Saturday, 30 September 2017

A dozing Scops owl, County Durham

When a Scops owl was found roosting in an elder tree at Ryhope, County Durham on Wednesday I was working and unable to respond. Scops owls are pretty small and well camouflaged, a feature which they rely on during the day when they hope to spend the daylight hours unoticed and mainly asleep in usually the denser parts of a tree. Unless a bird returns to exactly the same place to roost the following day, it is unlikely to be found again and I thought I'd missed my opportunity with this bird.

The following morning there was initially negative news. The bird was not in the same roost position as the day before. However eventually it was relocated in the same area, but roosting in a different tree. I was off work but still I didn't respond. On Friday it was not seen all day, and was in neither of the previous roost positions.

I wasn't convinced that it had gone though, I suspected that it was just roosting somewhere which was difficult to view, so on Saturday we decided to head up to Leighton Moss and wait for news. At least Leighton Moss was vaguely in the right direction and offered us some decent birding while we waited.

And so it 10am, after seeing a decent selection of birds on the saltmarsh, osprey, little stint, merlin and great white egret, the news broke that we had been hoping for. The Scops owl was back in its original roost position in the elder tree.  Barring being flushed by an over zealous photographer, this was a twitch which almost certainly couldn't fail, because the bird was unlikely to move all day. We set off across country from Leighton Moss, and two hours later we arrived at Ryehope.

What a cracking little bird it was. Only my 3rd Scops owl anywhere, the other two were in Corfu, which, no matter how British that island may feel at times, are certainly not included on my UK list. This bird was asleep much of the time, but it did spend some time preening and stretching.

The Corfu Scops owls were one of my greatest birding experiences. I saw them with my son after a plate smashing meal out. We were walking back to our hotel at night and we came to an olive grove and watched the fire flies dancing over the undergrowth. Suddenly first one and then a second Scops owl started calling at close range. A dark shadow flew overhead and shining  my torch up into the tree I immediately hit an owl with the beam, and we watched it for several minutes until a second bird flew over to it and the pair flew away into the next olive tree. On a branch lower down we also spotted an edible doormouse.

No edible doormice around today, but whilst we were watching the owl, a 1st winter barred warbler suddenly popped up  in the next bush and sat in full view sunning itself for several minutes. Also in the bush, a spotted flycatcher.

After leaving Ryehope we headed to Hartlepool headland where we saw at least two yellow-browed warblers, my first for the year.

UK life list: 426 (Scops owl); Year 2017: 250 (Scops owl, barred warbler, yellow-browed warbler)

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A St. Helens mega

A hooded crow which was found in stubble fields just east of Haydock island on Monday is only the second ever known record in St Helens and the first since March 1979. Despite being a mainly sedentary species breeding in Ireland, North West Scotland and the Isle of Man, hooded crows are occasionally recorded in north west England and more regularly in North Wales, and I've seen them on several occasions on  the Formby mosslands and fairly frequently on Anglesey. As recently as two weeks ago I saw one at Morfa Madryn near Llanfairfechan on the North Wales coast. Hooded crows in these areas tend to be coastal, probably because of pressure from territory holding carrion crows and inland hoodies are rare in our area.

The origin of these birds is unclear. Although hooded crows breeding in the British Isles are regarded as resident and sedentary there is in fact some movement of birds which may account for occurances in our area. Also some Scandinavian populations are migratory and an annual smattering of birds on the east coast of England each year probably orginate from these populations. A drift west from the east coast is a possibility and it's also possible that some of the birds in north west England and Wales are ship assisted.

The species shows clinal variation, with larger and darker birds in the north and west of Europe, and smaller and paler birds towards the south and east. This bird appears to be quite large, but it also seems quite bright and pale which is something of a contradiction if we are to seek clues to the birds provenance from its plumage. Perhaps it is the brightness of plumage which makes the bird look larger than it actually is.Note however the size of the bill and compare with the photographs at the bottom of this page.

Hooded crow does hybridise with carrion crow, but in my opinion the photographs here clearly show that there is no hint of hybridisation in this individual.

A few more hoodies for comparison.....
Here are a few other photos of hoodies from my travels. Obviously light conditions vary as does the size of individuals within a population.

Ireland, 2016. To my mind this is the closest fit to the Haydock bird, large size, pale grey, big chunky  bill.

Ullapool, north west Scotland July 2017. Hard to be sure, but this doesn't look quite such a big bird to me. Certainly pale enough though.

Paphos, Cyprus December 2014. This looks a lightweight bird with a much smaller bill.

Holyhead, Anglesey 2016. Allowing for the fact that it was pouring with rain when I took this photo, this bird looks quite dark. It also looks really small, almost jackdaw like.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Exorcising the demon. Rosy starling, Kendal

My first ever rosy (rose-coloured) starling was a replendent full summer plumage adult way back in August 1994, at Moelfre on Anglesey. Wonderful though that bird was, it did set the bar a bit high for all subsequent rosy starlings, and it's taken me 23 years to pluck up the courage to go and have a look at a juvenile, which I have always considered to be a bit on the dull side. Just to make matters worse, todays bird was in the middle of a housing estate, just about the worst place imaginable for birding. I always feel unwelcome, self conscious and even a little bit silly when I'm birding in amongst residential properties. However, we were in the area today so it seemed a good opportunity to exorcise the juvenile rosy starling demon once and for all. Deep breathes.....

Actually though, not a bad looking bird and easy enough to identify. Dark wings  contrasting with a paler body, short stubby bill with a yellow base.

Quite distinct, even high up on a wire.

Clearly a stubbier bill than the common starlings.

Right, let's get out of here.....

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The morning after the storm and an unexpected phalarope

Storm Aileen arrived overnight with west north westerly winds in excess of 70mph and at this time of year that can only mean one thing - Leach's petrels.

With high tide at the ungodly (and dark) hour of 4:45 and sunrise two hours later at 6:45, I decided that  with a high tide visit obviously out of the question, the next best thing I could do today would be get to New Brighton on the north Wirral coast for dawn. At first light petrels which have sheltered in the Mersey overnight can often be seen leaving the river and I was pretty confident that I would see a few today. Moreover I also knew that there had been a couple of grey phalaropes hanging around Fort Perch Rock for a couple of days and having already seen over 35 petrels on Monday at Hilbre, it was the phalaropes which really drew me to New Brighton.

I arrived at New Brighton at 6:55 and almost immediately picked out a couple of obligatory Leach's petrels for the day list and decided to now concentrate on finding the phalaropes. What a merry dance they lead me! First of all one flew and landed in front of a friend allowing him to fire off some great photos before disappearing minutes before I reached the spot. Then I was standing in the sea watching shelter while two other birders described a phalarope in flight which I failed to get on to. Finally I spotted two birders on the beach photographing what turned out to be a phalarope, but again by the time I got there the bird had gone.

By this time it was nearly low tide, but the petrels just kept on coming, and now they were flying incredibly close, right along the tideline and sometimes across the beach. On one such flyby, I was concentrating so much on trying to get a photo of the petrel that I completely failed to notice that it was flying directly over a grey phalarope, and I only realised that the phalarope was there when I looked at the photo nearly two hours later! And I still hadn't seen a phalarope!

Just stunning views today of Leach's petrel, with several birds flying 3m or less from us, right along the tideline and occasionally weaving in and out of the admiring birders on the beach. One of the great birding experiences of my life!

The phantom phalarope! How could I have not noticed this in the field! Mr. Observant! When I took this photo I'd been looking for grey phalarope for nearly four hours and had all but given up any hope of seeing one and I completely failed to notice this bird until I looked at the photo two hours later.

Here comes another!

Try focusing on that!

At last somebody pointed out a grey phalarope and boy it was worth the wait. What a stunning bird! An adult with a yellow base to the bill.

This has to be one of the most attractive winter plumage grey phalaropes I've ever seen, and the amount of yellow at the base of the bill is very extensive, unusually so I would say.

The seawatching shelter at New Brighton.

New Brighton lighthouse and Fort Perch Rock.

An exhilarating day with huge skies, a great day to be on the coast.

Later this afternoon I called in at Frodsham with Ray for a look at a juvenile red-necked phalarope, my second phalarope species of the day and my third in five days following a Wilson's at Alston Wetlands on Saturday.

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