time running out it was then time to make the long, depressing journey back to the Midlands.  A quick stop at the Hayle Estuary produced a sleepy Eurasian Spoonbill, a few Little Egrets and an adult Mediterranean Gull amongst the usual species.  

Once again my favourite County in Britain provided us with a few cracking birds, a whole load of stunning scenery, many great laughs and some precious memories.  I need to live down here as soon as possible, it is where I belong.

Monday 25 October 2010


'The Jungle' at the fantastic Lost Gardens of Heligan.

After a relaxing yet rarity-free saunter around Porthgwarra this morning, news filtered through that the GREEN HERON had been spotted at The Lost Gardens of Heligan once again.  The bird had been pretty elusive over the course of the past few days and was not seen yesterday at all until late in the afternoon.  We had met a birding couple in Sennen the previous day who had searched for the bird all day but to no avail.  With plenty of daylight remaining for our own thorough search though, we decided to take a gamble and take the ninety minute drive over towards Mevagissey without delay.

Upon arrival we were told that the transatlantic vagrant was currently showing on the top pond in 'The Jungle' section of the gardens.  After a short stroll through the sun-dappled woodland, past Heligan House and over the western green, we arrived to find a lone photographer rattling off shots.  After a quick glance towards where he was pointing his fat lens, we were soon enjoying the diminutive, first winter GREEN HERON as it fished around the perimeter of the small ornamental pool.   

GREEN HERON (1st winter) - The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Pentewan, Cornwall.
All photographs by Adam Archer

After some tremendous views it was about time that I grabbed a few digiscoped shots of the bird myself. After a quick fumble around the trusty Sco-Pac though I discovered that I had left the camera in the car.... I was gutted.  Luckily a kind-hearted birder stepped in and volunteered to head back to the car park whilst I stayed with the bird.  During this time I started to receive more attention from passing members of the public than the heron was getting.  As the traffic along the narrow boardwalk increased I must have showed at least fifty curious tourists the bird through my scope.  All of them though were as equally impressed with the bird as we were.  I must admit that the looks of wonder on some of their faces were just as satisfying as actually seeing the rarity myself.  I must be going all soft in my old age. 

The GREEN HERON twitch!
Check me out as I'm swathed by curious pensioners.  Some of their facial expressions are priceless.

After about a hour of plucking several small fish from the pond, the bird decided to make a move.  It flew directly towards the crowd of admirers, gained height slightly just a few feet over their heads and headed further down into the well vegetated valley.  As the crowd collectively gasped and finally dispersed, we decided to try to and relocate it.  About fifteen minutes later whilst scanning one of the other ponds I detected a slight movement on a tiny island.  It was the GREEN HERON again and this time we had the bird all to ourselves.  As before, the bird continued to show very well just a few yards away.  To see an awesome bird like this in such beautiful surroundings is always such a great privilege.

GREEN HERON fact file
  • The Green Heron is the American counterpart of a complicated complex that was once referred to as the Green-backed Heron when they were lumped into a single species.  Since 1993 however most authorities have split the main trio. They are commonly classified as the Green Heron of North and Central America, the Striated Heron that ranges from West Africa across to Japan and down to Australia and finally the Lava Heron of the Galapagos Islands.  Amongst the three separate species there are also over thirty different races.
  • Some races of Green Heron in the States are non-migratory however the race that occurs as a rare vagrant to Europe - Butorides virescens virescens is not.  This race is longer winged than the other sedentary populations.  It breeds from south-eastern Canada down to the southern United States and across to the east side of the Rocky Mountains.  It spends the winter in the southern most States of the United States and down into the northern edges of South America.
  • The Green Heron is one of a very few species of bird that uses tools to aid its hunting technique.  It often drops bait such as insects, pieces of vegetation and sometimes even bread onto the surface of the water in order to attract small fish.
GREEN HERON in Great Britain

Coincidently the first ever record of Green Heron for Britain turned up just a short distance from the current Cornish individual.  In 1890 a fellow called Mr Murray noticed a mysterious, small, stuffed heron specimen in the shop window of a taxidermist in Bath, Somerset.  After making further enquires he discovered that the bird had been shot by a gamekeeper whilst searching for Woodcock near Penrice, St Austell on the 27th October 1889.  The bird was presented to the Linnean Society the following the year and was later admitted to the British List.  After several debates throughout the subsequent years, the species was later removed from the British List in 1915 by the British Ornithologists Union who doubted the species ability to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  In 1971 however the record was reviewed once again and the species was added to the British List once more.  

The full history of the species in Britain is as follows:
  1.  1889 - Cornwall - Penrice near St Austell - immature - 27th October - shot and now on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro (see above).
  2. 1982 - Yorkshire - Stone Creek - immature - 27th November until 6th December.
  3. 1987 - Lothian - Tyninghame - 1st winter - 25th October - found freshly dead and probably killed by a fox.
  4. 2001 - Lincolnshire - Messingham Sand Quarry - immature - 24th September to 2nd October.
  5. 2005 - Anglesey - Red Wharf Bay - immature - 7th November to 20th November.
  6. 2008 - Kent - West Hythe - 1st winter - 19th October to 9th November. 
  7. 2010 - Cornwall - Pentewan - 1st winter - 6th October to present

AMERICAN GREEN HERON at The Lost Gardens of Heligan

An excellent video sequence of the famous Heligan Green Heron by Cornish birder - John Chapple

Sunday 24 October 2010


After an early start from Warwickshire we finally hit a sun-drenched Cornwall during late morning.  The first stop was the Hayle Estuary where I had hoped to add Whooper Swan to my 'Kernow List'.  Unfortunately yesterday's small, family party could not be located but a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper was nice to see showing well near the causeway bridge.  Other species included 6 Common Shelduck, 475 Eurasian Wigeon, 120 Common Teal, 4 Little Egrets, 20 Oystercatcher, 6 Bar-tailed Godwits, 15 Eurasian Curlew, 18 Common Redshank and 6 Dunlin.

Hayle Estuary, Cornwall - October 2010

After grabbing a tasty vegetable pasty at the bakery in Marazion we took advantage of the low tide by taking a leisurely stroll along the cobbled causeway to St Michael's Mount and out over the sandy beach of Mount's Bay.  Due to the presence of the dog-walking fraternity not a great deal of birds were spotted other than the usual Cormorant, Shag, Herring Gull and Oystercatcher.  It was then over the road to Marazion Marsh RSPB where a Bittern had been spotted earlier on in the morning.  It failed to appear whilst we were there though and the only species of note was a single male Common Stonechat and the odd singing Cetti's Warbler.  A quick visit to the ancient fishing hamlet of Mousehole produced 9 Ruddy Turnstone around the harbour and the odd Goldcrest around the back of the village but nothing else of note.  Despite being in one of my favourite places on the planet during a most gorgeous spell of autumn weather, the birding was not really matching the occasion.  It was time to move it up a gear.

After a short drive west towards Land's End, we parked up just east of Sennen near the entrance to Trevedra Farm and took the short farm track south.  Taking care not to spook the flock of 120 European Golden Plover and the odd Northern Lapwing, I carefully set up the scope and began to scan the nervous group.  On the first scan through nothing unusual could be located but upon the second a delicate juvenile BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER (292) strolled into view before quickly disappearing over the brow of the hill.  As more birders arrived on site, the flock was flushed by a marauding Common Kestrel.  As the pack swirled around in the early evening skies I eventually picked out the much smaller American vagrant.  Luckily a short while later, the flock settled back down in the same field and this time the BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER showed well until we left.

BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER (juvenile) - Sennen, Cornwall.
Photo by Adam Hartley of 'Pendeen Birding'

Buff-breasted Sandpiper fact file
  • The first documented record of Buff-breasted Sandpiper in Britain was a bird that was shot amongst a trip of Eurasian Dotterel during early September 1826 near Melbourne in Cambridgeshire.
  • This species breeds in the open arctic tundra of North America and is a very long distance migrant.  It spends the winter mainly in South America, especially Argentina.
  • In its native United States this species is often referred to as a 'grasspiper' due to its preference for grassy areas rather than the coastal mudflats favoured by most other wading birds.
  • This species is unique amongst North American shorebirds in that it uses a lek for courtship displays.  Females select a mate and then leave to raise their chicks elsewhere.  In Europe a similar mating system is used by the Ruff.
  • During the late 1800's and early 1900's this was a very abundant species with population estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions.  By the early 1920's however, widespread hunting had decimated their numbers, resulting in near extinction.  Due to urgent protection measures the species recovered remarkably quickly but it is thought that the species is now in decline once more.

After receiving a tip-off from Cheshire birding pal, Mal Curtin at Trevedra Farm we then headed the short distance north to Nanquidno Valley.  He had seen a very vocal Yellow-browed Warbler down there earlier on in the day and as it was a species I needed for the year, I decided to give it a quick bash before the day ended.  Despite a thorough search of the area the bird could not be located amongst the many Goldcrests in the area.  Before making our way back towards Penzance to find our accommodation we popped in at Pendeen to watch the sun go down.  A LITTLE SHEARWATER had passed by this very spot the day before but even that special seabird would fail to equal the beauty of a typical Cornish sunset.    

Sunset at Pendeen - the slight peak on the horizon to the left of the photo are the distant Isles of Scilly.

Saturday 16 October 2010


Port Meadow Floods, Oxford - looking south towards the River Thames.

After a rare lie in this morning, I headed the relatively short distance over into a neighbouring County for a new year tick.  Thanks to some excellent directions I managed to find the spot without any problems at all.  Port Meadow is situated on the outskirts of the historic city of Oxford and is adjacent to the famous River Thames.  Before today I knew absolutely nothing about this area but I since found out some interesting information.  The meadows are an ancient area of grazing land, still used for horses and cattle, and has never been ploughed. In return for helping to defend Britain against the marauding Danes, the Freemen of Oxford were given the 300 acres of pasture by Alfred the Great who founded the City in the 10th Century. The Freemen's collective right to graze their animals free of charge is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and has been exercised ever since. 

Upon arrival, the sights and sounds of circa 600 Eurasian Wigeon, 29 European Golden Plover and a scattering of Northern Lapwing were enjoyed amongst the odd passing train, the grazing bovines and the posh joggerettes.  Soon enough I was watching a trio of waders consisting of an adult Ruff, a Common Redshank and a juvenile LESSER YELLOWLEGS (291), the reason for the trip.  The American vagrant showed well if not a little too distantly for a decent photo during the time I was there.  It was disturbed occasionally by a pair of Carrion Crows but would always return back to its favoured feeding area along the northern section of the floods.      

LESSER YELLOWLEGS - Port Meadow Floods, Oxford - October 2010
Photographs kindly provided by Stephen Burch

Sunday 10 October 2010


The impressive yet misty Huntcliff area just east of Saltburn-on-Sea, Cleveland.

With the east coast set to continue its decent run of rarities, I decided to stay overnight in Yorkshire again on the Saturday night.  Early on Sunday morning I heard that the East Midlands ASBO crew were on their way to hit Spurn... at pace.  Although tempting, I envisaged that the better quality birds would be making landfall slightly further north.  As I made my way up the A1 my instincts proved correct when news of a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL in Cleveland came through on the pager.  With Steve Dunn and Mike Feely currently watching a superb Pallas's Warbler at Sammy's Point, had I made the wrong decision though? 

After parking up in the quaint seaside town of Saltburn, I hiked up and along the clifftops to Huntcliff.  As I plodded on, I was hearing the same sounds as I had during the previous day at Spurn.  Goldcrests were calling from the sparse sections of scrub and Redwings were streaming in off the sea.  The odd Brambling was also seen along the coastal footpath.  As I arrived on the scene I was disappointed to be told that the target rarity had just been ringed and released.  I was worried that the bird would either become very elusive after its ordeal or even worse, would disappear completely.  I need not have worried though as I soon picked up the gorgeous RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL sparring with a European Robin at the base of a broken line of bushes.  

The Huntcliff RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL prior to its release.
Photo kindly provided by Damian Money

After a while, the RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL became more elusive as more ramblers made their way through.  I then noticed a single bird fly from cover and land in a ploughed field behind where the small group of birders had congregated.  It was either a Robin or the Bluetail and I was delighted to see through my bins that it was the latter.  The bird showed well hopping around in the open with just a single Song Thrush and a Northern Wheatear for company.  Whilst enjoying the bird, I noticed a couple of immaculate Lapland Buntings walk into the same field of view.  I eventually concluded that there were at least five birds present.  What a great start to the day! 

Have the Samaritans erected this sign to prick the conscience of potential cliff jumpers or is it aimed of weary, insane birding year-listers like me?


I have only visited Hartlepool once before and that was to watch the mighty Tamworth FC create a 'giant killing' shock and knock Hartlepool United out of the FA Cup.  Would my second visit to this town prove just as memorable and enjoyable?  As I made my way to the headland, news of a RADDE'S WARBLER came through from the Jewish Cemetery.  I decided to head to The Croft first though in order to check out a long staying Lanius species.  Every birder loves a shrike!  Upon arrival there was no sign of the bird amongst the plethora of Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs but after a short while the juvenile WOODCHAT SHRIKE (289) finally made an impressive entrance.  To my surprise it flew straight towards me with a freshly deceased Goldcrest in its bill.  It then tucked itself into cover where it could be glimpsed decapitating its prey, wedging the body in between two small branches and ripping it to shreads.  It was like a scene from the movie 'SAW'!  

 juvenile WOODCHAT SHRIKE - Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland - October 2010
These excellent photos were kindly provided by Tristan Reid

With no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler or the Firecrest which had been present in The Croft earlier in the day, I decided to head across to the Spion Kop Cemetery where the RADDE'S WARBLER had been re-identified as a DUSKY WARBLER.  As I arrived on site it did not look good.  I was told that that the bird had been disturbed by over eager twitchers and had promptly disappeared from its favoured feeding area.  Undeterred I decided to take a stroll further along the track overlooking the rugby club and within a few minutes I detected a distinctive 'tak.... tak.... tak' call.  With the help from another birder I managed to catch a glimpse of the bird responsible for the sound, a fine DUSKY WARBLER (290).  After a bit of patience the bird showed very well indeed but was easily spooked and disappeared for long periods.  As with the previous day at Spurn, my day of birding had ended with a bang.  I now have just ten species to go until the target of 300 is smashed!  

DUSKY WARBLER - Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland - October 2010
Photo kindly provided by Steve Clifton