Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Parrot Crossbills and Horned Lark

At the moment the UK is experiencing a mini influx of parrot crossbills, an event that happens so infrequently that it's too good an opportunity to miss. Today we were close to one of the larger flocks at Wishmoor Bottom in Swinley Forest on the Berkshire / Surrey border so we decided to call in for a look. This was only my second ever encounter with the species, the first being during the invasion year of 2013 when I saw a flock of 14 on Budby common in Nottinghamshire. Prior to that it had been a real bogy bird for me.

Today we saw 16 birds which spent most of their time feeding high up in the Scots pines and oak trees, though occasionally they would fly around between trees and once landed low down in a young birch. When they did fly they were very vocal and could be heard uttering their diagnostic deep-toned 'kuup kuup' flight calls.

There were at least a couple of cracking bright red adult males with the characteristic grey 'shawls' on the side of their necks. A tremendous experience and a much better view than I had previously at Budby Common.

What a bill!  Some of the males looked brighter than others, perhaps it's an age thing with older birds looking deeper red, but it also depends on how the low winter sun hit them.

Bull necked, short tailed.

Before we arrived there was talk of a male common crossbill with the parrots and looking at the photos, I did wonder if this might be it. It seems a less bulky bird than the others, more slender with perhaps a slightly longer tail, less of a bull necked appearance, a bill which is perhaps not quite as bulky or as parallel as the others and a different shade of red. It's very difficult to be sure with crossbills though, there's so much variation not only between individuals but as they get older they change, for example their bills get larger and their colour gets deeper. I'm pretty sure that this is 'just' a young male parrot crossbill, but the only way to be 100% sure is to hear the bird call.

The reason for our visit to this part of the world was to see this, a North American Horned Lark at Staines Reservoir near Heathrow airport in Surrey. It was originally identified as a shorelark and had been present for three weeks before being re-identified as a bird of the North American race aplestris / hoyti rather than the more usual flava which we see in the UK.

In actual fact in hindsight this bird is clearly not flava. Even in my poor photo you can see that the supercillium and ear coverts are white and not yellow as they should be in flava. Through the scope you could also see its rufous flanks. A pity it wasn't a little closer for better photos but we really have to move away from the modern way of thinking that the quaility of the bird and the quaility of the sighting is defined by how good your photos are. This was a perfectly good view and all of the salient features were seen well, stuff the photos I say!

A really smart bird, well worth the trip alone, never mind the flock of parrots which were really just the supporting cast. At the moment American horned lark is not even a new species for me as it's not been split by the IOC, but you know what, that doesn't matter one iota. I love seeing subspecies and this can remain a race for me, I'll be just as happy!

It's actually my third race of shorelark / horned lark. The other was a singing and displaying male of the  race balcanica high up amongst the snow fields and the crocus on the Greek mountain of Oros Pangeo on 15th May 1988. Now that was an experience!

Friday, 24 November 2017

More from the roost - Yellow-legged gull fest

This cracking 3rd winter yellow-legged gull was fresh in to the roost today, found by myself and John Tymon. Fortunately it came into the pre-roost in the east bay first at about 2:30pm, allowing us the opportunity to get a good look at it before we lost the daylight. It's a much more advanced individual than the regular 3rd winter, which has a darker bill and brown tertials. The new bird was present again the following day.

I've lost count of the total number of yellow-legged gulls there have been recently, John also had a 2nd winter today and the regular 3rd winter was present as well, but there have probably been at least five or six over the past three weeks, with at least two present on most days. It makes me wonder how many have been (and still are) overlooked.

Phonescoping is a great way to get distant shots of birds, these birds were probably a good 200-300m away and although this isn't the greatest quality photo, it's much better than I could ever get with my regular camera at that distance. Notice that even at such a distance you can still clearly see the differing eye colours of the two large gulls, which is often an important feature to aid identification.

However at close range the camera is much better. This is the regular 3rd winter yellow-legged gull. Note the plumage differences between this bird and the advanced bird at the top of this post.

This regular 3rd winter has a darker bill, brown tertials and only small white dots on the primaries. Both birds have glowing white heads though, and at this time of year they stand out like beacons amongst a flock of herring and lesser black-backed gulls which have heavily streaked heads, sometimes so extreme to appear as if they have dark hoods.

This adult Mediterranean gull was off the car park and occasionally came to bread.  A really beautiful bird.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Pennington Flash gull roost

Another day at the gull roost, another fine selection of birds. I suppose that to most people who don't do the roost it would appear that there is only one regular yellow-legged gull at the flash at the moment, that being the 3rd winter individual which is often seen standing on bouys or robbing coots.

Actually though, there are two regular yellow-legged gulls, the other is this cracking adult which has been roosting at the flash for around three weeks at least. It stands out every bit as much as the 3rd winter bird, having a pure white head and being a couple of shades darker than our typical 'British' herring gull, but nowhere near as dark as lesser black-back, not even the pale British race Larus fuscus graellsii. A pitfall in the New Year is the Scandinavian race of herring gull, Larus argentatus argentatus, which is darker than the British herring gull and at that time of year can have a white head, but at present in November, most argentatus have heavily streaked heads with a very aggressive appearance. A few argentatus regularly roost at the flash over the winter, but with practise even in the New Year they can comfortably be seperated from yellow-legged gull just on structure and jizz.

White head, dark mantle, distinctive head shape and slightly longer wings give this adult yellow-legged gull a unique appearance amongst the gulls at the flash at the moment. The only bird it could be confused with is the 3rd winter yellow-legged gull!

Adult yellow-legged gull and lesser black-backed gull L.f.graellsii.

The third winter yellow-legged gull was near the yacht club at 2:30pm today. I usually see it in the east bay or on the bouys next to Horrock's hide. Again, look at how white this birds head is.

This 2nd winter Iceland gull turned up in the east bay at about 3pm, the first time it has been seen at the flash since the initial sighting nearly two weeks ago. Presumably the same bird has been seen twice at Viridor Recycling Centre,Chanters Industrial Estate Atherton, and this may even be the returning bird from last winter.

I usually head for the gap at the east bay first because a lot of the birds drop in here first and spend an hour or so bathing before they fly to the west end of the flash for the roost proper. Sometimes it pays off like today, sometimes it doesn't, but if it does, the birds are usually a lot closer and can be seen in better light conditions.

I love this photo. This was taken at around 3pm, so not exactly dusk, but the bird was still a fair distance away from where I was standing on a very dull day. Anybody who was at the flash in the afternoon could easily have seen this from the slip way on the opposite bank.

Adult Mediterranean gull. Always a pleasure to see, there have been at least three Med gulls at the flash over the past couple of weeks. This was in the pre-roost in the east bay.

A pitfall for the unwary, a leucistic black-headed gull, Not only is its plumage much paler than the other black-headed gulls, its bill is distinctly more red.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Morecambe Bay from Arnside

Little Egret

One of our favourite walks starts at Arnside on the Kent estuary and takes us west around Blackstone Point to White Creek and then on to Far Arnside, and finally back via Arnside Knott. The views are amongst the best anywhere, not only over the river Kent towards the Lake District, but also over Morecambe Bay, and in summer you also have the added pleasure of a tremedous array of flora and fauna, including some very rare plants and insects. These include Teesdale violet at its only UK location away from Teesdale, the orchid dark red helleborine and butterflies such as the rare high brown fritillary and Scotch argus. However these are just distant memories in November and today we had to be content with glorious views and some decent birding.

Thousands of waders spend the winter on the mud of Morecambe Bay.


Drake red-breasted merganser

Adult drake red-brested merganser
 with a female and young drake.

Maidenhair fern
I know of Maidenhair fern from just a single cliff face just outside Arnside. In the UK it's a very rare plant, being mainly southerly but with a very scattered distribution.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The English Solway

Dotterel, Cardurnock, Cumbria

I've spent a lot of time watching golden plover flocks in recent weeks. Last month it was a flock of 1000 at Dinas Dinlle, near Foryd Bay, Caernarfon, which contained a juvenile American Golden Plover, and today in Cumbria on the English Solway, it was a similar size flock which contained a juvenile dotterel. 

They can be quite frustrating, not only very flighty but when they do take to the air they can take an age to land again. They fly up high in group formation almost like starlings, but when they drop down they glide towards the ground, the leaders even dangling their legs as if they are about to land, but then at the last minute they invariably rise high again and often fly off into the distance, sometimes so far that you can't even see the flock, before they return if you're lucky, circling over head to repeat the performance. Often the flock will split with many veering off in a different direction to the rest leaving you unsure as to which flock to follow, and the air is full of their mournful peeps. They can spend 30 minutes or more in the air before landing, and when they do land it's often in a distant field, almost too far even for telescope views, and at other times all you can see is their heads due to the undulations in the ground. Then you have to wait for them to fly and land again, and hope that it's closer and in view. Spectacular no doubt, but frustrating.

Under such circumstances picking out a single, juvenile dotterel amongst the flock is perhaps not as straight forward as you might think. This is far from the spectacular bird you might see on spring migration, and although clearly different from golden plover, it's similar enough to not stand out particularly well in a large flock.

However find it we did, my latest dotterel by two months and it was a very smart bird, somewhat smaller than the golden plover. Then we moved on to look at the geese.....

When we talk of barnacle geese on the Solway Firth, an easy mistake to make is to think that we're talking about Scotland. Actually half of it is in England of course. The English Solway might not have the flagship reserves such as Caerlaverock and Mersehead, but the birding is equally as spectacular, more so some might say, because it feels more wild without the hides, the cafes and the gift shops.

Our first encounter with geese today was with a flock of about 3000 barnacles at Anthorn. They were very close to the road and we spent an hour or so watching them. It's surprising how variable barnacle geese are, especially their facial features. Some have a very 'open' white face, but at the other extreme some have a black forehead which gives them a face not dissimilar to a Canada goose, and there are plenty of birds in between. On the flanks, some are pure white, whilst others are varying shades of grey. Dotted in amongst them today were three white, leucistic birds.

The flock at Anthorn was just the taster though, things really got serious when we arrived at Rockcliffe, where there was a staggering flock of 10,000 birds. This flock was a good bit further away, but they stretched in tight packed ranks right along the saltmarsh. A couple of times they were flushed by something unseen and they took to the air with a breathtaking cacophony of noise and then flew over the mud flats and sand banks of the river Esk before circling back to the saltmarsh and landing again. Wow, that was good! We were looking for a Richardson's cackling goose which had been travelling with the flock, but we were unable to pick it out. There were just too many birds and they were just that bit too distant and it was just that bit too late in the day.

We were rapidly loosing the light as we made our way back to the car, but even now the birding wasn't over, because in front of us as we walked, the swirling murmuration of Starlings near Gretna kept us entertained!

A sign of the times, a little egret, one of several scattered throughout the barnacle goose flock.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

King Eider, Ynyslan, Ceregidion

I've seen several king eider over the years, but all miles away in Northern Scotland, so the opportunity to see one relatively close to home in mid Wales, albeit a female, was too tempting to resist. However somehow resist it we did for three months, before finally yesterday we succumbed and headed to Ynyslas, on the opposite side of the river Dyfi to Aberdyfi. The bird hadn't been reported since the end of September and was thought to have gone, but on Thursday it was surprisingly reported again giving us an unexpected reprieve.

On the way there I suddenly realised that I wasn't sure if the bird was tidal and worse still I had no idea what time the high tide was. However fortunately when we arrived at 10:30 we found an incoming tide due to reach its peak at 13:30.

It certainly appeared to be tidal, there were plenty of birds around, several species of wader, shelduck, 50 or so wigeon and a red kite over, whilst on the sea there were red-throated divers and common scoter, but no sign of the star bird. However right on cue, at about 12:30 we spotted a single eider slowly making its way into the mouth of the river Leri. This surely had to be the bird, since we hadn't seen another Eider up to that point!

Sure enough it was the female king eider. It swam along the edge of a rapidly disappearing sand bank, occasionally hauling itself out and once even attempting a kip, which never seemed feasible to me given the speed of the advancing tide, before finally swimming onto our side of the river and starting to feed.

It always amazes me when I watch these types of ducks feeding. I once watched an inland velvet scoter at close range devour mussel after mussel, swallowing them whole before immediately diving again for more, and it just makes me wonder how they fit them all in. I realise of course that they crush the molluscs in their gizzard, but still they must have a stomach full of shell. This king eider not only ate mussels, we also watched it eat quite a large looking crab!

The bird was first found at Aberaeron, some 25 miles to the south of Ynyslas, where it was initially misidentified as a common eider. Although females are clearly not a patch on the spectacular males, this is still a king eider and perhaps surprisingly, only the second ever in  Wales, so well worth a look. The fact that it is a female makes it more of an id challenge which is also a good reason to check it out. It's been in the area for nearly five months, perhaps it will stick around for the rest of the winter.

Year 2017: 254 (King Eider)

Phonescoped photos tend to be paler, more washed out and not as sharp as those I take with my bridge camera, but sometimes they are the only option if the bird is distant as is often the case at the Pennington Flash gull roost for example.  I like this photo because it shows well the bill profile and the sails on the birds back.

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