Saturday, 11 November 2017

Hunting the Unicorn

One of the joys of my new job is working on animals and habitats I find really interesting, either with students or without. Next month, I will be responsible for taking 50 second year's birding at a site that was, until Tuesday, a complete unknown to me. Farlington Marshes is a Wildlife Trust reserve in the Langstone and Chicester Harbour protected area. An amazing mix of grazing land, mud flat and fresh and saltwater ponds, it is well known for winter migrant wildfowl.

In the interests of delivering an excellent field trip, I thought it a good idea to go for a walk around the reserve and identify the best sites and key species. The tide was in when we arrived and the freshwater lake was full of teal and dunlin, with a smattering of turnstone and grey plover. Brent geese were bobbing in the harbour and grazing on the marsh, accompanied by curlew and canada geese.

As we walked round the seawall an onshore breeze was driving spray onto the path, and we could sea another large wader flock on an island that barely broke the water's surface away to our right. Linnet were present in the scrub and a pair of stone chat sat upon the barbwire. At the second pond, shoveler and wigeon mixed in with the teal, and black tailled godwit fed in the shallows. Edging further around the path we heard Cetti's warbler in the reedbed.

We waited there for a while, hoping for a view of the Cetti's, a chance bearded tit or silent short eared owl, but we were not in luck, and before long the cold wind drove us back to the car. 

I can see why the reserve is popular with both birders and migrants, the habitat mix and location are ideal. I'm just hoping for less of a breeze when the students and I are back in December. With the right conditions, who knows what we might see!

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of brent geese

G plover and dunlin were present in large numbers.

A few lectures, a little marking, and one very long meiofauna practical later, and the weekend rolled round again. After seeing the numerous reports of hawfinch from all over the county, and the supposed influx following the Saharan dust storm, I decided that my next target would be my unicorn bird. Long standing readers will know that I try to get this bird each year on my birthday, heading out for a walk around Cromford or Clumber Park back home. These annual escapades clearly weren't working. Hoping for a sure thing, I went back to Lee Evan's site guide; finding two odds on sites in the Hampshire area, both of which generally host flocks of around 30 from mid-November onward. With fingers definitely crossed, and a longer than usual lie-in under our belt, Jack and I bundled into the car on Saturday morning and headed of to Rhinefield Enclosure, tucked away in the new forest. 

The guide suggested waiting for dusk for incoming roosters, but we arrived at 11; wandering aimlessly around the arboretum and surrounding forestry land, keeping an eye on the treetops. After an hour we'd seen very little (I'm not a fan of birding in woodland, the trees get in the way); coal tits, GS woodpecker, siskin and goldcrest. But no hawfinches. My hopes weren't up to begin with, and when Jack suggested lunch I was more than happy to bail to the Swan Inn for a fantastic hot lunch and dessert, returning to the Enclosure around an hour before dusk. 

Now the midgies were out, rising from the drizzle-damp glass to cloud around our faces. We walked another lap of the arboretum before settling in beside the gate to wait for returning birds. We sat/stood around for another 45 minutes, and I was almost ready to wrap it up. A few birds had come and gone, mainly siskins, but there was no sign of my unicorn.... Then something flashed into a dead pine just obscured from view. Jack went one side of the tree and I went the other, just in time to see the flash of a white terminal band on the tail. That was it right?! That white tail bar? Another bird flashed up, a black bib obvious under its beak, and I was finally confident enough to shout across to Jack that I was on the bird. 

Over the next few minutes we watched around 10 birds in the Enclosure, before finally giving up after a particularly noise group flushed the flock. The pictures weren't great, I was midge bitten and cold, but I had found the unicorn. Not only that, but in the last week we had added this, grey phalarope, dartford wabler and cattle egret to Jack's life list. That's before sand martin or greenshank; wish I'd gotten that kind of running start!

Hawfinch record

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Short stays in the South

So I've moved again, this time to take up a teaching fellowship at the University of Portsmouth. I'm back living by the sea, but now as far south as I've ever called home. Living in a city again feels stifling, no garden, a good ten minutes to the shore (which is concrete and shingle). It all feels very un-inspiring.

After the first mad month of moving in, sorting out the bills and getting to grips with the new job, I was desperate for a chance to get out birding. Today I took advantage of the migrants hanging on in the south and had a flit around some of my first Hampshire sites; Blashford and Pennington Marshes.

First stop was Blashford to catch up with the lesser scaup that had been sighted during the week. We got to the reserve at 9 and had a good tramp round, but - despite the dozen or so birders on the lookout - failed to connect with the duck. The reserve itself is great, all boggy broad leaf woodland, good sized lakes and bags of waterfowl. The car park was haunted by nuthatch and tits, and their was a nice pop up cafe. We gave it 3 hours before heading to our next site of the day, Pennington.

After a lovely drive through southern heath, occasionally dodging the New Forest ponies, we made our way down narrow lanes to the carpark at Lower Pennington. Eager to get to the long staying grey phalarope, we hot footed it toward Oxey Marsh, only checking my phone en route. It was then I realised that I'd practically sprinted away from 2 cattle egret, mingling with the cows beside the camp site. Rookie error.

Torn, I made the tactical decision to carry on for the GP. As we wandered along the path that girdled the marsh, we met one birder after another, all happily reporting excellent views of the phalarope. After a morning stumbling round Blashford, we were happy to hear it. As we came around the bend to overlook the marsh, the little bird was directly ahead of us, flaunting itself in the sunlight as it fed a meter away from 2 delighted birders. I shouldered my camera and began snapping away.

I could have happily stayed that way for a few hours, the sun was warm and the bird was really confiding; but the thought of those un-ticked cattle egrets niggled away at me, and I soon found myself heading back the way I came, stopping only briefly to acknowledge the backside of a skulking dartford warbler as I went. 

As we got back to the car park I could see the cattle egrets glowing in the field ahead of me. If I'd only looked around after parking they would have been right there. Thankfully they hadn't shifted in the intervening hour. I watched them through the scope, occasionally moving for incoming cars or letting others share my view, and really appreciated how good my luck had been. Then, 2 new birds under my belt, I reversed away and headed for a well earned beer at home.

I'll have to scope out some more sites for next weekend. Maybe living down south wont be too bad after all.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Back to the birds: a week of writing and a week off work

I have been escaping work for a while. A week writing in the peace and quiet of North Yorkshire followed by a week at home, using up holiday. For the first week, I had a couple of reports to clear and a book chapter to write, tucked away in Hebden with limited internet, some beautiful scenery and a laptop. 

I spent five days waking up early and taking the camera down the River Wharfe. The river was picturesque mix of stepping stones, mixed woodland, and tumbling water. Over my wanders I clocked up brilliant views of nuthatches, redstart, spotted flycatchers, green wood peckers and dippers.

Nuthatch beside the Wharfe at Hebden

Spot fly beside the Wharfe

Juvenile Green Woodpecker beside the Wharfe

On my week off I decided to check out Summer Leys, a local nature reserve where I knew little ringed plover bred. It was late in the season and I wasn't sure whether my luck would be in, the site would be fantastic, swarming with dragonflies and warblers. The leys were full of terns, gulls, egrets and redshank; and, thankfully, one distant but distinct Little Ringed Plover. In addition to the great birdlife, there was a particularly bold muntjac which rounded the closest pool, passing close in front of the hide.

Little Egret at Summer Leys

Litte Ringed Plover at Summer Leys

Muntja Deer at Summer Leys

Inbound Muntjac at Summer Leys

Reed Warbler at Summer Leys

Little Egret at Summer Leys

I also went out for a couple of walks between Lavendon and Milton Keynes, picking up Quail at Pitsford as well as a hare, grey partridge and a couple of other bits and bobs around Lavendon.

Grey Partridge at Lavendon

Hare at Lavendon

The real highlight of the holiday was a last minute trip to Ouse Washes to catch the Black Winged Stilts before they moved on. After an hour and a half drive, I got to the reserve, there was no one else around. I practically ran to the hide, ignoring the the hedges swarming with sedge warblers, I headed up the hide steps, tucking myself onto the benches. I scanned the pools for a while with no luck, but then, gliding, legs trailing, they dropped in. I watched them feed for 30 minutes, occasionally driven from one pool to another by the avocets. It was a short time, but the highlight of the holiday.

Sedge Warbler at Ouse Washes

Black Winged Stilt at Ouse Washes

Black Winged Stilt at Ouse Washes

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Tom terns 30

Last weekend was Tom’s 30th Birthday Party (the much anticipated Birthday was the week before), I think my liver has almost recovered. More importantly, a few weeks before Tom, Jack and I had bundled into the car in hope of Tom’s all important 300th bird.

With it being such an important tick, we had our eyes set on one of the UK’s scarcest breeding birds, the thought being that we could be certain of a good view near their nest site. For Jack and I this meant a four-hundred-and-sixty-mile round trip, for Tom it was a mere 400 hundred miles. We decided to head to his and let him do the bulk of the driving; three and a bit hours and a lot of junk food later, we were safely on the Northumberland coastline, enjoying one last coffee in The Fat Mermaid (cakes highly recommended) before meeting our boat.

The harbour was full of redshank, black headed gulls, eclipse eider, and the occasional sandwich tern (each one causing us to flinch). We had a worrying few minutes wondering whether we would be allowed onto the over booked boat, but fortunately places were found for all. Jack took the 450D and the 250 lens, I took the 7D and the Sigma 500, and the frantic snapping began. The air was full of guillemots, razorbills and puffins, gannets dove further offshore, and there was a constant coming and going of terns.

Tom and I flicked between cameras and bins, looking for dark bills, bright clean wings, long tail feathers; the hallmarks of the roseate tern. We approached Coquet Island over fifteen minutes, somewhat impatient as the boat stopped to take in seals hauled out in the shallows. We had both had likely looking birds at a distance, but nothing definite to our untrained eyes.  

Slowly, we edged around the island, nipping in close to peer through binoculars at the pairs perched around their nest boxes. Then, joy; not 5 meters from the boat an adult fluttered down to the sea surface and began to bathe, allowing us some awkward but beautifully clear pictures. Delighted doesn’t begin to cover our mood as we snapped away, then put aside the cameras for a really focused look. We were so chuffed that dipping on black tern on the way home (and missing little bittern in the process) didn’t bother us at all.

Bathing Roseate
Jack had even greater success with the 450D than I did with the 7, the shorter lens coping much better with the changing light. He managed to get all of the following shots, catching many of the best diagnostic images ...and he's never borrowing my camera again...

Jack's improved image of the beak

Jack's shot showing the individual crown feathers...

...and Jack's image of the dark primaries...

Of course, Tom being Tom, a few days later he snuck out after work for the East Leake bee-eaters, entering his third decade on 301. So now we both have 400 before 40 firmly in our sights, with Tom holding a 47 species and two year advantage. I’d better get my skates on. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Menai to Milton Keynes - via Shrewsbury

On Sunday I was driving from Mitlon Keynes to Menai Bridge and back to pick up Jack from his first ten day trip on the Prince Madog research cruise. With the long staying night heron in Shrewsbury a mere 20 minutes out of the way, it seem rude not to pop in. 

This was one of the briefest twitches I've done. Jack and I pulled up on a side street at 15:45 and asked some locals if they'd seen the bird. A kid gave us the rough details and off we went. By the time we got there he'd sprinted down the park to catch us up and, within two minutes, put us straight onto the happily sitting heron. Bish, bash, bosh. One closer to the elusive 400 for me, and Jack's first twitch.

The bird was happily sat on the island amongst the rhoddies, barely moving but for a quick wing stretch. We gave it half an hour, then were back on the road for home. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Blonde Birders go south on a Sunday

Tom had been having all the fun, and was just five birds away from his target of seeing 300 birds before age 30 (6 weeks to go); meanwhile, I have been languishing at my desk or in the lab, and had only managed one new species since January. In fact, I’ve barely been birding at all. So after watching all of Tom’s lovey reports from his trip to the Scotland (and having had some stress-related health hiccoughs) I decided that a spot of birding was in order. Of course, I am dead-keen that Tom hit his birthday birding target, so I suggested that we spent last Sunday with the birds. I’d head over to his place on Saturday night, and we’d head out from there in the morning to where ever seemed to hold the best birds.

Having a scan through the reports on Saturday evening, we decided on the Minsmere Savi’s warbler (which would be a lifer for both of us), followed by a thorough sweep of the Suffolk/Norfolk border to scoop up whatever else we could get. A good two and a bit hours each way… and back past my house too… ah well, you can’t plan for everything. So now all we had to do was wait til morning. Tom employed his time by driving to Belper and taking part in an epic stand-up gig. I stayed, crashed, at the flat, enjoying a fantastic migraine which felt like icepicks were being pressed into my left eye and nostril. The only benefit to this was going to bed at seven, sure of a good night’s sleep before our 4 am wake-up call.

When four A.M. rolled around, my migraine had subsided to a mere headache. I’d taken my meds and grabbed last night’s pizza and was ready to drive. The drive is one of the best bits of birding with a stand-up comedian, old jokes mix with new as we try and keep the car in its lane through laughing fits. At the services I we amuse the woman at the checkout as I loudly abandon Tom whilst he pays for his sandwiches, announcing that I’ll be in the car cramming my newly purchased nurofen into my face. Then we’re off again, finally rolling into the Minsmere carpark at seven.

Leaving the car we head for Island Mere hide, where the Savi’s had been heard the previous day, checking with the locals we pass en route for the best spots for stone curlew (one of my targets for the day). The reed beds are swarming with reed and cetti’s warblers as we wander down the boardwalk to the hide, and then it begins; the tedium of a warbler twitch. It’s not singing, it's in dense cover, and all we can do is wait.

Having said that, there are many, many worse places to wait than the Island Mere hide at Minsmere. Marsh Harriers quartered the reed beds and a bittern boomed away. An otter was beset by angry mute swans. A lone common tern aggressively chased away the Med and Black headed gulls which occasionally alighted on the water. Off course, my camera battery had been neglected in the head crushing pain that was the previous evening, so I was sparing with my pictures.

Lucky Bittern

Marsh Harrier

We were in the hide for an hour and a half, chatting to the locals, and I was starting to get twitchy… I could feel the day ticking away, and knew that Tom had to be back by 6:30… Other birders had come and gone, and I was considering suggesting that we move too; then the reeling began. Thank god. We listened to the bird calling for five minutes and were rewarded with a brief glimpse of it flitting from cover. 249 for me, 296 for Tom. A brief high five and we were off in search of stone curlew.
As we wandered seaward toward North Wall and the resident breeding pair we were treated to fantastic views of a stoat moving its kits, more mewing Med gulls, and a quick pit stop at the cafe. We were also given some local intel on the woodlark at Westleton Heath.

Two of many Med gulls

Arriving at the fenced “St-urlew” nest site we scanned with scope and bins to try to find the elusive birds, our hopes soaring when a couple announced that they had found them. Unfortunately it turned out that they were stringing a couple of red legged partridge, and we gave up and bundled in the car to head to Westleton.

When we got there it was roasting… however, I managed to bag my first tick not five minutes from the car. Turtle doves “turring” in the trees by the path. We were lucky in seeing one bird flying out over the scrubby gorse, landing in a sycamore, where it was instantly invisible. I got a couple of terrible shots and my 250th bird.

Swift Turtle Dove Snap

From here we forged out onto the heath, following the wooded field margin for best chance of woodlark. After an hour’s walking we were hot, bothered and beginning to lose heart. We’d covered almost all the available ground and began to double back for the car. Coming back through a kissing gate I caught a glimpse of something perched on a bare branched of a fallen tree. The offending article. Tom managed a quick, if blurry, shot and I watched through bins for a minute until the bird flitted. We waited, but the bird failed to reappear, lost in the gorse. We wandered back to the car as happy as you like, three for three on our targets. 251 for me, 297 for Tom, a great day all round.

Tom's Blurry Woodlark Shot

Feeling pretty confident, we decided to try and get me those elusive stone curlew, deciding to detour to Weeting Heath on the way home. Cheerfully we gossiped in the car for an hour, planning trips in the next six weeks to ensure Tom hit his 300, and we soon pulled up in the carpark. The centre was locked and we headed toward the North Hide, stopping to talk to a couple who were scanning the fields the far side of the road… who had their eye on a pair of stone curlew and their chick. One of the quickest ticks I have had. 252. One adult and the juvenile were out in the open, the other was half in cover. The angle of the far field gave us excellent views (although the pictures are still awful) and we watched the birds for around half an hour.

Distance "St-urlew"

Heading back to the car we checked the time. With our amazing luck so far we had a few hours in hand, and we checked the reports in hope of a last minute miracle. There was an obvious choice… despite living up in Scotland and making regular trips up and down the west coast, I had failed to connect with corncrake. Fortunately, one had appeared in Warwickshire, just 15 minutes from Tom’s house. Depending on the traffic, it could have been on.

It was a focused drive back, with one eye permanently on the clock. We pulled up to Alvecote Pools just as Tom’s phone battery gave out, we had forty mins to connect with the bird. Fortunately there were a few birders on site. They reported hearing the bird not five minutes before, and we settled in to wait. Turned out that luck was on our side again, and within a few minutes there was a clear “crexing” from the iris bank in the field bottom. Five for five, and thirty minutes to get Tom to work. We bundled into the car and, thirty minutes later, I was happily wending my way back along the M6 toward home. I may not have many chances to go birding any more, but I can be happy in the knowledge that occasionally my luck holds out. Not only that, but in the next six weeks before Tom’s birthday I have at least one more tick on the cards, so watch this space.