Sunday, 30 April 2017

The finest sky dancer of them all

It was always going to take something special to drag me away from the house move, but yesterday I took a short break and headed up to Dunsop Bridge in Bowland. News that a stunnning male pallid harrier was showing well and even sky dancing was just too much to resist. Despite the rather disparaging name, pallid harrier is easily the most beautiful of the harrier species in all plumages in my opinion and was always likely to prove irresistible to me.

It's a long walk from the car park to the view point, about 3 miles, so with limited time available I stuck the bike in the car and headed north. It was a plan which worked, because apart from the last 100m or so it was a very comfortable bike ride up the Dunsop Valley. I saw a couple of ring ouzels on the way, and a dipper and a grey wagtail on the stream, and I passed lots of familiar birding faces, some heading back to their cars, others making their way up the valley like me.

The harrier made me wait about 45 minutes, but eventually it showed well, at first flying high up in the sky before dropping dramatically and sky dancing down to lower levels. Then it hunted over the hillside and landed on a wall for a few minutes, before rising high again and flying over our heads and away into the distance.

I headed back to the car, and now the true value of having the bike was revealed as it took me about 10 minutes to get back to Dunsop Bridge! On the downside, I don't take my scope on my bike, so had to rely on the kindness of other birders to let me look through their scopes when the bird was on the wall, but when it was in the air I was quite happy with my binocular views. I did manage to miss the white-tailed eagle which showed again about an hour after I left, but that would only have been a bonus bird. There aren't many species which knock spots off a white-tailed eagle, but a male pallid harrier is one of them!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Memories of an Iberian lynx and the magnificent Donana

In the first decade of this century I visited the Donana nature reserve in southern Spain almost annually. The first visit was in the spring of 2000 when I experienced a huge spring passsage of northern bound migrants. All of the other visits were in winter when there were large numbers of wintering birds, including flocks of up to 2000 common cranes, 3000 black-winged stilts, tens of thousands of wildfowl, a good variety of raptors including black-shouldered kites and Spanish imperial eagle, plus hundreds of flamingos, egrets, ibis and storks. In one field alone I came across a flock of 200 purple gallinules! A really impressive experience, perhaps I'll write an article about it one day! For now I thought I'd share this photo which I came across today whilst having a clear out. At the time it was taken in April 2000 there were thought to be little over 100 Iberian lynx left in existance. Now thanks to conservation efforts it's up to 400 individuals. No time to be complacent though, the species is still teetering on he brink of exinction.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

A newting we will go! Live update!

Newt season started for me on the 26th March with the first population assessment surveys. Survey methodology includes (in order) bottle trapping, torching, egg searches, netting and refuge searches. We have to use at least three methodologies per pond in the order given above, but there can be many reasons why we can't use a particular methodology. So for example, on an ideal night we will use bottles, torch, egg search. However if the temperature falls below 5'C, then we can't use bottles, so the next three methods are torch, egg search, netting. Trouble is we can't use the torch if it's too windy or the pond is too turbid so then we move to egg searches, netting and refuge searches. Egg searches though, are prohibitted once the presence of great creasted newts is confirmed in the pond. So we are never completely sure which methods we will use until we get there.

Biosecurity is very big these days, and we use all sorts of precautions to try to minimise the risk of spreading deseases, including one pair of wellies and one net per pond unless cleaned with 10% bleach between ponds and fam30 between land parcels on wellies and the wheels of the vehicles. There's much more to it than just sticking a bottle in the water!

On a typical night we'll survey 3 to 4 ponds, starting about 4 hours before sunset and finishing about 2 hours after dark, and then starting again the following morning shortly after sunrise. The whole thing is timed to make sure we miss evening meal and breakfast! Great stuff.....

This is what it's all about. A female great creasteed newt.

They have georgeous bellies!

Female smooth newt.

Female smooth newt.

20/04/2017 Update
A great night for newts last night, with five great crested and 16 smooth newts in a single pond, whilst this morning we found eight great crested newts in the bottle traps, including 3 males in one trap and three males and a female in another.

Smooth newts.

Great diving beetle.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Sand martin murmurations

Yesterday evening I went to an amazing sand martin roost at Tinker Joe's Flash, Plank Lane, Leigh. An estimated 5 - 7000 sand martins came in and they swirled around in murmurations that would be the envy of many a starling roost. I've never seen so many sand martins before, a truly breathtaking sight, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles I've ever seen, right on my doorstep in Leigh!

Sand Martin Roost at Tinker Joe's, Plank Lane, Leigh from Colin Davies on Vimeo.

Just for a bit of fun I thought I'd have a go at estimating the numbers by putting a very crude grid on one of my sand martin photos. In the field we'd estimated 3 - 5000 birds, and I just wondered how accurate we had been. I haven't counted every bird in every square on this image, but I have counted birds in every other square, and for the rest estimated the number based on counted squares if you see what I mean. If you add up the totals for each square it comes to 4005 birds. Bearing in mind that not every bird is on this photo because there were smaller flocks on the periphery of the main swarm, an estimate of 5 - 7000 birds might have beeen more accurate. Even so, not a bad attempt in the field!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The astonishing tail of the blue rock thrush!

When a blue rock thrush turned up in somebodys back garden in Stow-in-the-Wold in Gloucestershire in late December last year there was mixed reaction. Although some people embraced the bird and dashed off to see it, others were more cautious and questioned its credentials as a wild bird. Even I waited until the beginning of January to go.

How could this be? A bird which in Europe is unapproachable was overwintering and showing well in back gardens and on the roofs of a housing estate in leafy Gloucestershire. Not just for a day, but for 3 months! Then the analysis of its plumage began. It's wing was a little droopy, it's bill didn't look quite right and it permanently looked like it was trying to cough something up. Possible signs of captivity? Many thought so, but others weren't convinced. Interestingly, it also had a an unusually short and distinctive central tail feather, which at the time didn't seem important either way, but ultimately was to prove a decisive feature.

However when photographs appeared, showing what looked like a gossamer thin strand of thread around its leg, the birds fate seemed sealed. But was that a man made thread? It was incredibly thin and couldn't be seen on any of the early pictures of the bird, and it was not seen on later pictures. Perhaps it was just something it had accidently picked up in its wanderings around suburbia?

Rumours began to spread. Some bloke in Kent claimed it was his. There was talk of a car crash, a damaged aviary, an escape, a night flight to freedom. It seemed that anything was possible with this bird.

Eventually the bird obliged by leaving some DNA which was collected and whisked off to the Doc in Aberdeen. Analysis of the DNA proved that the blue rock thrush was of the sedentary south west European race rather than of the migratory eastern race, further strengthening the belief that it was an escape. Still a few of us clung onto the hope that it was wild, but how could it ever be proven either way? It looked as though it was just one of those birds which would never get accepted as wild by either the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) or the wider birding community. Yes it's your list, tick it if you like, but don't be surprised if we all snigger behind your back!

Everything changed on the 7th April though, when a blue rock thrush was found at Beachy Head in Sussex, 150 miles south east of Stow and at a classic migration point. I jokingly tweeted that it was the Stow bird moving south east back to its breeding grounds in Europe, but in truth I didn't really believe it. However somebody then noticed that the Beachy Head bird also had a droopy wing and a slightly odd bill. What's more it had a short central tail feather. This could only mean one thing. It was indeed the Stow bird!

Still questions persisted. Why did it stop at Beachy Head and not continue on to France under the clear skies? The droopy wing might offer a clue to this, suggesting that it's not as strong a flier as it should be. Perhaps it bottled it at the sight of the Channel and was waiting for another day. Who knows? We held our breath.... would it do the decent thing and be gone in the morning, further enhancing its credentials as a wild bird, or would it spoil things by staying 6 months at Beachy Head? The following day we had our answer, it was gone, and at the time of writing there have been no further reports. Hopefully it is now on it's breeding grounds in south west Europe.

Of course even this remarkable relocation doesn't prove that this is a wild bird, since captive birds are sometimes known to attempt to migrate, but surely now it's as good as it gets, beyond reasonable doubt? No doubt here will always be people who question it's credentials, especially amongst those who didn't go to see it because they were so convinced it was an escape from the beginning, and to be honest I'd more or less written it off myself. I'd reached the stage of half heartedly joking about it being on my list whatever the BBRC decided. But if we're still going to persist in calling this a likely escape, then to be consistant we'll have to qualify a large proportion of other birds we see as possible escapes, even the likes of a golden eagle in the highlands could be an escape. Blue rock thrush is definately on my UK list now.

To be honest, even if it is utlimately proven to be an escape, it's been great fun and well worth seeing and being part of. Much better than sitting at home and slagging it off.

Blue rock thrush..... it went from joke plastic tick to Bird of the Year so far in a few short hours! I hope that you got to see it. It was there for 3 months after all!

Update August 2017: Blue rock thrush accepted as a wild bird by BBRC.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Viking Gull at Sandbach Flashes

This beauty was on Pumhouse flash yesterday with a 2nd summer Iceland gull. Viking gull is a glaucous x herring gull hybrid. Note the grey, not white, primaries.

I wonder how many times glaucous gull has been ticked at Sandbach recently on views like this? If I saw just this view of the bird, and in the knowledge that there has been glaucous gull reported from the site recently,  I'm pretty sure I'd call this a glaucous gull probably without looking too closely. Note the jet black "dipped in ink" tip to the pink bill.

However on this photo you can clearly see the grey primaries, meaning that this bird is clearly not 100% glaucous gull and is most likely a Viking gull.

Also today, my first little ringed plover of the year.

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