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


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


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.


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. 


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