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....

Monday, 15 December 2014

Mission Casp a success

It’s always tricky when a mega turns up at the beginning of the week and the recent Blyth’s Pipit in Yorkshire was no exception. Found on a Monday, it proved to be a tense few days until the first opportunity arose on the Saturday. With the majority of birds either in the far reaches of the remote Scottish Isles or down at the extreme opposite end of the country in Scilly, it was a great chance to see this rare pipit less than an hour and a half away (and on the mainland!)

Driving up to Pugney’s Country Park near Leeds, we arrived at the flooded field in the nearby industrial estate just before 11am – with the bird being seen throughout the day it was (thankfully) decided that a crack-of-dawn start was not really necessary!

Luckily we had only been stationed watching the bird’s favoured field for around 20 minutes before the word got around that it was out on the bank directly opposite and giving good scope views. We quickly got on the bird, and the difference between the accompanying Meadow Pipits was clear to see – the pale unstreaked breast and slightly thicker bill were apparent – as was the slightly larger size.

Blyth's Pipit - Yorkshire
Bad quality scope shot but you can still note the pale breast and lack of streaking.
The bird being out in the open was extremely lucky, as the overgrown and tangled field made it virtually impossible to pick out the pipits hiding within – once landing they were immediately lost to view in the vegetation. There has also been quite a bit of controversy surrounding this particular individual – with people taking issue over the organised “flushing” that had been taking place every couple of hours before the weekend. On one hand, this prevented the inevitable trampling through the grass throughout the day which would undoubtedly have resulted in the bird being constantly disturbed and quickly moving on, although on the other, Saturday proved that great views are obtainable with a little luck and patience without the need for intentionally flushing the birds (in which case only flight views would be obtainable – something I personally wouldn’t be satisfied with).

Content with our views, although sadly not hearing the bird give its diagnostic call, we headed back over to Pugney’s to check out the wildfowl and gulls on the water. There was no sign of the recently reported drake Smew (high up on my wish list of winter birds to see) but a couple of male Goldeneye and a showy Kingfisher on the main lake were good compensations.

After not being able to connect with the recent Gresford Flash Caspian Gull the previous week, and having my 1w individual unceremoniously stripped from my list by someone who can’t even properly ID a Bean Goose (no names mentioned), me and Alex were keen to catch up with one of the birds that have regularly been roosting on the main lake.

With 3pm approaching, we joined the birders already stationed and began scanning the large gulls present on the lake. However, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t going to be an easy task – with the local boaters intent on ploughing their yachts straight at the flock – causing them to flush and scatter each time.

As it got steadily colder, darker and wetter, all there was to show was a 1w Yellow-legged Gull, displaying the classic checkerboard pattern and large, dark, smudged eye – offering a nice comparison with the nearby Herring Gulls.

After a false alarm with what was decided to be just a very pale headed Herring Gull (the structure just didn’t seem right for a Casp) of the experienced and very knowledgeable locals (co-incidentally the Blyth’s finder) locked on to a cracking 2w Caspian Gull. I uttered a silent cheer and took in the birds notable features – the very dark small eye and slender, parallel sided bill and the heavy presence of grey in the mantle – something you wouldn’t expect to see in a Herring Gull. The clean unstreaked head and breast were also clearly apparent - one of the main features along with the long, extreme black on the primary tips. It was also noticeable that the bird had a certain “banana-like” shape in the water when compared with the accompanying Herring Gulls, something to look out for in the future.

Caspian Gull 2w - Pugney's CP, Yorkshire
Record shot through the scope of the Caspian Gull as the light was fading
Normally hating gulls and having difficulty with Caspian Gulls in particular, it was a very educational bird and proved to be the only one of the night – a great start to get my eye in for finding and successfully identifying my own Caspian Gulls in the future.

Ecstatic and after several years of searching (in Alex’s case), countless trips to freezing winter gull roosts and various false alarms, hybrids and dips, Mission Casp could finally be called a success! 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Special Shore Larks

Having wanted to see a Shore Lark since I was very small, it was great to catch up with the Rossall Point bird at the weekend, which had already been present for a few days.

I’ve always wanted to see this species since I was around 5 or 6, when I visited my Grandparents in Prestatyn and walked along the beach where I would see pictures of Shore Larks adorning the nearby signs saying they lived there – always looking out hopefully for any individuals that might have been on the shore. Sadly however, these searches always proved to be fruitless (probably because I usually visited in the summer months when Shore Larks would be happily breeding away from the UK!!).

After making the drive up north, a short walk towards the observation tower resulted in the bird being located immediately by a sharp eyed gnome, impressively camouflaged amongst the pebbles and busily foraging along the tide line. With high tide approaching, the bird was at the very closest section of the beach showing relatively well, although it sometimes proved quite tricky to spot again if you took your eye off it for a second, when it blended straight back in to the sandy surroundings perfectly.

Shore Lark

I watched the bird for around an hour, happily feeding and preening – seemingly unbothered as a careless dog walker went within a few metres which I was almost certain would flush it. It was great to admire the beautiful “bumblebee like” face patterns of the bright yellow and black – a truly stunning little bird.

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

With Shore Lark occupying the number one spot on my BUBO target list for the past four years, I had made them a special target for the year, planning to see them on my trip to Norfolk in the winter. However, the arrival of the Lancs bird proved too tempting and something I just couldn’t resist!

This is the first individual in the Fylde area for over 40 years, so a great record and really pleasing to see the species locally in the North West as opposed to the East coast birds.

With no regular sightings in Prestatyn and the majority of North Wales for some years (apart from a couple of birds in the winter of 2009/10) it is a real shame that Shore Larks have declined in these parts and it would be great to see them make a comeback and become regular winter visitors once again.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Purple Heron on Anglesey

With a Purple Heron turning up in a small marshy field in Capel Gwyn on Anglesey during the week, but having to attend a conference on the Saturday, I wasn’t able to make the journey over until the following Sunday. However, this turned out to be the best course of action, as the bird was showing considerably well after being quite elusive the previous day.

Upon arrival, it was clear to see the field the bird had taken up residence in, and with the assembled birders having already received permission to walk in the field the heron was occupying by the lady that owned it, the bird was quickly picked up hiding in one of the waterlogged ditches, seemingly settled and unperturbed by its admirers.

Purple Heron - Anglesey

Keeping a safe distance, we were able to fully appreciate the bird up close, taking note of the subtle brown plumage and exceptionally long dagger-like bill – no match for any unsuspecting voles or amphibians unfortunate enough to come across it.

Having already seen adults of this species in Spain earlier in the year, (the normal range for this Mediterranean heron) it was still lovely to see this first winter juvenile even if it was not yet in its beautiful purple finery. It was also clear to see the difference from our resident Grey Herons, with the bright yellow bill, warm brown plumage and the black and yellow striped head pattern just starting to come through.

Purple Heron - Anglesey

Purple Heron - Anglesey

 There have been reports of the bird having an extreme limp with a possible broken leg, although recently it appears that this is in fact the result a birth defect, with the bird having one leg quite a bit shorter than the other. Only time will tell how it gets on, but hopefully it will continue feeding happily and be able to live its life out to the full with no problems at all.

Purple Heron - Anglesey

Monday, 17 November 2014

Snow Goose!

Having decided earlier on in the year to make Snow Goose one of my targets, once the autumn influx of wild geese arrived I was on high alert for any being reported in Lancashire or Cumbria – much closer than those often reported at the icy lochs in the far reaches of Scotland.

Therefore when an individual at Eagland Hill, Pilling turned up I was keen to go, and with no sign of the Blackpoll Warbler at Easington making a reappearance it was all systems go up the M6.

Arriving at the potato field it had been frequenting, we quickly locked on to the bird, a fine adult white-morph busy feeding amongst the hundreds of Pink-footed Geese. The black tips to the feathers on the wing are a positive point for this bird being of wild origin, and with no sign of any wing clipping, rings, tags or a preference to coming to bread, as well as its wild geese companions, this is as good a candidate as any for being legit (unlike one in the Norfolk area a few years ago that hung around with some suspicious looking Barnacle Geese….).

Snow Goose
Record shot through the scope of the Snow Goose
This particular bird is being reported as a Lesser Snow Goose, a slightly smaller subspecies than the Greater Snow Goose, yet larger than the similar (though not accepted on the British list) Ross’s Goose. All three are alike in appearance, although the blue-morph is considerably rarer in Greater Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese. As well as the size difference, Greater Snow Geese tend to nest further North and East than their smaller counterparts, and are only found on the Atlantic flyway of North America.

Snow Goose
The black tips to the wings clearly visible
Lesser Snow Geese are actually considered to be the single most abundant goose species in North America with 5 million breeding in Canada alone, and although populations do also occur in Eastern Siberia, it is from here that our birds will have travelled from, getting lost on their migration route from southern Canada through to their wintering ground in the Gulf of Mexico – even more likely this autumn considering the fallout from Hurricane Gonzalo.  

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans feeding nearby also offered great views as they dabbled in the small muddy puddles, although sadly we couldn’t locate any smaller Bewick’s hiding amongst them.

This brings me up to 307 in total, smashing my previous goal to see 300 birds before the year was out – and with 2 months remaining I can now surely reach 310 by the end of December. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Eastern Crowned Warbler in Brotton - 3rd for Britain

With news breaking of the third ever Eastern Crowned Warbler on the Thursday, I was glad that this particular individual decided to stay until the weekend, offering me the chance to catch up with this stunning far eastern vagrant.

Upon arrival at the small patch of woodland adjacent to Brotton Golf Course in Cleveland, we were told that the bird had just been showing well in one of the small Sycamore trees, but had flitted off and out of sight 2 minutes before we got there. That wasn’t going to deter us or the hundreds of other birders still present, and we joined the crowd to wait for the bird to reappear.

After a tense (for me…. Alex had seen the 2009 bird in County Durham) wait for around 20 minutes, the warbler made a reappearance in what was now deemed to be its favoured tree, and with us luckily positioned just below it and at the front of the crowd, we were treated to excellent views as it hopped from branch to branch.

Eastern Crowned Warbler

Sometimes remaining hidden in the leaves, the small warbler often proved difficult to locate, especially when sitting perched motionless – the lemony green and white colouration camouflaging it perfectly amongst the foliage. However, it seemed very obliging, undeterred by the hundreds of eyes all fixed on it, showing considerably well and often remaining stationary in one place allowing for several photo opportunities.

Eastern Crowned Warbler

Miraculously, this was 3 years to the day exactly since the second Eastern Crowned Warbler for Britain was found, trapped and ringed in Hertfordshire after originally being ID’d as a Yellow-browed Warbler. The fact that the very first for Britain back in 2009 was also primarily mis-identified as a Yellow-browed, means that this individual at Brotton is the only one out of the three to be correctly identified in the field by the finder.

Eastern Crowned WarblerTravelling from the far east and such locations as China, the Eastern Crowned is structurally most similar to the profile of an Arctic Warbler in size and shape, differing in key features such as the dark rear crown - which is also wider at the hind on Eastern Crowned Warblers. The lemony undertail coverts were clear to see as the bird dashed through the canopy, as was the bright, clean white underparts – more reminiscent of a Wood Warbler. The orange lower mandible and darker upper mandible were also apparent, as was the large white supercilium (reminiscent of Arctic), two wing bars and on occasion the pale central crown stripe.

Eastern Crowned Warbler

Eastern Crowned Warbler

Eastern Crowned Warbler
You can just about see the central crown stripe

As the bird did a bunk on the Saturday night, you have to feel for those that couldn’t make it until the Sunday, a dip possibly made worse by the no-show of the Blackpoll Warbler further up the coast at Easington which was discovered early on the Sunday and quickly vanished in to thin air. However, the fact that three have now turned up in the space of 5 years must offer some comfort - it is surely only a matter of time before the next is found darting around the canopy in an east coast location.

The discovery of both the Eastern Crowed and the Blackpoll Warbler really goes to show the potential of these small coastal patches of woodland and obscure pockets of habitat – the mind boggles at just what hidden treasures might lurk amongst them waiting to be discovered. If the finder hadn’t happened to just look back as he was leaving the woods that morning, then this third for Britain would undoubtedly have remained undiscovered – as must so many megas that reach our shores undetected and see out their days hiding away in unobtrusive locations, tantalisingly close to human habitation and just waiting to be stumbled upon by chance by the right person. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Snow Buntings in Wales

With the decline of the previously reliable Kimnel Bay wintering Snow Buntings and the return of the lone male at Llandudno West Shore for his second year, I decided to go and take a look at this stunning bird on my day off. Having failed to find him earlier on in the year, this time I was confident where to look, and sure enough I soon spotted him sitting on one of the boulders near the breakwater on the beach. Having moved down to escape the cold, it was great to watch this showy individual at close range, admiring the white flashes on the wings as he flitted from perch to perch.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

It’s unclear as to exactly why the Kimnel Bay Snow Buntings failed to return last year – until then it was probably the best site for a reliable Snow Bunting sighting in North Wales with up to 14 birds present. Theories range from it being a warm winter last year and the birds staying on higher ground to the newly created cycle path and the increase in dog walkers and disturbance this has resulted in along the shore, so only time will tell if they decide to make an appearance this year. In the meantime, let’s hope this lone male is joined by some friends soon….
Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting from Kimnel Bay in 2011

Male Red-breasted Flycatcher in Sussex

With the temptation of a male Red-breasted Flycatcher on the south coast in nearby East Sussex, we headed over to Beachy Head to try and catch up with this stunning bird. Having only had brief views as dusk swiftly approached the night before, we were delighted that the bird had stayed until the Tuesday despite the relatively clear night, and returned to get better views and admire the bird in the light. Having only seen first winter birds previously, it was great to see this species as an adult male in full breeding plumage, the rich orange breast showing no signs of fading.

Red breasted Flycatcher

Red breasted Flycatcher

After enjoying the bird for around an hour, a cry of Little Bunting went up, with reports of the bird flying out of the same clump of trees the flycatcher had been favouring and heading towards a more distant patch of Hawthorn. Despite a thorough search by a number of birders, sadly the bird couldn’t be relocated, so instead we decided to track down the Black Redstart that had been present at the nearby lighthouse that morning.

Beachy Head

After climbing to the top, I soon found the bird in question flitting around the gravel car park, giving brief and tantalising views as it hopped over fences and fluttered over walls, only stopping still for no more than a couple of seconds. Luckily, upon arriving back to the car, I found a second bird which seemed a lot more showy, landing on the parked cars and nearby posts, allowing great views and photo opportunities. Having only seen Black Redstarts in Manchester City Centre before in the UK, it was great to see these birds up close and really admire their dusky and rusty plumage tones.

Black Redstart

Black Redstart

Feeling satisfied and having left the south coast with 5 lifers in the bag, the cuckoo seemed a distant memory as we headed back up north (getting stuck on the inevitable heavy delays that always seem to ensnare M25 travellers) pleased with our trip and hoping that the next Yellow-billed Cuckoo to make landfall isn’t quite as far away and at least makes it to the weekend…

Friday, 7 November 2014

Ring-Billed Gull in Hampshire returns for its 13th Year

Day 3 of our south coast road trip and we headed off to the Siberian Stonechat in glorious sunshine – beautiful weather considering it was almost November. Upon arriving at the hide, after a brief 10 minute wait, the bird was relocated at the far end of the field amongst the reeds, favouring a bramble bush and using the thick reed stems lower down to perch on. Even at a distance, the paleness was clear to see, and the British Stonechats on the fence posts nearby offered a handy comparison between the two species.

Siberian Stonechat
Record shot of the Sibe Stonechat
Eager to search for the Firecrest that was reportedly heard as we were making our way down to the hide, we stopped by the pine trees on the way back to try and get a glimpse of one of my favourite birds. After several Goldcrests bumbling through the leaves, my eyes locked on to a bird flying in from the left and landing in the ivy covered tree right in front - raising my army bins I immediately saw the bright white stripe above the eye – bingo! Absolutely gorgeous birds, it’s always great to catch up with them, and this bird showed really well in perfect light before flitting off and away in to the dark pines – eluding everyone else that had by this time stopped to see what we were looking for.

The Harbour in Hampshrie
After learning that very morning that the regular wintering Ring-billed Gull had returned to Walpole Boating Lake in Gosport for an incredible 13th year, we headed there to try and catch up with it. After dipping a first winter in an Asda car park in Liverpool a few years back, I was keen to see a much nicer adult bird in all its glory. Our target was quickly picked out sitting on a yellow buoy in the middle of the small lake, before offering amazingly close views as it landed on the boardwalk – completely unperturbed by our presence.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

It would be interesting to find out where this bird actually summers – I would assume it doesn’t make the hefty crossing over the Atlantic every spring and autumn – so where does it go? It’s also remarkable that it always makes its way back to this small lake in the middle of Hampshire every winter – evidently the huge amount of bread and chips provided by the locals just prove too much for it to resist year on year!

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull
Shy after all the attention....

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Cornish Road Trip Part 2

After heading to Davidstow Airfield in the morning to track down the American Golden Plover that had taken up residence there (it was clearly in no hurry to move on from its new found home, having been present for over a week), it was rather frustrating that we couldn’t relocate it next to its usual haunt of the small pool next to the windsock. After driving around for about an hour checking the surrounding grassy fields, with no sign of the bird anywhere, we were just about to give up (another lifer seemingly slipping out of our grasp) when Alex made an absolutely cracking find, spotting the bird right next to the car hidden in the centre of the runway! It had evidently proven hard to spot for everyone, as 4 other cars had driven past it already whilst we were there, the bird blending perfectly in to the concrete surroundings and completely undeterred by the trail of cars moving slowly down the runway in search of it. We quickly alerted the other cars looking, and stopped to admire this beautiful looking American wader.

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover

Though rather bleak looking and containing few pools, Davidstow Airfield has surprisingly attracted its fair share of American waders over the past 5 years, with White-rumped, Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers, as well as several Buff-breasted Sandpipers all recorded amongst the abandoned and eerie runways.

We sat and watched the AGP for a good while, the bird positioned right outside my passenger door allowing for some excellent photo opportunities and showing fantastically well at such a close range. This allowed us to really take note of the golden and silver speckles on the plumage and admire it as it happily foraged for worms in a small patch of grass.

As a juvenile, it was distinguishable from our resident Golden Plovers by the prominent white supercillium and overall greyer and duller colouration – illustrated perfectly at such a close proximity.

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover

 After getting our fill of the plover, we then headed back up north to Somerset to try and catch up with the reliable juvenile Pallid Harrier that had taken up residence at the newly created Steart WWT reserve. Upon arrival, we were told we had just missed it showing well by 5 minutes (shouldn’t have stopped at that service station en-route!) so we stuck it out by the hide waiting for it to reappear, entertained by one of two Great White Egrets present mooching around in front of us.

After half an hour or so, the cries went up, and it had indeed taken off from the marsh and was gliding smoothly across the reeds. Whilst distant, the orange colouration could just be made out (my favourite plumage type for Pallid Harriers) and we watched the bird for around 5 minutes before it was lost to view in the marsh again. Deciding that the other path offered much closer views, we headed off that way, and whilst sat scanning our surroundings, amazingly, by sheer chance, both me and Alex had our scopes independently on the exact patch of reeds to coincide with the moment the bird took off again – providing close prolonged views and allowing us to see the distinctive features a lot better.
Seart WWT
The saltmarsh the harrier was favouring.
Pallid Harriers have much slimmer and narrower wings than Hen Harriers, and the juveniles can be told apart by the unmarked bare orange undersides lacking any of the streaking that is usually found on Hen Harriers. The distinct pale collar on the neck and solid dark boa pattern also separates them from the extremely similar Montagu’s Harrier, and this coupled with the contrast between the solid dark secondaries and pale primaries are the best ways to tell the two species apart.

After deciding to head back down south that evening to Hampshire for the Siberian Stonechat that was showing at Titchfield Haven, we made the 2 and a half hour journey to our next stopover in Southampton to rest up and enjoy a delicious meal of crispy lamb and chilli fried chicken (some of the best food I’ve had out in ages so most definitely worth a mention) and the prefect remedy for getting stuck in the tedious and unexplainable hour long delay we encountered near Wiltshire!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Cornish Road trip Part 1

Thursday the 23rd October saw the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo bring a whole host of American goodies to our shores, with a scattering of mega thrushes discovered in the usual inaccessible places whilst good numbers of seabirds passed by, brought closer by the strong buffeting winds. It was with great anticipation that we waited for the inevitable mega alert to go out, and sure enough, there was little disappointment as news of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo hiding in the valleys of Porthgwarra broke first, swiftly followed by the incredible record of a Black-billed Cuckoo on North Ronaldsay, (the first for 24 years) and a Chimney Swift soaring across the skies of the Outer Hebrides. As the Black-billed cuckoo had disappeared as quickly as it had dropped out of the sky in hot pursuit by the Merlin chasing it, and that the Chimney Swift was on a remote island hundreds of miles away and largely inaccessible, whilst being nearly 350 miles away, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo was the only realistic option.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - America
Yellow-billed Cuckoo in its native America
With a track record of quickly perishing (usually after 1 or 2 days) or moving on, we were slightly apprehensive as to whether it would still be showing on the Saturday. Sure enough, as we were making the 6 hour long journey to Cornwall, the negative news that there was no sign was a little disheartening, as the bird had either done a Friday night flit or had succumbed to the cold Cornish weather that night.

This was probably our best chance to see this species without having to travel to an island location, and this was the first mainland bird since 2000 (also in Cornwall), so we were desperately hoping it would be relocated. Quite frustrating, as the bird could simply be hiding out of sight, hidden in a tangle of twigs and branches just a few hundred metres away over the vast moors. After joining in the hundreds of other birders in a fruitless search of the surrounding moorland, we decided to call it a day and head to the bay at Porthgwarra for a spot of seawatching after hearing that several Balearic Shearwaters were moving through that morning.

Upon arrival, several Balearics were quickly picked up shearing across the waves (a lifer for me) and their dusky under parts in comparison to the white of the more regular Manxies was apparent. I was quite keen to see this species, as it isn’t one you would usually see with ease or at close quarters living in Cheshire. I don’t normally get good views of birds whilst out seawatching (more often than not usually just distant dots) but the extremely close proximity of the passing birds at Porthgwarra was an excellent opportunity to see commoner species at a closer range than I’m used to. Several Arctic Skuas travelled past in the half an hour or so that we were there, both dark and pale phase, and it was great to see their plumage at close range, as opposed to a distant black speck on the horizon harassing terns.

With no sign of the American Golden Plover that had been reliably present until today, we decided to try and track down the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling that had made a home of Penzance’s retail park, taking a liking to the Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and KFC car parks. The bird proved tricky to track down, but after around an hour of driving around we eventually spotted it perched on the wires outside Sainsbury’s (and then again at Morrisons where we’d moved to get better internet signal!) showing well.

The Rose-coloured Starling juv showing on the wires opposite Sainsbury's

Unlike the Rhos-on-Sea adult that I saw back in 2012, this juvenile was quite grotty looking, with no sign of the handsome pink and glossy black colouration of the mature birds. It clearly stood out among the European Starlings however, the paler sandy brown colouration making it relatively simple to pick it out with ease.

The adult bird from Rhos-on-Sea back in 2012 - a lot nicer to look at!

With a few days off work, we decided to stay in Cornwall and make a long weekend of our failed cuckoo mission, and with late news of the American Golden Plover returning towards dusk, we had positioned ourselves perfectly, staying at a Golf Club just 10 minutes away from the site, ready to track it down the next morning and make the most of our Cornwall trip.
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