Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Aurora borealis in Dumfries-shire

My bat survey this evening ended in the most incredible way as I watched in amazement the flickering aurora borealis or Northern Lights from the top of a hill in Dumfries-shire. By lucky chance my work this evening had brought me to a high vantage point in the north, miles from the nearest habitation, with vast wide open views and completely free from light polution, in otherwords just about as good as it could possibly get for seeing this wonderful display.

The sky was black and full of stars, the kind of sky you just never see in a town or city. I was looking up admiring the stars, and ironically I didn't even know there was likely to be an aurora display tonight until I saw it. There was a huge arc across the sky which looked like pale green cloud, but as I watched it flickered and parts of it went out until eventually it was completely gone and the sky was black again. Suddenly another cloud formed as quickly as the first had vanished and I realised then that I was looking at the aurora.

I looked to the north and there was a pale green haze on the horizon with what looked like a flickering spotlight pointing vertically up.  A single dead straight beam of light appearing to shine up into the sky and terminating in what looked like small clouds of dust right above me, which danced across the sky and then disappeared. Then more spotlights appeared and they moved across the horizon and occasionally the intensity would diffuse and the beams would merge, only to split again, moving from right to left across the horizon and then back again, like some giant  distant rock concert which covered most of south west Scotland, while all of the time overhead the clouds of dust danced across the sky. Sometimes there were so many of these clouds that they covered half of the sky, at other times they looked like an airplane trail, the kind you see when the airplane has long passed and the trail has begun to dissipate, but it moved and wriggled like a giant snake across the heavens, and then it would split and the trail would begin to disappear and then in a second it was gone, and the sky was black again, except for the stars. I can't say that I saw the deep colours which some people have reported, just pale greens for me, but then I am partially colour blind so that doesn't help! An awesome experience!

Sitting on top of that hill, I couldn't help but think what a great descision it was to change careers a few years back. My office this evening was south west Scotland with the dark skies of Dumfries-shire lit by the aurora borealis, and soprano pipistrelle bats flying around me, and thousands of geese just a few miles away on the saltmarsh.....

Earlier I had called in again at Caerlaverock WWT in the hope that there might be a few more barnacle geese back by now. I noted yesterday that there had been a snow goose reported flying over with barnacles, but apparently not seen again, and I hoped to connect with this bird as well, though I did have my doubts, since there are at least a couple of leucistic (white) barnacles in the area which could easily be mistaken for a snow goose by inexperienced observers.

There were several thousand barnacles spread across the  saltmarsh, but by luck, right in front of the hide was the snow goose with about 1000 barnacles. While I watched, more and more barnacles dropped out of the sky and landed on the saltmarsh, and it really did feel like these might be new arrivals all the way from Svalbard. Of interest, the entire population of Svalbard barnacle geese over winters on the Solway, whilst the barnacles which spend the winter elsewhere in the UK, notably the Hebrides are from Greenland and these do not winter on the Solway. This perhaps casts some doubt on the origins of the snow goose which would be more likely to arrive with Greenland barnacles.

Year: 260 (Snow goose)

I love seeing snow geese with wild flocks like this, I find them really exciting birds, probably because one of the first rarities I ever saw was a snow goose with a huge pink-foot flock at Martin Mere when I was a kid. Easy enough to see straight away that it's not a leucistic barnacle, notice the monsterous pink bill compared to the dainty bill of the barnacles, the pure white plumage and the black primaries. There was a leucistic barnacle in the next field but too far for photography.

The bittern is still showing very well, though I had to be content with distant views today. I like this photo though!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Ring-billed gull and a posssible hybrid, Preston Dock

I was in the Preston area today so called in at the Riversway docklands on the off chance that the ring-billed gull might still be around, it last appeared on Birdguides on 26th September. It was still there and showing as well as ever near the Green Frog takeaway van.

The adult gull in the center is interesting, it was obviously darker than the adult herring gulls (e.g. the bird on the left) but paler than the lesser black backs (e.g. the bird on the right). It also looked bigger, had a heavier bill and a very red patch on the gonys. My initial reaction was adult yellow-legged gull, though I was concerned about the amount of streaking on the head and the amount of white in the primaries. I'm also told that it might be too dark for yellow-legged gull and that the head shape doesn't look quite right either. It may in fact be a herring x lesser black back hybrid! Don't think I'm ever going to get to grips with gulls......

Then again in this photo it looks considerably paler than the lesser black back.

Center bird again, behind the herring gull.

Second bird from the left.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Goose spectacular at Martin Mere

25,000+ pink-footed geese are roosting  at Martin Mere at the moment, and many thousand remaining on the reserve during the day. An awesome spectacle!

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Sunderland Point

Finally today at Sunderland Point I saw a yellow-browed warbler, my first of 2015. There may be a huge influx into the country at the moment, mainly on the east coast but with plenty here in the north west as well, but I really struggle with this species. Looking back at my records, this was only my sixth EVER in over 40 years birding, and it's not through lack of trying.

For example, a week or two ago we tried for one at Easington near Spurn  but failed. On Thursday I was at Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire where there were three, but failed. Yesterday I was at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire where there were six, again I didn't see or hear a single one. This morning we visited Fleetwood where there had been two in a small park, but we dipped. Even this afternoon at Sunderland Point we spent three hours staring up into a single Sycamore tree (not a forest, one tree) where we knew for sure that there was a yellow-browed warbler, but we only had three fleeting glimpses, each lasting fractions of a second and never of the complete bird. It was like if we put all of the pieces together we came up with a yellow-browed warbler. If it was a life tick I probably wouldn't have counted it.

I've played the call over and over and know it better than the Match of the Day tune, but I never hear one even when they are in the tree above me. At Sunderland Point today, the bird was said to be very vocal in the morning, but in the afternoon, not a peap out of it!

Rant over, but hopefully I won't have to have the displeasure of looking for another until next year at the earliest. The best I can say about the species is it's on my year list. At least Sunderland Point is a nice place.

Year: 259 (Yellow-browed warbler)

The road to Sunderland Point!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Clouded Yellow

My first clouded yellow of the year was near Tetney Lock in Lincolnshire today. It's a pity they refuse to land with their wings open but always a pleasure to see.

Can't say Ive noticed the green eye before.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Baltic Gull, Lincoln

I was in Lincoln today, so decided to call in for a look at the putative adult Baltic gull Larus fuscus fuscus at Apex Pit. It's a small race of lesser black-back with a pure white head, smaller bill, a darker mantle (even darker than great black-back), obviously longer wings projecting well past the tail and primaries completely black except for a tiny white mirror on P1. No sign of any primary moult. Quite a smart looking bird.

The identification challenges of L.f.fuscus are discusssed here. Although it is pretty straight forward to separate this race from the typical race we see in Britain (L.f.graellsii), it is more difficult to separate it from L.f.intermedius which breeds in western Scandinavia but also occurs in Britain, especially in winter. Something like 15% of intermedius are dark enough to look like pale fuscus. However, the Lincoln bird meets most of the identification criteria for an adult fuscus as defined by fuscus expert Lars Jonsson, i.e. 1) unmoulted inner primaries, 2) a white unspotted head and 3) dark blackish upper parts. Only the brownish hue to the scapulars is missing, but at the distance the bird is being observed, at dusk, this is impossible to see (at least it was this evening).
Unfortunately it's so far only ever seen at the roost which means the light is very poor when it is present. It's a nice view through the scope, good enough to see the tiny mirror on P1,  but almost impossible to photograph.  In the photo below it's the third bird from the left. This photo was taken at sunset at a distance of about 400m, but even so it shows well the small size and long primaries.There is a nice comparison betweeen the this bird and the extreme left bird which is a graellsii

Thanks to Ben Ward for showing me round and getting me onto the bird.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015


It was a beautiful day in Dumfries-shire,  cloudless, sunny and warm, and not a breath of wind. Imagine that on the last day of September in Scotland! I called in at Caerlaverock this morning on my way to yet more bat surveys this evening, in the hope that the barnacle geese would be back. I was surprised to find only a few hundred here, but the main influx of 20,000 can only be days away surely.

Pink - footed geese are here in good numbers, nearly 5000 on the reserve today, but star of the show was a bittern which has been seen from hides along the Avenue for the past few days. This was my first bittern in Scotland, in fact my first outside England. I've never seen them abroad. It was an excellent view feeding in shallow pools in front of the Camberley hide.

The bittern did a lot of creeping around in the rushes.

Barnacle geese.

Actually, I'd probably have swapped all of my photos of the bittern for a chance to get some decent photos of this heron, but it was much to far away to have any hope. Not only did it strike up this fantastic pose whilst sunning itself, it also hunted in a way quite unlike any grey heron I have seen before. It submerged it's whole body so that only its head was sticking out of the water. Surely it can't have been hunting fish in this way because being so far under water it wouldn't be able to move fast enough. I suspect it may have been hunting dragonflies, of which there were plenty about today. In fact the bittern was also seen to take a dragonfly.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Autumn on the mosslands

Can you have an Indian summer in September, I thought it had to be October. Nearly there then, in two days it will be an Indian summer.Whatever, it was a glorious day on the mosslands, and I saw my first pink-footed geese of the autumn with 2000 feeding in a field and lots of small flocks flying over all day. Still quite a few butterflies around, especially speckled wood.

Pink-footed geese.


Common darter.

Small tortoiseshell.

Speckled wood.

It's the flowering season for common reed and it grows in many ditches all across the mosslands.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Pectoral Sandpiper, Burton Mere Wetlands

I spent my lunch break at Burton Mere Wetlands today watching a Pectoral Sandpiper on the main scrape. As usual from the reception hide viewing was dificult, quite distant, against the sun and through the glass, but it could have been worse, viewing is much better from the Inner Marsh Farm hide, but if it had been there I wouldn't have had time to walk all that way and see the bird. Pec sand is one of my favourite waders and it was great to see my first of the year. According to my records, this was my 17th pectoral sandpiper but my first at Burton Mere.

Year: 258 (Pectoral Sandpiper). This time last year I as on 275.
I'd like to say that this was the bird from Burton Mere today, but unfortunately no, it didn't show this well! This is an adult from Swillington Ings in Yorkshire last June. Todays bird was a juvenile with prominent white scapular and mantle "V's".

Saturday, 26 September 2015

White-winged black tern at Red Nab, Heysham

We set off for Wirral but hadn't even reached Queen's Drive in Liverpool when we received news of a white-winged black tern at outfall 1 of Heysham nuclear power station. Despite having already seen two white-winged black terns this year we decided that this was a better option than Wirral and I turned the car around and headed north. Just as we approached the Lancaster junction on the M6, we received negative news, the bird had apparently gone missing. Disappointing of course but we decided to press on regardless.  Many times in the past we've pressed on despite negative news and it often proves worthwhile because negative news is often put out a bit prematurely, and so it proved today. After parking up near the Ocean Edge caravan park we started to walk and passed two birders coming back who had just seen the bird, which obviously raised our spirits.

When we got to outfall 1 we found that we were the only birders present, but we saw the bird almost immediately, a moulting adult. It performed well, feeding around the outfall before flying 100m down the coast and landing on Red Nab in amongst the high tide wader roost. It stayed here for about 30 minutes and then headed back to the outfall and began feeding again.

Despite the very close proximity of the power station, this is actually a really nice place, especially Red Nab which is an excellent place for watching roosting waders.

This is my favourite photo of the bird flying in amongst the wader roost. I can't decide if I prefer this long narrow version or the chunkier version below. I think that perhaps long and narrow is better when you click on the photo.

The wader roost at Red Nab.

One of four Mediterranean gulls on the rocks.

The tern was found by Pete Marsh who arrived for a second look shortley after we got there. Apparently white-winged black tern is a first for Heysham. While we were talking to him, this kingfisher flew onto the rocks and is the first recorded at Heyham this year. Pity it's not a little closer but too close would spoil it in my opinion, because I love the colours of the rocks and the seaweeed on this photo. There's something different about seeing a kingfisher on the coast, almost like it loses its plastic toy appearance which they can sometimes have when they're sitting on a purpose made perch in front of a hide full of eager photographers. Suddenly when you see one on the beach, they seem much more wild and authentic!

Heysham nuclear power station.

Bits and pieces at Leighton Moss

We had a decent afternoon at Leighton Moss, with great white egret from the Public hide, water rail, marsh tit and marsh harrier the star birds. Also some nice views of redshank from the Eric Morecombe hide.

Redshanks on the Allan Pools.

Water rail.

A distant great white egret.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Watching Balearic Shearwaters, Strumble Head

Balearic Shearwater 2
Sooty Shearwater 1
Manx Shearwater 50
Gannet 100
Kittiwakes 100s
Sandwich Tern 20

Harbour Porpoise 5

I'm starting to feel like a local here now, this was my third visit this month. I had a load of bat stuff to do late afternoon and into the evening in the area, so I had an early start this morning in order to get in some seawatching first.

I was particularly hoping for another look at some Balearic shearwaters. You know what it's like, you see a new species then read up a lot on it and learn quite a bit about it and then you know what you really need to be looking for in order to identify it. Then you want a second look in order to see all of the relavent id features that you missed first time! I wasn't disappointed today, I was the only birder present for large parts of the day, and I managed to find two Balearics which showed very well at quite close range showing all of the features that I had hoped to see. The first had chocolate brown upper parts and generally pale brown under parts, except for the dark brown armpits and undertail coverts. It's belly was clearly pale brown. I'd call it a classic Balearic shearwater, in otherwords exactly as I expected one to look. This bird was associating with a small flock of kittiwakes and for a while it landed on the sea. Thanks to the bright autumn sunlight and the sheltered location of the seawatching bunker, it was an excellent view at 60x through the telescope. It had poor demarkation on its head and neck, the darker brown on it's head and nape simply blending into the paler brown on its face and throat, unlike a typical Manxie which shows more contrast and is  starkly black on top and white below. A great individual!

The second bird was more Manxie like in its appearance, darker on top and white below. The dark armpit was not as extensive but was still there and it had the pot bellied appearance of Balearic. It also flew in a different way to Manxie but I'd be hard pressed to describe that! Perhaps more flappy and front heavy. Read the literature if you want the full description! Anyhow, nice to add the species to my self found list and within reason I'd now be quite confident in calling Balearic shearwater on a seawatch, which is what I wanted to achieve from the day.

Interesting to note that in the bright sunlight, some of the Manxies (possibly young birds?) looked quite chocolate brown above, with darker wing tips so that's a bit of a trap to watch out for in future.

The sooty shearwater was a bonus, also at quite close range, longer winged and much darker, including a dark belly. It was a  disappointingly poor day for cetaceans with no Risso's dolphins today, and it took about 4 hours to see the first harbour porpoise, but when they did appear in the tide race they were a decent view, providing good entertainment, at times almost leaping out of the water.