Saturday, 28 November 2015

Hoopoe in Staffordshire

We arrived at Wall Heath in Staffordshire this morning ahead of the predicted heavy rain, but just minutes after the Hoopoe was seen flying "purposefully east". However after a wait of about one hour the bird returned and showed reasonably well at first, before disappearing into the long grass and becoming more elusive.

Year: 264 (Hoopoe)

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Wexford Slobs

South Slob

I was up at seven and out of my B&B at 7:45am. I was determined to make the most of the short daylight hours available at this time of year. After all, this was to be my first visit to that renouned Irish wildfowl reserve, Wexford Slobs and I didn't want to waste a minute.

The Slobs are on either side of the River Slaney which runs through Wexford (or Loch Garman to give it it's Irish name) and much of it is private farmland. However, on the north side of the river is the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve with a few hides and an information centre. This was where I was planning on spending the majority of the day.

However, the reserve didn't open until 9am and  I was like a kid at Christmas, I was far to excited to wait until nine, I wanted to be out and birding well before then. It was just a short journey from my B&B in the centre of Wexford to South Slob so I headed in that general direction in great anticipation, with no clear idea of exactly where I was going or how far I would be able to get before I came to private land.

Eventually I crossed a canal and then a railway level crossing and the tarmac road petered out and became a dirt track. I hadn't actually seen a private sign yet and one of the farmhands in a field had given me a cheery wave as I passed by  (at least I think it was a cheery wave!), so I just kept going until I came to a sea wall where I parked up and got out of the car with the sea to the left of me and a reed bed and channel to the right. Almost immediately I saw a ringtail hen harrier putting up hundreds of teal and wigeon as it quartered the reeds, and in the distance a flock of 80 whooper swans in a field. Off to a good start!

Then I turned my attention to the sea, which was flat and and like a mill pond. There wasn't a breath of wind and ducks and grebes stood out well. There was nothing outstanding on the water, but plenty of goldeneye, red-breasted mergansers, shelduck and great crested grebes. Occasionally a flock of whooper swans would fly over from the south, presumably heading for North Slob on the other side of the river, and a flock of 100 Pale-bellied brent geese flew over. All in all a nice start to the day.

Part of the South Slob.

Whooper swans over South Slob.

Just my luck, I find an Irish rarity and it's a  carrion crow!

Wexford Harbour

After leaving South Slob I headed back through Wexford and over Wexford bridge on my way to North Slob. I stopped off for a few photo opportunities and spotted a few nice waders on the beach.

Wexford bridge.

Looking towards Wexford.


Oystercatcher, greenshank and bar-tailed godwit.


North Slob

The reason I wanted to visit Wexford Slobs was to see the Greenland white-fronted geese which occur here in their thousands every winter. This race of white-front has declined rapidly in the UK, but Wexford is one of their major strongholds and around 10,000 still winter.

Unlike European white-fronts whose global numbers (I think) are relatively stable but which visit the UK in declining numbers because milder winters mean they can stay in Europe rather than cross the Channel to the UK, Greenland white-fronts are threatened globally because their population is only relatively small and they are being outcompeted on the breeding grounds by an increasing number of Canada geese.

One thing which stood out to me straight away was that they didn't flock together in large tight knit flocks like pink-feet. In fact they were scattered in smaller groups all over the fields, in it's own way just as impressive a spectacle, but without the drama of a huge pink-foot flock.

There are lots of other wildfowl here as well, and being on the coast these include flocks of Pale-bellied brent geese. On the sea there were two great northern divers and lots of great crested grebes, goldeneye and red-breasted mergansers.

 Brent geese over North Slob.


Ringtail hen harrier.

The channel as viewed from the Pat Walsh hide. I was able to pick out a 1st winter ring-necked duck from here, but it was way too distant for photography.

East Coast Nature Reserve, Newcastle, County Wicklow

On the way back to Dublin I called in at the ECNR in County Wicklow. This relatively new reserve has been created by BirdWatch Ireland and is quite an impressive place. I walked along the beach, which allowed not only good views of the sea and shore, but also of the marsh on my right. There has been a probable northern harrier seen here over the past week, which is the North American race of hen harrier, but I didn't see any harriers of any kind today. However the marsh was full of ducks, especially wigeon and teal, whilst on the sea there were about 20 red-throated divers, and three snow buntings were on the shore, so quite a decent stop to break my journey.

Red-throated diver.

Snow bunting.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A walk along the Ribble

It was a cold start to the day, but beautiful nonetheless on the Ribble Estuary. I came across a small pool on the saltmarsh which held a flock of about 30 whooper swans, 70 shelduck, 100 wigeon and about 70 curlew on the bank. There were hundreds more wigeon close by, as well as flocks of golden plover and hundreds of lapwing and redshank.  A very impressive spectacle.

Suddenly I heard a shriek from behind me and a redshank disappeared into a ditch persued by a large falcon. The hunter missed its prey but over several minutes kept returning to the ditch and even hovered over it a couple of times, something which I've never seen a peregrine do before and which immediately made me suspect it might be something else.

This is clearly a juvenile bird, but which species? It has certain features which could make it lanner. For example it has an eyestripe, it appears to have a pale crown, it appears to have a contrasting underwing with dark underwing coverts and on a photo further down it appears to have a dark rump (peregrine should have a palish rump contrasting with the back).

On the otherhand, the underwing conrast is perhaps not as great as it should be for lanner and perhaps falls within the range of peregrine, and though the rump is dark the sides of the rump appear pale. So perhaps it's a peregrine after all, which of course would also be the most likely option. But what about the eyestripe? Also it appears quite long winged for peregrine.

And then there's the fact that it hovered. Is that relavent? The only references I can find to large falcons hovering all involve saker, but I don't believe it's a saker. I think that the hovering is a red herring.

It could be a hybrid, since falcons are notorious for hybridisation in captivity. It doesn't have jesses or any other signs of captivity, but it's a posssibility.

However, my best guess is that it's a calidus-type peregrine, in otherwords a northern race peregrine. Calidus peregrines are large falcons, juveniles have eyestripes and they are long winged compared to the birds we are familiar with in the UK. In fact this bird fits calidus peregrine very well. If I'm correct, then it would be the second I have seen this year following one in Lincolnshire in March.

I've sent the photos off to raptor expert Dick Foresman and await his comments. I'll put them here if and when I get further information.

A hovering peregrine with such a distinct eyestripe?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Martin Mere

News of a cattle egret lured us to Martin Mere today, right into the clutches of the North West Bird Fair. The cattle egret failed to show again, and we also managed to miss a bittern and a green-winged teal, but even so it's hard to be disappointed by such an impressive spectacle. Birds included an adult European white-fronted goose with around 1000 pink-footed geese, 900 whooper swans, 500 black-tailed godwits (I don't recall seeing so many on the reserve before), 50+ ruff, 2 marsh harriers, barn owl, 100+ pintail and 1000's of teal and wigeon.

European white-fronted goose. Notice also the pink-footed goose with white around the base of the bill just to confuse matters!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Pennington Flash

The shag was still on Pengies pool this morning and showed much better than yesterday. The light was not great again, but at least it swam right in front of the hide today. Unlike yesterday when it spent most of its time in the centre of the pool, today it did a circuit of the perimeter and dived frequently. Also from the hide, water rail and brambling. A female common scoter is on the flash and viewable from Horrock's hide.

Year: 263 (Brambling)

My first brambling of the year. The light was so poor, this photo was taken on a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second! For those who don't do photography, I'd normally hope to take it on anything from 1/125th upwards. Sometimes in Australia shutter speed reached 1/1000th!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Pennington Flash

There was a shag on Pennington Flash today, from Pengy's hide. Apparently it's been there for three days. I only just got there before it went dark, and the bird was quite distant for photography. I did have my doubts when I first saw it, but it's clearly a juvenile shag with steep forehead, thin bill, pale throat and pale eye ring. I was expecting a generally paler bird, and the pale throat contrasting with the dark plumage threw me a bit. According to my books this makes it a juvenile rather than 1st winter, which would indeed be paler. I've certainly seen juvenile shags in breeding colonies, and 1st winters elsewhere, but I'm not sure I've seen this plumage before (certainly not at Pennington Flash!). It was a new bird for me at the flash.

North Lincolnshire coast

I love the Lincolnshire coastline, plenty of sandy beaches and saltmarsh and lots of great birds. This morning I had a walk along the sea wall near Tetney. I flushed a merlin from the bank at close range and it dashed across the saltmarsh and I had good views of around 500 dark-bellied brent geese, mainly on the saltmarsh or on the sandy shore, but a few were feeding inland of the sea defences on a field of winter wheat. This is a habitat which the birds have largely acquired since the 1970's. Their favoured food is eel grass, but when that food supply is exhausted they move onto arable fields.

Dark-bellied brent geese feeding on winter wheat (above) and more traditional saltmash vegetation (below).  Most were on the beach though.

There's been an exceptional migration of whooper swans over Spurn this autumn, and I was delighted to share in that experience today, with at least 22 birds heading south west in two flocks shortly after dawn.

Also today, at least 200 pink-footed geese over and lots of waders on the saltmarsh and beach, including a flock of many hundreds of golden plover.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Crag Martin at the Crooked Spire

At the second attempt, today we managed to connect with the now long staying crag martin in Chesterfield. It's only the 9th ever in the UK  and it's now been present for six days (though it did go missing for all of Wednesday), and this makes it the longest staying crag martin ever. We arrived at 9:15am well ahead of the predicted heavy rain, and waited and hoped. For a while it seemed like we might be unlucky, with no sign of the bird and even rumours about a peregrine seen eating some unidentified prey high on the ramparts of the church at first light, but we stuck it out. It wasn't an unpleasant place too be in the grounds of the church, quite picturesque in fact, and at least the weather was calm and relatively bright, if a little nippier than of late.

The twisted spire of the Church of St. Marys and All Saints was very photogenic and has earned it the nickname of the Crooked Spire.

Suddenly at about 10:45 somebody calmly announced that he had just seen a "hirundine" fly behind the church. Given that we're now in the middle of November there seemed little doubt that this would prove to be the arrival of the crag martin, and sure enough a second later a cheer went up from the assembled crowd and there it was right over our heads, before immediately disappearing again behind the church. Pandemonium ensued! Where seconds earlier there had been a crowd of 150 birders chatting quietly about this and that, resigned to their fate of going home empty handed without the tick, there were now people running to all corners of the church trying to get the best view. Where was it, where did it go?

Fortunately the bird reappeared within seconds and we were able to watch it at close range for about 10 minutes before it flew away from the church and was lost to sight. It repeated this performance twice more up until 12 noon exactly, when, just as the 12th chime struck in the belfry it disappeared and was not seen at the church again all day, reinforcing its reputation for being elusive in the afternoon. However it was apparently relocated mid afternoon at Chesterfield football stadium, though we had long gone by then, with the rain now lashing down and daylight almost spent.

It was quite poor light for photography and it was a small fast flying bird high in the sky, so photography was very difficult, but I did managed a couple of record shots, one of which is the obligatory "bird flying in front of the clock" shot!

Year: 262 (Crag martin). It was only a year tick, this was actually my second crag martin in the UK, the first was at Flamborough Head last year. We even managed to tick the bird whilst sitting in the car, which amazingly is a feat we also achieved with the Flamborough bird!

Not brilliant but give me a break. People with far better cameras than mine have tried and failed with this bird. What more do you want? You can see most of the id features in the photo, the contrasting dark underwing coverts, the dark vent and (almost) the white mirrors in the tail. You can at least see that it's a crag martin! I only took 400 photos to get this! Thank goodness for digital.....

The Crooked Spire with pink-footed geese flying over (the highlight of my first attempt with this bird!).

Friday, 13 November 2015

Roa Island, Cumbria

I don't think I even knew that Roa Island existed up to a about 18 months ago when we called in to see a Black Brant on the saltmarsh there. I was back again today and it's a really impressive place.  There were thousands of wigeon offshore over the high tide, at least 120 brent geese and around 600 eider, as well as a decent selection of waders. Most of the eider were roosting on nearby Foulney Island.

There were clearly brent geese of both races but I didn't have either the time nor the inclination to determine how many of each, though I would estimate a 60/40 split in favour of the dark-bellied race.

Piel Castle (left) and Roa Island.

Plenty of brent geese and wigeon, but also note the white dots of eiders on the far bank. This was one of three roosting flocks on Foulney island, as well as quite a few on the sea.


Quite a dramatic high tide.