Sunday, 28 February 2016

A few conifers on Scout Scar, Cumbria

In their wild state, conifers can be very different to the tall, lanky telegraph poles you see in closely packed plantations.




Larch, a conifer which sheds its leaves in winter.

Scots pine.

The Lake District from Scout Scar.

Looking down the Lyth Valley towards Arnside.

The case for the Hooded Merganser

We headed down to Corsham Park in Wiltshire today, for a look at the female hooded merganser which has been present for about a week. The identification of the bird is not in doubt, but more problamatic is it's status. Is it a vagrant from North America or an escapee from a local wildfowl collection?

In support of the vagrancy theory we've certainly had plenty of impressive weather systems moving quickly across the North Atlantic recently, and there are plenty of ring-necked ducks and green-winged teal in the country at the moment, species whose credentials rarely seem to get questioned these days. Furthermore, there are also presumed wild hooded mergansers currently in the Azores and Iceland, and February is apparently the peak month for the species spring migration.

The Wiltshire bird is unringed and has a full set of flight feathers and spent most of its time a good 100m away from us, alone on the far side of the lake. It was constantly diving and catching prey. It was not associating with mallard, if anything it was actually closer to the goosander which were also on the lake. Eventually it swam across the lake and into the bay near to where we were standing and showed very well, in fact nearly as close and as well as the hooded mergansers I watched in Central Park New York in 2012.

Then two mallards swam towards us clearly expecting to be fed. The merganser quickly followed them, but it did not beg for food, quite the opposite, it continued to dive and with a high success rate, often bringing up what looked like invertebrate prey. One suggestion was that in the shallows the mallard were stirring up invertebrates from the bottom which the merganser was simply taking advantage of.

However, if it is to be taken seriously as a vagrant it needs to disappear soon. Why, well hooded merganser is a duck which in the wild migrates. If it stays in the country over the summer and into the latter part of the year and does not disappear, then it will most likely be considered an escape from a collection. On the otherhand if it disappears by April then it improves its credentials as a wild bird. Still not conclusive, but it tips the balance in favour of the vagrancy theory. Whatever the truth, it's an interesting subject and a great little bird, and I saw nothing in the birds behaviour to indicate that it was an escapee. It's on my list until for the time being at least.

Edit: This bird was accepted by the BBRC on 14/06/2016.

After seeing the star bird, we headed over to Somerset and saw a cattle egret in a field with cows and at least 12 little egrets.

UK Life: 413 (Hooded merganser); Year: 155 (Hooded merganser, cattle egret, marsh harrier)

This is clearly an adult female, with the distinct white lines on the wings and the yellow bill.

Hooded mergansers eat both invertebrates and small fish. Here it appears to have an invert and one theory is that it follows the mallards around because when they come close inshore and start scrambling for bread, they stir up inverts from the bottom. Certainly the merganser showed no interest in waiting for bread to be thrown. Not that any was thrown today, but the mallards thought it might be!

Here it is again with another invertebrate.

There's a cattle egret in there somewhere.

Everytime we visit the south midlands we see lots of impressive mistletoe, and none more so than these near Gloucester today.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

A legless friend and some pitfalls amongst the geese

The long staying Caspian gull was showing well on Ainsdale beach again this morning. Now in its 2nd winter (or 3rd calendar year) plumage it's a smart looking bird. It's lost part of a leg since I last saw it back in September last year, due to becoming entangled in fishing line, but it seems to be healthy enough and coping well. Hopefully it will remain at Ainsdale beach until it reaches maturity allowing those of us who don't get to see many Caspian gulls the opportunity to get to grips with the full range of plumages at close range.

On nearby Downholland Moss this afternoon I came across a couple of flocks of pink-footed geese, each with well over 1000 birds. One of the flocks I managed to get quite close to, and was particularly struck by how variable the species is. I've noticed before the large variaton in size of these geese, but their plumages are equally as variable. Some are pale grey, others are chocolate brown, some are heavily barred, others are not. Bill patterns vary considerably and some have white at the base of the bill whilst others don't. There was even a leucistic pink-foot in the flock and one with so much white around the base of the bill that I thought at first that it was a white-fronted goose.

Notice how dark the front two birds are. The one on the left even appears to have a band on its bill. Tundra bean goose? Nope, pink-foot.

Surely a juvenile Eurasian white-front? No, the head shape is wrong, the leg colour is wrong and it's too pale. It's a pink-foot.

Notice how some of the geese have dark backs, others have grey backs.

The leucistic bird really stood out in the sunshine.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Tittesworth Reservoir, Staffordshire

No sign of the recent ring-necked duck at Tittesworth Reservoir today, but a drake mandarin and a willow tit were nice and on the way home we found a couple of dippers in Wildboarclough.

Year: 151 (Mandarin, stonechat, dipper). This day in 2014 (my best ever year) I was also on 151.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Pink-footed geese Rainford by-pass

Seven hundred pink-footed geese at Inglenook Farm on the Rainford by-pass today. I didn't have a scope with me so couldn't say if there were any other species with the flock.

Also today a flock of at least 60 yellowhammers from the Old Coach Road between the East Lancs and New Cut Lane.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Snipe and water rail

Snipe and water rail showing well at Burton Mere Wetlands, and then faced up to each other, with the snipe blinking first and running away. No sign of the reported spotted redshanks but I didn't check the Inner Marsh Farm hide.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Flowering hazel

There's lots of hazel in flower at the moment, and the catkins really make the bush stand out at a distance. However the catkins are the male flowers, if you look a bit closer you may see the diminutive fiery red headed female flowers.

Plants have various way to stop self-pollination, but I'm not sure which method hazel uses. What I can say is that on only one of the bushes I saw today were the female flowers open like this. All of the others were closed. Maybe on each individual bush the female flowers only open after the males have shed their pollen. If each bush sheds it's pollen at slightly different times then that would avoid self-pollination but would allow the female flower to be fertilised,

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Marbury Country Park in my lunch break

Marbury Country Park usually gets a bittern or two over the winter, but this winter they've been largely conspicuous by their absence. A sudden increase in reports over the past couple of weeks  however, convinced me that it was time to start spending my lunch break in the park, and today at the second attempt I managed to connect. It was on show as soon as I arrived and showed well through the scope, though it did occasionally go missing for a minute or two and at such times was often difficult to relocate even with with the aid of the scope. It was still showing on and off when I left. Also today, from the office window, a nice flock of 30+ yellowhammers.

Year: 149 (Bittern, yellowhammer)

Saturday, 6 February 2016

A soggy day in North Wales

A very poor day for weather but an excellent day for birds! We started at dawn at the black grouse lek at World's End at Llangollen, and fortunately the rain kept off until we were about to leave. We saw at least 20 males leking in the traditional place just off the road and the air was full of their cooing calls. There is a short video of part of the lek here. Also at World's End, several red grouse.

We spent most of the rest of the day on Angelsey, where this hooded crow has been on the car park of ASDA / MacDonalds at Holyhead for at least a couple of weeks and proved to be very approachable.

There were at least six black guillemots in the old harbour at Holyhead, in various stages of moult. Some were very white and others almost black.

This 1st winter Iceland gull has been in this field at Porth Dafarch for a few days, between South Stack and Trearddur Bay. Not obvious from this photo, but it was holding one of its wings a bit oddly, so could possibly be injured.

We were surpirsed to find this second hooded crow in a field near South Stack. It appears to be a darker bird than the Holyhead bird, but the weather was so poor and dull that it's difficult to be sure. I can't see any flecks of black in places where they shouldn't be, so I don't think that this is a hybrid, but again, difficult to be sure and the photo isn't great. The weather at South Stack was awful so we didn't have opportunity to see very much, expect that there were at least 500 guillemots already on the ledges.

Beddmanarch Bay and the Inland Sea are always worth a stop and today was no exception, with 40+ pale-bellied brent geese, two great northern divers and a good selection of waders.

We ended the day with a couple of snow buntings at Kinmel Bay near Rhyl. The male especially was a cracking bird, but much more nervous than the approachable female.

Year: 147 (black grouse, red grouse, hooded crow, black guillemot, Iceland gull, shag & something else). Amazingly, on this day in 2014 (my best ever year) I was on 132! Didn't know I was going for a big year list!

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