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....

Friday, 30 January 2015

Bitterns at Marbury!

Having not caught up with the Bittern at Marbury CP this year, I was keen to make a visit at some point, and a free morning on Sunday when I was testing out my new lens seemed the perfect opportunity to do so.

Arriving at the hide overlooking Coward Reedbed, the Bittern was not immediately obvious, and it took a good 20 minutes before it was located deep down in the reeds, exceptionally camouflaged and ridiculously difficult to spot whilst it was crouched down, blending perfectly in to the surroundings.


However, the bird soon put on a brilliant show, feeding in one of the gullies before creeping slowly through the reeds and out in to full view. Enjoying some of my best ever views, we watched on as he took flight and flew to the section of reeds directly opposite, proudly displaying the beautiful brown speckled plumage for all to see.


Bittern complete with reflection!
This particular individual has very pale markings, and is more than likely a returning bird from the two present last year, one of which was exceptionally pale. With two birds having been reported again this year, the best place to locate them is directly in the large patch of reeds to the left of the hide in the area surrounding the overhanging trees, which the birds seem to have favoured for the last couple of years or so.

BitternBeing the very first bird ever that I can remember seeing, having been shown to me at the age of 3 by a birder in the Marbury hide, it was great to catch up with them again 21 years later!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Poms and Larks in Lancs

With a Pomarine Skua having been present on the saltmarsh at Pilling for several days and the beautiful Shore Lark still mooching around at Rossall Point, me and Alex headed up to the Fylde to catch up with them both – the Pom actually being a lifer for myself.

Upon arriving at Preesall Sands, I spotted the Pom immediately, just right of the small building and happily feasting on one of the many grisly carcasses that had been left, presumably by photographers to entice the bird in to providing exceptionally close views. 

Pomarine Skua

We approached the bird slowly, and it soon became apparent that it was suffering from a possible broken wing – several of the feathers were looking very untidy with the wing jutting out at an odd angle. I’ve since seen shocking photos showing dog walkers allowing their Dalmatians to attack the bird in its vulnerable state, although the latest reports and photos seem to show the bird is on the mend, with the wing seeming to have healed a little. Whilst we were on site, the Skua did have a little bit of difficulty flying, shuffling along the grass before finally alighting, only to drop down again a short way away on the beach. Fingers crossed it's able to make a full recovery and continue on with its journey!

Pomarine Skua
The damaged wing is clearly visible
Obviously brought in by the recent storms, this unseasonable sighting was completely unexpected and I was blown away to get such close views of an often difficult to identify bird, which in most cases can be a distant dot miles out to sea! Having until recently only experienced Skua species as far away specs in a scope, the Pilling Pom now completes my set of UK Skuas, having experienced close-up and satisfactory views of all 4 species in the space of a year, with a stream of fantastic Arctic Skuas passing by extremely close to the shore at Porthgwarra and a lucky fly-over-the-head moment at Spurn as we jammed in to a juv Long-tailed Skua this autumn.

I personally find Skua species very difficult to identify in flight, often on the backdrop of a stormy and wind battered sea, so it was great to get the rare opportunity to see one both on the deck and at such close quarters (I’ve only ever previously seen the Audenshaw Bonxie on the deck before).

Pomarine Skua

This particular individual was a dark morph juvenile, larger than the very similar Arctic Skua and displaying all the typical features of Pom ID – thicker neck, head and bill, as well as the overall bulkier appearance when compared to the much slimmer Arctics. The barring of the undertail coverts was also apparent – not seen in dark morph juv Arctics. Quite how useful this will be when assessing a fast moving dot in the scope on future seawatches has yet to be seen!

Pomarine Skua
The barred undertail covers can just be seen
With the much-loved Shore Lark still present at the picnic area at Rossall Point, I couldn’t resist going back for second helpings, and sure enough after an accidental locking-in the car and the horn pipping that resulted, we were both admiring extremely close views of this winter wonder as it happily hopped along the grass in front of us. These were much better views than the last time we visited, and it was great to see this little bird enjoying itself and bumbling around for everyone to admire. Truly one of my all-time favourites!

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Monday, 19 January 2015

Harlequin Duck makes landfall in Aberdeen!

Whilst sat in TGI Fridays tucking in to my birthday meal of Jack Daniels chicken at the start of the month, an alert popped up on my phone announcing that a Harlequin Duck had been seen and photographed at Seaton Park in Aberdeen – one of my personal ‘must see’ birds and an incredible record for Britain! Originally put out as a female but later re-identified correctly as a first winter male, this proved to be a great ‘unblocker’, being the first really twitchable one in my lifetime after the Wick bird of 1991 and the two first summer females in Ayrshire 5 years later. With a handful of birds making it to the remote Hebridean islands in the past 15 years, this mainland bird was extremely welcomed and it was fingers crossed he would stick around until the following weekend.

With several previous birds overwintering there was a good chance it would, and sure enough, after a tiring 6 hour journey up to Aberdeen in less than ideal weather conditions and an overnight stop in a hotel, we arrived at the site and immediately locked on to this arctic wonder as he happily went about his business – a long way from home in the unexpected location of a stretch of river in the local park!

Harlequin Duck

Like its Icelandic counterparts, this Harlequin Duck tended to favour the fast, rough torrents of the rapids, flying from point to point as it continued to dive for food in the depths of the icy flows, plunging down to take advantage of the clear rich pickings in the river below. A pair of displaying Dippers were a nice sight on the rocks, as well as several drake Goldeneye in their beautiful black and white plumage and up to 3 Goosander – again highlighting the rich food source available in this small stretch of river.

Representing just the 19th record of this stunning duck for the UK, this individual tended to favour both the reeded area of the river to the left of the toilet block as well as the rapids immediately to the right, providing great views as he dived down on the river in front of us for a prolonged period before flying downstream past the development works to the furthest point of the river, where sadly there was no access.

Harlequin Duck

With the nearest population being Iceland, where over 5,000 pairs breed each year, it is highly likely that, due to the fierce Northerly gales experienced lately and the bird’s location on the East coast in Aberdeen, the most likely source of origin for this Arctic dweller will be from these rocky coastlines – displaced after the fierce storms that battered the North Sea. The Harlequin Duck’s range also expands further afield, with birds found in Greenland, Eastern Russia and NW and NE America, and birds sometimes wintering further south in California and North Carolina.

Distinctive in their breeding plumage with their fantastic showy orange and slate-grey colouration, this first winter male sadly looked more like a female, with an overall appearance of dark chocolatey-brown feathers. However, the distinctive round white spot behind the ear was clearly visible, as was the white patch in front of the eye and clear cut white line on the breast. Obviously not yet in his full breeding finery, it would be great if this male sticks around to develop his full breeding plumage – where a second visit to tie in with our planned Scottish Highland trip at Easter may well be on the cards!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

New Year Birding

As I had 5 days off after New Year before heading back to work, I was keen to target a variety of birds in the North West around Wales and Cheshire. I finally managed to catch up with the redhead Smew at Newchurch Common (which took absolutely ages to find, being tucked away camouflaged in an out of the way bank under some branches), before heading over to the female Long-tailed Duck at Fagl Lane Quarry in Hope. Again, I’ve never seen a drake of this species, and all three females of this sea dwelling duck have been on inland freshwater pools.

Absolute record shot of the redhead Smew
Long-tailed duck
The lovely but distant female Long-tailed Duck
With some time to spare before it got dark, we headed over to the swans at Shotwick fields, wondering if any Bewick’s would still be present. We needn’t have worried, as they were not only there but feeding in the highest numbers I’ve seen this winter, with around 30 Bewick’s present - a huge improvement on the 9 or so just after Christmas. With Whooper Swans, Mutes and an Australian Black Swan all in the same field, it was great to compare all the species together.

Digiscoped pic of the distant swan flock - all 4 species present
After my Birthday I had a day to spare, so made the most of a number of birds available around the area. I called in at Shotwick boating lake again to catch up with one of the three Black-necked Grebes that have been present for a while, before driving over to a good site for Mandarin not too far from home. At first the pool looked depressingly empty, but I soon spotted two females and two males sitting near the closest bank. A wader near the car had caught my eye upon arrival, and after hiding behind a small hill for around ten minutes out of sight, I eventually managed to get good views of it as a Green Sand – a nice record for this time of year.

Black-necked Grebe

Mandarin Duck

Green Sandpiper

After lunch, a trip to Moore produced a welcome Pintail on the smallest pool, and the reliable Tawny Owl which has made a welcome return to his roost site after a near 3 year absence.

Tawny Owl

With a report of a Glaucous gull on Pumphouse Pool just an hour earlier, I headed over on the off chance it might call in to the pool again for a rest, bath and preen. Searching though the tremendous flock of gulls present for the remainder of the afternoon, I sadly couldn’t relocate it, although a cracking find of a juv Iceland gull (my first self-find of this species) was a great consolation! Never too confident with gulls, I was pleased I had been able to pick out this white winger amongst the hundreds of other juvenile gulls on the lake. Another strange gull also caught my eye on the bank – an adult bird with pure white wings and a pale grey back. However, something wasn’t quite right. The bird itself seemed quick small – ruling out a Glauc, although it didn’t have the right beak or facial structure for an Iceland gull, looking quite fierce and Herring gull like. One possibility could be a Herring x Iceland hybrid. However, the whole flock annoyingly flushed before I could get a photo, so it will definitely be worth keeping an eye out for this individual again. 
Iceland Gull
Scope shot of the Iceland gull - no sign of the Glauc though

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Little Bustard kicks off the New Year!

As my computer physically set on fire over Christmas, I’ve been unable to post very much! However, along with the rest of the country (it seemed) me and Alex made our way up to Yorkshire for the amazing Little Bustard twitch on New Year’s Day. Found flying on two separate occasions then remarkably pinned down to a kale field near to Auburn Farm, this was a brilliant find, coming just a day after one was seen briefly in East Sussex!

With just 25 records since 1950 (the majority of which have been found dead) this has turned in to a real mega, with the last twitchable birds of Cornwall 1996 and Dorset/Hampshire 1987/88 both before my birding time (being just 5 years old for the last one!).

Rare Bird Alert - Little Bustard
Rare Bird Alert's map of previous Little Bustard records in the UK - (www.rarebirdalert.co.uk)
The records for Little Bustard over the last 50  years - (www.rarebirdalert.co.uk)
This was therefore a must-see bird, so we made the journey up on New Year’s Eve and after a quick Chinese take-away in the car were checking in to small hotel in Bridlington, just ten minutes away ready for one of those hated “crack of dawn starts”.

Arriving in the pitch black, we quickly made the walk down to the field in question and joined the birders already assembled (God knows what time they must have got there!) and started scanning amongst the kale the bird was last seen in the day before.  There was a magnificent turn out (nearly as many as the Short-toed Eagle twitch the previous summer) with hundreds sacrificing their New Year celebrations for a glimpse of this rare vagrant. As Little Bustards are diurnal migrants and the bird was still observed in the field at dusk and not seen to leave, the chances were that unless it had died overnight then it would still be there.  A hunting Barn Owl in the adjacent field was a nice distraction as the gloom slowly lifted and dawn broke, and at around 8:30am a guy just a few people down the line from us exclaimed he had it! Triumphant, we all managed to get on the bird in quick time, crouched low amongst the kale and hard to see unless it popped its head up. Throughout the morning, the bird shuffled in to a more open patch to provide better views, sometimes nibbling small insects off the kale to feed.

Little Bustard

Little Bustard

This bird was sporting its less elaborate winter plumage making it harder to spot, with none of the splendid black and white feathers commonly seen in the breeding season. Looking like a juv Pheasant to the untrained eye, Little Bustards are a tad larger with gorgeous brown speckled feather patterns and an almost Stone Curlew-like face. It was great to see the bird at such close range – having failed to see any individuals on my two trips to Spain in the summer.

The bird rarely moved throughout the morning however, and it seemed unlikely that it would fly to reveal the gorgeous black and white markings on the open wings, so we left it in peace and  (cheekily) headed back to the B+B to take advantage of our free cooked breakfast!

With 3 different sightings of Little Bustards in the UK over the past 2 months, it is unclear as to whether these birds are one and the same or part of a small influx. Whilst it is possible that the West Bexington bird in Dorset seen on the 18th November could be the same as the East Guldeford bird in East Sussex found on the 30th December, it is highly unlikely that the Fraisthorpe bird is the same. Found just a day later on the 31st and seen flying close to the sea at 8:30am, it is far more likely this individual is a new bird fresh from the continent. Remarkable that two birds were found just days apart!

Whilst there has been a little speculation as to whether the southern birds may have come from the French reintroduction project (actually unlikely in my opinion due to the poor survival rates of the juveniles) it is more likely this individual has perhaps arrived from the East (where the species can be found in Russia) coinciding with the onset of the cold weather. Interestingly there have been several records in Eastern Europe that could quite possibly be the same well twitched and well-travelled individual. Touring the Netherlands, Finland, Norway and Germany and last seen on the 27th October 2014 at Dingdener Heide, there could even be an outside chance that this is the same bird relocating.

Little Bustard Map
A map showing the locations of reported Little Bustard from parts of Europe during 2014
With no sign the following morning leaving hundreds of birders who were unable to connect on the first two days disappointed, it is unclear if the bird sadly perished in the night (it was looking a little peeky in my opinion – although this could have just been due to the strong winds and cold temperatures) or if it may have been flushed during the night, but ether way this was an absolutely cracking find and an amazing way to see in the New Year!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Drake Smew at Draycote

Having never seen a Drake Smew before and actually dipping on an individual in the midlands on our way to Norfolk (which frustratingly was actually reported after we’d left!) I was keen to try for the drake that had been hanging around at Draycote water.

Arriving at the site and with rain threatening, we hurried to the bank where it had last been reported, stopping to admire a female Common Scoter that was also present. Turning the bend, the shining white drake was apparent even at a distance, and we approached where it was stationed on the water, relatively close by to the bank and providing some great photo opportunities.




This was my first drake, having seen 3 females, and was a much sought after bird for me. This individual was also particularly obliging, not tending to dive down too much as Smews usually do, and he seemed content to sit on the water and show off his spectacular white and black plumage!



Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Golden Pheasants at Wolferton Triangle (he was there!)

Before Christmas I managed to persuade Alex to drive us both down to Norfolk so I could catch up with a much anticipated bird – the Golden Pheasant!

Having made two prior visits to their favoured hotspot of the Wolferton Triangle and not seen any, this was my first dawn visit and I was hoping for some success and a case of third time lucky! The previous evening we had sprinkled some seed along the roadside at one particular male’s favourite spot on the road, and returned early the next morning whilst it was still dark to watch and wait.
Wolferton Triangle
The first bird we clocked on to was a Woodcock busy feeding on the soft roadside verge – the only views I’ve actually had of this species on the ground. However, with the Goldies showing best early in the morning, and having been there since dawn with the time fast approaching 9 o’clock, we were getting a little concerned that we hadn’t seen anything – nearly an hour and a half in to the sunlight and still no sign of our target!

Several false alarms of Common Pheasants on the roadside gave us a little hope, then, as we turned the corner driving back along the North road – BOOM!! – he was there!!!! Success!!!!
Golden Pheasant
The male in all his resplendent glory was stood at the side of the road, busy feeding on the previous nights seed in the company of the slightly larger Common Pheasant. Not wanting to startle him, we watched from a distance before slowly approaching in the car, looking on as he slowly crossed the road (interestingly chasing off the Common Pheasant quite aggressively) and continued to feast on the bounty of seed we had left out for him.

Usually seen quickly crossing the road before disappearing in to the thicket of Rhododendrons, this was a great opportunity to observe him at our leisure, providing around ten minutes in which we took in the absolutely stunning plumage, vivid feather colours and the magnificent tail.
Golden Pheasant
After studying some photos of a bird seen a few weeks earlier (kindly supplied by Harry Murphy - shots on the right) I was interested to find out if this was in fact the same individual. Studying the two shots side by side and comparing the feather patterns on the neck in certain spots, it’s clear to see they match up and that this is indeed the same male. Also seen in the exact same spot, he seems to favour the area just in front of the sign near the junction at the end of the North Road adjoining the main road.
Golden Pheasant
The bottom right feathers and top feather patterns are identical
Golden Pheasant
The top feathers and the bottom corner feathers again show exactly the same markings

An in-depth look at the population:

Having been kept in captivity in the UK since 1725 and first released in to the wild in Norfolk in the 1840’s, Golden Pheasants have thrived in this particular spot and it is one of the best places in the country to see this brightly coloured wonder. Indeed, the UK birds are the only known fully established population in the wild outside China that are fully self-sustaining (included on the British list under Category C1E).

However, in recent years their numbers have been seen to decline, perhaps due to an increase in predation of adults and chicks from foxes, and it is unknown as to how many individuals may actually be left. The total UK population was estimated to be between just 85 and 118 pairs in 2000, and 15 years later this has fallen dramatically, so it is unknown just how many are still residing in this small patch of woodland. It would be interesting to determine how many birds are indeed left here, and whether all of the recent sightings have been of this same male. Indeed, with wild adult birds living for around 5-6 years, once he disappears will the number of sightings reduce significantly?
Golden Pheasant
The male in his favourite spot just beyond the junction on the North Road
 This particular population has also been the subject of a fierce debate due to the dark throat colouration displayed by the individuals here – not typical of wild Golden Pheasants. Whilst once thought to be the result of hybridisation with Lady Amherst’s Pheasants, it is now believed that they are indeed pure and the unusual colouration is in fact the result of a gene mutation due to the depleted numbers and genetic bottleneck that has resulted.

This dark throated form, the variation “obscurus” (as seen in these birds) is commonly found and well known in captive populations of pure bred birds, and is widely seen through the captive rearing of Golden Pheasants due to the limited genetic flow and higher chance of gene mutation as a result.
Golden Pheasant
The dark throat seen in var. obscurus is clearly visible
When a population is heavily inbred (due to the small numbers of individuals) as seen in the dwindling population of the Wolferton birds, such mutations are far more likely to occur, and in recent years the Breckland birds (another location in the UK) have also begun to show this characteristic. It is only natural that as the number of birds gets smaller and smaller, the mutation of the dark throat becomes more pronounced in those individuals that are left which are then left to breed with one another. With this species reluctance to cross open country, either via flight or on foot, dispersal and colonisation of new areas is extremely limited, with a lack of fresh genetic material contributing to the limited gene pool in the Wolferton Population.

It is also worth noting that no Lady Amherst’s Pheasants have been reported in the area (nor at the Brecklands site) and there is no evidence that they ever have, so it is extremely unlikely that hybridisation is the cause of the dark throat patch. Studying photos of hybrid Lady A x Golden Pheasants, the individuals all seem to display characteristics of both parents, red, blue and yellow feathers on the body, but white and black tails and neck feathers (as well as a distinct ‘scruffy’ appearance typical of hybrid birds). This is not the case with any of the Wolferton birds however, with the classic gold and black tail and neck feathers present with no hint of white.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle
Not a hint of white can be seen in the feathers of this individual indicating a lack of hybridisation
However, we also need to delve further in to the history of the released birds, as it is often stated that there are NO pure Lady A or Golden Pheasant populations anywhere in Europe. The captive stock released over 100 years ago may well have contained genes from both species (albeit 99% of one parent) with crosses somewhere in the parentage long ago in captivity.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle
The male showing off the beautiful feather patterns and fiery head crest
Regardless, they are absolutely remarkable birds, and it was a truly magical experience to finally have such great views of one – plastic fantastic indeed!
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