Monday, 12 November 2018

Monotremes at the Yarra


Wow what a trip this has been so far for iconic Australian mammals! On Saturday I saw my first ever echidna with Josh as it crossed the road at Wilson's Promontory and today I managed to find my second. I was photographing musk lorikeets when a rustling in the undergrowth immediately drew my attention and the lorikeets were forgotten. There could be no doubt what it was, I could see a ball of spines moving through the grass just a few metres in front of me. It climbed up onto a fallen branch and posed perfectly for photographs, before dropping down and continuing to make its way towards me. Eventually it was less than a metre away and didn't even seem to notice me, that is until I made a noise and it immediately curled up and dig itself down in a cloud of dust. I just kept quiet again and within 30 seconds it uncurled itself and continued on its way. What a tremendous animal.

I stayed in the area until dusk and once again managed to get good views of duck-billed platypus, the echindas closest living relative.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

From the Yarra Bridge


Duck-billed platypus is such an iconic Australian species which so few people ever get the chance to see that when I'm staying within a few miles of a great location for them, it's hard to resist the temptation to go back for second helpings. In fact to be honest, I'll probably end up going back for thirds and fourths!

A footbridge crosses the Yarra at Finns Reserve and from here platypus can be seen in the river below at any time of day apparently, but especially as dusk approaches. They really are fascinating creatures, an early scientific name for them was Ornithorhynchus paradoxus and truly they are a paradox. A mammal with a bill which lays eggs and has no teats, it is also one of the very few mammals which detects its food using electroreception. If all of that wasn't enough, it is also almost unique in being a venomous mammal. Of all the creatures which I have seen in Australia, the platypus still remains top of the pile.

Wilson's Promontory


Josh and I spent the weekend at Wilson's Promontory, the most southerly point on mainland Australia and a place often battered by the infamous wind the Roaring Forties. We stayed at Fish Creek, in the Fish Creek hotel, a wonderful retro style hotel in a beautiful Australian village.

Apart from the obvious scenic attractions, the main reason for going to the Prom was to try to see some of the iconic Australian species which occur there but which have so far eluded me, specifically echidna and wombats. It's not surprising that I had never previously seen the latter since I'd never previously been within the species range, but the same can't be said of echidna which is all over Australia and which I have really tried hard to see in the past to no avail. However within minutes of entering the national park we had to stop to allow an echidna to cross the road! A fabulous creature, three times the size of a hedgehog with golden spines, the closest living relative to the platypus, this is another mammal which lays eggs. An unforgettable experience.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Platypus and a wombat at Finns Reserve, River Yarra


I knew that the footbridge at Finns Reserve over the River Yarra was reputed to be a good place for platypus, but I still didn't expect to see them this easy. Two were showing almost immediately I arrived and over the course of the next hour they showed regularly, though never staying on the surface for long. Two locals who I met on the footbridge told me that a few nights ago they counted nine platypus on this stretch of the river. An iconic Australian animal which so few people have ever seen, yet here they are just 18 km up river from Melbourne CBD. A wonderful experience.

Melbourne West Water Treatment Plant

Royal and yellow-billed spoonbills

I've just spent two full on birding days at Melbourne West Treatment Plant, and what an amazing place it is. An absolute essential visit for any serious birder visiting Melbourne. You may think that you don't want to spend your time in Australia at a sewage works, but it's actually nothing like that,  in fact it's probably one of the best places I've ever been to birding, on a par with Doñana in Spain. Like Doñana, it's not so much the individual species that make it so special, it's the sheer number of birds.  During my visits for example, whiskered terns were everywhere, over every lake, pond, ditch, marsh and even field where they hawked for insects and in amongst them was a scattering of white-winged black terns. Meanwhile on the water was a host of birds, with at least 4000 pink-eared ducks and probably similar numbers of grey and chestnut teal. Sharp-tailed sandpipers were everywhere, on the mud as you would expect, but also in the grass and on the road, I put up countless birds as I was driving around. A breathtaking place. You can contact Melbourne Water for a day permit and key.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Phillip Island and it's Cape Barren Geese


Philips Island is a 90 minute drive south east of Melbourne. It's a proper island but you can drive onto it via a bridge. The day we chose to go was Melbourne Cup day, and in the morning there was torrential rain, so much so that for most of the journey I was wondering why we had bothered setting out. However by the time we arrived the rain was easing and the sky was showing the first signs of hope, and by midday the sun was out and it was pleasantly warm.

Probably the highlight of the day was the Cape Barren geese, especially those that had chicks. When I saw this species in Port Lincoln earlier in the year they were in flocks and behaving pretty much like geese in winter back home. However in summer they leave the mainland and breed on offshore islands, but I must admit that before we saw them it hadn't occurred to me that we might see them with chicks today.

Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens


My first full day back in Australia and most of the day was spent getting my bearings and recovering from jet lag, not that I ever suffer much from the latter. This afternoon I had a walk through Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens and came across many beautiful and interesting birds, nothing new but some real crackers. Pride of place must go to this stunning eastern rosella, a bird which I saw for the first time earlier this year near Brisbane, but it was nothing like this view and in fact this is also a different race.

Monday, 5 November 2018

A tale of two St. Kildas


In 1987 I spent two weeks camping on the remote and spectacular Hebridean island of St Kilda, an archipelago with some of the highest sea cliffs in Britain and home to one of the largest sea bird colonies in the world, with hundreds of thousands of birds. Puffins alone numbered an estimated 250,000 birds when I was there, and there was in the region of 60,000 pairs of gannets and 10,000 pairs of fulmars, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shearwaters and petrels. An awesome spectacle.

Fast forward 31 years and this week and next I’m staying in St Kilda again, but this is about as far removed as it can get from the towering cliffs and crashing waves of the Hebridean World heritage site. The St Kilda I am calling home for the next two weeks is a suburb of Melbourne, on the face of it a nice enough place with a beach, some interesting shops and a distinctly bohemian feel with innumerable small cafes and bars. However it also has a run down tacky side and worse of sex shops, prostitutes and amusement arcades, and the huge laughing face at the entrance to the Luna Park fun fair has very unsettling look that certainly wouldn’t entice me to enter. Even more worryingly, there's an election about to take place and one of the local candidates declares on large posters that he's "the only person who can make St Kilda safe". Worrying.... Australia’s most notorious hotel is here, the Gatwick also known as the Hell Hotel, now closed but formerly the scene of murders, drug deaths and stabbings. Surely then, the only thing that these two St. Kildas can have in common is a name? Well actually no, there is something else that the two places share, the smell of guano! Sure, here in Melbourne the smell is on a much smaller scale, but it is here non-the-less, if you get yourself down to St. Kilda pier. The breakwater rocks right at the end of the pier are home to a small colony of little penguins and their remarkably guillemot like guttural calls combined with that wonderful smell takes me right back to those mighty sea cliffs on the opposite side of the world in the North Atlantic ocean.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Close encounter with a Rose-coloured Starling


So now we know why it's not often seen with the local roaming starling flocks... it prefers to be alone. Sure when the flock lands on the roof or on the nearby aerials the it occasionally flies up and joins them, but when the flock leaves the rose-coloured starling drops down alone into the back yards of the houses around the Bowling Green Inn, St Helens and appears to vanish. It's best seen from the alleyway behind Frydays chippy in Robins Lane and if you do see it here it shows really well, often down to a few feet and even more importantly it's not silhouetted against the sky.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Rose-coloured starlings, St Helens and Greater Manchester


Not really my idea of birding, furtively wandering around a housing estate looking at every roof and into every back garden, binoculars around my neck and camera over my shoulder, trying not to look suspicious, not really knowing where I was supposed to be looking. Still, worth it in the end when I finally located the juvenile rose-coloured starling which has been present for a few days. Originally vaguely reported as "near St Helens hospital", I finally managed to track it down to an aerial opposite the closed Bowling Green Inn in Robins Lane. This is my third juvenile in the past 12 months. The second was just a week ago in Timperley, Greater Manchester.......

Friday, 12 October 2018

Great white egret, Pennington Flash


Little egret is now a frequent enough visitor to barely raise an eyebrow amongst  the regular birders at Pennington Flash, but great white is still a very rare bird locally. Todays great white was only the fourth ever at the site and was a Flash tick for me. Chances are, they will become more frequent in future years as they are now a common enough sight on local estuaries. For example, in 2017 I photographed a group of 10 great white egrets together on the Dee Estuary.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Back garden sparrowhawk kill


A bit of drama in the garden this week, a sparrowhawk eating a freshly killed woodpigeon. It looks like an adult female sparrowhawk to me, I can't see any hint of brown in its plumage to make it a juvenile. Also it looked pretty big and I'm not sure that a male is big enough or powerful enough to take down a woodpigeon.

Sparrowhawk kills can be a bit gruesome, whilst they will take and eat quite large prey such as woodpigeons and lapwings, they are often not powerful enough to kill them outright like a peregrine would, and it's not unusual to see a sparrowhawk eating prey which is still alive. Don't be too quick to judge them though, they have to eat and this what they have evolved to do. If we're worried about song bird populations being effected by sparrowhawks, then lets first remove cats from the environment and then stop destroying song bird habitat. Talking of cats, Polly and Ted just sat and watched while this was going on and didn't try to approach. Very wise!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

American Golden Plover Marshside

This moulting adult American golden plover was on Crossens Inner Marsh at Marshside today. Amazingly it's my first adult, all of the others I have seen have been juveniles, so nice to get a plumage tick. I'm amazed at how well this photo has turned out, the bird was about 150m away, it was slightly against the light, the wind was around force 6 and the photo was taken by hand holding my phone up to my telescope! No adapters were involved in the taking of this photo!

Friday, 21 September 2018

Warwickshire phalarope influx


It's that time of year again when grey phalaropes start turning up all around our coasts, but I didn't expect to see my first of the year in deepest inland Warwickshire, and I was even more surprised to see my second the following day in the same county! The first few photos here are of the second bird a juvenile which showed very well at Charlecote, a National Trust property near Stratford-Upon-Avon, whilst the final three photos are of the first, a bird at Napton Reservoir near Southam.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Pallid Harrier and Semi P on the Fylde


A couple of cracking birds on the Fylde this week, and this juvenile pallid harrier in particular is a stunner. Yes I saw the Dunsop Bridge bird as well, and as stunning as that bird undoubtedly was, a displaying adult male pallid harrier no less, it wasn't as beautiful as this juvenile.The photo just doesn't do it justice, the unstreaked body and coverts were bright gingery / orange in colour, contrasting with the dark boa and pale collar, with pied primaries and tail, making this one of those rare occasions when the juvenile is a more beautiful bird than the adults.  We waited for two hours in force 6 winds which made it really uncomfortable, but the bird eventually flew and was seemingly unaffected by the wind as it hunted for several minutes across the field right in front of us,  a simply breathtaking bird.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Marsh warbler conundrum


This Acrocephalus warbler was at Tide Mills in Sussex on 6th September 2018. It's a marsh warbler, but opinion is split, with some considering it a reed warbler. It's superficially a difficult identification, especially for birders too concerned with "warm brown hues" at the expense of all other features, and in this blog post I'll explain why.

It's a marsh warbler for many reasons, but not least because it called several times while I was watching it. On all occasions it's call was a hard tongue clicking note, similar to Blyth's reed warbler, which is sometimes described as a sound similar knocking two pebbles together. Reed warbler does not give these clear cut, hard single notes. At no point did it utter anything like a reed warbler call. Unfortunately this is obviously something which you can't judge from the photos and you need to take my word for it. If you're in the reed warbler camp you'll probably just ignore this vital piece of evidence, however you really shouldn't.....

In 2015 a very useful article was published in Scottish Birds on the identification of 1st winter marsh warbler, and it is this which I have largely referred to throughout this blog post.

Scottish Birds (2015). Marsh Warbler in first-winter plumage - SBRC identification criteria, M.S. Chapman. Available: https://www.the-soc.org.uk/files/docs/bird-recording/sbrc/Marsh-Warbler.pdf. Last accessed 09/09/2018.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

A few late August highlights from Pennington Flash


An eclipse drake garganey and at least two juvenile Mediterranean gulls were the highlights at the end of August and both are very predictable birds for this time of year. No less predictable is the continuing and alarming decline in waders. At the time of the Sabine's gull which was as recently as August 2015, there were two or three green sandpipers present throughout the month while in August 2013 it was possible to see six or seven green sandpipers at the Flash. In August 2018 there was a single bird on the 1st and another for a couple of days in the middle of the month, and that's it for green sandpipers this August.

In fact all waders have declined at the flash in recent years. It's now a red letter day if you find a dunlin or a redshank at the flash, and double figure counts of either are almost unheard of these days. Even common sandpipers are not that common. The peak month for common sandpiper is July, but this year we had just one or two birds where in previous years there have been close to double figures or more. On the 8th July 2006 I saw a flock (yes a flock) of 28 common sandpipers at Prescot Reservoirs in St Helens, and on the same day there were a further 12 at Eccleston Mere, imagine that at the Flash these days! It's cause for celebration if you see one now. Wood sandpipers are the stuff of legend these days.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The dreary flows and an exciting crane


The highs and lows of birding, I drove back from Melvich to Inverness today and started off driving past Forsinard RSPB in the Caithness flow country, a place which I had been looking forward to seeing, but which I found dreary, overrated and disappointing, not a bit haunting to me, which is how I often hear it described. I find this a bit surprising since usually I love blanket bog. I guess that since I'd just spent a week surveying near Melvich, the last thing I needed was another vast expanse of birdless M17 Trichophorum cespitosum – Eriophorum vaginatum blanket mire. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood.

However fortunately much better was to come. Just a couple of miles south of Brora a common crane flew over the A9 right in front of me and quite low down. It was torrential rain at the time and it looked like it was trying to land. I was able to stop but it had disappeared behind a small hill and I couldn't relocate it. I drove on to the next parking spot and jumped out of the car, again in torrential rain, and spotted it in the distance, flying away from me but again looking like it was trying to land. Once more I got in the car and drove on another 1/2 mile past a few wheat fields until I could see a grassy field in the distance. I guessed that this is where it might be and pulled into a gateway to view the field. Sure enough the bird was in the field allowing me to fire off a couple of photos before it flew again, and this time I lost it for good.

It reminded me of a famous incident a few years ago when there was a much rarer Sandhill crane on Orkney which eventually flew south and was followed a good way down the east coast of Scotland by birders.


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Bettyhill


Mountain aven Dryas octopetala, I reckon that I could easily make a case for this being my favourite plant, and what finer location to see  it in than at sea level at Bettyhill, with the beautiful Torrisdale beach as a back drop?

Bettyhill is a famous botanical site on the extreme north of Scotland in the county of Sutherland, and is particularly noted not only for its rare flora, but also for mountain plants which here occur right down at sea level such as these mountain avens.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Orca!


I knew that orca had been sighted in the Caithness area in the days before I left home for a week in the far north of Scotland, thanks to a series of messages being posted on the "Caithness and North Sutherland Cetacean sightings" Facebook group, but catching up with them was always going to be a challenge. They seemed pretty wide ranging, often going north into the Orkney archipelago as well as all around the coast to the west and south. I resigned myself to the fact that they were just the stuff of dreams, something to look out for while I was in the area, but not a serious proposition.

The town of Lossiemouth is on the most northerly point of the south coast of the Moray Firth near Inverness, and it can be hard to believe that from here there is still enough land left in the UK for you to be able to drive north for another four hours, but that's exactly what I was faced with today as I left my hotel and started my journey to Melvich on the extreme north coast of Scotland.

When I set off I had no intention of looking for orca, they were something I might look for on another day, today was just a day of travel. However, soon I received news that a family party of seven orca had been seen passing Duncansby Head near John O'Groats and later they were seen feeding to the north of Freswick Bay. I was tempted but would they hang around? It seemed the perfect day for viewing, with good light and relatively flat calm seas with just a light breeze, so I decided that it was just too good an opportunity to miss and I set my SatNav for John O'Groats.

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