Saturday, 21 January 2017

Pacific diver, hooded merganser and ring-billed gull

I love it when a plan comes together, and today several plans came together!. I was picked up by Ray Banks at 5.45am and we headed north, 220 miles north in fact to the RSPB reserve Lochwinnoch near Glasgow, where there has been a stunning drake hooded merganser for the past few weeks. It ticks all of the boxes for a genuine wild vagrant. It arrived in the country at the same time as a few other American birds, it's extremely wary, unringed and apparently elusive at times.

Within about 20 minutes of arriving we had found the bird on the opposite side of the north bay of Barr Loch, about 150 - 200m away from where we were standing and about as close as it gets. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we saw the bird well through the telescopes, and watched as it threw its head forward and fanned its crest in display. A really cracking bird, the highlight of an exceptional day even though this wasn't even a new bird for me. Also on the loch many wigeon, goldeneye, teal and goosander. Then the merganser swan into a bay and was lost to sight, and that was our cue to leave. 

The superb hooded merganser was seen displaying, I think to female teal, although there were plenty of other ducks on the loch including goldeneye which I believe the species is known to occasionally hybridise with.

Barr Loch

We headed back south for about 30 minutes, to Strathclyde country park. There's been an adult ring-billed gull here for are a week or two, and fortunately we found it straight away, sitting on a bridge at fairly close range. This was too easy! We'd seen our two main target species really well and it still wasn't quite 11am!

I know how you feel mate....

Decision time, what to do next? A Pacific diver at East Chevington in Northumberland was calling my name from afar because it was a new bird for me, but Ray had already seen one and it would add another 140 miles to an already long journey. We needed a quick decision, we made a quick decision and set off for Northumberland.

On the way we got some slightly worrying reports from the site, first of all the diver had flown towards the sea and then returned and then it had moved to a different lake at nearby Druridge Bay Country Park. Was it planning to leave before we arrived? However at least it seemed settled again and at least we wouldn't have as far to walk at Druridge Bay. We drove past Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-tweed and Lindisfarne, and even contemplated for a moment calling in at Goswick for a look at the black scoter but decided this was a bird too far. Finally at 13:30 we arrived at Druridge Bay CP. The diver was showing ridiculously well! It was swimming around and fishing 15 feet in front of us at times. A fantastic bird, and my 5th new bird in little over a month. We arrived home at 17:45.

UK Year: 149 (Hooded merganser, ring-billed gull, Pacific diver); UK Life: 422 (Pacific diver).

1st winter Pacific diver. Note the faint chin strap, the dark ear coverts, the slim bill and the lack of a white flank patch.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Fylde goose spectacular

Sometimes geese can be a real pain, as we found last week when we toured around the Fylde all day searching for flocks and hardly found any, and those that we did find were usually distant and partly hidden by hedges etc.. However on a good day there is no greater experience than the sight and sound of a large goose flock, and today proved to be one of those days, with huge numbers of geese on the ground, in the air and calling all around us.

Over the past few weeks the north Fylde coast has been exceptional for geese, with several species seen with the large flocks of pink-footed geese. The star of the show has undoubtably been an adult red-breasted goose, but as we found last week, even such a stunning and obvious bird can be difficult to find in largely flat countryside, and the bird had been missing for nearly a week since our last visit before being found again yesterday.

Today started in much the same way as last week, we toured around the area where the main flock had last been seen yesterday, around Braides and Sand Villa just west of Cockerham, but to no avail. Just a handful of geese flying over, a few hundred distantly on the estuary sands from Pilling Lane Ends, but no large flocks close by on the ground. Then we drove a little further afield, more towards Cockerham to Marsh Houses, where from the corner of my eye whilst driving I just about glanced five birds which appeared to be landing. We couldn't see the fields where they landed from the car because of the hedges, but fortunately there was a place to pull in with a gap in the hedge. I was staggered to see a flock of easily 3000 geese on the ground which we'd been completely oblivious to whilst driving. Surely this had to be the main flock, so we jumped out of the car and got the telescopes out.

Almost immediately Ray picked out a tundra bean goose close to the front edge of the flock, a really nice bird and a good start. Soon we had also found three European white-fronted geese and a single barnacle, but no sign of the red-breasted goose, though we couldn't be sure that it wasn't there because large parts of the flock were hidden behind hedges or were in undulations in the ground. Then a passing birder stopped and told us that there was another, larger flock just down the road and gave us the happy news that the red-breasted goose was with them.

So we drove a mile or two down the road to Upper Thurnham and sure enough came across a group of birders scanning through another flock, this one holding at least 4,000 pink-footed geese. The red-breasted goose was right in the midddle of the flock, but we were raised up and looking down on it so had a completely unobstructed view. It seemed to be associating with a small group of 11 European white-fronts, and there were other white-fronts elsewhere in the flock. We found another barnacle goose, and then I managed to find a bean goose for myself, except that mine was the other race, a taiga bean goose! This really was proving to be a good goose day!

Typical carrier species for wild red-breasted geese are usually either European white-fronts or dark-bellied brents, and this bird could have arrived with either. There were at least 18 European white-fronts between the two flocks that we looked at, and the bird did appear to be associating with them. On the otherhand the Lancashire pink-feet often move backwards and forwards to Norfolk, where at places like Snettisham RSPB on the Wash they mix with dark-bellied brents. If the brents were feeding on eel grass out on the estuary, the red-breasted goose might have found the pink-foot arable cuisine more to it's taste and started hanging around with them instead. There was a red-breasted goose in Norfolk a week or two ago which has now disappeared, and this is most likely the same bird.

Just a little further down the road we came across a flock of at least 300 whooper swans with several Bewick's swans. We ended the day at Knott-end-on-sea with decent views of the long staying though often elusive black redstart.

The British Ornithologist Union (BOU) has recently decided to adopt the species list of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) which will mean a number of changes to the British list, including the acceptance of tundra and taiga bean geese as seperate species rather than races as they are currently considered. For futher information click here. UK Year: 146 (Various geese, Bewick's swan and black redstart)

Red-breasted goose with European white-fronts and pink-footed geese. Notice that some of the pink-feet have transmitters around their necks.

Taiga bean goose with a pink-foot. Notice how much larger the bean goose is, in particular the size of its head and bill. Apart from the large size, the bill shape (rather elongated) and extent of orange on the bill is also a good indication that this is taiga bean rather than tundra bean.

Tundra bean goose with pink-footed geese. This is a smaller bird than the taiga bean, the bill is more chunky and triangular, and the extent of orange on the bill is less.

Taiga bean goose.

Taiga bean goose (right).

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The year ticks mount up and yet more dodgy photos

It's that time of year again when every day out produces a few year ticks and even the commonest bird has it's moment of glory.  Year listing might not be everybodys cup of tea, but at least in drives you on to go to places which you might not otherwise consider at this time of year and at least it makes you look again at even the commonest birds. So for example last week we made the effort to go to World's End in dismal weather because it's the time of year for the black grouse lek and we had a tremendous experience in the mist even if photography was nigh on impossible, whilst on Saturday just gone we went to Anglesey to look for divers, grebes and choughs. In total we managed to get 15 years ticks on Saturday, including chough (2), Slavonian grebe (2), great northern diver (3), black guillemot (2) and snow bunting (3), plus a lot of other great birds, many of which which weren't even year ticks such as 5 cattle egrets and 4 long-tailed ducks.

Then on Sunday we called in at Pennington Flash for the gull roost and managed to pick out the juvenile Iceland gull. Star bird of the past few days though has to be a 1st winter female black-throated thrush on Monday 16th at Adwick Washlands RSPB, not as close as the St Asaph bird in December (except in flight), but still a nice view through the scope, and nice to visit this reserve for the first time.

Finally on 17th I got another five year ticks including green-winged teal at North Cave Wetlands in East Yorkshire.

UK Year: 138 (latest black-throated thush, Iceland gull, green-winged teal).

These choughs obligingly landed on the roof of the RSPB cafe at South Stack.

Not a year tick but always nice to see, three of the five cattle egrets at Maltreath, Angelsey, I've now seen eight this year already!

Great northern diver, Trearddur Bay, Anglesey. One of three seen on Saturday, the others were at Bedmannarch Bay and the Inland Sea.

My 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th long-tailed ducks so far this year, these were also in Trearddur Bay.

Two of three snow buntings at Llandudno west shore.

Dodgy photos-r-us. Black-throated thrush Adwick Wetlands.

Green-winged teal at North Cave Wetlands.

Juvenile Iceland gull Manby Flash, Lincolnshire.

This odd looking teal was at North Cave Wetlands, but is it a hybrid or just an aberrant teal?

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Dawn on a Welsh hillside

It was 7:30am, pitch black, foggy and drizzling, and we were parked on the side of a Welsh hillside -  probably. To be honest we weren't even sure that we were in the right place, because all we could see was the road, the fog and a terrible blackness all  around us. The dreadful series of events which had brought us to this place kept running through my mind - the 5am alarm call, the hurried breakfast, the burnt toast. A car had pulled up outside and silently I had loaded my most precious posessions into the boot, not daring to make a noise for fear of waking the neighbours from their slumbers. Then the long drive began. I drifted in and out of sleep and dreamt, or at least I thought I dreamt, that an inhuman voice was giving us directions which would invitably lead us to a dreadful conclusion. Suddenly with a start I realised that it was not a dream. We had arrived.....

For a while there was nothing, just blackness and the gentle patter of drizzle on the windscreen. 8:00am had come and gone, and in the now half light I could just about make out the outline of the hillside to our right. Suddenly I was aware of a mysterious black shape on the hillside. Was it a boulder? Or was it something else? Then there was another, and another, and now there could be no doubting that these shapes were living creatures because they were moving! Tentatively I put the window down. The drizzle wet my arm and I heard a hissing to my right followed by another in front, and somewhere in the distance a voice cried out "go back, go back, go back!", but it was too late. The coooing had begun......

It may not have been the visually the best black grouse leck I have ever been to, but it was certainly the eeriest and most atmospheric, and at least we had the place to ourselves. Not ideal weather for viewing but the air was still and full of their calls, and there must have been at least 25 males on show at any one time. A tremendous experience.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we then moved to Denbigh industrial estate where there was a flock of 190 waxwings. Ray needed them for a year tick, I thought about staying in the car.....

Our next stop was at Llanbedr-y-cennenin in the Conwy valley, a well known hawfinch site. Our luck was in we saw three birds high up in one of the trees after we had been there for less than 5 minutes. Result! I've sometimes spent hours here and still not seen them.

Our first failure of the day was at Llandudno, where we couldn't find the long staying snow buntings, so with the light beginning to fade we moved swiftly on to Conwy RSPB. Our luck really was in today, because within minutes of arriving at the bridge over the pond we had found the firecrest which has been reported recently. This is another bird which I have sometimes spent hours looking for at Conwy. Finally it was back to the cafe for a mug of tea and a slice of bara brith. So at the end of today my 2017 year list stands at 109.

Let battle commence.

The leck.

Not from today! This photo was from the same site in 2015.

Oh hum...

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A tour of the Humber

It seemed like I was doing a tour of the Humber today. I arrived at Welwick Wetlands near Spurn at 8am and spent about three hours walking up and down the sea wall looking for the juvenile pallid harrier which I saw last year on the otherside of the river at Grainthorpe Haven near Donna Nook but which has since relocated here.

I thought I was going to miss out today, I only found it 15 minutes before I needed to leave, but what a great view it was, easily my best view ever of pallid harrier, and the light was perfect. Not that I was able to get a decent photo though, probably because this is one of those species which mesmerises me so much that I forget to raise the camera! I only took two photos of the bird, and it wasn't even in one of those! The name is a bit unfair on the species I think, yes the adult males may be a bit pallid looking, but the juveniles are the most beautiful of all harriers of any age in my opinion. What really struck me today in the excellent sunlight was how orangey the birds underparts were, and what about that face? One of the most exciting birds there is in my opinion, I may go back again if I get the opportunity before the end of the winter.

The three hour wait to see it wan't bad either, I had excellent views of 2 short-eared owls, 2 adult peregrines (together), merlin and 2 marsh harriers, plus thousands of waders.

Then I drove back through Hull and over the Humber Bridge, which was quite spectacular today. The sky was breathtakingly blue and the river was like a mirror as I crossed. On my right as I neared the southern shore I could see the Far Ings reserve and then I turned west and headed towards Alkborough Flats nature reserve. I stopped briefly at South Ferriby where the road runs along the river, because it was just so beautiful. There were hundreds of waders on the glistening mud flats, including about 20 avocets, as well as many shelduck and teal. Near Scunthorpe I stopped and did a survey, before heading east again, this time on the south shore of the river. I ended up doing a dusk survey at a site near Cleethorpes and was rewarded with 2 more short-eared owls. The photos of the harrier flying left is from today, the other of it flying right is the same bird but from Grainthorpe Haven last November.

Brown-billed dunlin!

Pallid harrier Grainthorpe Haven November 2016.

Pallid harrier today at Welwick Wetlands.




Welwick Wetlands.

Welwick Wetlands.

South Ferriby.

Dark-bellied brent geese with a single pale bellied bird at Tetney Marshes 06/01/2017.

On my way home I called in at Ulleby reservoir in South Yorkshire for this tundra bean goose.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

I was always a little unenthusiastic about driving to Stow-on-the-Wold to see the adult blue rock thrush which was discovered over Christmas, and after an aborted attempt last week following negative news received when we were part way there, I thought it unlikely that I would feel the need to try again. It's a great bird, an adult male, but there's some doubt about its origins, and it's a long way to go for a likely escape.

However when a female pine bunting was discovered two days ago in a field at Venus Pools Nature Reserve in Shropshire, theoretically on the way back from Gloucestershire, it seemed a good opportunity to see both birds on the same day. Truth to tell, I wasn't even particularly enthused about seeing the pine bunting because the word was that it was distant and very elusive. Still, it only added about 40 miles onto the return journey to Gloucestershire, and so this morning we set off at 6:00am hoping to add the two together and come up with a decent day where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Everything relied on the blue rock thrush showing quickly and well, and it didn't let us down. An hour after arriving at Stow-on-the-Wold we had seen the bird well and were back in the car and heading north. Although it was a lovely and obliging bird, whatever its origins, I hate birding around housing estates and I was glad to be on my way. As for the bird, I've seen blue rock thrush in Europe on several occasions and they have all been far less approachable than this bird. However, that's on the breeding grounds, not on the wintering grounds so who knows? The bird seemed to be in good health, though it often appeared to be trying to regurgitate something. Apart from the tameness and the location, I couldn't see too much wrong with it. Whatever the outcome, I'm glad I went and glad I saw it.

However the pine bunting was not so obliging....

We arrived at Venus Pools NR at 12:30pm to find that the bird had only been seen once and briefly this morning, and straight away it was obvious that it was going to be a challenge. I'd done a lot of research into the id of female pine bunting before we left home, but even so it was clearly going to be very difficult. Basically what we were looking for was pale female yellowhammer, and there were a lot of those in the hedge, with reed bunting and corn bunting also thrown into the mix for good luck. When the birds were feeding on the ground in the kale field they were invisible and we had to wait for them to be disturbed and fly up into the hedge. Even then we could only identify the birds on the outside of the hedge, anything which went into the hedge was lost to view. And all of this was happening about 100m distant, and none of the birds stayed still for any length of time. I gave up hope almost before we had started.

However, at 14:10 somebody next to me got onto a very pale looking bird in the hedge, and fortunately I managed to pick it up straight away.  It was a very frosty, grey looking bird, with white, streaked underparts, a grey nape and a chestnut rump, and the head markings looked good. We watched it for about 30 seconds and then it was gone. Hardly the most inspiring bird, but then I never expected it to be and I was quite happy that we had seen the pine bunting.

So two UK ticks in the same day, not bad. Obviously if the BBRC reject the blue rock thrush as an escape then I'll need to revise my list, but for now that's four new UK birds since I returned from Cyprus on 17th December (16 days ago!). Who says this is a quiet time of year?

UK life: 421 (Blue rock thrush, pine bunting)

Catching up....
Over the Christmas period we managed to see quite a few decent things, here are a few of the highlights.

Blue phase lesser snow goose at Marshside, Southport. I've seen very few blue phase birds, which are almost always lesser snow geese. The overwhelming majority of snow geese I have seen have been white phase greaters, in which the blue phase is very rare. At one time greaters were considered the most likely form to be genuine wild vagrants, but that was a few years ago and the situation may have changed.

It took me 30 years to see an otter at Leighton Moss, but in recent years I've had a smattering of sightings, and on 30/12/2016 we saw this animal fishing for long periods in front of the public causeway. One of the best views of otter I have ever had.

There were up to five cattle egrets at both Marshside and Burton Mere Wetlands in the autumn of 2016, but recently reports have dried up and the birds seem to have dispersed. However three birds have recently been found in this horse paddock in Birkdale.

I came across these fieldfares whilst waiting for waxwings in Warrington on 02/01/2017.

On Christmas Eve we headed down to Blagdon Lake in Somerset to see a Blyth's pipit, my second in the UK, and amazingly my first was also on Christmas Eve, 2014. Also at Blagdon Lake there were 10 great white egrets, three Bewick's swans and lots of ducks. Later we went to Chew Valley Reservoir and found a drake ring-necked duck in amongst hundreds of tufted duck and pochard.

I ended 2016 with 260 for the year, which included seven new UK birds (hooded merganser, great knot, booted warbler, western swamphen, Siberian accentor, dusky thrush and black-throated thrush). My UK life list at the end of 2016 was 419.

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