Sunday, 30 October 2016

Tales from the larder of the butcher bird

Time was when we were just happy to see an isabelline shrike Lanius isabellinus, but those days are long gone. In these crazy times we now have to worry about whether or not it is one of two races, isabellinus (Daurian shrike) or phoenicuroides (Turkestan shrike). Why worry about it you may ask, well there's the nagging concern that one day soon isabelline shrike will be split into two species so it would be nice to know which of the two species you're looking at. In fact guess what, the dutch have already split it. Of course if it is split and you've seen both races, one tick then becomes two.

I'm not really concerned too much about that, actually I like to see races as much as species and paradoxically I used to prefer green-winged teal when it was a race! It's never been quite the same for me since it was upgraded.

However, on Thursday an isabelline shrike was found at The Leas, South Shields, just a stones throw from where I saw Britains first eastern crowned warbler a few years ago. By Friday it had been promoted to Daurian shrike so since we were in the area it seemed worth a look. 

The bird showed very well in an area known as the Mound, right on the coast at South Shields. This was my fifth "isabelline" shrike in the UK, two have been at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire (1990 & 2013), one at Stocks Reservoir in Lancashire (1996) and another at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey (1998). 

Year: 252 (Daurian shrike, woodcock).

Since I had previously only recorded them in my database as isabelline shrike I had no idea how many Daurian or Turkestan I had seen, so today I decided to have a look back through my records and see how many I could assign to race.

I referenced back copies of British Birds, books such as "the Birds of Lancashire and North Merseyside", local bird reports and Tim Worfolks paper in Dutch Birding on the identification of Isabelline and Brown shrikes, which for a long time was considered the primary reference on the subject and may still be for all I know. In some cases the birds in question were acccepted by BBRC as a particular race, or in other cases they were considered to be most likely a particular race.

It turns out that this is my third Daurian shrike, the others were at Stocks Reservoir and Donna Nook (2013). The Stocks Reservoir bird, which was the first Lancashire record, was apparently originally considered to be Turkestan shrike, but Tim Worfolk argues in his paper that it was Daurian.

I've seen two Turkestan shrikes, one at Donna Nook (1990) and the other at Cemlyn Bay. I'd long been under the impression that the Cemlyn Bay bird was isabellinus, but Tim Worfolk considers it to be of the race phoenicuroides or Turkistan shrike. The Donna Nook bird was accepted in that years British Birds Rare Bird report as Turkestan shrike, and therefore Donna Nook holds the unique distinction of being the only place where I have seen both races!

I love these photos, the dead hogweed looks the same colour as the shrike, and they both stand out well against the grey sky.

While we were watching the shrike, we saw it catch a bee and then impale it on a bramble. Shortly afterwords the bird flew 100m to the northern part of the Mound and I quickly dashed over to it's larder and took these two pictures of the bee, which it turns out is a common carder bee Bombus pascuorum.

Eastern Black Redstart

It's been a great autumn for vagrants from the east, but surely for good looks few can match the eastern black redstarts Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides which are now appearing on the east coast. Really stunning birds, I was going to say they look as bright as common redstarts, but actually no, they are much brighter than redstarts. The red on the underparts, rump and tail is breathtaking, especially in combination with the black face and throat. I can only imagine how smart a full summer plumage adult must look on territory.

Todays bird at Skinningrove, Cleveland, was one of at least three seen recently on the east coast and is considered to be a 1st winter male, though I'd have to say it looks more like and adult to me. It was a very approachable and obliging bird, constantly fly catching and flicking around, the only criticism I could make of the bird was that it was too active and didn't stay still long enough to allow me at least to get great photos.

At present this is only a race of black redstart, but what a cracker, it was my first and a pleasure to make its acquaintance. This race of black redstart breeds largely outside the western palearctic, in places such as China and Mongolia.

Chasing birds might not be everybodys cup of tea, but not only do you get to see some great birds, you also visit some lovely places which you might not otherwise go to. This is Skinningrove beach in Cleveland. The first time I've been to the place.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

A glorious autumnal day at Pennington Flash

For once I thought I was going to have a yellow-browed warbler free day, with no sign of the Houghton Green Pool bird this morning, but I just can't resist and when news came through that two were still in the area of the Teal scrape at Pennington Flash, I decided to head that way this afternoon. It took some finding, but I did manage to get a decent view of one of the birds, but I didn't hear either bird call once. The trees are a glorious colour at the flash at the moment

I might be able to find yellow-browed warblers even when silent, but somehow I managed to walk past and not notice 8 adult whooper swans near the car park. Fortunately they were still present when I was leaving. Star birds of the day though were 2 bearded tits from Tom Edmondson hide. Unfortunately I didn't manage to connect with these, but perhaps they're still present in which case there might still be hope for all of us.

The green sandpiper was at Houghton Green Pool, with 12 grey partridge and 11 wigeon.

When I was told about these whoopers, I expected them to be in the centre of the flash not just off the car park!

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


I stumbled across a 9.6m high tide at Marshside today. I'd gone for a look at the three cattle egrets and arrived at 11:45am to find Crossens Outer marsh flooded, with impressive numbers of ducks and waders. The only raptors I saw though were marsh harrier, buzzard and peregrine.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Spurn dripping with birds

What a day on the east coast! Having resisted the temptation to jump in the car and travel to Easington for the Siberian accentor as soon as it was reported on Thursday, I even managed to resist again on Friday despite all of the drooling tweets coming through from various friends on site, and I ended up instead having yet another look at the yellow-browed warbler at Houghton Green Pool. Today though I finally succumed and Ray and I headed over to Easington to have a look at a bird which just a week ago was a mega but which with news of yet another in Cleveland today is rapidly becoming just a good county tick, with three in a week. With 37 so far reported elsewhere in north west Europe, it seems possible that even more might be found over the next few days. How long before we get one in the north west? Got to see them while you can though, the Siberian accentor on Shetland last weekend was a first for Britain and it could be another 50 years before we get another! This might be a one off invasion year.

UK Life: 416 (Siberian accentor), Year: 250 (Siberian accentor, dusky warbler).

Edit 16/10/216: it's now four in a week with another bird seen in Durham.

The bird showed incredibly well for a species which is reputedly shy. Unfortunately though the light was very poor while we were watching it, so the photos are a disappointment.

It was one of those days you dream of at Spurn, literally dripping with birds. Goldcrests and robins everywhere, there must have been hundreds of each, every other bird we saw was a goldcrest or a robin. On the walk back to the car from watching the accentor we saw firecrest, yellow-browed warbler and lesser whitethroat, the latter looking suspiciously Siberian like, and then we drove to Kilnsea. We watched a very obliging shorelark near the car park, and then as we were having lunch 23 European white-fronted geese flew over.

After lunch we walked to the church yard where there was one of two Pallas's warblers showing well, and another yellow-browed warbler. Next into the Crown and Anchor car park where there was another firecrest and another yellow-browed warbler. It was that kind of day, everywhere you looked there were groups of birders watching something of interest. There were over 12,000 redwings seen, 1700 fieldfare and 400 each of blackbirds and song thrushes, and air was full of their seeps and cackles and ticks. A very exciting atmosphere when you could believe that anything was a possibility.

From the Crown and Anchor we walked along the sea bank towards the canal, on the way ignoring a small flock of brents that most likely contained the a reported black brant. Half way along we came across a very obliging dusky warbler, one of an incredible nine seen at Spurn today!

Finally we headed back to Easington for another look at the Siberian accentor before leaving. We found that the bird had moved, it was no longer in the car park of the Old School, it was now on the other side of the gas terminal fence and though still close was a far poorer view. On the walk back to the car we saw the lesser whitethroat again and a redstart.

We also missed Radde's warbler, great grey shrike, 3 little buntings, Richards pipit, jack snipe and a whole flock of bean geese, plus who knows what else on a day like today?

This dusky warbler at the canal performed very well and was one of nine seen at Spurn today. I heard it call a couple of times.

We saw two firecrests, one in Vicars Lane at Easington and this one in the Crown and Anchor car park at Kilnsea.

Goldcrest where everywhere, some just a couple of feet away. I had to put my camera into macro focusing mode to photograph this bird.

Shorelark. There had been up to 14 in the area, but this was the only one which stuck.

1st winter male redstart.

The Crown and Anchor at Kilnsea.

From about noon onwards the clouds broke and it was a glorious sunny afternoon, no wind and warm enough to walk around without a coat. Not bad for the east coast in mid-October!

Friday, 14 October 2016

In the rings of willow, Houghton Green Pool

The yellow-browed warbler showed exceptionally well today in the willow scrub at the south west corner of the pool near Cloverdell. It called persistanly for about 5 minutes, and seemed very inquisitive, coming to within about 3m of where I was standing. It still proved difficult to photograph, constantly on the move and with twigs, branches and leaves in the way which the camera preferred to focus on rather than the bird, but at least the light was better here and the bird was much closer than it was when in the sycamore canopy the other day. Then it stopped calling and I didn't see it again all morning. That's the way it is with this bird I'm afraid. Also on the pool this morning, green sandpiper still, 16 wigeon, 8 teal with 5 swallows over.

I'm actually feeling quite positive about the place at the moment, it seem to be developing quite nicely. The willow scrub around the pool goes around it in about 6 parallel, almost impenetrable rows with grassy / scrubby gaps in between, which form quite a good barrier and screen, and there's only really one way down to the pool. It's clear to see that each ring was formed as the water level receded, and indeed there are currently willow saplings right down at the waters edge starting to form the next ring.

Clearly over the years the water level has not gone down gradually. It must have dropped and then stayed at that level for a while allowing a ring to form before dropping again, then stopping and allowing another ring to form, and so on. Hopefully though it won't drop any further. 

There are a lot of small birds feeding in the willow scrub, including at the moment the yellow-browed warbler, and the grassy areas in between have proven good for inverts this year. Hopefully if the scrub is allowed to continue to grow and the place is allowed to develop, though it may never get back to what it was, in a year or two it could still be a top local site again.

While I was walking around today I decided to have a look at the composition of the scrub, just to see which trees are taking hold. The yellow-browed warbler above was photographed in grey willow Salix cinerea, but this isn't the only willow species present, in fact it's just one of several.

There are at least three species of willow in this photo, osier S. viminalis, goat willow S. caprea and grey willow.

Goat willow.

Grey willow


Eared willow S. aurita.

White willow S. alba.

 White willow.

In amongst the higher more established rings there is also quite a lot of birch, including silver birch Betula pendula.

Also white poplar Populus alba is growing in the higher ring.

It's not just pioneer trees though which are at the pool, in the drier areas there are already a few saplings of other trees such as this sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus. In time these trees are likely to take over if the place is left undisturbed. This photo also shows the typical composition of the grassy areas in between the rings, which includes various rushes, grasses and forbs dominated by willowherbs Epilobium sp., ragwort Senecio jacobaea and gypsywort Lycopus europaeus.

Goldfinches are amongst the birds which feed on seeds of the various plants. 


I was pleased to find a couple of small patches of this sedge, Galingale Cyperus longus, it's a species I have never seen in the northwest previously.


There's a nice area of oak woodland to the north of the pool. It would be even nicer if it didn't have the constant noise of the M6 as a backdrop.

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