Saturday 23 April 2011

Tetney.... Let Dotterel Flood out!

With not a great deal about today I decided to take a quick 'trip' over to Lincolnshire to see a group of Dotterel at Tetney Lock. This is pretty early for this species to appear on their migration from North Africa and the Middle East to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra of Europe or perhaps on the mountain plateaus of the Scottish Highlands. On my journey east a report came through that an immature White-tailed Eagle had flown over the birds. I hoped that it did not cause my target birds to scatter. As I arrived on site the song of Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat could be heard along Newton Marsh Lane. After a short stroll along the raised bank of the canal the birds came into view. With just a few sensible admirers watching the birds all six Dotterel were showing well just a few metres away, unconcerned of the attention they were receiving.

A trio Dotterel at Tetney Lock, Lincolnshire.

Despite the superb views us birders always seem to have something to whinge about and today was no exception. Due to the strong Spring sunshine the terrible heat haze hampered me getting any decent shots of the birds. The one above is the best I managed out of a disappointing collection of digiscoped efforts.

The semi-desert conditions of small parts of rural Lincolnshire is ideal for migrating Dotterel as it replicates the habitat on their wintering grounds.

Other species on site were few and far between but I did manage to see a couple of Northern Wheatear and a fly-over Yellow Wagtail. I then headed the short distance to Horseshoe Point on the off chance that the young White-tailed Eagle might appear. No such luck though. Once again bird species were limited with just a female Marsh Harrier and a few Little Egret to keep me occupied at this desolate location.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Waders & Warblers at Middleton Lakes RSPB

With a fair few Purple Herons arriving into Britain over the past few weeks I would love to find a local one of my own. With this in mind I decided I would pay Middleton Hall Lake a quick visit this evening before continuing onto the old Drayton Bassett Pits site. This area always looks good for a rare Heron, indeed a Cattle Egret spent a few days there in recent times. You could just imagine a Night Heron or a Squacco Heron turning up at this well vegetated waterway but tonight I had to settle for the usual Grey Herons wading around its depths. There was no sign of any waders or the small group of Waxwings that have been here recently just a pair of Common Shelduck and a gathering of Common Teal.

Grey Heron at Middleton Hall Lake

I then moved down to the Middleton Lakes RSPB area and concentrated my efforts around the North Pit where it was seething with birds. I soon picked up a handsome pair of summer plumaged Black-tailed Godwits along with a couple of Common Greenshank probing away at the mud. Other waders included 3 Oystercatcher, 12 Northern Lapwing, 2 Ringed Plover, 8 Little Ringed Plover, 10 Common Redshank, 2 Green Sandpiper, a Common Sandpiper and 2 Dunlin. The true wader highlight however was a drumming Common Snipe, the first time I have witnessed this behaviour at this particular site. The male bird obviously impressed as an interested female was soon giving him the attention he was craving. Out on the water I counted 22 Common Shelduck and 12 Northern Shoveler whilst 3 Eurasian Wigeon (2 males) and 5 Common Pochard (3 males) were nice to see at this time of year. Around the margins a couple of female Northern Wheatear, possibly of the race leucorhoa were present along with 8 splendid Yellow Wagtails and a small flock of Linnet. As the sun fell in the west it was time for the freshly arrived warblers to do their part with the combined symphony of Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler interspersed with the odd burst of Cetti's Warbler and Common Whitethroat and completed with the reeling of Grasshopper Warblers. On the way back along the canal the long staying Pink-footed Goose was spotted amongst the flock of Greylag Geese. Quite a memorable Spring evening at the 'Minsmere of the West Midlands'!

The sun setting over Drayton Bassett Church

Sunday 17 April 2011

Highland Spring Day Two - Where Eagles Dare!

I was awoken at around 5.00am from a long, deep, satisfying sleep. It was so tempting just to whack the alarm on 'snooze' and grab an extra few hours of slumber time but the lure of those ancient pine woods of Grantown were just too tempting. As the sun peaked through the trees we connected with our first (and only) Red Squirrels of the trip. They are so much more delicate, refined and prettier than those brash American imports most Brits are more familiar with. Our early morning stroll then got even better when a female Capercaillie was flushed from amongst a damp patch of bilberry. As we headed deeper into the forest the silence was broken by the 'champagne cork popping' of a distant male. As we made our way carefully towards the origins of the strange sound we then picked up another two male Capercaillie as they stood motionless in the distance. As we absorbed the atmosphere one of the birds then took flight providing us with evidence of just how substantially large these birds are.

This is me in Anagach Woods looking all pleased with myself after another successful 'Caper Hunt'.

We then concentrated our efforts in locating another Scottish speciality. During our trip last year we only managed to grab a brief glimpse of a single Crested Tit at the cafe feeding area over at Glenmore Forest. Within about thirty minutes this morning though, we managed to see a minimum of four birds all of which were feeding in their usual flitting fashion pretty high up in the canopy. Around six probable Scottish Crossbill were also seen and heard in the area as well as a single Tree Pipit, a Willow Warbler and 10 Siskin. As we made our way back to the car yet another male Capercaillie flew low over the path in front of us, amazing luck. It was then back to the comfort of Kinross House to sink a celebratory breakfast. As I munched my way through a bowl of fresh fruit and delicious homemade muesli I got chatting to another birder who had just been on a week long Heatherlea 'Scottish Highlands' trip. They had managed to strike it lucky with most of the specialities with the exception of Rock Ptarmigan. Despite extensive searching at a number of reliable sites up in the mountains they too had drawn a blank. It made us feel slightly better about failing ourselves the day before.

We then made the short journey north and onto the eerie Lochindorb. After a quick scan I managed to locate a pair of stunning summer plumaged Black-throated Divers as the swam, snorkelled and dived around the southern end of the loch. At this point we bumped into our Belgian birding friend again. The previous day whilst on Cairngorm I had recommended that he visit Loch Garten RSPB if he wanted to see Capercaillie rather than traipse around the forests in hope. It was great to see him beam away as he proudly announced that he had seen two males and three females earlier that morning. His next targets were Black Guillemot and Atlantic Puffin so I suggested he give Burghead a try. Other species in the Lochindorb area included a few pairs of Icelandic Greylag Goose, many Red Grouse and Curlew as well as a single Raven.

Lochindorb - you can just about see the ruined castle in the loch that dates back to around 1250, a former stronghold of the Clan Comryn.

With the sun shining brightly, the afternoon looked pretty good for soaring birds of prey and so we made our way down to the Findhorn Valley. The omens looked good too as a Red Kite was spotted from the car as we made our way up the A9. As we pulled up into the car park we were told that a distant eagle had been spotted about ten minutes earlier. Within a few minutes we were watching a pair of Ring Ouzel, recently arrived from their wintering grounds in North Africa or the Middle East. These birds were then spooked as a male Merlin passed through. With no sign of any large raptors we decided to take a stroll deeper into the valley to see if we could relocate the lost eagle. There was once a fine, old Highland based ornithologist and author called Desmond Nethersole-Thompson who famously said that birdwatchers come in two different varieties, 'arsers or a leggers'. In other words you can either sit and wait for the birds to come to you or you can go off in search of them. I am pleased to confirm that there would be plenty of 'legging' on this trip and hardly any 'arsing'.

Two views of the spectacular Findhorn Valley in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

During our hike we encountered at least 10 Northern Wheatear as well as numerous Meadow Pipits and yet another singing male Ring Ouzel. Out on the river around a dozen Oystercatcher were present along with a small colony of breeding Common Gull. We also spotted a pair of Wild Goat with a couple of kids in tow. Eventually our hard work was rewarded when a majestic immature Golden Eagle suddenly appeared and showed well for a while. We celebrated our good fortune with a quick nap along the riverbank before making our way back to the car park. No further eagles were spotted on the return leg but a couple of Common Buzzard and a Kestrel did show near the lodges.

With not enough time or energy to make another assault on Cairngorm we decided instead to make our way to Glenmore Forest in search of crossbills. Our first stop was Loch Morlich for a quick scan of the water. Unfortunately there was no sign of any Red-throated Diver but a couple of pairs of Common Goldeneye were present along with a noisy flock of Black-headed Gulls.

The tranquil setting of Loch Morlich with the daunting Cairgorm Mountain Range in the background.

The next stop was another picnic site that looked promising for a bit of Loxia action. As we retrieved our kit from the car a lovely middle-aged couple from Nairn approached us to say that they had seen their first ever Capercaillie whilst out on a bike ride a fortnight ago. Before we knew it they had collected their laptop from their camper van and we were then subjected to a series of the most crippling 'Caper' shots ever. They had been lucky enough to stumble upon every birders Highland dream, a 'rogue male' Capercaillie. The photographs of the bird were stunning as it showed just inches away from the lens. We just had to see this bird! Within minutes the trusty OS map had been consulted and full directions were quickly obtained. We just could not wait until the next day. We quickly decided to cancel the crossbills and hunt down 'Henry' (as the locals call him) before the day was out.

Unfortunately in all of the excitement we eventually realised that we had taken completely the wrong track through the forest. After nearly a hour of hiking we began to feel lost and as the sun was falling low in the sky a touch of concern crept in. Remarkably we encountered a further two Capercaillie that evening but not one brave enough to take on a human like 'Henry' does. As we regained our bearings we eventually made it back to the car safe and sound albeit hot and exhausted. We knew where we had gone wrong and we agreed that we would search the correct area of the Rothiemurchus Estate after breakfast in the morning.

The sun sets over the Rothiemurchus Estate as we eventually make it back to safety!

Saturday 16 April 2011

Highland Spring Day One - Capercaillie & Black Grouse

The epic Highland adventure started sometime around Friday night. The purpose of the trip was to locate most of the speciality bird species during a relaxing three days based around the Abernethy Forest. I was determined not to be tempted away from the area by the lure of White-billed Divers, a drake King Eider and a young Bonaparte's Gull which had all appeared in the north of Scotland recently. This long journey north would be based around appreciating the resident wildlife that this unique region of Scotland had to offer us. We nearly failed at the first hurdle though when a female Red Deer suddenly appeared out of the darkness standing astride the white line on the A9 near Pitlochry. Thankfully I managed to swerve a little and miss the suicidal beast by a few centimetres. The rest of the journey was made at a cautionary snail's pace!

We finally rolled into an empty car park at Loch Garten RSPB at around 4.00am and promptly settled down for a quick power nap. Unfortunately my sojourn into slumberland went far too deep and the sleeping session continued way past first light. We awoke to a scene reminiscent of an overcast Bank Holiday Monday at Alton Towers. The car park was pretty full which meant that a whole load of 'Caperphiles' had jumped the queue in front of us. As we arrived at the famous hide we were faced with the usual tourists scurrying around in an attempt to see a distant giant grouse or two. Luckily a kindly RSPB fellow spotted us arrive and beckoned us over to his scope where a couple of female Capercaillie could be seen perched up in a twisted pine tree. This was way too easy!

As the crowds dispersed we at last managed to find a window to peer through. Another three male Capercaillie were quickly located but as usual they were all pretty distant and largely obscured. I then turned my attentions to the more entertaining support act of the Osprey pair called 'EJ and Odin'. 'EJ' had laid her first egg just 48 hours before so she tended to sit tight on the nest whilst her partner made the occasional appearance nearby. Hungry for more Tetraoninae action we then made our way out of the forest and out onto a nearby area of moorland.

Tulloch Moor, Highlands

In order to curb disturbance at this site a few of the local conservation organisations have combined to build a bit of a viewing screen at this well known site. As we approached we could just about hear the distinctive bubbling and crackling of a male Black Grouse breaking through the early morning drizzle. Almost immediately I picked up a minimum of three males at the lek and promptly did my bit for European relations by putting a tall Dutch guy onto the birds. If the male Capercaillie is the heavyweight Mike Tyson of the Grouse world then the Black Grouse has to be the flamboyant Freddie Mercury. It is puzzling to imagine why female Black Grouse would be turned on by the camp display of the limp wing tips and the protruding white arse of the male. Other than a pair of Goldeneye, a calling Red Grouse, the odd Curlew and a plethora of Meadow Pipits the bleak habitat failed to provide much more so we decided to take shelter from the rain and switch locations.

The first stop was at the old picnic site along the Coylumbridge to Ski Centre road. This site used to be great for locating Crested Tit along the River Luineag but all I got was a brief glimpse of a single bird high up in the canopy. Other species included Blue Tit, Coat Tit, and Goldcrest as well as a single displaying Tree Pipit. The huge highlight for me though was locating my first Scottish Wood Ant nest.

A Scottish Wood Ant nest in Glenmore Forest Park

The pine forests of the Highlands are the only place in Great Britain where the Scottish Wood Ant occurs. The nest above can contain around 100,000 individuals consisting mainly of non-egg laying female workers and the much less abundant males and egg laying queens. The worker ants all have specific roles to perform with some being responsible for maintaining the nest, others being food gatherers and the last type taking care of the eggs, pupae and larvae. It is amazing to think that this bundle of twigs and pine needles contains thousands of tunnels and chambers that even extend below the ground. As well as living accommodation, nursery chambers and food stores there are even cemetery sections where dead ants are kept.

After a quick brew we then decided to take on the challenge of the Cairngorm Mountain Range. With a couple of ski runs still open we decided to take the less disturbed track to the south-west of the ski centre that climbs up to Coire an t-Sneachda. Red Grouse were by far the most abundant bird species that we encountered along with good numbers of Meadow Pipit. We also connected with a small herd of Reindeer, the only place in Britain where this introduced species occurs.

Red Grouse (male) - Cairngorm Mountain Range, Highlands

As we reached the end of the track we stumbled upon a trio of high altitude Northern Wheatear but after an extensive search of the area we failed to locate a single Rock Ptarmigan. We would need to break through the pain barrier yet again if we were to connect with this high montane specialist. Whilst making our journey back we bumped into another foreign birder, this time a young Belgian chap, who despite climbing higher than we did, also managed to draw a blank. As we continued our descent a Peregrine was spotted passing over the car park but apart from a few Black-headed Gulls no other bird species was noted.

Looking down to a distant Loch Morlich from Coire an t-Sneachda

Dejected at the lack of Rock Ptarmigan at Coire an t-Sneachda

With exhaustion setting in we then made the decision to head back to our accommodation in Grantown-on-Spey. On the way there though we could not resist the lure of another scarce Highland breeding bird and so we made a brief detour to scour a few of the smaller lochs for Slavonian Grebe. A couple of different locations produced three splendiferous summer plumaged birds, one of which showed down to just a few metres away.

I must admit to feeling slightly disappointed at failing on our quest of seeing all four British grouse species in a single day but then again I have always been a little greedy. Overall it had been a wonderful yet tiring day amongst glorious surroundings. Bring on day two!

Saturday 2 April 2011

SPOTTED CRAKE in Warwickshire

I decided to stick to Shakespeare's County today in an attempt to see a rather elusive Spotted Crake that had been present at Brandon Marsh for the past few days. With the East Marsh Hide completely packed to the rafters I decided to stake out the area from the relatively empty Jon Baldwin Hide instead. Almost immediately the shocking metallic outbursts of several Cetti's Warblers reverberated from different points around the reserve including one right next to the hide. Out on the main scrape 5 European Golden Plover, one of which was in near summer plumage were nice to see as were 3 Little Ringed Plover and 16 Common Snipe. Turning to the skies around 6 Sand Martin fed over the East Marsh and a distant Willow Warbler was heard in song, my first of the year.

After just over a hour of scanning the base of the bird's favoured reeds I was about to opt for a change of tactic, in other words 'throw the towel in'. One last scan however produced a slight movement and shortly afterwards the Spotted Crake appeared and showed well for just over ten minutes. I managed to get one other birder on it and then offered my scope to a steady stream of admirers before the bird disappeared again. It was nice to connect with this species for the first time in a few years, especially after it eluded me during my 'big year' of 2010.

Spotted Crake - Brandon Marsh, Warwickshire - April 2011
Photo kindly loaned by Max Silverman

With the target species in the bag it was then time to take a leisurely stroll around the rest of the SSSI. Other highlights included a Cetti's Warbler showing very well, a pair of Nuthatch mating, 2 singing male Blackcap, a singing Marsh Tit and brief glimpse of a Water Rail.

Please note that this reserve is open to members of the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust only out of the standard opening hours of 10.00am - 4.00pm at weekends and 9.00am - 4.30pm during the week. If you are not a member it will cost you £2.50 to get past the old dears on reception. If you fancy joining the Trust please see the following membership link.

BITTERN in South Yorkshire

As it was an fine Spring evening a small gang of us decided to take advantage of the late opening times at Old Moor RSPB reserve in order to nail a rather elusive Bittern. As the sun went down a Barn Owl appeared and a swirling cloud of 300+ Sand Martin came into roost but there was no sign of the target species. With the warden, Dave Waddington's patience starting to wear thin and a small amount of verbal abuse being aimed at the secretive bird, we all exited the Bittern Hide in an attempt to gain a wider view from the footpath. Suddenly at 7.55pm a magnificent Bittern arose from its reedy lair and flew a short distance away from us. This constituted the latest ever sighting of this species for the reserve as they normally depart much earlier in the year. As we made our way back to the car park I then caught another glimpse of the bird as it flew towards us but once again it landed out of sight amongst the phragmites.

An early evening view from the Bittern Hide at Old Moor RSPB reserve.