Monday, 24 December 2018

The return of X106

Redgate recycling centre at Gorton, Manchester has been getting some decent gulls recently so I decided to call in today. A 3rd winter Caspian gull which has been seen over the past few days bearing a yellow leg ring X106 is the same bird that was at Pennington Flash this time last year, and which was originally seen at Heaton Park and later at Shaw.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Observations of Australian birds and mammals by state and location

Here's a full list of the 320 bird species and 30 mammal species I've seen so far in Australia, grouped by state and location. The numbers in brackets are the maximum number of individuals I have seen at each location.

Species seen with maximum numbers in brackets
Blue Mountains
Australian Magpie (10), Australian Raven (1), Australian Wood Duck (2), Bell Miner (20), Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (1), Brown Thornbill (2), Common Myna (30), Crescent Honeyeater (1), Crimson Rosella (20), Eastern Spinebill (1), Fan-tailed Cuckoo (1), Galah (10), Golden Whistler (5), Grey Fantail (1), Lewin's Honeyeater (1), Magpie-lark (1), Masked Lapwing (1), Pacific Black Duck (2), Peregrine (1), Pied Currawong (10), Red Wattlebird (2), Red-whiskered Bulbul (10), Satin Bowerbird (2), Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (50), Welcome Swallow (20), White-browed Scrubwren (5), White-throated Treecreeper (2)
Australasian Gannet (2), Australasian Grebe (2), Australian Darter (2), Australian Magpie (6), Australian Pelican (8), Australian Raven (5), Australian White Ibis (50), Australian Wood Duck (30), Black Swan (6), Black-browed Albatross (1), Caspian Tern (1), Channel-billed Cuckoo (1), Chestnut Teal (2), Common Myna (50), Coot (50), Cormorant (2), Crested Pigeon (5), Crested Tern (2), Dusky Moorhen (5), Fairy Martin (5), Fluttering Shearwater (500), Grey Butcherbird (2), Hardhead (50), House Sparrow (1), Intermediate Egret (3), Kelp Gull (2), Laughing Kookaburra (2), Little Black Cormorant (2), Little Pied Cormorant (20), Little Raven (1), Magpie-lark (4), Masked Lapwing (3), Nankeen Kestrel (1), New Holland Honeyeater (5), Noisy Miner (50), Pacific Black Duck (4), Peregrine (1), Pied Cormorant (4), Pied Currawong (5), Purple Gallinule (50), Rainbow Lorikeet (30), Red Wattlebird (3), Short-tailed Shearwater (200), Silver Gull (50), Spotted Dove (5), Starling (50), Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (8), Superb Fairy-wren (5), Wedge-tailed Shearwater (500), Welcome Swallow (50), White-browed Scrubwren (3), White-faced Heron (1), Willie Wagtail (2), Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo (5)

Mammals: Humpback whale, Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphin, New Zealand fur seal, grey-headed flying-fox

Key locations: Sydney botanic gardens, Centennial Park, Watson Bay, whale watching trip.

Atherton Tablelands
Australasian Figbird (30), Australian Brush-turkey (3), Australian Pelican (5), Black Kite (50), Black-faced Monarch (2), Brown Treecreeper (1), Coot (20), Dusky Honeyeater (2), Eastern Cattle Egret (50), Golden Whistler (5), Great Crested Grebe (50), Large-billed Gerygone (10), Laughing Kookaburra (3), Little Eagle (1), Magpie-lark (5), Mistletoebird (1), Olive-backed Sunbird (2), Pacific Black Duck (6), Pied Currawong (2), Purple Gallinule (2), Rainbow Lorikeet (50), Silvereye (1), Spangled Drongo (3), Spotted Harrier (1), Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (10), Varied Triller (1), Whistling Kite (1)

Mammals: Duck-billed platypus, Eastern grey kangaroo

Key locations: Yungaburra

My full Australian list to date

Brown falcon
This is a full list in alphabetical order of all of the species which I have seen in Australia so far with location and maximum number of birds seen at each location in brackets. In total 320 species so far.

Location with number of birds seen in brackets
Arctic Skua
Port Fairy, Pelagic VIC (2)
Australasian Figbird
Atherton Tablelands QLD (30), Brisbane, Banks Street Reserve QLD (1), Brisbane, City QLD (1), Cairns, Esplanade QLD (10), Noosa QLD (1), Port Douglas QLD (30)
Australasian Gannet
Sydney, at sea NSW (2), Fraser Island QLD (2), Noosa, Noosa Headland QLD (10), Coffin Bay, Coffin Bay National Park SA (10), Fisherman's Bluff SA (3), Fishery Bay SA (2), Lincoln National Park, Jussieu Peninsula SA (10), Port Lincoln SA (2), Port Lincoln, Axel Stenross maritime museum SA (2), Port Lincoln, Billy Lights Point SA (11), Port Lincoln, Parnkalla trail SA (15), Port Lincoln, Rock Beach SA (1), Sleaford Bay  SA (50), Whalers Way SA (1), Melbourne, Port Melbourne VIC (15), Melbourne, St Kilda VIC (1), Phillip Island VIC (2), Port Fairy, Pelagic VIC (400), Fremantle to Rottnest ferry WA (2)
Australasian Grebe
Sydney, Centennial Park NSW (2), Bauple QLD (2), Brisbane, Biami Yumba Park and Fig Tree Pocket QLD (2), Brisbane, Dowse Lagoon QLD (20), Hervey Bay QLD (10), Hervey Bay, Arkarra Wetlands QLD (2), Hervey Bay, Booral Road QLD (1), Kin Kin QLD (1), Noosa, Botanic Gardens QLD (1), Noosa, Jabiru Park QLD (25), Port Douglas QLD (1), Port Lincoln, Billy Lights Point SA (1), Bellarine Peninsula, Jerringot Wetlands VIC (5), Lara, Serendip Reserve VIC (3), Melbourne, Royal Botanical Gardens VIC (1), Melbourne, Westgate Park VIC (2), Werribee, Western Treatment Plant VIC (4), Perth, Herdsman Lake WA (50), Perth, Lake Monger Reserve WA (50)
Australasian Shoveler
Brisbane, Dowse Lagoon QLD (4), Noosa, Jabiru Park QLD (5), Big Swamp SA (20), Port Lincoln, Billy Lights Point SA (10), Bellarine Peninsula, Jerringot Wetlands VIC (1), Werribee, Western Treatment Plant VIC (50), Perth, Herdsman Lake WA (30), Perth, Lake Monger Reserve WA (5)
Australian Brush-turkey
Atherton Tablelands QLD (3), Brisbane, Banks Street Reserve QLD (10), Brisbane, Biami Yumba Park and Fig Tree Pocket QLD (1), Brisbane, Lone Pine Koala Sanctury QLD (10), Brisbane, Plantation Redhill QLD (2), Daintree, Mossman Gorge QLD (1), Hervey Bay, Burrum Heads QLD (1), Kuranda QLD (2), Noosa, Noosa Headland QLD (2), Seventeen Seventy QLD (4), Seventeen Seventy, Campsite QLD (5)

Sunday, 2 December 2018

In the company of giants and lyrebirds

The temperate rainforest to the north and east of Melbourne is dominated by mountain ash Eucalyptus regnans which is the tallest flowering plant and 2nd tallest tree in the world and occurs naturally only in Victoria and Tasmania. The forest also has an interesting understory which includes some very prehistoric looking tree ferns. It really would be easy to imagine dinosaurs living in a place like this and in fact they still do because there are many interesting birds about even if they are often frustratingly difficult to see.

Take the superb lyrebird for example. This is a noisy species which looks a bit like a small pheasant and has a spectacular display. Should be easy enough to see you might think. Well no, at least not for me. I've looked (and listened) for them on several occasions in the past without success. Until today. Josh and I were walking through Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Range, accessed from Grants picnic site when we heard the song of a whipbird. There was a guy without binoculars about 50m ahead of us standing and listening too. When we got up to him he casually announced "the lyrebird is just through that gap singing"...... and sure enough, there it was, a male lyrebird in full view singing away mimicking a whipbird! Perhaps that's why I haven't heard any in the past, because I thought they were something else. We watched and listened for five minutes before it wandered off and out of view. Fortunately though this wasn't the end of our lyrebird experience for the day, it proved to be  just a foretaste of what was to come.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Werribee Water Treatment Plant, back for seconds (and thirds!)

Back in Melbourne for a week and the obvious thing to do was to get the key to allow me access to Werribee Western Treatment Plant again. I mean it is rated one of the best wetland sites in Australia so crazy not to go again, and it worked out pretty well actually, the first two weeks I was there I only saw one new species for my Aussie list, yet this week I managed to add several. Key to this success was finally working out where Crake Pond was, and this provided me with not only with about four Australian spotted crakes and three Baillon's crakes, but also a pectoral sandpiper and nearby an Australian hobby. In the final analysis, Werribee WTP provided me with 103 species during my stay in Melbourne.

Seeing southern emu-wrens

One of the highlights of my holiday from a birding point of view was finally seeing southern emu-wrens. I didn't get any photos of the birds for reasons I will explain, but it was such a great experience that it's worth recounting.

I'd heard that there were southern emu-wrens on Anglesea Heath at the start of the Great Ocean Road and decided it was worth a look, if for no other reason than it was somewhere new to visit. I headed for a small and little known botanical reserve called the Mary D White reserve which lies about 1km west of Anglesea and is accessed from the Guvvos beach car park. I had spent about an hour in the area and seen a few superb fairy-wrens and best of all a new species of honeyeater for me, white-eared, but was starting to lose hope with the emu-wrens. I'd looked for them before around Port Lincoln without a sniff of the birds and this looked like it would be a repeat no-show.

Then suddenly I heard the faintest of calls, a high pitched steet. Was it and insect, was it a bird? Surely an insect, it appeared to be in the vegetation almost under my feet! I waited patiently for several minutes, hearing the call again occasionally and eventually started catching glimpses of a very small bird moving through the undergrowth right alongside me. Eventually I realised that there were about five birds close by, and finally I got an excellent view of a stunning male with sandy brown plumage and bright pale blue throat and long tail. A stunning little bird. Not surprising that I'd found them so difficult in the past if I could initially not see them in vegetation that barely covered my shoes! And then they were gone, not to be seen or heard again.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Bellarine Peninsula

So back in Australia and I found myself some decent self catering accommodation in Werribee and then contacted Melbourne Water and managed to get hold of the required key for the rest of the week. However, not wanting to spend all of my remaining time at the water treatment plant, today I decided to visit the Bellarine Peninsula near Geelong and about 110km south west of Melbourne CBD. It's a really impressive place full of great birds, impressive wetlands and glorious beaches.

However the first place I visited on the way to Ballarine was Jerringot Wetlands in the city of Geelong where I managed to see a few Latham's snipes which were new for me. This is a species which breeds in Japan and spends the northern hemisphere winter in Australia.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Return to Aus!

Great to be back in Aus after a brief visit to North Island, New Zealand, and one of the most obvious differences are the very visible Australian mammals which help make the country so special to me.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Muriwai Australasian Gannet Colony

I cut short my visit to Tiritiri by a day in order to make sure that I got to Muriwai before I left New Zealand. I've been to gannet colonies before at places like Bass Rock, St Kilda, Noss, Fair Isle, Herma Ness and Flamborough Head and I wanted to see how this compared. I was not disappointed.

It might not have the numbers of birds, just a couple of thousand pairs I believe, but still really impressive.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Sadness of Tiritiri Matangi

I spent five days in New Zealand and didn't see a single native passerine except those that I saw on Tiritiri Matangi, a fact which I find very depressing. It appears that the only way large parts of terrestrial native wildlife can survive in New Zealand is by uprooting it and moving it to a completely managed island and removing all alien pests. It was on Tiritiri, an apparent idyllic paradise that the first seeds of doubt were sown in my mind.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Hauraki Gulf Pelagic

New Zealand storm petrel
Another awesome pelagic trip today, this time into the Hauraki Gulf, North Island, New Zealand. Completely different to the pelagic I had with Josh on Sunday, but just as good. Whereas Sunday was about albatrosses and whales, today was about petrels, especially New Zealand storm petrel. This is a species which for 180 years was considered extinct until the people who run this pelagic rediscovered it and today I saw about 10.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Wrybill at Miranda

I had an enjoyable visit to Miranda today, if a little frustrating because I got my timings all wrong and arrived at low tide rather than high tide and then had a six hour wait for the action to begin. Eventually though it did begin and in amongst the thousands of bar-tailed godwits, knot and other waders, at least 47 wrybill.  This is an iconic New Zealand endemic, with a bizzare bill which bends to the right of the bird. Also today, white-fronted terns, New Zealand Dotterel and pied stilts, which included at least one pied x black stilt hybrid.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Wanderer at 6 o'clock!

Snowy albatross
"Wanderer at 6 o'clock!", the cry went up and sent shivers down my spine. This was the moment I had been dreaming of for years, the appearance of a great albatross during a southern ocean pelagic. We'd been at sea for six hours, we were 35 miles offshore from Port Fairy, Victoria, over the edge of the continental shelf and the sea bed was nearly a kilometer below us. We'd seen many albatrosses already, but they were all of the smaller type, in this region often referred to as molyhawks. Four species in fact, shy, black-browed, Indian yellow-nosed and Campbell albatross, all with wingspans of 2.5m or less.

The new arrival was considerably bigger, a wandering albatross with a wingspan of up to 3.5m, the longest of any living bird. This awesome and majestic bird glided past the boat without a single flap of the wings, dwarfing the nearby molyhawks and taking my breath away. Over the next hour or so the bird stayed with us and was joined by an immature bird, as well as two other species of great albatross.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Koalas on the Great Ocean Road

On our way to Port Fairy from Melbourne for a pelagic, we decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up on the Great Ocean Road. Really beautiful scenary, if a little busy at the Twelve Apostles. My favourite stop was at Kennett River where we saw about 20 koalas, some with babies, a tawny frogmouth with a baby and several Australian king parrots.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Long Forest

White-plumed honeyeater

Long Forest is about 30 miles north west of Melbourne and is an area of gum tree and eucalyptus scrub known as mallee. I visited it today just to try to get a few new species on the list and to check out a new area. In the end I added three new species, white-plumed honeyeater, buff-rumped thornbill and best of all speckled warbler. It's an interesting area with lots of potential and well worth a look for any birder in the Melbourne area.

Westgate Park, Melbourne

Hoary-headed grebe

I "discovered" Westgate Park today. Its a couple of pools and some scrub  below the Westgate bridge in Port Melbourne. I was surprised at how good it was for birds, I recorded 37 species in a couple of hours. I was particularly pleased to be able to get some half decent photos of hoary-headed grebe, a species I have struggled with in the past. Westgate park is obviously not in the same league as the Western Treatment Plant, but if you're in Melbourne for a day or two with limited birding time available, it's a decent place to visit.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Dandenong Range

The Dandenong Range lies just to the east of Melbourne and offers an opportunity to visit temperate rain forest within easy reach of the city. Huge Australian mountain ash trees, which are actually a type of eucalyptus, are the largest flowering plant in the world and there are prehistoric tree ferns which grow up to 12m. Birding is always difficult in this type of habitat and today was no exception, but there are a few decent birds here.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Common Ringtail Possum at Finns Reserve

I was walking along the River Yarra at Finns Reserve today when I came across this common ringtail possum watching me from its drey. It was only at head height in a loosely constructed drey in a small spindly bush. This is a common species in Australia, but a first for me. I also have a resident brushtail possum in the garden of my apartment and a grey-headed flying-fox flew over tonight. I counted three platypus on the river this evening and the wombat was back after an absence of several days.

It may seem like I'm overdosing on platypus at the moment, but the reason is simple, I'm not here just to tick platypus I'm here to observe them and study them as much as I can in the limited time that I have available. I want to see how they swim, how they dive and what their movements are around the river  as the late afternoon and evening progresses. I can already see a pattern in their movements and I've found the location of at least one burrow. In certain parts of the river I can see them feeding underwater. It's really interesting and fascinating stuff to watch, and very soon I won't be able to do this anymore because I'll be back in the UK, so why not overdose while I can? Platypus are generally difficult animals to see, so the opportunity to get to know them well is one which shouldn't be turned down. In anycase, every time I go I see something else good, for example echidna, wombat, possum and a host of decent birds.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Black-tailed native-hen

No doubting the bird of the day today. Any bird with the name black-tailed native-hen is going to get my vote! It's taken me three visits to Australia and three visits in the past seven days to the Western Treatment Plant to see one but eventually I managed it today, with not one, but four birds together, almost in a mini-leck. Black-tailed native-hens are obviously related to moorhens with a different bill colour, an erect tail and a crazy look in their eyes. Fabulous birds. Other highlights today, an immature white-bellied eagle and spotted and swamp harriers. To be honest though, it's not about any one species, it's about the spectacle.

The Western Treatment Plant is a huge site, around 12 miles (20km) from one end to the other and it's full of lakes of varying sizes and every lake is packed with birds. Goodness knows how many Australian shelducks or pink-eared ducks or hardheads or hoary-headed grebes or black swans or stilts or avocets or sharp-tailed sandpipers or whiskered terns there are, certainly hundreds and probably thousands of each. It really is reminiscent of Donana in Spain during the the rice harvest. And though it's smaller than Donana, it's just as remote, today I didn't meet a single other person all day. Not one person. It's just a staggering place.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Monotremes at the Yarra


Wow what a trip this has been so far for iconic Australian mammals! On Saturday I saw my first ever echidna with Josh as it crossed the road at Wilson's Promontory and today I managed to find my second. I was photographing musk lorikeets when a rustling in the undergrowth immediately drew my attention and the lorikeets were forgotten. There could be no doubt what it was, I could see a ball of spines moving through the grass just a few metres in front of me. It climbed up onto a fallen branch and posed perfectly for photographs, before dropping down and continuing to make its way towards me. Eventually it was less than a metre away and still didn't even seem to notice me, that is until I made a noise when it immediately curled up and dug itself down in a cloud of dust. I just kept quiet again and within 30 seconds it uncurled itself and continued on its way, again seemingly oblivious to my presence. What a tremendous animal.

I stayed in the area until dusk and once again managed to get good views of duck-billed platypus, the echindas closest living relative.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

From the Yarra Bridge

Duck-billed platypus is such an iconic Australian species which so few people ever get the chance to see that when I'm staying within a few miles of a great location for them, it's hard to resist the temptation to go back for second helpings. In fact to be honest, I'll probably end up going back for thirds and fourths!

A footbridge crosses the Yarra at Finns Reserve and from here platypus can be seen in the river below at any time of day apparently, but especially as dusk approaches. They really are fascinating creatures, an early scientific name for them was Ornithorhynchus paradoxus and truly they are a paradox. A mammal with a bill which lays eggs and has no teats, it is also one of the very few mammals which detects its food using electroreception. If all of that wasn't enough, it is also almost unique in being a venomous mammal. Of all the creatures which I have seen in Australia, the platypus still remains top of the pile.

Wilson's Promontory

Josh and I spent the weekend at Wilson's Promontory, the most southerly point on mainland Australia and a place often battered by the infamous wind the Roaring Forties. We stayed at Fish Creek, in the Fish Creek hotel, a wonderful retro style hotel in a beautiful Australian village.

Apart from the obvious scenic attractions, the main reason for going to the Prom was to try to see some of the iconic Australian species which occur there but which have so far eluded me, specifically echidna and wombats. It's not surprising that I had never previously seen the latter since I'd never previously been within the species range, but the same can't be said of echidna which is all over Australia and which I have really tried hard to see in the past to no avail. However within minutes of entering the national park we had to stop to allow an echidna to cross the road! A fabulous creature, three times the size of a hedgehog with golden spines, the closest living relative to the platypus, this is another mammal which lays eggs. An unforgettable experience.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Platypus and a wombat at Finns Reserve, River Yarra

I knew that the footbridge at Finns Reserve over the River Yarra was reputed to be a good place for platypus, but I still didn't expect to see them this easy. Two were showing almost immediately I arrived and over the course of the next hour they showed regularly, though never staying on the surface for long. Two locals who I met on the footbridge told me that a few nights ago they counted nine platypus on this stretch of the river. An iconic Australian animal which so few people have ever seen, yet here they are just 18 km up river from Melbourne CBD. A wonderful experience.

Werribee Water Treatment Plant

Royal and yellow-billed spoonbills

I've just spent two full on birding days at Werribee Water Treatment Plant, and what an amazing place it is. An absolute essential visit for any serious birder visiting Melbourne. You may think that you don't want to spend your time in Australia at a sewage works, but it's actually nothing like that,  in fact it's probably one of the best places I've ever been to birding, on a par with Doñana in Spain. Like Doñana, it's not so much the individual species that make it so special, it's the sheer number of birds.  During my visits for example, whiskered terns were everywhere, over every lake, pond, ditch, marsh and even field where they hawked for insects and in amongst them was a scattering of white-winged black terns. Meanwhile on the water was a host of birds, with at least 4000 pink-eared ducks and probably similar numbers of grey and chestnut teal. Sharp-tailed sandpipers were everywhere, on the mud as you would expect, but also in the grass and on the road, I put up countless birds as I was driving around. A breathtaking place. You can contact Melbourne Water for a day permit and key.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Phillip Island and it's Cape Barren Geese

Philips Island is a 90 minute drive south east of Melbourne. It's a proper island but you can drive onto it via a bridge. The day we chose to go was Melbourne Cup day, and in the morning there was torrential rain, so much so that for most of the journey I was wondering why we had bothered setting out. However by the time we arrived the rain was easing and the sky was showing the first signs of hope, and by midday the sun was out and it was pleasantly warm.

Probably the highlight of the day was the Cape Barren geese, especially those that had chicks. When I saw this species in Port Lincoln earlier in the year they were in flocks and behaving pretty much like geese in winter back home. However in summer they leave the mainland and breed on offshore islands, but I must admit that before we saw them it hadn't occurred to me that we might see them with chicks today.

Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens

My first full day back in Australia and most of the day was spent getting my bearings and recovering from jet lag, not that I ever suffer much from the latter. This afternoon I had a walk through Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens and came across many beautiful and interesting birds including my first new bird for the holiday, this stunning eastern rosella.

Monday, 5 November 2018

A tale of two St. Kildas

In 1987 I spent two weeks camping on the remote and spectacular Hebridean island of St Kilda, an archipelago with some of the highest sea cliffs in Britain and home to one of the largest sea bird colonies in the world, with hundreds of thousands of birds. Puffins alone numbered an estimated 250,000 birds when I was there, and there was in the region of 60,000 pairs of gannets and 10,000 pairs of fulmars, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shearwaters and petrels. An awesome spectacle.

Fast forward 31 years and this week and next I’m staying in St Kilda again, but this is about as far removed as it can get from the towering cliffs and crashing waves of the Hebridean World heritage site. The St Kilda I am calling home for the next two weeks is a suburb of Melbourne, on the face of it a nice enough place with a beach, some interesting shops and a distinctly bohemian feel with innumerable small cafes and bars. However it also has a run down tacky side and worse of sex shops, prostitutes and amusement arcades, and the huge laughing face at the entrance to the Luna Park fun fair has very unsettling look that certainly wouldn’t entice me to enter. Even more worryingly, there's an election about to take place and one of the local candidates declares on large posters that he's "the only person who can make St Kilda safe". Worrying.... Australia’s most notorious hotel is here, the Gatwick also known as the Hell Hotel, now closed but formerly the scene of murders, drug deaths and stabbings. Surely then, the only thing that these two St. Kildas can have in common is a name? Well actually no, there is something else that the two places share, the smell of guano! Sure, here in Melbourne the smell is on a much smaller scale, but it is here non-the-less, if you get yourself down to St. Kilda pier. The breakwater rocks right at the end of the pier are home to a small colony of little penguins and their remarkably guillemot like guttural calls combined with that wonderful smell takes me right back to those mighty sea cliffs on the opposite side of the world in the North Atlantic ocean.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Close encounter with a Rose-coloured Starling

So now we know why it's not often seen with the local roaming starling flocks... it prefers to be alone. Sure when the flock lands on the roof or on the nearby aerials it occasionally flies up and joins them, but when the flock leaves the rose-coloured starling drops down alone into the back yards of the houses around the Bowling Green Inn, St Helens and appears to vanish. It's best seen from the alleyway behind Frydays chippy in Robins Lane and if you do see it here it shows really well, often down to a few feet and even more importantly it's not silhouetted against the sky.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Rose-coloured starlings, St Helens and Greater Manchester

Not really my idea of birding, furtively wandering around a housing estate looking at every roof and into every back garden, binoculars around my neck and camera over my shoulder, trying not to look suspicious, not really knowing where I was supposed to be looking. Still, worth it in the end when I finally located the juvenile rose-coloured starling which has been present for a few days. Originally vaguely reported as "near St Helens hospital", I finally managed to track it down to an aerial opposite the closed Bowling Green Inn in Robins Lane. This is my third juvenile in the past 12 months. The second was just a week ago in Timperley, Greater Manchester.......

Friday, 12 October 2018

Great white egret, Pennington Flash

Little egret is now a frequent enough visitor to barely raise an eyebrow amongst  the regular birders at Pennington Flash, but great white is still a very rare bird locally. Todays great white was only the fourth ever at the site and was a Flash tick for me. Chances are, they will become more frequent in future years as they are now a common enough sight on local estuaries. For example, in 2017 I photographed a group of 10 great white egrets together on the Dee Estuary.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Back garden sparrowhawk kill

A bit of drama in the garden this week, a sparrowhawk eating a freshly killed woodpigeon. It looks like an adult female sparrowhawk to me, I can't see any hint of brown in its plumage to make it a juvenile. Also it looked pretty big and I'm not sure that a male is big enough or powerful enough to take down a woodpigeon.

Sparrowhawk kills can be a bit gruesome, whilst they will take and eat quite large prey such as woodpigeons and lapwings, they are often not powerful enough to kill them outright like a peregrine would, and it's not unusual to see a sparrowhawk eating prey which is still alive. Don't be too quick to judge them though, they have to eat and this what they have evolved to do. If we're worried about song bird populations being effected by sparrowhawks, then lets first remove cats from the environment and then stop destroying song bird habitat. Talking of cats, Polly and Ted just sat and watched while this was going on and didn't try to approach. Very wise!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

American Golden Plover Marshside

This moulting adult American golden plover was on Crossens Inner Marsh at Marshside today. Amazingly it's my first adult, all of the others I have seen have been juveniles, so nice to get a plumage tick. I'm amazed at how well this photo has turned out, the bird was about 150m away, it was slightly against the light, the wind was around force 6 and the photo was taken by hand holding my phone up to my telescope! No adapters were involved in the taking of this photo!

Friday, 21 September 2018

Warwickshire phalarope influx

It's that time of year again when grey phalaropes start turning up all around our coasts, but I didn't expect to see my first of the year in deepest inland Warwickshire, and I was even more surprised to see my second the following day in the same county! The first few photos here are of the second bird a juvenile which showed very well at Charlecote, a National Trust property near Stratford-Upon-Avon, whilst the final three photos are of the first, a bird at Napton Reservoir near Southam.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Pallid Harrier and Semi P on the Fylde

A couple of cracking birds on the Fylde this week, and this juvenile pallid harrier in particular is a stunner. Yes I saw the Dunsop Bridge bird as well, and as stunning as that bird undoubtedly was, a displaying adult male pallid harrier no less, it wasn't as beautiful as this juvenile.The photo just doesn't do it justice, the unstreaked body and coverts were bright gingery / orange in colour, contrasting with the dark boa and pale collar, with pied primaries and tail, making this one of those rare occasions when the juvenile is a more beautiful bird than the adults.  We waited for two hours in force 6 winds which made it really uncomfortable, but the bird eventually flew and was seemingly unaffected by the wind as it hunted for several minutes across the field right in front of us,  a simply breathtaking bird.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Marsh warbler conundrum

This Acrocephalus warbler was at Tide Mills in Sussex on 6th September 2018. It's a marsh warbler, but opinion is split, with some considering it a reed warbler. It's superficially a difficult identification, especially for birders too concerned with "warm brown hues" at the expense of all other features, and in this blog post I'll explain why.

It's a marsh warbler for many reasons, but not least because it called several times while I was watching it. On all occasions it's call was a hard tongue clicking note, similar to Blyth's reed warbler, which is sometimes described as a sound similar knocking two pebbles together. Reed warbler does not give these clear cut, hard single notes. At no point did it utter anything like a reed warbler call. Unfortunately this is obviously something which you can't judge from the photos and you need to take my word for it. If you're in the reed warbler camp you'll probably just ignore this vital piece of evidence, however you really shouldn't.....

In 2015 a very useful article was published in Scottish Birds on the identification of 1st winter marsh warbler, and it is this which I have largely referred to throughout this blog post.

Scottish Birds (2015). Marsh Warbler in first-winter plumage - SBRC identification criteria, M.S. Chapman. Available: Last accessed 09/09/2018.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

A few late August highlights from Pennington Flash

An eclipse drake garganey and at least two juvenile Mediterranean gulls were the highlights at the end of August and both are very predictable birds for this time of year. No less predictable is the continuing and alarming decline in waders. At the time of the Sabine's gull which was as recently as August 2015, there were two or three green sandpipers present throughout the month while in August 2013 it was possible to see six or seven green sandpipers at the Flash. In August 2018 there was a single bird on the 1st and another for a couple of days in the middle of the month, and that's it for green sandpipers this August.

In fact all waders have declined at the flash in recent years. It's now a red letter day if you find a dunlin or a redshank at the flash, and double figure counts of either are almost unheard of these days. Even common sandpipers are not that common. The peak month for common sandpiper is July, but this year we had just one or two birds where in previous years there have been close to double figures or more. On the 8th July 2006 I saw a flock (yes a flock) of 28 common sandpipers at Prescot Reservoirs in St Helens, and on the same day there were a further 12 at Eccleston Mere, imagine that at the Flash these days! It's cause for celebration if you see one now. Wood sandpipers are the stuff of legend these days.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Bonaparte's Gull, Hilbre Island

I resisted the temptation to twitch the Bonaparte's gull that appeared on the north Wirral shore a few days ago, but when it relocated to Hilbre Island yesterday, the opportunity to add it to my Hilbre list was too great and I headed out today and found it showing well from the obs balcony. It's an adult in non-breeding plumage.

Also today, around 500 Sandwich terns and six little egrets.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The dreary flows and an exciting crane

The highs and lows of birding, I drove back from Melvich to Inverness today and started off driving past Forsinard RSPB in the Caithness flow country, a place which I had been looking forward to seeing, but which I found dreary, overrated and disappointing, not a bit haunting to me, which is how I often hear it described. I find this a bit surprising since usually I love blanket bog. I guess that since I'd just spent a week surveying near Melvich, the last thing I needed was another vast expanse of birdless M17 Trichophorum cespitosum – Eriophorum vaginatum blanket mire. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood.

However fortunately much better was to come. Just a couple of miles south of Brora a common crane flew over the A9 right in front of me and quite low down. It was torrential rain at the time and it looked like it was trying to land. I was able to stop but it had disappeared behind a small hill and I couldn't relocate it. I drove on to the next parking spot and jumped out of the car, again in torrential rain, and spotted it in the distance, flying away from me but again looking like it was trying to land. Once more I got in the car and drove on another 1/2 mile past a few wheat fields until I could see a grassy field in the distance. I guessed that this is where it might be and pulled into a gateway to view the field. Sure enough the bird was in the field allowing me to fire off a couple of photos before it flew again, and this time I lost it for good.

It reminded me of a famous incident a few years ago when there was a much rarer Sandhill crane on Orkney which eventually flew south and was followed a good way down the east coast of Scotland by birders.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018


Mountain aven Dryas octopetala, I reckon that I could easily make a case for this being my favourite plant, and what finer location to see  it in than at sea level at Bettyhill, with the beautiful Torrisdale beach as a back drop?

Bettyhill is a famous botanical site on the extreme north of Scotland in the county of Sutherland, and is particularly noted not only for its rare flora, but also for mountain plants which here occur right down at sea level such as these mountain avens.

Sunday, 5 August 2018


Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

I knew that orca had been sighted in the Caithness area in the days before I left home for a week in the far north of Scotland, thanks to a series of messages being posted on the "Caithness and North Sutherland Cetacean sightings" Facebook group, but catching up with them was always going to be a challenge. They seemed pretty wide ranging, often going north into the Orkney archipelago as well as all around the coast to the west and south. I resigned myself to the fact that they were just the stuff of dreams, something to look out for while I was in the area, but not a serious proposition.

The town of Lossiemouth is on the most northerly point of the south coast of the Moray Firth near Inverness, and it can be hard to believe that from here there is still enough land left in the UK for you to be able to drive north for another four hours, but that's exactly what I was faced with today as I left my hotel and started my journey to Melvich on the extreme north coast of Scotland.

When I set off I had no intention of looking for orca, they were something I might look for on another day, today was just a day of travel. However, soon I received news that a family party of seven orca had been seen passing Duncansby Head near John O'Groats and later they were seen feeding to the north of Freswick Bay. I was tempted but would they hang around? It seemed the perfect day for viewing, with good light and relatively flat calm seas with just a light breeze, so I decided that it was just too good an opportunity to miss and I set my SatNav for John O'Groats.

Photo: Orca, bull #34 of the 27s pod.

Duncansby Head lies a mile or two to the north east of John O'Groats, a small, scattered village famous for being the most northerly inhabited point of mainland Britain. The scenery here is dominated by the islands of Orkney, less than 10 miles away to the north, whilst to the south lie the oddly shaped Stacks of Duncansby with their mighty cliffs and seabird colonies. It's a very wild and remote place, where the Pentland Firth meets the North Sea and though never matching the west coast for seascapes and rugged beauty, it has a remoteness almost unique in mainland Britain. None of that matters to me now though, Duncansby Head will be forever associated with surely the most dramatic and exciting wildlife experience of my life.

However all of that still seemed a long way off and the orca were still a dream, because at the moment that I set the SatNav for John O'Groats I was still a good two hour drive from where I needed to be. Would the orca stick around for that long?

Photo: Orca, bull #34 of the 27s pod.

After a long and thankfully uneventful drive I finally arrived at the car park at Duncansby Head and found that there were no obvious signs of whale watchers never mind whales. After such a long drive it would have been reassuring to have seen people looking out to sea through binoculars or telescopes, but if they were here then they were keeping a low profile and it looked like I'd have to do it alone. Unsure of what to do next and not even certain that I was in the right place for viewing, I headed to the highest point on the headland, the place that gave me the widest field of view, across the Pentland Firth to the north and the North Sea to the east.

The sea wasn't quite like glass, but it was probably as flat as it gets up here and the light was perfect. Surely if orcas were out there I'd see them? But no, there was nothing, not even a dolphin or a porpoise. All I could do was sit it out and wait and hope...

I didn't have long to wait! Suddenly I noticed something large moving through the water close in to the cliffs. I held my breath - surely not? Then I saw the dorsal fin.... incredibly it was two orca swimming right towards me! I allowed myself a moments celebration to fully take in the experience before realising that I could get a lot closer, I abandoned my vantage point and ran down to a fence at the top of the cliff, some 100m closer to the water. The orca were still coming towards me, pursued by a boat full of camera wielding tourists.!

Orca pods around the UK are given numbers to identify them and I have since learnt that these were two bulls from the 27s. Each individual of the pod is also given number and these are bulls #34 and #72.

Photo: Probably bull #34 of the 27s.

These photos don't really convey well the size of these animals, it's only when you have something familiar to compare them with that it becomes obvious.

Note the guillemot flying towards the orca, which helps give a sense of scale to the photo. The RSPB website gives the a wingspan of a guillemot as 64-73cm and its body length as 38-45cm. That dorsal fin must be at least 2.5x the length of the wingspan of the bird, making it around 1.8m (6ft) and making this probably a full grown adult male orca, which I'm fairly sure is bull #34. The males can grow up to 9.8m!

One of the orca (#34 I think), twisted over and then arched out of the water before raising and slapping it's tail. From reports on the Facebook group I knew that there should be seven orca in this pod, but there was no sign of the others. It almost felt like these two bull orcas were taking the boat away from the rest of the pod.

When the boat came up alongside this animal, its size was very apparent, it was huge, maybe half the length of the boat.

I've seen humpbacks behave like this in Australia.

Photo: Bulls #72 & 34.

This is a photo that I never thought I would take anywhere in the world, let alone in UK waters and from the mainland. To see an orca break the surface is one thing, to see it underwater like this is just a staggering experience, and especially so from mainland Britain. I have to pinch myself to remember that I was standing on the mainland when I took this photo, not on some remote Scottish island group, or on a guided boat tour miles out at sea, no, I was standing alone on the Scottish mainland. Like I said, staggering, the greatest wildlife experience of my life, enhanced because although I knew that they had been in the area, it felt like I'd found them for myself.

The nearest animal is bull #72 which at the time that I took the photo was estimated to be about 20 years old. Look at the size of the animal behind it but further under the water. This is bull #34 which is estimated to be 25 years old.

Eventually the orcas disappeared around the headland and I thought that I had seen the last of them and I had a walk to the stacks. However, on returning to my vantage point a little later, I noticed a boat stopped a respectable distance from what I took to be dolphins about half a mile out at sea. Closer investigation revealed that they were actually the orcas again, but this time all seven were together, and the animals which I had thought were dolphins were actually baby orcas with dolphin like curved dorsal fins. I watched them for about another 20 minutes until it started to rain and I decided that I needed to continue my journey.

What a fantastic day. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned that I called in briefly at Findhorn near Lossiemouth this morning and jamed onto a group of birders watching a stunning adult Pacific golden plover in full summer plumage. That's been almost forgotten now...

Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

Don't forget me! I was good too! Only my third ever Pacific golden plover in the UK and what a cracker, easily the best looking individual I've seen. This bird was at Findhorn, right at the start of my adventure today. Next time I see one of these will probably be back in Australia later this year.

The Stacks of Duncansby.

Duncansby lighthouse with Orkney behind.

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