A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Great Reed Warbler chase - Albert Village Lake in Leicestershire!

Great Reed Warbler is a species I’d not yet managed to catch up with in the UK – not quite mega enough to warrant a 4 hour trip to Norfolk or Suffolk but sufficiently rare enough that only a small sprinkling of records occur in Britain each year. Bar a 1 day individual that took up residence in the West Midlands back in May 2015 (unfortunately on a weekday!) there hadn’t been any other birds nearby to twitch in recent years which meant Great Reed Warbler had remained off my list. 
Great Reed Warbler - Albert Village Lake, Leicestershire
Great Reed Warbler - a master of hide and seek!
Therefore, when reports surfaced of an individual found singing in the reeds at Albert Village Lake in Leicestershire a few weeks ago, I was keen to get down there to see if we could connect. Making the 2 ½ journey down to the midlands, we were soon approaching the southern reedbed the bird had been found in that morning, reports of it being extremely elusive playing on our minds and eyeing the grey rainclouds overhead ominously, hoping they would hold out until the evening.

Spotting several scopes on the opposite bank trained towards the reedbed, it transpired there was a 50/50 chance of picking the right viewpoint – heading over to the other side for distant views as the bird flew between the reeds or stick on the main reedbed side and hope the warbler revealed itself! Immediately hearing the distinctive scratchy and deafeningly loud song emanating from a nearby Hawthorn, we gathered round and hoped this impressive warbler would shortly make an appearance. 4 hours later, we were still waiting….

Tantalisingly close and a metre or so away at one point, it’s fair to say that the Great Reed most definitely won the game of hide and seek, teasing us with its song but refusing to show.
Albert Village Lake, Leicestershire
The reedbed at Albert Village Lake that the Great Reed Warbler favoured
As the afternoon wore on and with silence on the singing front for the past half an hour, we were just about to throw in the towel when our songster started up again, a brief glimpse obtained as it bombed down in to the bottom of the reed edge right next to the lake. Frustratingly we could see the reeds moving as it worked its way along, but just couldn’t see it due to the thick vegetation! Luckily at this point, fellow birder Jake Gearty (who had been watching it from the other side of the lake) ran back to the let the crowd on our side know it was on view and visible from the opposite edge – cue a frantic dash around the lake! 

After a few tense moments when the bird had disappeared, the Great Reed finally gave itself up, proceeding to work its way along the edge of the reeds, occasionally perching on an exposed stem to belt out its song, audible even at this range. Luckily I managed a handful of distant record shots – extremely hard when the bird was constantly on the move! Despite the distance, the extreme size difference from our regular Reed Warblers was apparent, as was the huge bill as it stopped to sing. Success, relief, and after 4 hours patiently waiting we had finally nailed our target. Proof that perseverance does eventually pay off! 
Great Reed Warbler - Albert Village Lake, Leicestershire
With the rain now threatening to break and the Great Reed retreating back in to the reedbed, we decided to call it a day, admiring the displaying male ducks in the bay as we passed and feeling exceptionally glad that we’d took a chance and tried our luck! 

Monday, 22 May 2017

Beautiful Bempton - but no Black-browed Albatrosses!

Albatrosses are truly a thing of awe – masters of the open oceans and enough to make any land based birder go weak at the knees at the prospect of seeing one cruise past on a seawatch off a British headland. Having never seen an albatross of any kind in either British waters or elsewhere, the thought of a Black-browed Albatross frequenting the seabird cliffs of Bempton RSPB was more than enough to tempt us up to Yorkshire for an all-weekend albatross stake-out.
Black-browed Albatross at Bempton - Joe Fryer
12 year old Joe Fryer's amazing Black-browed Albatross photos from Bempton!
First seen and photographed last Saturday by an eagle-eyed 12 year old boy and his Grandad, there had since been a subsequent two more reported sightings during the week from Bartlett Nab viewpoint at Bempton, when the bird was apparently seen flying close in to the cliffs. With no photographs to accompany these two reports however, there has been doubt cast by some amidst possible confusion for the unwary with immature Gannets, but without photographic evidence, who can honestly say they would have instantly believed a 12 year old excitedly running into the RSPB Visitor Centre claiming an albatross!

As to be expected, despite a Saturday and Sunday vigil through rain and shine watching from the cliffs, we didn’t even catch a sniff of the albatross, the bird being reported still from Sylt in Germany on the Saturday evening (having been roosting for 4 hours with swans on the lake at Rantumbrecken while we were battling torrential rain on the cliffs hoping it would pitch up there!) putting paid to any realistic hopes it might materialise off Bempton. Indeed, further reports surfaced later on the Sunday that the bird was still present at Sylt that morning (though we didn’t see this until after we were back!).

Nevertheless, the spectacle of the seabird city that is Bempton was enough to keep us occupied during the weekend, with Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Guillemots galore, along with firm seabird favourite the Puffin putting in several appearances. It was also great to be able to watch the Gannets up close, a small group perched on the cliffs in front of the viewpoint offering a fantastic insight in to their secret oceanic world and providing front row seats to their mesmerising courtship displays and neck dancing.
Gannets - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire
Not albatrosses...
Gannets - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire
...but still every bit as beautiful
With the albatross now seemingly back frequenting the German island of Sylt, having been reported there from Thursday onwards after its sojourn across the North Sea, now that it is aware that Bempton and its thousands of breeding Gannets exists, there is every chance that it could return in the future and settle down for a spell in Yorkshire - in which case we most certainly will be back for another albatross stake out! Indeed it seems to be becoming increasingly disenchanted from its previous favoured spot of Heligoland in Germany, and after realising that no breeding success is to be had there, could well venture further afield in the North Sea in search of a mate.

Having first rocked up at Heligoland back in 2014 this is not the first time the albatross has ventured across the North Sea either - underwing patterns revealed that the Fair Isle bird back on the 28th May last year was one and the same, having made a day trip over to Shetland from Germany, while the presumed same individual was remarkably photographed resting on a pool at Minsmere in Suffolk back on the 12th July 2015. With huge potential to turn up on the east coast, particularly when there have been no recent sightings over in Germany, it could certainly pay off by keeping a watchful eye from Bempton or any other prominent east coast headlands.

For up to date albatross sightings in Germany, it is best to check the ornitho.de website here, where all the recent sightings are displayed in the right hand column, or through the search function.
Ornitho.de
With perhaps the most famous Northern Hemisphere albatross “Albert” taking up residence for almost 30 years in various Gannet colonies off Scotland (Bass Rock from 1967-1969 and Hermaness in Shetland from 1972-1995) as well as an albatross frequenting the Gannetry at Sula Sgeir during the spring and summers of 2005-2007 for several days each year, hopefully another ‘breeding’ bird will take up residence in a British Gannet colony once more during our lifetime!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Skydancer - Pallid Harrier at the Forest of Bowland

Living in England, male Hen Harriers are not a sight I get to see very often. Driving along a stretch of grassy meadows sadly doesn’t yield a floating figure quartering over the fields as it does in Spain and other European countries, and instead numbers have now been depleted to just a few upland breeding sites – if they can cling on amongst the gunfire that besieges them that is. My first ever male Hen Harrier was an individual at Parkgate Marshes many years ago, a ghostly figure hunting distantly on the horizon, no more than a grey spec on the far away skyline. Fast forward several years and I haven’t seen another male Hen Harrier in England since – a very sad sign of the times indeed.

Therefore when a male Pallid Harrier (even more stunning than a male Hen Harrier) was reported as being present at the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire just before the bank holiday weekend - observed displaying and even nest building - it was simply too good of an opportunity to be missed to catch up with this impressive individual. Having seen a juvenile Pallid Harrier down in Somerset a few years ago, this wasn’t a new bird for either myself or Alex, but with only a very small handful of male Pallid Harriers making it over to our shores compared to juveniles, we couldn’t resist going to see this graceful beauty for ourselves.
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Making the gruelling 4km treck to the best viewing spot along the winding hillside, we were immediately met by a hauntingly pale figure quartering over the moors, swooping down and gliding swiftly along the valley bottom, white wings shining out as he twisted and turned in the air. Glorious, and the tiring journey up to the moors was soon forgotten as we watched him perform.
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Over the course of the next two hours the crowd watched on in awe as our ghostly visitor completed several circuits over the hillside, often sat perched preening on the fence posts for periods at a time as well as bringing small sticks back to the nest site on several occasions, spindly twigs held tightly in his bright yellow feet.
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
With a pattern soon emerging of crossing over the road to our right and swooping back overhead, eventually the moment happened that his captive audience had been waiting for, and to appreciative woops and gasps our male Pallid Harrier begun to skydance. Tumbling through the air with extreme grace and speed, wings twisting in a remarkable butterfly-esque style while his trilling call echoed out over the valley, he had the crowd of 30 or so birders completely mesmerised and hooked on his every move.

Sheer beauty, and to have a male Pallid Harrier skydancing over your head is a thing of enchanting magic. Without doubt this was one of the most exquisite birds I’ve seen, and to watch him perform was an absolute privilege. For anyone thinking of going, but hasn’t yet got around to it or who may be put off by the long walk – go! You won’t regret it!
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Hopefully the amount of attention the Pallid Harrier is receiving will save him from the unwelcome persecution from gamekeepers in the area - indeed, it’s lucky that it was a birdwatcher that discovered him before the guns did. Sadly though, his aerial acrobatics will most probably be in vain, as the lack of Hen Harriers (and raptors in general) during our walk in the Forest of Bowland area was startling. With the likelihood of a female Pallid Harrier stumbling upon his airtime show almost nil, it seems the chances of a female Hen Harrier joining him at the nest (as was the case in Orkney in 1995) are just as depressingly slim.
Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Emperor Moth
Emperor Moth
Male Emperor Moth!! What an amazing creature!
With the added bonus of our first ever Emperor moth causing excitement on the moors, as well as a supporting cast of Dipper, Common Sandpipers and Grey Wagtails on the brook, we were exceptionally glad we made the effort to head up to Lancashire to see this incredible bird and endure the tiring 5 mile round walk - although our aching legs and weary feet were nothing a tasty sausage batch once home couldn’t sort out!

For information on where is best to view the Pallid Harrier from, check out the directions page from the RSPB.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Waxing lyrical - a Waxwing Winter!

Waxwings; a true herald of winter and one of the most superior birds to grace our shores during the colder months. Providing a bright spark of beauty and elegance that is guaranteed to perk up even the most damp and dark mid-winter days, these charismatic favourites have swept across the nation’s berry bushes in a frantic feeding frenzy akin to a swarm of locusts – no berry has been left unscathed and it seems no town has been without their very own wax-tipped winged wonders.
Waxwing
With spectacular eye patterns to rival the make-up of even the most stylish of Geishas, these glamorous punk-haired visitors seem to time their sporadic stopovers to Britain just right, leaving the perfect gap between invasion years in order to truly make an impact when they arrive.

With a Waxwing irruption of impressive proportions taking place this winter, it was only natural that we would eventually stumble across these splendid Scandinavian visitors for ourselves, and along with going to see several known birds, I was lucky enough to find three different flocks myself over the course of the season.
Waxwing
Waxwing
Having been surprised by our first group whilst walking around Brickfields Pond in Rhyl with Alex just after Christmas, I located further individuals elsewhere in Rhyl a couple of weeks later on the Dyserth Road, followed by a surprising and rather late count of over 50 birds in my hometown of Northwich while walking home from work last Monday.

Hearing their distinctive high pitched tinkle-bell trilling, I was amazed to look up and find a vast flock staring back at me, erupting from the playground trees and swirling overhead in a whirlwind of reds and yellows before disappearing over the nearby buildings. Having been desperately watching out of my garden window every winter in the hopes of spotting this most sought after of visitors joining the usual Redwings and Fieldfares avidly devouring the frost coated apples on the lawn, finding my very own local flock was the next best thing.
Waxwings
Waxwings
The sheer abundance of Waxwings over the past few months has inevitably resulted in fantastic photographic opportunities to capture the incredible beauty of these winter visitors, and the flock in Rhyl proved to be particularly photogenic as they flitted through patches of trees in a nearby housing estate.
Waxwing
With spring marching on and the weather getting decidedly warmer, it’s now only a matter of time before our Scandinavian beauties depart for another couple of years, taking with them their charming wind chime-like trills and flashy wing flicks, leaving a nation of deserted, stripped bare berry bushes in their wake.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Bonaparte's Gull at Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire!

Bonaparte’s Gull is a species that has been a long time coming for my British list, having never gone for the returning Anglesey bird from 2009 to 2011 and with no other tempting individuals turning up nearby in the years since. Therefore, when a 2nd winter bird appeared on Swithland Reservoir in Leicestershire on the Sunday morning it was all systems go in an attempt to finally connect with this dainty trans-Atlantic visitor. 
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Bonaparte's Gull at Swithland Reservoir!
Arriving on Kinchley Lane on the northern edge of the reservoir just after lunch, we were dismayed to learn it had flown off high no more than ten minutes earlier, leaving just a handful of Black-headed Gulls present on the water. Speaking to the assembled birders it came as something of a reassurance that the Bonaparte’s had done this at least three times already during the day - returning back to the reservoir after a period of absence each time - and we hoped it would follow the same pattern this afternoon.  
Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Sure enough, after just over an hour of scanning both the sky and the reservoir from our vantage point of the dam, the gulls slowly started to reappear, singles and pairs of Black-headed Gulls alighting on the water swiftly followed by a large flock consisting of around 50 birds – the Bonaparte’s had to be amongst them surely! Scanning through the newly arrived individuals it wasn’t long until Alex called out that he had it – success and Bonaparte’s in the bag!
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Floating next to the assorted Black-headed Gulls the differences were subtle yet apparent, although without careful scanning and a keen eye, it could easily have been overlooked. Once you’d got your eye in however it was easy to pick out, the slightly smaller and daintier size in comparison to the Black-headed Gulls the main standout feature, along with the thin all black bill and darker grey nape, mantle and chest which all helped to distinguish it.
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Comparison of the smaller Bonaparte's alongside the Black-headed Gulls
Offering distant but satisfactory views through the scope, we fired off a couple of phonescoped record shots and watched on as it paddled around for a good ten minutes or so before departing, flying off over the conifer trees to feed.
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
With no sign the following day or indeed since, it seems we well and truly jammed in on this small American gull, a great little bird to catch up with and refreshing to get one relatively close to home! 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

PINEY! Male Pine Bunting at Dunnington, Yorkshire!

Male birds are 9 times out of 10 more striking than their duller female counterparts and Pine Buntings are no different, with the bright coloured heads of the males a far cry from the drab and often tricky females! Despite getting reasonable views of the Venus Pools female in Shropshire earlier in January, the discovery of a fine male bird frequenting the Dunnington hedgerows a few weeks ago saw us wanting to complete the Pine Bunting set, and with a free Sunday we made the short journey over to Yorkshire in the hopes of connecting.
Pine Bunting - Dunnington, Yorkshire
Piney
Notoriously tricky birds to successfully twitch as of late (the Kent bird has also been proving to be elusive) several people had left unfulfilled having dipped the Dunnington bird after hours of waiting, some even having missed out even when the bird had shown due to the sightings being all too brief.
Dunnington Pine Bunting crowd
The assembled Pine Bunting crowd
Joining the crowd expecting a lengthy wait and with hundreds of Yellowhammers constantly flitting in and out of the hedge to search through, we were surprised when after just over half an hour eagle eyed Alex expertly picked out our male Pine Bunting, having watched the tiny bird fly in from afar. Perched in the silver birch trees in the hedge before flying closer into the large oak tree on the right hand side of the hedge north of the paddock, the strikingly marked bunting remained on view for only a couple of minutes at max, just long enough to really study the distinctive facial features and fire off a few record phonescoped shots, before dropping down in to the hedge and out of sight.
Pine Bunting - Dunnington, Yorkshire
Pine Bunting - Dunnington, Yorkshire
True to its elusive nature, it didn’t make a reappearance while we stayed on site and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that it came on view again – lucky I got up early otherwise we would have had a very cold and unfruitful day!

With a bright white central moustacial cheek, grey central crown stripe and rusty brown tones there was certainly no mistaking this particular individual, and it was great to get a good look at it perched still and unobscured, especially as the flock was extremely flighty with birds coming and going on a constant basis. The flock itself consisted of a mix of hundreds of Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings, with a handful of Chaffinches, Bramblings and Tree Sparrows thrown in for good measure – and it was good to see these farmland species were doing well here having suffered large declines elsewhere.

After this autumn’s phenomenal influx of Pine Buntings, it was only a matter of time before further wintering birds were unearthed hiding amongst our British Yellowhammer flocks, and this is a species that anyone has a chance of finding while searching through their local wintering flocks. Indeed, with birds turning up on a weekly basis on the European continent, there is a high possibility that more of these charming little buntings will come to light in the next couple of months.

Remaining quite elusive, there are certain areas where the Pine Bunting seems to show fairly reliably after a wait. As of late, it has favoured the right hand hedgerow and oak tree as viewed from the paddock, as well as the ground around the obvious fallen dead tree and surrounding hedgerows a few fields to the right as viewed from the public footpath to the east of the field.
Dunnington Pine Bunting hedge
The Dunnington hedgerow north of the paddock that the Pine Bunting is making its current home

Thursday, 9 February 2017

BANANABILL - White-billed Diver makes landfall in Lincolnshire!

When reports surfaced of a juvenile White-billed Diver photographed on the River Witham 20 miles inland in rural Lincolnshire, it was certainly an early contender for one of the strangest records in 2017. Relocated further up river late on the Saturday evening, my car breaking down couldn’t have come at a worse time, and I subsequently had to see through a rather agonising week in work bombarded by the hundreds of breath-taking photos of this stunning Arctic diver at point blank range.
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
White-billed Diver on the River Witham - an incredible record!
By some miracle however the following Saturday saw the diver remarkably still present on the same stretch of river, and with my car now (hopefully fixed) I dragged Alex out of bed early and made the 3 hour journey down to Lincolnshire.

Arriving at Kirkhall Bridge near Woodhall Spa just after lunch, we made the long treck north along the river bank, the fog from earlier in the week thankfully abating (I didn’t much fancy trying to pick out the diver in thick mist!) and the sun shining down. Luckily the diver hadn’t ranged as far north as on previous days (it was often up near Stixwould several miles away) and after around 20 minutes we caught sight of a group of birders on the edge of the water which could only mean one thing – the White-billed Diver must be close by.
River Witham, Lincolnshire
Sure enough, upon approaching the river a large shape surfaced among the ripples and the ghostly figure of this majestic Arctic species came in to view. 
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
Sporting a mammoth dagger-like bill in beautiful pearly white hues of pale ivory, the sheer size of the bird was striking, living up to its reputation as the largest species of diver and sailing imposingly down the river. With the slightly upturned bill and delicate pale lemon colouration it was clear to see how it got its “Bananabill” nickname – it was truly an impressive sight and sure to strike fear in the hearts of fish as it stalked them in the murky depths of the river.
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
The big beefy neck was instantly apparent, as was the diver's size, being slightly larger than a Great Northern
Regularly diving down under the surface and only staying afloat for minutes at a time, we were surprised to see just how much ground the diver could cover while under the water, often re-surfacing much further away than expected and covering a huge stretch of water during the time we were present. 
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
The White-billed Diver was constantly diving, often staying under for over a minute
Often coming to within several metres, its lack of shyness towards people was also apparent, and such close up and incredible views of this species are a once in a blue moon experience!
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
The strong northerly winds the UK experienced a couple of weeks ago have more than likely brought the White-billed Diver to Lincolnshire from its usual Arctic home.
In a rather remarkable coincidence, another White-billed Diver (and the only other inland river bird) frequented the exact same stretch of the River Witham back in March 1996, unfortunately meeting a sad end after tragically ingesting a fishing hook and line discarded in the water.

Having not made it down for the Devon bird at Brixham Harbour a few years ago and not having travelled for the far out to sea distant dots off Portsoy where White-billed Divers can be found miles offshore in the summer months, it was great to unexpectedly catch up with what was a much sought after species for me and certainly a bird that I had been left wondering exactly when I’d get the opportunity to see in British waters.
River Witham, Lincolnshire
At one point a canal boat flushed the diver, causing it to swim rapidly down river at speed
Sadly however and mirroring the bird found 20 years ago, the diver seems to have got the remnants of a discarded fishing line caught in its bill, often seen to be gathering algae after dives and sometimes trailing from the birds mouth. 
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
With fishing lines undoubtedly come hooks however, and it would be an extreme shame if this beautiful bird met a sad end after ingesting unwanted fishing tackle discarded by humans – a stark reminder to keep our riverside locations free from fishing debris.
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
With the diver still going strong however after at least a two week’s stay on the river -  it was last seen flying off 7km south of Kirkhall Bridge on the 1st - fingers crossed it will survive and somehow dislodge the fishing line – a truly incredible bird that I was exceptionally glad I made the trip down to see!
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire

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