Tuesday, 31 December 2019

My top 10 UK birding experiences of the decade

Over the past 10 years I've seen 378 species in the UK and 313 species in the north-west. I added 58 species to my UK list during the decade leaving me currently on 432 for the UK and 369 for the north-west. However it's not just the birds, it's the experiences which I love with good friends in often fabulous locations. Here is my top 11 from the decade.

1. American black tern Eccleston Mere, St Helens, August 2012.

Photo: American Black Tern © Steve Young.
My best ever self found rarity, at the time it was about the fifth for the UK and the next one didn't appear until September 2018 in Kent. On the day I found it, I'd actually gone to the mere in the hope of finding a black tern and when I saw this bird. I took a few photos but it wasn't until I returned home and looked at the photos that I noticed the grey flanks which identifies it as American black.

The bird commuted between the mere and Prescot Reservoirs for a about five days, with a day spent at Pennington Flash in the middle of its stay. It was a very exciting time for me at the mere, a place which at the time I regularly visited 3 or 4 times a week and had done so for 15 years and most of the time just seeing coots and mallard.

2. Great spotted cuckoo, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, 2014.

No amount of superlatives could do justice to a breathtaking bird on a glorious day in a spectacular location. We arrived at Penally, near Tenby at 8:30 following a 4.5 hour drive. The Great Spotted Cuckoo showed on and off until 9:30, but very distantly, before finally flying off over the sea to nearby Caldey Island, and for a long while it seemed it was gone for good. We walked up to Giltar Point and watched the Choughs, and then down to the marsh to listen to the Cetti's Warblers and generally admired the Pembrokeshire coastal scenery and soaked up the warm spring sunshine. Finally at 13:30 we decided to call it a day and head home. We had driven about 20 miles from Penally when news broke that the Cuckoo was back! We immediately turned the car around and half an hour later we were watching the bird at close range as it fed on the golf course. We arrived home at 20:00. What a bird, what a day!

3. White-billed diver, River Witham, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, 1st February 2017.

A famous birder once said "real birds eat fish" and this is surely all of the evidence required that he was correct!

Amazingly 30 years to the day since my last white-billed diver, I arrived at Kirkstead bridge on the River Witham near Woodhall Spa in horrible weather. Dull and misty with heavy drizzle. It was so bad that I even contemplated not taking my camera because what was the point? The juvenile white-billed diver which had already been here for at least a couple of weeks had been roaming long distances from the bridge, sometimes up to 3 or 4 miles north and I have to say that was not an appealing thought in this weather! However undeterred I set out walking and decided to head north from the bridge because that seemed to be the birds favourite stretch of river. I hadn't been going for more than 10 minutes when I got news that the bird had been seen flying south along the river an hour earlier. Birders walking south had not seen it so it looked as though it had gone beyond the bridge before I had arrived. Fortunately there was a road on the west bank heading south, so I decided to go back to the car and take the road. I really thought I was going to fail to see this bird, I drove on and on searching for it with no luck, until eventually, 2.7 miles from the bridge I saw what looked like a goose swimming down the river. It was obviously the diver, and what a bird it was! It makes great northern look whimpy, with the most incredible dagger like bill. Just an hour or so after I saw the bird, a barge came down the river and flushed it, and the diver was last seen flying east and was never seen again!

4. Collared Flycatcher, Mire Loch, St. Abbs, 29th April 2014.

It was a gloriously sunny day in Scotland until I got within 5 miles of the coast. Then the east coast haar set in and I couldn't see 50m in front of me. I arrived at the car park for St. Abbs and set off in the direction of Mire Loch. I'd never been before so it was a bit walk and hope, and depressingly there were no other birders about to direct me. I just walked and walked through the fog until eventually I met a shadowy figure coming along the path towards me. Good news from him at least, I was going in the right direction he had seen the collared flycatcher but I still had quite a long walk ahead of me and worse, he told me there was nobody else looking. Look in the woods near the boathouse he said but, where was that? I'd never been before. Eventually I got to the place and spent some time alone in the woods looking and waiting. Nothing. Then just as I'd given up hope, up it popped onto a branch right in front of me and took my breathe away. A stunning summer plumage collared flycatcher.

5. Cretzchmar's bunting, Bardsey Island, Gwynedd, 14th June 2015

I was lying in bed having a well earned rest after yesterdays trip to Bardsey Island when I made the fatal mistake of looking at Birdguides on my phone. "Cretzschmar's Bunting again at the lighthouse on south side of island". Doh! Despite the best efforts of myself and 40 other birders yesterday it had somehow managed to elude us all and today was "back" and singing. The rain was throwing it down outside and our planned local walk didn't seem too appealing, so I tentatively suggested Bardsey to Elaine, because at least the sun was forecast to shine there today and she had expressed a keen interest in going to the island when I told her about it yesterday. I just don't think she expected to go today....

We were out of the house and on our way at 10:30, with no idea of how many people might be trying to get onto the 12 passenger boat which was due to leave at 13:30, or how bad the roads might be to slow us down. However it was a very smooth drive, and by 13:10 we were on the boat and ready to go, one of us at least buoyed by the news that the bird was still showing just half an hour earlier, the other wondering what she had gotten herself into and who all these other strange folk were on the boat. In fact at that stage there were only seven of us on the boat, so we had to wait until 13:30 to see if anybody else came. Four more people arrived and we were on our way.

The boatman seemed keen to get us there and went at a decent speed, the boat bouncing around in the swell, and spray soaking us several times over. Fortunately though, the sun was shining on Bardsey and we soon dried out once on the island. We made our way to the lighthouse and joined about 12 other birders peering over the lighthouse compound wall.

Thanks to excellent organisation skills by the bird observatory staff we were all able to get a good look at this cracking little bird, even Elaine added it to her UK list, which now stands at about 21.

6. Brown Booby, Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Cornwall, 2nd September 2019.

The first couple of hours or so on Monday at Gwithian Towans beach on St Ives Bay passed in much the same way as Sunday. Thousands of Manxies headed west, I estimated about 3000 per hour at least, a grey phalarope flew across the surf, arctic skuas and a bonxie flew past distantly and probably 30 Mediterannean gulls were knocking about on the sea, but depressingly still no booby. I'll be honest, I'd given up. Still, at least I'd got a lifer out of the trip, a western Bonelli's warbler, and it was a beautiful location. I wandered down to the beach to take a few photos.

I'd just about reached the beach when my phone went and I just knew what it was even before I looked at who was calling. A voice cried "Colin get back to the car it's at Kynance Cove!". I had no idea where Kynance Cove was, and I wasn't even sure that we were talking about the booby, but the voice was sufficiently assertive to convince me that it was time to forget my walk on the beach. Something good was at a place that I'd never heard of and we needed to get there fast. A few minutes later we were all in the car and heading south to the Lizard peninsula.

It took us an hour to get to the cove, stuck behind tractors and day trippers and Sunday drivers and we even took the wrong turning once, but eventually we got there. I jumped out of the car even before we had parked in order to get a parking ticket, Dave jumped out and grabbed his stuff and was gone and meanwhile an over keen parking attendant was telling Ray that he was parked 3 inches outside of the correct position! Please just let us park the car!

Kynance Cove is a beautiful and tranquil spot where one can enjoy the solitude of nature. Yeah right, perhaps on some days that might be true, but not today. We legged it over the hill and joined the ever increasing group of birders perched high on a headland. Out in the bay were several stacks and on the extreme left stack, the small pyramidal rock, a couple of birds were perched. One was a shag, the other was a booby.

However something was wrong. Even though we hadn't seen the bird at Gwithian Towans beach, we had all seen the photographs. That bird had a pale creamy bill and face. The bird we were looking at didn't. It had a steely grey bill and a dark face. And there were plumage differences too. This was clearly a different bird. In fact it's not even the same age. The other bird was a sub-adult / 2nd summer, the bird at Kynance Cove was a 1st summer. Wow! The magnitude of this began to sink in. What are the chances? Go to Cornwall to twitch a 1st for Britain, dip on it but then drop on the 2nd for Britain! Unbelievable.

7. Harlequin duck, River Don, Aberdeen, 10th January 2015

I picked up Dave at 3am and by 3:15am we'd collected Ray and were on our way to Aberdeen, 350 miles to the north and a good 6 hour drive without a stop.

It was far from a pleasant journey, in darkness all of the way, we had heavy rain, strong winds and lorries swerving around in the road and kicking up so much spray that at times it was like driving through thick fog or in one particularly bad moment like a white out in a snow storm. In fact for most of the journey it felt like we driving through a tunnel, with little or no motorway lighting and just blackness on either side of the road, and it wasn't until we reached the outskirts of Aberdeen that we started to see beyond the edge of the road. Only the road signs gave us an indication that we were making progress, Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, Dundee, all passed in complete darkness and they offered little comfort as we headed further and further into the teeth of the storm.

However by 9:15am we had emerged from darkness and were standing on the car park at Seaton Park, on the banks of the River Don, in pleasant winter sunshine. This is where the first mainland Harlequin since 1996 and the first mainland male since 1965 had been found last Sunday. We set off down to the river, passing another St Helens birder on the way. He'd beaten us to it and had already seen the bird! It didn't take long for us to see it either, in fact almost as soon as we arrived on the banks of the Don we saw the Harlequin flying down the river towards us, and amazingly it dropped onto the water right in front of us. Result! Big sigh of relief. It's a long way to go to dip, and it was nice to see the bird almost immediately, it really took the pressure off! Daylight hours are a big issue at this time of year, and I'd read a couple of reports by other birders who needed a couple of attempts before they saw the bird. Despite being fairly approachable, it had ranged quite a long way up or down river from Seaton Park, and was difficult to find at times.

8. Siberian accentor, Easington, East Yorkshire, 15th October 2016

What a day on the east coast! Having resisted the temptation to jump in the car and travel to Easington for the Siberian accentor as soon as it was reported on Thursday, I even managed to resist again on Friday despite all of the drooling tweets coming through from various friends on site, and I ended up instead having yet another look at a yellow-browed warbler at Houghton Green Pool.

On Saturday though I finally succumbed and Ray and I headed over to Easington to have a look at a bird which just a week earlier was a mega but which with news of yet another in Cleveland was rapidly become just a good county tick, with three in a week. Across Europe there had been 37 others reported and there was still time for more to be found in the UK that autumn.

It was an invasion not to be missed, the Siberian accentor on Shetland a week earlier was a first for Britain and it could be another 50 years before we get another! This might be a one off invasion year.

But this wasn't just a about the accentor, it was one of those days you dream of at Spurn, literally dripping with birds. Goldcrests and robins everywhere, there must have been hundreds of each, every other bird we saw was a goldcrest or a robin. On the walk back to the car from watching the accentor we saw firecrest, yellow-browed warbler, redstart and lesser whitethroat, the latter looking suspiciously Siberian like, and then we drove to Kilnsea. We watched a very obliging shorelark near the car park, and then as we were having lunch 23 European white-fronted geese flew over.

After lunch we walked to the church yard where there was one of two Pallas's warblers showing well, and another yellow-browed warbler. Next into the Crown and Anchor car park where there was another firecrest and another yellow-browed warbler. It was that kind of day, everywhere you looked there were groups of birders watching something of interest. There were over 12,000 redwings seen, 1700 fieldfare and 400 each of blackbirds and song thrushes, and air was full of their seeps and cackles and ticks. A very exciting atmosphere when you could believe that anything was a possibility.

From the Crown and Anchor we walked along the sea bank towards the canal, on the way ignoring a small flock of brents that most likely contained the a reported black brant. Half way along we came across a very obliging dusky warbler, one of an incredible nine seen at Spurn today!

We also missed Radde's warbler, great grey shrike, 3 little buntings, Richards pipit, jack snipe and a whole flock of bean geese, plus who knows what else on a day like today?

9. Little bustard, Mickletown Ings, West Yorkshire, 7th August 2019.

What a stunner! Over the years I've heard lots of reports of previous little bustards disappearing deep into crops or tall grass, leaving only the bird's head visible for short periods. This bird was walking around in full view, or near enough full view most of the time. I honestly don't think I've ever seen little bustard this well even in Portugal, where I've seen them displaying. I was surprised at how small it was, not much bigger than a woodpigeon or a crow and I bet if there had been a coot standing next to it there wouldn't be a lot in it.

The most dramatic moment came when it was attacked by a peregrine. The bird must have recognised it’s peril right at the last moment because the falcon missed it by 20cm at the most. In a state of blind panic the bustard flew towards us and then right past us with the peregrine in hot pursuit, before it dropped down into some scrub and the falcon banked off to the right and flew away high over the lake.

Even so we weren’t sure if the bustard had been injured or had survived the attack because it was a close call, literally centimeters in it, and perhaps the falcon had hit it but not been able to hold it causing the bustard to drop like that. However after about 10 minutes we saw the bustard flying back from behind us and it landed back in it's usual field, almost hovering for a minute before it landed. Amazing how loyal birds can be to the same area even after such a scare. It didn’t look entirely happy though, when it was in flight we could clearly see that it now had a missing primary feather and when it landed it scurried away into deep vegetation and remained there until I left. A real heart stopping moment. In flight the bird was very distinctive with lots of white in the wings, a really beautiful bird.

10. White-tailed plover, Seaforth, Merseyside, 27th May 2010.

My first visit to see this bird was through the perimeter fence from Crosby, but the following day I was in the hide and wow, what a bird!

It wasn't even a north-west tick for me having seen the Leighton Moss bird in 2007, but it was an amazing bird and a much better view, though the circumstances were nowhere near as dramatic. I can't leave this out of my top 10 though.

11. Rough-legged buzzard, Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey, 12th December 2012

I started with a self found bird and I'll end with a self found bird which was no less remarkable and from the same year. My best ever bird on a Vantage Point survey, I was about 4 miles from Cemlyn Bay when I spotted a buzzard hovering to my left. It looked good for rough-legged buzzard but there are so many pale common buzzards around and they do also hover. I kept my eye on the bird whilst continuing with the survey and eventually it flew right over me and hovered at close range. Now I was in no doubt! Unfortunately though I had no camera with me, it was in the car. The bird continued on it's way and appeared to fly over Camaes Bay and away west.

About 30 minutes later my survey was over and it was time for a lunch break, so I decided to head for Cemlyn Bay just on the off chance that the buzzard had gone there. On arrival I started walking along the shingle bank and miraculously when I'd reached about the half way point, I looked back and there was a buzzard flying towards me quite low down. Hardly daring to breathe I raised my binoculars and sure enough, it was the rough-legged buzzard! Now I did have my camera and fired off a few photos as the bird flew overhead which fortunately confirmed the identification. I was the only person to see this rough-legged buzzard which was the first for Anglesey in "many" years and I think also for north-wales.

Other highlights
Birds which don't appear in this list but which warrant a mention include Marmora's warbler in Monmouthshire (2010), solitary sandpiper in Lancashire (2011), American buff-bellied pipit in Cheshire (2013), ivory gull on Humberside (2013), two-barred crossbills in Yorkshire (2013), crag martin at Flamborough Head (2014), Hudsonian godwit in Somerset (2015) and a male pallid harrier displaying in Bowland (2017).

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