Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Delayed Post from October: Blonde Birders Ride Again

Leaving work on Friday - now at the Open University - I headed to the station to catch the train to Birmingham. Tom had some talk, or mime act, or something... I forget; I was going along to be supportive. I stepped onto my super cheap, excruciatingly long train to be met with a wall of commuters and, joy of joys, a stag do travelling from south of London to poor, unfortunate Brum. I dragged in my rucksack as far into the pack as I could, tucked it behind me to protect the camera within, and settled in for the long stand.

After chatting with the teacher next to me for a few minutes I finally ended up in conversation with - amongst others - “Peppa Pig” and “Jeff Goldbulm” in the stag party (I was “Pixie”)… Turns out, they were an epic bunch; like seriously great! Friendly dudes who were very, very happy to share the beers; even buying my in on another round when they ran out. By the time we rocked up in Birmingham we’d been chatting for about an hour and - with hugs all round - I headed off on my now slightly tipsy way for food and comedy. (Guys, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re weekend was amazing!). With a start like that, you know the weekend is going to be great, and boy did it deliver.

During the evening I managed to see my cousin and the lovely Rachel, drink a lot of gin, meet Jasper Carrot, and roll in at two. At two. We were getting up at four. So after just two hours of sleep, Tom and I were cursing as we dragged ourselves out of bed and into the car, bound for Spurn point. By 6 we had pulled into services at Doncaster, filling up on toasties and coffee to fend of my threatening hangover. At 7:45 we were at Easington, roaming the church yard in search of the previous day’s red-flanked bluetail. There were already a handful of eager birders about, but no bird; we gave it half an hour and then headed towards Kilnsea. En route we stopped off at the wetlands, picking up tree sparrow and what would be the star of a big bag of redwing. Here we also found out that at least two little bunting had been seen on the point. Steeling ourselves for a trek, we headed toward The Warren; parking up and pulling on the walking boots.

As we walked down the point we were plagued by goldcrest, redwing and robins; they were everywhere, and after our dip in the church yard we jumped at every wing flick. The best bird we got was a brief view of a flushed woodcock and a nice whinchat. By the time we reached the point, we were ready for a new tick. At the entrance to the lifeboat station we met up with Nathan, who put us onto a black red that he had just seen, then we piled on for the VTS tower and our potential little bunting. 

When every wing flick grabs your attention, the hoards of robins and GC's are enough to give you a tic

Boy was our luck in, after a few seconds of waiting our target flitted up to the top of a hawthorn opposite. Sat high for a minute, before disappearing off again. Two minutes later it was back. We snapped another frantic set of pictures and it flew again. This time we properly celebrated; high fives, mountain dew, and lemon ice relentless all round. Time for another hour’s walk and hopefully a few more gems like this…

Man, it is one hell of a walk now. But halfway round we hit a bonus. A group of birders were clustered at the wash over. Focused firmly on a Lapland bunting… which was not happy to be observed and was soon flushed. We carried on north, now set on rustic bunting; the bird of Big Year notoriety (seriously folks, watch that film). After what seemed like forever now, we reached the car and headed back toward the Crown and Anchor, parking just before Church Field. Here we managed a quick chat with a couple of other birders and took a quick look in Church Field for the rustic bunting, but it was far too busy. Ring ouzel and shrike at Sammy’s Point it was.

Good views of breast "scales"

Luckily the ring ouzel was feeding in the open right by the car park, giving better views than any we had on our last trip around the Cairngorms. The shrike was a different matter. We trudged along the top, scanning every bush, getting steadily more annoyed at the number of robins. We considered dropping into the scrub for a brush bash, but after the trip down the point we lacked the will. Reaching the end of the hedges we swung round and headed for the car, and as we wandered back we passed Steve again, who let us know that the shrike had been refound on green lane. Picking up our pace, we bundled back into the car and hopped to the other side of Easington. Wandering up the lane, the birders we passed were happy to inform us that the shrike was sitting happily in full view. A nice easy tick for me and a few blurry photos to go along with it. 

Bright sunlight catching on the GG shrike's white breast

We rounded the White Horse, and took up position with the birders starting into the trees; preparing ourselves to jump at every flitting movement. We chatted to the other birders, and I managed to get a longer chat with Andy Roadhouse (who’s book I will get round to buying soon). I explained that no, we hadn’t seen the olive-backed pipit, we hadn’t seen it shouted for a while; only to be quickly informed that it was still there and easily viewable. Suddenly, I didn’t have much patience for the flycatcher. I glanced at Tom, he needed the bird, not me. Then, thankfully, the flycatcher dropped onto a branch to the right of the tree; I called it, just as it decided to fly out onto the roof of the building, flash its underwing, show its arse and disappear back into the foliage. After pausing for a high five, Tom and I boosted over to Vicar Lane for the Olive-backed Pipit and what turned out to be the easiest bird of the day. Out of car, along lane, birders, bird, watch bird, bird flies, too tired to wait to refind bird, back to the car. Seriously though it was a beaut, the colour change from orangey buff to white in the supercilium and the relatively unmarked back were clearly visible, even through the fence. My pictures do not do it ANY justice. Back in the car, we shared our last high five of the day.

Ah, photography through fences

Form here it was 3 hours of driving, jokes and real talk, during which we realised that we’d not eaten in 16 hours, sending us in search of kebab, naan bread, fried chicken and battered sausages (Tom bought something too I think). Getting back to the house I managed about a third of my food and an episode and a half of Red Dwarf, before realising that my real craving was for sleep. Making my excuses… I crawled off to bed.

On Sunday morning I woke up at 8, dressed, and wandered in search of my leftover kebab. We had made a vague plan to go for a sedate wander in search of purple heron; but after the joy of the day before, we wanted to ride the luck wave. After a vague conversation and some shovelling of remaining food, we pointed the car in the direction of Norfolk and the Radde’s warbler.

It certainly felt luxurious leaving the house at 9 o’clock, but we regretted it later. Turning up at Holkham, we were met by a stream of slightly miffed looking birders trudging back along the path… “1 hour wait, no bird”... “1 ½ hours wait, no bird”... then… “2 hours wait, quick sighting, ten minutes ago.” Boy did we hustle then. And we stood… and stood. Surrounded by around 5 un-appreciated yellow-browed warblers. One person, with consent of the group, tried the tape… a warbler shape flew over… that was it. Sod it. We weren’t going to end the weekend on a dip, we hopped in the car and headed for Titchwell. Out of the car, boom, yellow-browed, hide, pectoral sandpiper, snap snap snap, home-bound, bagging a cheeky little stint on the way out.

Pec Tick

Slightly more awake on this drive, we made plans for using my new base - the “bird-barn” - for future birding trips, caught up on 6 months of gossip, and plotted our 300 before 30 and 400 before 40 dreams. If they’re all weekends like this, we’re unstoppable.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Here Endeth the Hiatus

For the past few months I've barely been out. Its been papers and work, work and papers. Weekends have generally been spent going to and from Nottingham - with hardly a bird in sight - and I haven't been checking the alerts or meeting up with any birders. If it weren't for the great mix of breeding waterfowl on the lakes at the University I think I'd have gone doolally. 

Life after the PhD seems to be a stress of temporary contracts, CV building, and job applications. Thankfully for my sanity, I did manage to get one exciting thing done in the past four months. A two week research cruise on the Prince Madog. Below are some of the extracts from my ship board diary. Enjoy.

09/04/2016 Inauspicious beginnings
As I left the train at Milford Haven I could see an Italian man asking directions from the other passengers, a fishing rod strapped to the side of his pack. We group up, and begin to wander in the direction of the harbour, making our introductions as we go. His name is Federico; a mathematician, who had been advised to volunteer for the cruise by a friend.

Further up the station platform our conversation took the attention of another girl, who promptly announced that she would be joining us as well. Her name was Niki, a little shorter than me, with auburn hair cut into a neat bob. She, like Federico, was fabulously friendly.

Together we crossed the bridge toward the waiting Prince Madog, sitting quiet at her berth in the calm water of the harbour. As we approached, others were disembarking, packing a car with samples and people to return to Bangor. We had barely a moment for a wave and a greeting before they were whisked away and we were welcomed on board. Quick behinds us were Sarah and Lucy who were also joining the ship, and Leigh, James, and Marin, already aboard from the previous fortnight’s surveying. We are shown to our cabins, and I swiftly unpack, happy to rid myself of rucksack and camera bag.

Then the unwelcome news is delivered. We would not be sailing that evening. Outside our calm harbour the wind was rising, creating un-workable swells. Last fortnight they had lost a member of the research staff, taken back to shore in a state of extreme sea sickness. I did not want to repeat her uncomfortable experience.

One by one, we gathered in the dry lab; bringing the collection of laptops, hard drives, headphones, coffees and snacks that follows the researcher abroad. Together we worked for the next six hours, each on their own projects, or on papers in varied stages of completion. Enjoying the welcome catch up time provided by our floating “hot-desks”, I forced myself to catch up on the required reading for an upcoming review, before pulling together the methods and results from a thesis chapter (the last to be prepared for publication).

Eventually the day wore away and, simultaneously disheartened by the delayed departure and full of the joys of being in a new place with new people, we wound our way to the pub. Here James and I chatted about the cetacean surveys planned for the next fortnight, mulling over some of the potential sightings. I make a passable show of playing pool, before one pint too many takes the edge off my aim. From there it is a short amble back to the boat and our berths.

RV Prince Madog at Milford Haven

I slept well in my narrow bunk, waking at seven to the noises of the crew beginning their day. At 7:30 I rose myself, dressed and went in search of tea in the galley. Here I heard the first mention from Jerry and Rob that we might not be sailing that evening either. The wind had swung to the south east, leaving us with nowhere to anchor comfortably overnight. Even in the harbour the water had gained some chop. The Madog, which had sat as still as a rock at its moorings, now gave the occasional sway, as if trying to prepare us mentally for the next fortnight.
Home Sweet Home

I take a stroll around to the marina, bitten by the brisk wind. I have taken my camera to get some external shots of the boat, but the wind buffets me and my footage is wobbly. Soon my hands are bitten by the cold and I give in, flipping the DSLR back to the camera setting. Some of the boats in the harbour are very charming. I am particularly taken by Three Sheets to the Wind, a trimaran painted in British racing green. She is in need of a little love, her decks stained green with the grown of algae; the paint on her matching tender beginning to peel. I take a snap of her name and her triplet bows to remember her by and amble back toward the Prince Madog.

After a truly mammoth brunch of sausage, egg, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, beans and chips, we had our safety tour. I had remembered just enough from my sea survival not to look a complete moron (even though my memory of fire extinguisher labels was lacking a little). With nothing to do until dinner that evening, we again fell to our laptops and work to cure our boredom. If we continued in this way for much longer I would at least have something new to submit on my return to York.
The alarm went off at 6 30 and I forced myself to get up. Tomorrow I would be on deck working from six, and I intended to ease myself in to it. I slunk upstairs to get myself the first coffee of the day and watch the weather forecast. The forecast was promising, a mix of local lows and swirling air currents making for calm conditions. It even looked sunny. Spirits were high all round and I enjoyed a fantastic fry-up curtesy of Colin, the chef on board.

Ten past eight rolled around and we left on the high tide, steaming our way south west past the numerous bumper boats. There was little in the way of bird life around as we began our journey. The only highlight being a great northern diver as we passed Dale, then we were truly out into the Celtic sea. I decided to join James for a couple of hours on cetacean watch, the others coming and going as they got used to their sea sickness. The marine mammals were not forthcoming, but the birdlife was good. At one point James called what he initially thought was a blackbird overhead, but as it turned we saw a flash of cream on its breast; it was a male ring ouzel, migrating back to the UK after a winter on the continent!

After a quick lunch for those that could eat (lamb broth), we got started. Water samples, grabs, dredges, and trawls. Catch sorting and weighing. Separating plaice and spider crabs for gut content analysis – dissecting said plaice and spider crabs and preserving them in formalin. We finished at nine thirty in the evening.

Federico and James jigged and fished from the back of the boat, Federico landing three dogfish. And suddenly, dolphins; chasing fish in the light off the stern. I dashed inside for my camera and managed a few quick shots of the figures ghosting in and out of the pool of light surrounding the boat. And beyond them, the eerie figures of loafing fulmars on the waters surface.

12/04/2016 What Lies Beneath
After a night’s steaming to the new sight, six am rolled around far too quickly. Still, I forced myself to get up and went in search of a cuppa. During the night the birds had surrounded us, and formed a ring of gannets, greater black backs, fulmars and kittiewakes. They loafed on the water’s surface as we took our first samples, eyeing the boat for any sign of a free meal. This morning I was filtering water samples, but I could tell things were wrong outside… there were no pots full of processed animals appearing. In fact, their first sample was being boxed up as Sarah and I had finished three niskin bottles worth of water. We were on decidedly cobbly ground and the large stones were fouling the grab.

As we waiting, a new bird arrived, exhaustedly fluttering to the crane above us. Today’s stow away was a chiffchaff, who explored the decks (and even the galley) in search of food. I eyed it from my station, itching to grab my camera; but we were trawling now, and we needed all hands.

We hit a snag on our second tow. Whilst bringing the net aboard the quick release slid loose, just a moment before the cod end swung safely over the stern, and the catch disappeared into the turquoise waters. Another half an hour lost after the palaver of the rock fouled grabs earlier in the day. 
Thankfully tempers were kept, and we swung the boats and prepared to run back along our course. Those of us not watching the net took the opportunity to rest up. Sarah, Nicky and I stretching our muscles with a few reps of squats, press ups and planks. Then we clock watched, counting the minutes until we could land this catch and steam to the next spot.

After an age the winches fired into life and the net rose to the surface. Phil and George span the second winch to draw in the cod end, but there was no bulge there to suggest the time it had been down. We’d damaged the net. Somewhere along the 30 minute run it had either snagged or we’d taken in a large boulder, and it had ripped the gut out of her. Anything in or subsequently entering the net had gleefully skipped out through the hole that remained. Grimly, the net was dragged aboard and Phil and George set about repairing it as we steamed for the next site. The sun shone regardless and the white paint of the Madog glowed so bright that she hurt the eyes.

Federico and goldfinch at the bow

The chiffchaff reappeared as we steamed to the next site, and even deigned to sit on Phil’s out stretched arm for an offered biscuit (which it declined). It bought a better mood with it. The second site passed quickly and we were soon dealing with our last dredges and grabs. Huge, sandy things with few animals in them. As we finished up a bonxie passed us to starboard. Glad to be done I headed gratefully in search of showers and another of Colin’s dinners

Sorting and Weighing the Catch

That evening we worked together in the dry lab. Only noticing that we had arrived off the coast of North Devon when our phones chirped into life. I worked on the methods for a paper while the others talks and worked around me. Then, as the sun dropped away, we found ourselves at the stern, peering out toward the sunset in hope of the elusive “green flash”. The lightshow never arrived, but we did see a beautiful calm sunset, framed by the merest whisp of cloud.

The second early morning was not sitting well with me, and I blearily drank my tea as the others appeared. However, by the time our 6:30 shift started I was happily pulling on my oilskins and boots. Sarah and I worked the niskin and filters again and we had the three samples squared away in no time. I gave the area a swift clean down and set up the labels for the next site before heading out to assist on deck. When we broke for breakfast at seven thirty I was done with fry-ups, opting instead for Shreddies and a banana, hastily drinking another coffee before we were due back on deck.During the final grab samples I noticed that an arctic tern had joined the parade of seabirds following the ship. After the trawls Federico, Nicky and I threw the dead catch to the waiting gannets, watching them plunge into the water after the easy meals.

In the afternoon the trawl brought more plaice for my samples, and very little else. We sorted the grabs and dredges quickly and had interesting (though meagre) catches in the trawls. Wrapping up at four I grabbed a cup of tea before meeting James on the foredeck for a shift as cetacean survey scribe. After half an hour of noting down sea bird abundance James noticed a pair of common dolphin approaching from port. Then nothing for another five minutes, then six dolphin came straight as us from the port side, moving to take station on the bow. They were swiftly joined by the earlier pair and skirted periously close to the ship. Abandoning James for a few minutes with my camera I snapped happily down into the water, watching as they rolled in the water to peer back up at me. I returned to take my place as scribe and after 6 more minutes was relieved by Niki, but the dolphins had gone.Below decks Colin had cooked steak and mushroom pie and I was happy to get some hot food inside me. After wolfing both it and a helping of rhubarb crumble down, Lucy and I headed back to the wet lab to dissect the day’s plaice catch. Parcelling and preserving the stomachs of 14 fish for analysis. Job done, I headed down to my bunk at eight.

We awoke to find that the winch had gone down overnight, and we wouldn’t be trawling without it. We took the time to carry our addition cetacean surveys while the engineers worked away. As we steamed between sites I took the time to dissect my catch, bagging the stomachs for preservation in formalin. I could see smaller fish in the gut contents of my plaice and excitement abounded. If there are microplastics in the guts of these smaller fish I could be looking at trophic transfer; I could find out something new.

In the morning we quickly finished of a site, knowing that w had an important stop to make later in the day. We were changing crews, and had to be in the harbour before the tide made entry impossible. I would be sad to see them go. 

We arrived back at Milford Haven at 1500, in glorious sunshine, and we rushed off for a taste of life land-side. I felt decidedly land-sick in Tesco, in a way that I hadn’t been on the boat. The lack of motion was bizarre, but I was determined to stock up on fruit for the remainder of the trip. Then, laden down with smoothies, grapes, plums and raspberries, I went in search of a fortifying pint and a game of pool in the Heart of Oak.

I forced myself to rise at 0630, knowing that my reward would be a full day in Milford Haven. After grabbing breakfast with Niki, Lucy and Rob, I signed myself ashore and headed off for a walk along the coast, a full two hours to myself. The others were heading to Skomer Island, but I saw the opportunity to get ahead on some of Andreas’s statistics (I am a firm believer that a holiday is only good if you can extend its affects after you get back to work. Either that or I have not fully rid myself of PhD writer’s guilt).

The walk was a welcome change, if a little urban in places. There were linnets, blackcaps, swallows, and my first house martins of the year. I skirted the harbour eastward, following an old railway line which on which was now the coastal path, then in at a little harbour. Here the path swung in to meet the road and I decided to double back on myself, unready for cars and civilisation.

I checked my emails for any emails regarding my interview the previous week… nothing; but I did have another offer of an interview elsewhere. The day I travelled back from Bangor. I swiftly called to communicate the issue, settling on a 5pm interview slot. It would be tight, but I was keen to impress my eagerness.

That evening the rest of the team went ashore to the Heart of Oak. I saw my chance for more time alone and retreated to my bunk with a book. 
19/04/2016Today marked a break in our routine. At 0500 we moved round to Dale to pick up the techs from Bangor who were to be calibrating the sonar. I sat and watched the sun rise with a coffee, snapping the occasional shot of a flock of brent geese, inching there way round into the bay at dale. Without much else to do, I worked, ticking off more work for Andreas and ringing Moors for the Future to confirm some details for the surveys.

By one the calibration was done, and once again we headed out from Milford, hoping to get the last grabs and anchor dredges we hadn’t managed two days earlier. In the flat calm we arrived on site with time to spare and quickly deployed the dredge. As we swapped the gear dolphins appeared to starboard, bow riding with us for 10 minutes. Then the 2 meter beam trawl came in, and with it some of the biggest brittle star catches we’d had all trip. There must have been a few thousand individuals in each trawl, but these were our last samples, and we sorted them with good grace. By five thirty we had washed down the wet lab, and I headed up for a few hours on a cetacean transect with James.
Steaming out to Lundy to begin our line west we were struck by the full force of the steadily lowering sun, its glare catching the sea between 0 and 20 degrees. Spotting anything ahead was a nightmare. The two hours past with little more exciting than a flock of twenty golden plover flew through, obviously on their migration north to breed.

That evening we watched All Is Lost, an almost dialogue-less movie in which Robert Redford plays “our man”. Solo sailing his vessel strikes a container, damaging his radio and positioning equipment. We followed the tail of mishap and bad luck to then end, which received a mixed reception from the science team. Throughout the film, Rob interjected with interesting facts about survival at sea, putting us all in a thoroughly positive mood before bed.
 20/04/2016James and I sat on watch from 0730 until 0830. There were plenty of puffins moving through and a steady trickle of migrating swallows. The light was better than the previous evening and, with ten minutes to spare, we spotted the first common dolphin of the day. As we wrapped up I went to the bow to get a couple of shots of birds as they flew past, then we swung to head back to land, coming head to wind. The ship hit the first oncoming wave with a bang. It was going to be a lumpy run.
Knowing there wasn’t much to be done in this swell, I slunk back to my cabin to sleep.
For me, the trip ended with a steam up the coast of Wales, and a slightly damp rib to shore in Holyhead. Federico, Sarah and I got the train together to Bangor, and I was grateful that the swaying carriage put off a great deal of my land sickness. It was a long run home, followed by a skype interview which bought me back down to earth with a bump. 

Since returning to land I have continued to rise early, getting to work for half seven; and have bumped into Colin and Phil in a bar in Beaumaris. But everything has seemed a little drab. Thankfully I still have some video footage to edit together, and a lot of pictures to wade through. 

Best of all, I have a host of new friends up and down the UK; and with lots of catch ups planned, I'm sure I won't be bored for long.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Scottish Island Birds at FSC Millport

This weekend I was up north again, leading a group for at  FSC Millport. Two days of birding around the island, looking for winter specialisties and the odd migrant bird. Having not been birding on the island for 6 months I wasn't quite sure what was around, but I was determined that we could hit every habitat and maximise our chances of a decent species list. After an introduction to waders on the first evening, we sent off around the island in search of whatever the coats might throw up.

The weather was fantastic, unlike last year when the hail made holding bins a painful experience. The flat calm sea made even the most distant loafing guillemot visible and the local porpoises put on an amazing show. Leaving the center we heading anticlockwise around the island, stopping first to pass our bins over the sea and quickly picking up 4 gulls species, both guillemots, and gannet.

As we set of on hour long wader we quickly spotted a lone purple sandpiper on the shoreline, common on the mainland but a surprisingly rare visitor to the island. This was followed with a discussion of the finer points of rock and meadow pipit I.D. As we moved around the island we also ticked off curlew, oyk, turnstone, and ring plover. Both grey and pied wags were found in the field behind Ballochmartin, and a single male shellduck took off from the shore, only to be refound with another pair in Brandy Bay.

Rock Pipit at White Bay

Further round in white bay we picked up four more purple sands before shuttling down to Fintry for a quick sea watch. despite the flat calm (or potentially because of it) there wasn't much moving. Pushing the limits of my scope and eyes I could make out two red-throated divers loafing on the water, but not much else. Nearer the shore, the ever present eider were joined by wigeon and red breasted merganser. Overhead we fleetingly glimpsed a peregrine moving east.

Pushing back towards Millport we took the time to observed the common seals hauled out on the e
Eilans. It won't be long now until the summer boats return and these animals move off to little Cumbrae. After a quick coffee stop three of us continued round the rest of the island, catching a lone bar tailled godwit feeding behind Kames bay; the storm events of the winter evident in the large amount of plastic debris on the beach. 

Nurdles in the hand

Nurdles behind Kames Bay
On the second morning, with clear sunny weather, we set off inland toward the trig point. Moving up through deciduous and coniferous plantaions we bags a mix of little bits including treecreeper and billfinch. As we broke through the treeline the skylarks and meadow were in full song, and we happily push on toward the Glaid Stain and lunch. From here it was all downhill as we passed the cathedral in search of a brew at the Garrison.

Refreshed we turned to make for the field center again, stopping to scope the surprisingly elusive redshank that had moved out to the Eilans and checking in on the godwit before heading back for a much needed brew and FSC cake before the 5 hour drive home...

Species List:
  • Little Grebe
  • Red Throated Diver (only seen by me)
  • Cormorant
  • Shag
  • Mallard
  • Wigeon
  • Shelduck
  • Guillemot
  • Black Guillemot
  • Black Headed Gull
  • Common Gull
  • Kittiewake
  • Herring Gull
  • Greater Black Back Gull
  • Gannet
  • Redshank
  • Ring Plover
  • Turnstone
  • Purple Sandpiper
  • Curlew
  • Oystercatcher
  • Bar Tailed Godwit
  • Grey Heron
  • Raven
  • Rook
  • Carrion Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Wren
  • Dunnock
  • Robin
  • Blue Tit
  • Great Tit
  • Coal Tit
  • Starling
  • Treecreeper
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Rock Pipit
  • Skylark
  • Grey Wagtail
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Song Thrush
  • Blackbird
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Stock Dove
  • Peregrine
  • Buzzard
  • Tawny Owl

Friday, 5 February 2016

Northumberland provides again

On Thursday RBA was showing three "starred" species for the north east; long-billed dowitcher, Coues' arctic redpoll and black scoter... I wasn't going to pass up on this one. Unfortunately Tom wasn't able to come up for a run around in the north, but James of Common by Nature was well up for a twitch.

After a hellish drive up, I finally picked up James at 9 am (practically dusk) and we bundled for our first target bird - arctic redpoll. The car park only had four cars in when we arrived and there were no birders in attendance. Apparently this little gem had lost its initial shine.

We got to the game cover, but there wasn't a single finch in sight. The wind was blowing a hoolie, and everything was hunkered well into cover. Then, bang, a flock of 18 redpoll flew over, battling in the breeze, refusing to decide on a place to settle. We watched the whirl and prayed that they'd land close by.

As soon as they did, the little snowy bird shone out amongst its drabber cousins. Not bad for 15 minutes work. We snapped a few pictures of the little birds as they were buffeted. Occasionally the would drop down to the field edge to feed, then they'd pick up and wheel above us, always returning to the fence. Job done, on to our next bird, hopefully bobbing on the sea north of Bamburgh Castle...

Sticks out a bit doesn't it!
Not quite the clear shots that others have gotten...

Pulling up at Stag Rocks and setting up the scopes, we quickly located a feeding flock of common scoter and frantically tried to check every bill in the rising swell; but to no avail. We began to pan for more ducks, picking up long-tail, eider and a velvet scoter flying north. Then we caught sight of another three scoter closer to the shore, one with a whacking great yellow/orange lump to the bill.

There is a bit of debate about this bird at the moment, but the bird we saw had the characteristic wide bill with brighter, more orangey, colouration. I even managed a closer view using another birder's shiny new Kowa, and he seemed pretty convinced too. If there hadn't been all the chatter around it, I'd have been happy to tick it (perhaps I should forget my relative new-ness to the game, who says they were even looking at the same bird!?).

We watched the scoter for a while, but there wasn't much else moving on the sea. Then we checked the alerts... Penduline tit at Saltholme... What?... I threw the phone to James so that he could see I wasn't joking, started the car and headed south.

Passing Cresswell we nipped in for the dowitcher. The tits hadn't been seen since their first appearance and we gambled that we'd have the time to add it to our year lists. Well the wader was nowhere to be seen, but we were entertained by a marsh harrier that had successfully knocked off a teal and was trying to pluck and eat it before the crows could get a look in.

Still, there was no dowitcher, and we decided it was tine to move on. A quick look in at QE2 park to check on the Iceland gull (absent) and to drop James off at home, then I was though the tunnel and on my way to Saltholme... Sadly the penduline tits did not reappear, but I hold out hope for tomorrow.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Guest post by the other BlondeBirder: Thomas Christian

Nat's note: I have to guiltily admit that Tom sent me this over a month ago and I've not gotten around to posting it. I can only apologise to both he and you... Enjoy!

Although I love Christmastime, through all the turkey, chocolate and comatose family members I couldn't help eyeing the RBA and Birdguides updates thinking “I only have a few days left off work...” so at the first opportunity I set out, at 5am on the 28th December. My initial targets were the Dusky Warbler and Glossy Ibis that had been at Ham Wall RSPB in Somerset all week. In the back of my mind I knew there had been a Cattle Egret at Steart Marshes WWT nearby too. All three species would be lifers for me.

Now I've always considered myself a birder first and not just another twitcher, but with a full time job and me and Nat's shared target of 400 species by age 40 I have to admit I now plan my birding days around specific species and I'm happy to travel a few hundred miles in one day to get them. These trips have had mixed results, including a 400 mile round trip to see exactly zero Long-billed Dowichers, but I usually come home with at least one new species.

So on this surprisingly mild late-December morning I set off, with a belly full of toast, a tank full of diesel and a head full of potentially misplaced optimism. I arrived into the car park at Ham Wall RSPB at around 7:30am, just after sunrise. I was a little surprised to see around five cars already parked up. I checked my phone and the most recent update online was that the Dusky Warbler was still present at 7:20am! I grabbed my kit out of the boot and headed into the reserve.

I passed a fellow birder who was walking out of the reserve and asked if there was anything about (ALWAYS ask every birder you pass – there's nothing like knowledge on the ground when it comes to locating birds), he confirmed that the Dusky was “showing well” and pointed me in the right direction. My heart skipping I headed deeper into the reserve and found a flock of around 10-15 birders all looking into a bank of trees and scrub on the other side of a narrow canal. Apparently the bird had been showing well but had flown into the scrub and hadn't even called for the past ten minutes. My heart sank...was this another Long-billed Dowicher?

I remembered that a Glossy Ibis had been around too and asked about that. I was told it was only 50 metres or so further along the canal, in a small lagoon feeding on one of the reed-covered islands. As I felt the Dusky was going to be skulking unseen for some time I headed towards the lagoon and joined a birding couple who were already looking over the pool. I asked if they'd seen anything and they said they were “just watching the Glossy Ibis.” Bingo! I set up my scope and there it was, lazily mooching through the mud at the edge of the reeds next to some Lapwings. I took a few freehand photos on my phone through my scope (I don't possess the photographic skill of Natalie I'm afraid) and then headed back to the clump of Dusky-hunters.

Tom's Glossy

Whilst waiting and casually scanning the relevant scrub I was approached by a familiar face – it was a birder from Stafford who Nat and I had met at the Rough-legged Buzzards in Choseley on our Norfork trip! No matter how far you travel when birding it really is a small world. Mid-way through mutually moaning about the dipped Red-rumped Swallow someone piped up “It's calling!” Everyone froze and listened to the Dusky Warbler, its call sounds like a Wren but much quieter and much more intermittent. The now 20-or-so of us followed the sound through the scrub before it suddenly jumped onto an exposed bit of fern before almost immediately flitting onto a tree trunk covered in ivy. I managed to get it in my bins as it climbed up the ivy, I could see a typical Phylloscopus warbler but very brown, I couldn't make out the pale supercillium at this angle though. It reached the top of the ivy and flew left onto a bare branch, its head was obscured so I still couldn't get the supercillium, but I could see its uniform warm brown upperparts and it's pale grey underparts very nicely. The ID was greatly helped by the fact it was happily calling away the whole time it was visible. It then shot left behind another tree and vanished.

Amazing! Two lifers and I'd only been here about 45 minutes. I waited another 30 minutes to see if the Dusky would reappear during which time birders who had been saying “was that it? I only saw it for 5 seconds” were now saying “What a great bird, I'm so glad it showed so well!” From what I'd gathered from the local birders, 5-10 second bursts between 2-3 hour waits had been typical for this bird. I figured as it was only about 9.30am now I should definitely try for the Cattle Egret at Steart Marshes WWT. I jumped in the car and got over to the bank of the Severn Estuary in about 40 minutes.

My previous experience of Steart Marshes was that it was a brand new reserve still being developed but covered by a network of boardwalks and landscaped paths. Based on this I kept my trainers on and walked towards the one part of the reserve I hadn't yet been to. The one part of the reserve that had not yet been covered in a boardwalk or landscaped path... One sodden gangrenous kilometre later I found four Welsh birders also looking for the Cattle Egret. We teamed up and headed deeper (in more ways than one) into the marsh. We spotted a group of Egrets in a field at the far end of the marsh. We set up scopes and within a few seconds one of the Welsh contingent picked out the Cattle Egret, we all got it in our scopes and I took a few more wobbly shots through mine. This was the best day's solo birding I'd had, potentially ever! I checked the time and it was just after twelve. Three lifers in one morning!

Tom's C.Egret... At least my envy is slightly assuaged by this rubbish record shot

The birding gods were clearly shining on me's almost like I was being told to keep going, right? I checked the reports on my wade back to the car to see what was within an hour's drive and saw there was Ferruginous Duck down in Hampshire, lots of Great White Egrets and an American Wigeon down in Exmouth. I've seen a Fudge Duck and Great White Egrets before but American Wigeon would be new, plus I'd seen that it had been seen there for around a month. That's it, after the walk back to the car I should get down there by 2pm, enough time to find it before the light fades. So by 1pm I was back on the M5 for its final 50 miles to Exeter.

The American Wigeon had been at Exminster Marshes RSPB for the past three weeks but apparently it had moved to Bowling Green Marsh RSPB that morning. I'd not been to either reserve before so I didn't know what to expect or how difficult it would be to locate a single bird. My sat-nav took me to a very narrow road round the back of a residential street. There was a surprising number of walkers on the road, and I got the impression cars weren't really meant to be going down there so I found a soft verge out of the way and parked up.

The RSPB reserve consists of one hide overlooking a wide, waterlogged field. On the walk back to the hide from the car I found a flock of Brent Geese and had a look through just in case there were any interesting subspecies, none there but I've always liked Brent Geese. There were a couple more gaps in the hedge on the walk to the hide through which I could see groups of Wigeon. I picked through them but couldn't find any star-spangled or gun-toting ones so moved on. I reached the hide which had a full glass front and a small education room (closed as there were no volunteers at this time of year) and set up my scope. There were two families in there and two more experienced looking birders. I asked the nearest birder if he'd seen the American Wigeon and he said “I've been looking for it all afternoon and I just found it as you walked in, do you wanna look?” What is happening today?! Four fairly easy lifers and not a single dip; I wish I could bottle this! After half an hour of enjoying the Wigeon and taking a few more freehand shots on my phone I packed up and headed back to the M5. Days like this make it all worthwhile, and takes me to 242 species, so just 35 more days like this and I've got the magic 400.

Another one Tom has that Nat doesn't...

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Days with James: Naturalist Blonde meets Common by Nature

A few months back I wrote a post about the Blyth's Reed Warbler in Aberdeen, I had chatted to a few birders during the day, one of which turned out to be a friend of a friend (birding can be a small world). Well, I've never been one to miss making a new birding buddy, and now we're both back down in England-shire, a twitch seemed in order.

On Friday James came to Yorkshire. After swinging by the station at 8:30 to pick him up, we headed for our first target - Richard's Pipit at Swillington; we batting the traffic out of the city in the general direction of Leeds. After 30 minutes we were schlepping a mile through the mud (me trying to avoid slipping with camera and scope), heading for Caroline bridge where the bird was last seen. 

By the time we arrived the mud was up to my knees and the bird was absent, having very recently flitted out of sight. Over the next 30 mintues we brush bashed with the local birders, effectively traipsing back and forth after flushed meadow pipits... Then, salvation. 

One of the birders closer to the bridge pointed out a bird overhead... The dicky pipt had go over. We tracked it to a scrub covered spit, where we had a nice, albeit brief view of the bird. Time to move on (and for hot chocolate).

I, unfortunately, did not manage a picture

From here, we jolted across to Filey for the juvenile surf scoter that had been hanging around of the Brigg. Thankfully the traffic had cleared and we made a trip in an ease hour and thirty. Pulling up we were happy to find two birders already in place, intently staring at the sea. Unfortunately, they hadn't seen it.

It was blisteringly cold facing into the wind, and the chop made observing any sightings impossible. We spent 15 minutes at the car park (enjoying chicken and leek pasties), occasionally looking into the piercing wind. Then we gave up, and made out way out onto the Brigg in favour of shelter and - perhaps - a better view. We scanned the sea, picking up little gull in the process, then looked back toward the shore. Then James spotted another black shape back towards the Brigg, almost under the cliff. I spun the scope and there it was. Job done. 

Saturday I went to Northumberland, Fist of we headed for the Iceland gull that had been seen at QE2 Park... No joy.Then Almouth green-wing teal... Nope. Dejected we headed for Stag Rocks, surely there would be something good on the sea...

Even  the journey was a chore. a wrong turn en route and a flood barring the coast road. Neither of us was optimistic. But then we arrived, to ge greated by a flat calm sea, a weak onshore breeze and birds everywhere. Long tailed ducks  (around thirteen in total), great northern diver, at least three red throated diver, slavonian grebe, little gull and velvet scoter. With bonus purple sandpiper on the beach. Hot chocolate, coffee, pasties and a sea water in dry, calm conditions. Fantastic.

Wish I'd taken this, but the view we had was slightly further away and the bird was facing right. Otherwise spot on!

Finally we went for the little auk at Blyth, well we should have known not to bother. Ten minute before we arrived there was a report of it being visible through bins... When we arrived there were jet skiers, and no bird... We pottered around for a while longer before giving up and heading home.

Despite the numerous dips, I managed 3 new birds this weekend and made a good didn't in my year list. And I've still got one day of the weekend left... time for a well earned whisky.

For James's take on the trip, or more info on birding in Northumberland, check out his excellent blog here.

Friday, 1 January 2016

New Year, New Gear!

This Christmas I've finally decided to upgrade my kit. The old eos 450 just wasn't cutting the mustard any more, so - with I little help - I have moved on to a lovely second hand 7D. The 450 will be retired to landscape work. AND, to stop myself dying as I carry both scope and camera, I have purchased a brilliant Black Rapid sport strap. I have already noticed the difference, its made lugging the old sigma 150-500 much easier.

I have also made provisions for my welfare; I've picked up a new stanley (as I often drive home with massive headaches after only drinking half a bottle of H2O on 8 hour twitches) and a toasty fjallraven hat (which has nothing to do with my coveting Gordon Buchanan's kit on The Snow Wolf Family and Me). So the birding bug-out bag is a little heavier, but hopefully my pictures and posts will be a little better. I hope everyone is looking forward to 2016 as much as me. Bring on the birds!

Mwahahaha, I'm a big girly girl and I use filters on my pictures

Ending the Year

After the usual unsuccessful attempt at Hawfinch on my birthday (the big three-"o"), there wasn't much opportunity for birding before returning to York. So by the morning of the 31st I was keen to get out and about, and was in my car by 7:45. Hartlepool first for black-throated diver. I was expecting the cold and the wind. I wasn't expecting a slightly emotional meeting with an old friend. 

Aora, the University Marine Biological Station's largest research vessel, has been working out of Hartlepool since she was sold off. Somehow I didn't twig that she would be there when I was out birding. She was the first thing I saw when I parked up, and I couldn't grab my camera and scope fast enough as I shot out of the car. Aside from the change to the registration she looked just the same, but I couldn't help but give her a full check over with the scope; so engrossed I nearly missed the diver feeding of her port side. 

Still Beautiful

Low light and a fair amount of chop

From Hartlepool I headed up to Widdrington in search of the Bewick's that had been seen the previous day, but driving along the side of the lake I could see no sign of anything swanny on the water. I pulled up next to the lone car in the car park, dragged out my scope, and set up on the windy shoreline. Nothing on the water (besides goldeneye, gadwall and mallard), and only a juvenile mute swan on the bank. The couple from the par car joined me and also set up scope and then a third car appeared and together we gazed over grey water. I had the usual "unusual to see a girl birder" talk with one half of the couple that were in the first car, before checking my phone to see that two Bewick's had been seen at Grindon Lough, over an hour's drive away. 

Dejectedly I swung my scope to the far shore in order to look over one of the flooded areas behind the lake-proper, landing it straight onto the great northern diver that had been seen earlier in the day. Calling it, I was complimented on the keenness of my eyesight; I was so miffed about the swans that I decided to take the compliment rather then admit to my total luck. Eventually the others left and I decided to walk further up the lake to try and get a view on the obscured near shore, as I did so a second birder pulled up and asked what I'd had. I complained about the Bewick's and pointed out the rough direction of the great northern; he headed down to the car park and I carried on to set up at the new vantage point. I picked up the GN diver again, but still no swans. Sod this, off to Grindon.

After a pretty uneventful drive I arrived at the lough at noon. A couple of birders were there and reported seeing a few swans tucked behind a rise in one of the flooded areas (around 5 birds), but not being sure of their identity due to the distance. As they spoke one bird swam out - a juv mute - and my heart sank. 

I rearranged the scope so that I could sit in the car out of the chilly wind, and soon another 3 mutes appeared. Urgh. Looking back another birder was parked about 200 meters behind, doing exactly the same as me. I contemplated walking out to get a decent back view on the bank, but didn't fancy the breeze and sat tight. Then finally, thankfully, after 15 more frustrating minutes, two more swan heads appeared. Smaller swan heads, with beaks that looked entirely black at the distance.

I hoped out of the car to re-sight the scope and the red car behind me drove up to park just behind mine. And there they were, two diminutive little swans. Too far for a decent shot even through the scope. But undeniably themselves. Finally my stomach rebelled at the lack of food on offer and I decided to head for home. Two birds better off before the new year. 

I'm still hoping for that 400 by 40 target, only 176 to go....

Swan-like blurry things

Swan-like blurry things next to a larger mute-swan-like blurry thing