Monday, 31 October 2016

Pennington Flash: A Halloween special

Halloween at Pennington Flash. I'd always planned to go this afternoon, but when Bill Harrison found a winter plumage red-throated diver just off the spit this morning, I dusted down my bike and set off to see it. First off I went into Horrock's hide, but the mist had come down a bit and viewing was poor. Bill told me the diver had last been seen heading into the western bay so I headed over to the Point. From here I could see the bird, but it was swimming over towards the yacht club, so I got back on the bike and cycled round to Green Lane. By the time I got there the bird had gone back towards the Ruck. Doh! I went home for my lunch.

In the afternoon I reverted back to the original plan and walked around the flash. The sun was out now and it was a beautiful day. When I arrived at Green Lane I could see that the diver was still present but it was out in the middle of the water between the Ruck and where I was standing. Again a bit distant. I consolled myself with a bit of autumn hoverating on the ivy in Green Lane, where I saw at least nine species of hoverfly and a red admiral butterfly.

I continued on my way and eventually arrived at the far side of the flash on the Ruck. The diver was still out in the middle and the light was poor here, I was looking right into the sun. I wandered down to the crack willow tree where I'd found the yellow-browed warbler a couple of weeks ago, and spent time photographing some wonderful giant willow aphids, a species I only discovered at the flash last week.

Suddenly I was aware that I was not alone, and looking up, there was the red-throated diver on the water right in front of me, no more than about 8m away! It had clearly seen me but didn't seem too perturbed and just kept diving and didn't swim away at all, allowing me to fire off several reasonable photos. This was my first red-throated diver at the flash.

A loon for halloween! Red-throated diver.

If aphids did horror movies this would be it! Giant willow aphid (!) Tuberolachnus salignus on a crack willow tree. Coincidently it's was in the same tree as the first yellow-browed warbler I found on the Point a couple of weeks ago. Prior to finding these last Friday I knew nothing about this species, but apparently it's the World's largest aphid up to about 6mm (1/4") long, it has a sharks fin on its back, no male of the species has ever been found and they may not exist, and though most individuals are flightless, a few have wings.

If that wasn't enough, unlike just about every other insect they're most active during freezing weather and it seems to be pretty scarely distributed across the UK, with just a single dot (at Preston) on the distribution map between the the English midlands and northern Scotland! I guess that in reality they're commoner than the NBN Gateway map suggests. They've most likely expanded their range in recent years and are no doubt under recorded.

When approached too close they hold their back legs up in a threat posture. I'm not sure what their Plan B is though!

What an amazing creature! If a greenfly put on a halloween costume I guess this is what it would look like!

Noon fly Mesembrina meridiana. Like the Xylota hoverflies, this species feeds on fallen pollen by sucking it off leaves with it's proboscis as you can see here.

The hoverfly Eristralis tenax, also known by it's English name the drone fly. It's larvae are called rat-tailed moggots and live in shallow still water. It's a mimic of the insect at the top of the photo which is a honey bee. Incredibly the hoverfly even mimics the honey bees pollen sacks by having modified (swollen) hind tibea.

Sulpher tuft growing on a dead willow tree.


Bindweed in winter colours.

Doing what it does best. Diving!

Unlike most species of aphid, giant willow aphids do not feed on leaves, instead feeding through the bark on stems and twigs.

The hoverfly Syrphus ribesii walking in amongst the aphids. To the best of my knowledge there is no interaction between the species, the hoverfly is a pollen feeder and I think it's just a coincidence that they are on the same twig. But with this aphid, who knows, it's probably excreting pollen!

Episyrphus balteatus, marmalade hoverfly.

A Eupeodes species of hoverfly.

The hoverfly Helophilus pendulus.

Still a couple of red admirals on the wing today.

Saturday, 29 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.

Wednesday, 19 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!

Monday, 17 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.

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