Wednesday, 4 August 2021

The hunt for the Elegant tern - Part 2, Hightown

Armed with detailed site information courtesy of Pete, I arrived at Crosby at 7am and headed north towards Hightown. It was a glorious morning and the sea was flat calm like a beautiful blue mirror, and Sandwich terns were flying back and forth all along the coast in good numbers. Hightown is at the southern end of the Sefton dune system which starts at Ainsdale in the north and includes Formby. You can't access Formby beach from Hightown because the River Alt gets in the way, and this allows a decent wader and tern roost to build up undisturbed on the far side of the river at high tide. In effect though, the sand you are viewing on the other side of the river from Hightown is the southern end of Formby beach.

When I arrived I could see that there were thousands of birds present this morning, an estimated 4000 Sandwich terns in fact, as well as good numbers of common and Arctic terns. Gulls included little gull and at least 4 Mediterranean gulls, 2 adults and 2 juveniles. Waders in the roost included at least 100 curlew and a single whimbrel.

Several birders had apparently looked for the Elegant tern from here on Tuesday evening to no avail, so I guess that might have deterred others from turning up this morning but whatever the reason, I was once again alone and it looked as though I'd have to find the bird for myself. My initial scan through the flock wasn't promising. Yes the light was perfect and yes the bird has a stonking great yellowy / orange bill which stood out like a beacon in the Cemlyn colony, but the nearest group of terns to me was at least 150m away and other groups were two or three times that distance, and many birds had their heads tucked in asleep or were facing away from me or were hidden behind other birds. On my own it was always going to be tough and by 8:30am I was beginning to think that it was going to be another disappointing morning. I put out a negative tweet, informing the world that there was no sign of the elegant tern at Hightown. 

Just as I sent the tweet, another birder appeared from nowhere and asked me if I'd seen the bird. He and his mate had been standing on the yacht club lawn and seen me 100m away and he'd decided to walk over and ask. I told him that I hadn't and we had a brief chat before his phone rang; it was his mate telling us that he had found the bird! I was cautiously optimistic at this point, having experienced at least three false alarms over the past few days when people called the bird only for it to be a misidentified common tern. However we legged it back over to him and sure enough this was the real deal and he got us onto it pretty quick. 

What a bird! No chance that this was a misidentified common tern with a bill like that! The relief was amazing and I did a little dance inside. Unimpressed the bird immediately tucked it's head in and went to sleep. Now it would have been virtually impossible to pick out if you didn't know where it was and after five minutes even we were beginning to question if we were on the right bird. Within a few minutes though, it was awake again and started walking around and even displaying to a Sandwich tern. Fortunately it was in the near group of terns about 120m away so about as good a view as could be expected. 

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

The hunt for the Elegant tern - Part 1, Chasing the tide on Formby beach

Photo: Little gulls.

Probably the most predictable 1st for Lancashire ever was found on Formby beach on Sunday evening, an elegant tern with thousands of Sandwich terns. Predictable because it is undoubtedly the same bird as that which spent July in the tern colony at Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey where it was paired with a Sandwich tern. Every year in late summer when the young fledge and the colony disperses, these birds arrive on the Sefton coast, and amazingly just two days after the elegant tern was last seen at Cemlyn it was found at Formby.

News broke on Sunday at about 7pm and I was tempted to go there and then. I got all of my gear ready and even had my shoes on, but at the last minute abandoned the idea. It would take me 50 minutes to get there and then there was at least a 30 minute walk. With less than three hours daylight left that didn't seem particularly appealing. I decided to wait until the following day.

I arrived at Formby beach car park (Lifeboat Road) at 6:30am on Monday morning and began the long slog, at first over the dunes and then along the beach. I was expecting a fair few of Lancashire's finest to be there looking for a bird which is not only a county first but also only the 5th for the UK, but no, I saw just four other birders all morning and one of those was Tim, the original finder from the day before. The first birder I met informed me that he had seen the tern at 5:30am but it had flown out to sea, hopefully to fish and not leave for good. I started off down the beach.

From the end of Lifeboat road to the Sandwich tern roost on the beach is at least a mile and a quarter (2km). All the way there the air was full of the cries of Sandwich terns and when I finally got to the roost it contained about 1000 birds, mainly Sandwich but also a lot of common and Arctic terns. There was no sign of the elegant tern and I was told by another birder that tern numbers were well down on the day before. Not what I wanted to hear. I gave it until 11am and then decided to call it a day. It was approaching low tide and the beach was now huge and the heat haze made viewing very difficult. I'd been well entertained by the commoner terns as well as at least 7 little gulls, 3 Mediterranean gulls and a few hundred waders, mainly sanderling, bar-tailed godwit and dunlin, but there was no sign of the star of the show and I was now searching on my own which was just impossible. I trudged back to the car.

At 4pm I was at home when "ping!", my phone caught my attention. Fortunately this wasn't the NHS app telling me to isolate for 10 days, it was an alert from Birdguides informing me that the tern was back. Tim had found it again in exactly the same spot, in the Sandwich tern roost and apparently it was showing well. I immediately jumped in my car and headed back to Formby.

Another slog ensued over the dunes and down to the roost, and this time there were about 15 other birders present as high tide approached, but again no sign of the elegant tern. Apparently a few minutes after Tim had relocated it, it had flown off out to sea and when I arrived it had not been seen again. I waited and waited until it got to about 8pm at which point for the second time on Monday I decided to call it a day. The bird had shown for about 20 minutes all day. I'd spent 9 hours on site but not seen it.


The evening visit had been worthwhile though, because there was a cracking roseate tern in the roost. It's the bird lurking behind the gull in the photo.

Due to other commitments I couldn't get there for high tide early on Tuesday but in any case it was not reported from Formby early morning. I had decided the night before to get there for around 10am and spend as long as it took. Brave words. I arrived at Formby to be informed by Birdguides that the bird had been seen at nearby Hightown at 9:30am, but was then seen flying towards Formby. I decided to stay at Formby and chance my luck. 

Formby beach on Tuesday was a bit depressing for myself and the one other birder who was there. It was a really tough day, walking up and down the ever expanding shoreline, in the end covering over 6 miles. Of course it's a beautiful location with lots of great birds and it was a tremendous experience, but they were all the same as the day before, nothing really new to report and our hopes receded gradually with the tide. By 2pm the beach looked like a desert with vast open spaces, mirages and a shimmering heat haze with no hope of finding a lone elegant tern. Eventually I gave up and headed home resolving to not go again until Thursday. However later in the evening my enthusiasm was renewed and I contacted Pete who had seen the bird at Hightown and got directions from him for where best to view from and decided to get there for 7am on Wednesday. I'll cover that in the next post, but read on for more about Formby beach.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Bottle-nosed dolphins, Cardigan Bay


Just for a change I varied my route home from Swansea today and went via New Quay and Cardigan Bay. It's a beautiful route and when you've got most of the day to get home the extra hour's driving seems insignificant when compared to the nightmare of the M4/M5/M6. 

I always try to stop off somewhere to have a look for the bottle-nosed dolphins which frequent the bay, apparently the largest UK population. When I arrived at New Quay there was a dolphin watching boat about to go out with a few available spaces, so for £15 it seemed a good way to spend an hour and get close up to the dolphins, and so it proved. Probably the best dolphin watching trip I've ever been on in the UK and certainly better than spending the hour queuing on the M6 at Birmingham where the only thing I'd get close up to would have been the bumper of the lorry in front.


Even before we got on the boat I'd spotted a couple of dolphins from the jetty, a mother and calf. We saw these very well during the trip and I suspect that most of my photos are of this couple, but there were also at least three other bottle-nosed dolphins in the area as well and these also came quite close.

Long-billed dowitcher, Burton Mere Wetlands


It's been a great July, rounded off nicely by a summer plumage long-billed dowitcher at Burton Mere Wetlands, my third on the reserve and about my 14th overall. There were two togther at BMW when it was still Inner Marsh Farm back in 2009.
    

Even though I have no reason to doubt that this is a long-billed dowitcher, I always like to try to confirm it for myself if I can. I'm no expert, but as I understand it the patterning on the underwing helps split summer plumage long-billed from short-billed dowitcher.  On the photo above, the black marks on the axillary feathers are quite a bit narrower than the white which points to long-billed, whereas on short-billed the black and the white would be of similar thickness. Also the patterning on the lesser coverts is more like long-billed forming two distinct lines unlike short-billed where they would be more densely patterned and not forming such obviously parallel lines.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Dragonflies on a Welsh Moor


I love getting up on the moors at this time of year and seeing some of the very special dragonfly species which inhabit these remote and wonderful places. Pride of place must go to golden-ringed dragonfly, the female of which is the largest of all UK dragonflies. They tend to be around streams of a certain size and they buzz back and forth along the stream, the males fending off competitors and searching for females.



The other star species on the moor is the keeled skimmer. The male is powder blue and a beautiful looking insect, but actually I think that the female is even more beautiful, with blue eyes and a golden abdomen. These dragonflies seem to like even the shallowest of bog pools.



Large red damselflies are common pretty much everywhere, including on the moors.

I'm in South Wales this week, and raptors have included several red kites and a couple of sightings of goshawk. I also managed to see a few crossbills and these and the goshawks move my UK year list to 227.


Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Hilbre Hoopoe


A glorious couple of days on Hilbre Island spent hoping to see a melodious warbler which was trapped early yesterday ultimately ended in failure on that score, but just as I was setting off to leave at 11:30 after five hours on the island this morning, I inadvertently flushed a hoopoe from the slipway at the southern end of the main island. I guess that it had been feeding under the cliff, it just flew up right in front of me looking like a huge butterfly and quite unmistakable, leaving me in a state of shock! Initially the bird flew out over the water and I thought it was leaving, but it turned and flew back over the rocks to Middle Eye where I watched it land. I ran back to the bird observatory to inform the two members who were present and we set off to Middle after putting out news and contacting others on the mainland.


At this stage we didn't expect the bird to stay long because the tide was receding on a beautiful, hot summers day and we could see crowds of people crossing over to the islands, which led us to believe that it's stay on Middle might not be more than a few minutes. Already as we crossed there were two groups of people on top of Middle but although we couldn't see the bird they didn't appear to flush it so we kept going. Once on top we split up and began our search for the bird. It didn't take long, it suddenly flew up from the west side and headed south towards Little eye, surely it was gone for good now but no, miraculously it turned and flew back along the shore towards us, eventually going past us and heading back to the main island. 


Pretty soon we were joined by many of the usual Hilbre regulars and we searched the main island, eventually finding the bird on the rocks on the west side. It was always flighty, I only saw it on the ground once. When it wasn't flying it was usually tucked into a cove or behind rocks and then it was a case of waiting for it to fly. On one such occasion it flew past us south but then doubled back and returned north, and later when I returned to the observatory building to pick up my bag it flew over the garden and along the east side before returning in the opposite direction a few seconds later.

It was the stuff of dreams for me finding a hoopoe on Hilbre, the 4th record for the island and the first for an amazing 30 years. Unsurprisingly it was a Hilbre first for myself and also for most if not all of the bird observatory members. The bird continued to show throughout the afternoon, with the last sighting at 5pm. High tide then prevented birders from accessing the island until the following morning and the bird was not seen again. Much better photos than mine can be found on the Hilbre Island Blog (opens in a new window).

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Filling my boots with an albatross


Some birds you just have to fill your boots with, no matter how many times you've seen one. A black-browed albatross at Bempton Cliffs is one such example. Yes I saw this bird at point blank range just over two weeks ago, yes I saw one (twice) at Herma Ness, Unst on Shetland in the 1980s and yes I've seen them from pelagics off Australia in recent years, but honestly if there's black-browed albatross sitting on a cliff in amongst the gannet colony at Bempton Cliffs you really can't see it too many times. It's essential viewing, so when I got the opportunity to go back today I jumped at it.

The gannet colony at Bempton has grown dramatically in the past few years. When I first visited the colony in 1984 I recorded 300 birds. By 2014 it had grown to 2000 pairs and the most recent population estimate puts it at 11,000 pairs. Why it should have grown so much is unclear to me, possibly other sites such as Bass Rock have reached capacity and this is the nearest available site at which the population can expand. Whatever the reasons it's an impressive spectacle especially on a bright sunny day such as today, the noise, the smell and views. Wonderful.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Elegant tern, Cemlyn Bay


The weather was pretty grim when we left home this morning and it was misty and lashing it down all of the way to about Chester, making us wonder why we were bothering going, but by the time we got to Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey at 10:30 we were in glorious sunshine. We'd planned a walk from Cemlyn Bay to Carmel head which conveniently passed the viewing area for the Sandwich tern colony on Cemlyn lagoon which in recent days has played host to a cracking summer plumage elegant tern, only about the fifth ever in the UK. 

On our first pass of the lagoon the tern was missing and had not been seen for two hours having flown out to sea before we arrived, presumably to fish, but on our return a few hours later, we found that it was back and showing well in the middle of the colony. 

A lot of the time only it's head was visible above the tall vegetation, when there was no mistaking it with it's bright orange bill, but occasionally it sat out in the open and gave excellent views.

Not a first for me, I saw a different, ringed bird at Pagham harbour in 2017, but a cracker non the less. Also on the lagoon a roseate tern, bringing my UK year total so far to 222 species. Cemlyn Bay is at the extreme edge of what I consider the north west, which is basically all of the coastal counties of North Wales plus Lancashire, Cheshire, Merseyside, Cumbria and Greater Manchester. In otherwords the area that was covered by the old Birdline North West. Elegant tern therefore is a new north west tick for me, and brings my NW total to 373 species.
 

Orange-billed terns are by no means straight forward to identify, with several similar species to confuse matters, plus there is always the specter of hybridisation hanging over every identification. I don't know enough about the identification of these birds to eliminate the possibility of this being a hybrid, but presumably somebody has ruled it out. I'm not worrying too much about that though, the bird that I saw at Pagham harbour was ringed in France and DNA was taken which proved that it was pure elegant tern, that's one of the reasons I was so keen to travel to see that bird. 

Elegant tern breeds on the Pacific coasts of North America, but in recent years the species has started breeding  in small numbers on the Mediterranean coast of Spain and even western France. I guess that we can expect records to become more frequent.

Edit: It appears that the bird at Cemlyn Bay has been matched from photo analysis with one of three elegant terns which have been seen in western France during the past few weeks. The other two are a pair with a chick and one of them is the bird which I saw at Pagham harbour in 2017.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Great Orme


Hundreds of silver-studded blues on the Great Orme this morning, most sitting on the vegetation waiting for the sun to come out and waiting for the day to warm up, I've never seen anything quite like it. Lots of colour on the Orme at the moment, with carpets of common rock-rose interspersed with bloody cranesbill, meadow sweet, pyramidal orchid and viper's-bugloss, amongst many other plants.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Wood Sandpiper, Newton Marsh


This wood sandpiper showed really well at Newton Marsh today and brings my UK year total to 220.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Eyeballing a Black-browed albatross, Bempton Cliffs


Fortunately I had a job over in East Yorkshire this morning which required a very early start and meant that I was on site and working by 6:30am. The plan was, do the job and then call in at nearby Southfield Reservoir in the hope of seeing a Caspian tern which had been reported sporadically over the past few days. However things didn't quite go to plan and a few hours later I found myself on my way to Bempton Cliffs, having just received an alert that there was a black-browed albatross on the cliffs in amongst the gannet colony. I didn't need black-browed albatross for the UK having seen one on Unst, Shetland in the mid-1980's, but that was nearly 40 years ago and I just couldn't miss such a great opportunity to connect with this magnificent bird. 

I arrived at Bempton and headed for the viewing platform where it had been showing. Unfortunately it was no longer on the cliff, it was now sitting on the sea and drifting away from Bempton towards Flamborough Head. I saw it through the scope but it was very distant, so I decided to have a walk along the cliff towards Flamborough to see if I could get closer. I walked quite a way, nearly as far as Thornwick Bay, but I couldn't relocate it and eventually gave up and walked back towards Bempton.

I'd nearly reached the first viewing platform on the way back when I stopped to talk to another birder. We were lamenting the fact that it had disappeared before we had chance to get a decent look at it when suddenly he broke off and exclaimed "It's going over our heads!" as an enormous shadow passed over us! For a brief second I was eyeball to eyeball with a black-browed albatross but then it was gone. We watched as it flew along the cliffs towards the viewing platform and then circled around a couple of times allowing us breathtaking views against the cliffs of Staple Newk, before heading off over the platform and continuing north. What a view, what an incredible experience!

Caspian tern, Southfield Reservoir

Photo: Caspian tern.

On my way back from Bempton Cliffs I still had time to call in at Southfield reservoir where fortunately the Caspian tern was present and showing well (whatever my photos may tell you!). Amazingly there have occasionally been two birds present. 

Caspian terns are fabulous birds, this was only my third in the UK but I've seen lots abroad, including Florida, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.
 

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Highfield Moss


I called in at Highfield Moss SSSI today, which is just behind the Travelers Rest inn at Lowton. It's a good site for many species of plant which are otherwise scarce in the area and is particularly noted for having a declining population of marsh gentians. Today I was surprised to find sheep's-bit in flower. This is the first time I have seen this plant at the site and as far as I know it's the first site record, it's certainly not noted in the SSSI designation for the site. It's also the first time I have seen this species in Greater Manchester. 

It's not all good news though, I failed to find the petty whin which I had gone to see and the site looks really degraded to me, the sphagnum has been trampled and obliterated in many places and dogs allowed to crash into the water, which has caused lots of damage.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about the Moss, A Natural History of Highfield Moss, Lowton

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Observations of a spoonbill nest in Yorkshire


Spoonbills have bred again in West Yorkshire this year, little more than an hours drive from home. It still feels very strange to be saying that, to the extent that I am still very uncomfortable about giving the exact location, even though it's not a secret and the bird information services and even the RSPB openly report on the event. Two days ago there were apparently 18 adults in total and one fledged young, but today I could only find about five adults and one chick, though the rest were probably roosting in the adjacent willow trees.

I've called in twice this year, the first time on 6th April when I was fortunate enough to see them copulating, and again today when I saw the resultant chick.


The moment of conception.......


.......results in this annoying little so and so. What a pain in the backside. Actually does this count as a fledged bird? It doesn't look as though it's got flight feathers yet to me. I'm not sure how many pairs breed here, there was certainly at least one other sitting bird near to this nest and if there is another chick more advanced than this then perhaps there are three nests. The birds in the two videos are clearly the same family, the willow trees look very different now that they are in leaf but you can see from the shapes of the branches that the youngster in the second video is in exactly the same position as the pair in the first video above.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Papa Westray


Our last day on Orkney and we saved the best until last. We took the eight seater 15 minute Loganair flight to the remote Orkney island of Papa Westray, which included a brief stop to offload passengers at the nearby island of Westray before resuming with the shortest scheduled flight in the world, all of one minute from Westray to Papa Westray. Beautiful scenery, breathtaking sandy beaches and turquoise seas and glorious weather. A 10 mile walk around the island taking in the RSPB reserve at North Hill and the oldest surviving stone house in northern Europe, Knap of Howar which was occupied 3500BC and is even older than the houses at Skara Brae which we visited last week and which make the pyramids and Stonehenge seem like modern developments. I managed to find my own white-tailed eagle, apparently only the 7th record this year on the island following no records at all last year, and we visited the monument to the site of the last great auk nest in the UK.

At home at Loch of Swannay


I'm not sure if Orkney has a "county bird", but if it's not the fulmar then I'll be requiring a good explanation of why not. Fulmars are everywhere on Orkney, even nesting on the ground on North Ronaldsay (see previous post) and there are even places where they nest on inland freshwater lochs. 

We're staying for 10 nights in a house on the shores of one such loch, Loch of Swannay and the amount of birdlife here is just amazing. From dawn until dusk (currently around 03:30 to 23:00, though it never seems to go truly dark) we are surrounded by the calls of breeding waders. Curlews are the most predominant and seemingly all around the house, their bubbling song is with us constantly and they are permanently accompanied by the calls of at least one or more of redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing or common sandpiper.

Photo: Curlew.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

White-billed diver fly past at the Brough of Birsay


I arrived at the Brough of Birsay car park at about 7pm this evening. The sky to the north was black as a rain shower passed by, but thankfully it was dry and sunny where I was standing. Almost immediately I saw it, a large diver flying from east to west. I expected it to be the 1st summer great northern which I have seen here on several occasions recently, but on raising my binoculars it took an instant to realise that I was wrong! The birds ivory bill glowed in the bright sunlight and against the dark background and it's jizz was just so different to great northern, more like a giant red-throated diver with bill held slightly upwards. It was clearly a white-billed diver in full breeding plumage! It powered it's way past me and around the brough before veering southerly as it passed the island. What a sight! It looked like it might be dropping into the bay between here and Marwick head,  but I couldn't be certain and the bright setting sun in that direction made searching for it virtually impossible. Edit: two days later it was reported again in this bay.

The Brough of Birsay is on the north west tip of mainland Orkney and is about 7 miles from our accommodation. It's a tidal island which is accessible for about two hours either side of low tide. We had a gentle walk over at low tide on the 12th and everything seemed good, lots of seabirds, lots of flowers and a bright sunny day. Three days later it was a different story...

I've been going to the car park for the Brough most evenings hoping to see a dolphin or two, or even a whale. They are seen from here pretty regularly but not during my time on the islands. However on the 15th the tide was out and despite it being an evening of moderate winds and squally showers, I decided that I'd walk over to the island and have a look from there. I had a quiet amble around, splitting my time between looking out for cetaceans and watching the breeding seabirds. Puffins had been noticeably absent during our previous visit but tonight I noticed that there were plenty flying around the island and they seemed to be landing on the north side. I made my way over and saw a few on the grassy slopes. It was 8pm and I decided to stay here for a bit and watch them. Over to my right I could see that the causeway was already covered by water, the wind had dropped a bit and it was a beautiful evening..... shit! The causeway was already covered! I was now facing the possibility of spending the night on the island. By my reckoning the earliest I would be able to get off would be about 5am tomorrow! Forget the puffins, I legged it down to the causeway. The sea was rushing in fast but I reckoned I could make it. For about 10m I was ankle deep in fast flowing sea water but then the causeway raised a bit and I was one the otherside. It was a close shave. Fifteen minutes later would have been too late and I would have spent a very uncomfortable night on the island. Far too close for comfort.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The Old Man


Hoy is quite different to the rest of Orkney, with relatively big mountains and spectacular sea cliffs, and the Old Man of Hoy is one of the highest sea stacks in the UK. In truth you don't need to visit Hoy to get the best views of the Old Man, it's far more spectacular from aboard the Hamnavoe, the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. From the top of the cliff and close up it doesn't look as tall and in fact it is dwarfed by the impressive towering cliffs of St John's Head which rise to over three times the height of the Old Man.

Birds here are the usual Orkney favourites, with fulmars dominating and a full suite of sea birds including great and Arctic skuas. Of particular interest today, many male emperor moths were on the wing and flew past us at speed, refusing to land. Other interesting invertebrates included several green tiger beetles.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Stormies, Quail and Oysterplant at Brough Ness, South Ronaldsay

Photo: Oysterplant.

The forecast was pretty dire today so we planned a day in Kirkwall and various craft shops. In the end the forecast was wrong so we cut short our shopping trip and headed for the extreme southern end of Orkney, Brough Ness on South Ronaldsay. 

With great views over the Pentland Firth, we spent much of our time scanning the sea hoping for orca or any other cetacean. Our luck was out today, but I did manage to pick out a couple of storm petrels close inshore, and on one of the beaches we came across some nice patches of oysterplant in full flower.

After a stop in the Skerries Bistro we took the inland route back to the car an had curlews, redshanks and oystercatchers flying around us and about a kilometer east of Burwick we heard a very close but typically invisible quail calling.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Not so rosy at Yesnaby


Spectacular scenery and bracing winds at Yesnaby today, a truly memorable and exhilarating experience. However perhaps only my birding friends will understand the pain of getting home to find that an adult rose-coloured starling was found while we were there on one of the headlands visited. Not that I'm too bothered about rose-coloured starling because I've seen lots in recent years, but it would have been nice to add it to my self found list. It could have been worse though... a lot worse.

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