Saturday 5 January 2013

Whooper Swan in North Warwickshire

The Whooper Swan is a scarce winter visitor to the West Midlands region and is even more rare in Warwickshire.  As such, this species that breeds in Iceland and northern Scandinavia has eluded my County list for thirty years. I have had plenty of sightings in Staffordshire which accounts for nearly 80% of all our regional records. I have also had the odd out-of-season feral bird in Warwickshire, as well as occasional hybrids and more than a few near misses. As a result I was pretty excited when I received a text from Tom Perrins to say that Geoff Williams had found a Whooper Swan just inside the County boundary near Bodymoor Heath.

Whooper Swan (adult) - Hunts Green, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer

After racing over from Stubbers Green near Walsall, I abandoned my vehicle outside the Aston Villa training facility and quick stepped it over the road. A scan of the field immediately produced a splendid adult Whooper Swan amongst six Mute Swans. Judging by the voracious manner of its feeding and drinking, this bird must have been a fresh arrival from further north. There was also a group of four birds spotted in flight over Belvide and Gailey reservoirs this morning and the flock at Gringley Carr in Nottinghamshire had increased to 45 birds today. I was more than happy with a rare and well overdue addition to my Warwickshire list. 

Whooper Swan x Mute Swan hybrid
This bird has been resident at Alvecote Pools for 13 years. 

Great Grey Shrike in Staffordshire

It is always nice to start the year off with a trip to Cannock Chase for a wintering Great Grey Shrike. In days gone by it often involved a long, hard slog around the Sherbrook Valley or maybe a chance encounter around the Shooting Butts. If you were lucky you would catch a brief glimpse of the enigmatic 'butcher bird' before it was flushed by an elderly dog-walker or bit of hot totty on horseback. If you were unlucky you would draw a complete blank and head back to the car just before hypothermia set in.

Nadia and Dave out Shrike hunting!
Upper Longdon, Staffordshire

This returning bird is quite different though. Despite it being highly mobile in search of food,  it is almost always faithful to a small area of clear fell just off the main road outside Upper Longdon village. If you have a bit of patience and avoid the temptation to chase it around, it often rewards you with some superb views. Patience and tenacity were not required today however as within seconds of leaving the car we were watching it as it surveyed its territory atop a tall tree trunk.

Great Grey Shrike - Upper Longdon, Staffordshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

As we all know, the weather in England so far this winter has been extremely mild.  This fact was proven when the shrike swooped to the ground and snatched a Common Lizard, no doubt easy pickings as it emerged disorientated to bask in the warm sunshine. This is by far the earliest I have witnessed this reptile out and about on the Chase. They do not usual wake up from their hibernation until March!  We were then joined by Dave Hutton and Steve Richards as the bird performed well perched in full and occasionally hovering like a Kestrel about six feet above the forest floor.

Great Grey Shrike - Upper Longdon, Staffordshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

I then received a text from Kay Donaghy to say she was currently watching a Glaucous Gull roosting on the roof of an industrial unit just outside Cannock. If we could connect with the bird now it would save us having to endure the roost at Chasewater later in the day. As an added bonus I would also be home in time to watch Manchester United against West Ham in the third round of the FA Cup. By the time we arrived at Kingswood, site Kay and the Glaucous Gull had both departed but after another scan Steve managed to find an adult Iceland Gull as a consolation prize.  After another sift through the congregation I produced an impressive looking adult Caspian Gull

The gulls were very mobile as they commuted between the tip but after a bit of perseverance we eventually picked out the distinctive form of an immature 'white-winger' in flight. Based upon the bulk of the bird and the plumage, it was the second winter Glaucous Gull. As an additional bonus a couple of new 'year birds' were also spotted. Firstly a pair of Goosander were present on a tiny pool north of the main road and secondly a couple of Skylark frolicked over a scrap of grassland nearby.

After a quick bite to eat we then made our way towards Rushall for more Laridae appreciation at Stubbers Green. Unfortunately we just missed out on another adult Caspian Gull but we did connect with a nice second winter Yellow-legged Gull amongst the Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls . As with Kingswood, I again picked up a few extra year ticks in the form of 2 Grey Heron and 6 Lapwing. Who would have thought a few short years ago that I would see a Little Egret in the West Midlands before I had even added Grey Heron to my year list?

Anyway, all thoughts of silly year ticks suddenly disappeared as I received news from Tom Perrins that a new addition to my Warwickshire list had been found near Kingsbury Water Park!  

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Local Birding on New Year's Day


The original plan was to head over to Norfolk in a repeat of last year's 'Big New Year's Day' but with nothing really tasty to tempt me east I decided to stay local and tidy up on a few nice scarcities. At first light twenty three species were spotted around The Cottage including a single Common Buzzard, a pair of Stock Dove, 38 Fieldfare and 6 Redwing.

The next obvious choice was a sodden Alvecote Pools where the water levels remained fairly high due to a Yuletide deluge of rain. The soggy weather of 2012 has had its advantages though with a few small wheat fields being too waterlogged to be harvested properly. This has led to a bumper crop of Tree Sparrows spending the winter in the area along with unusually high numbers of Reed Bunting and a small flock of Yellowhammer. Just ten Tree Sparrows could be located but there have been as many as twenty over the past few weeks. The search was hampered somewhat by a few hunters in the adjacent field, luring in the local flocks of Woodpigeon and blasting them out of the sky.

Around the pools a trio of Shelduck were a nice surprise on Mill Pool along with small groups of Pochard and Tufted Duck and the odd Wigeon and Gadwall. Other highlights in this area included both Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker and a single Bullfinch. Along Laundry Lane both Nuthatch and Treecreeper were added to the day's tally along with a Sparrowhawk and a single Song Thrush.

News then filtered through of a nice local scarcity. Fellow North Warwickshire birder Dave Hutton had stumbled across a Firecrest near Coleshill.

Firecrest - Hams Hall Industrial Estate, Warwickshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Having not seen this stunning, species in the County for a few years I decided to head over to Hams Hall Industrial Estate and more specifically the Eddison Road outfall. This area is good for emerging insects throughout the winter and is therefore superb at attracting any feathered insectivores in the vicinity. Within a few minutes of arrival I was watching my first Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests of 2013, with at least six of the former and four of the later being present. A few Siskin were also heard and spotted whizzing overhead. After a brief search, the star of the show finally made an appearance and close views of the Firecrest were enjoyed for a while before it was chased of by an angry crown-flaring Goldcrest.  

It was then onto a busy Shustoke Reservoir nearby where just one of the wintering Great Northern Divers could be located. Other new additions to my year list included a pair of Little Grebe and a single Moorhen as well as around 40 Great Crested Grebes.

Great Northern Diver - Shustoke Reservoir, Warwickshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Leaving the crowds of dog-walkers and twitchers behind I then made the short trip to Lea Marston to visit the soul destroying Severn Trent Water balancing lake. This location is always as smelly as it is chilly and windy and today was no exception on all those counts. To make the experience even less enjoyable the strong glare of the afternoon sunshine hindered the search process. I eventually located the much sought after first winter male Long-tailed Duck but I gave up on the female Greater Scaup in order to preserve my straining eyesight. Other new species for 2013 at this God forsaken site included 3 Northern Shoveler, 2 Common Teal, a single female Goldeneye and a couple of Common Gull.

A brief stop off at Kingsbury produced a single Little Egret feeding around the flooded fields along the River Tame and 40 Pochard on Bodymoor Heath Water. On the way back to the car I heard the distinctive 'zirrrrrrrrr' call of a Bohemian Waxwing. Looking skyward I could just make out two birds rapidly making their way towards the village. 

With the light fading and the temperature dropping I then made my way out of Warwickshire and into Staffordshire for the final birding assault of the day. At Chasewater my company for the gull roost included Jules Allen, Paul Jeynes and Richard Powell.  The shear number of birds was amazing and it  was easily one of the largest gatherings I had personally witnessed, despite the relatively mild winter. It is difficult to assess the total numbers accurately but there were probably around 8,000 Black-headed Gulls but just 60 Common Gull under the smaller gull bracket. Amongst the larger gulls there around 2,500 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 700 Herring Gulls and 60 Great Black-backed Gulls. Amongst the masses we managed to pick out at least two adult Yellow-legged Gulls and a 2nd winter Caspian Gull. The best though waited until last when the adult Iceland Gull finally dropped in as total darkness approached. Other species of note included 3 Goldeneye and 6 Meadow Pipit feeding around the south shore. 

In total I managed to see 70 species without getting up at the crack of dawn, without travelling far and with a nice home lunch sandwiched in between the visits of Alvecote Pools and Hams Hall. Not bad at all...... who needs Norfolk?