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....

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Rare Ducks!

With news of a drake Ring-necked Duck present at Priorslee Lake in Shropshire at the weekend, having only seen a female of this species before I was keen to call in on the way back up north from Devon.

Arriving at Priorslee Lake and parking in the layby off the A4640, we soon clocked on to our target near to the orange buoy on the right hand side of the lake. Originally asleep with his head tucked under his wing, we could still make out some of the subtle differences that separate Ring-necked Ducks from the similar and more common Tufteds.
Ring-necked Duck, Priorslee Lake
A distant shot of the Ring-necked Duck drake
Eventually waking up and swimming around with the resident Tufted Ducks, this was a great opportunity to take in all the ID features – the slightly peaked crown was clearly visible, as was the deep orange eye, whilst we could clearly see the distinguishing white bands on the bill. The white wedge shape on the side (a key feature separating Ring-necked Ducks and Tufted Ducks) also stood out even from a distance, contrasting to the darker grey side than you would normally find on a Tufted.
Ring-necked Duck, Priorslee Lake
Note the white bands on the bill - absent on a Tufted Duck
Ring-necked Duck, Priorslee Lake
The white wedge on the side is also clear to see
Having missed a one-day drake at my local Neumann’s Flash last year, it was great to finally catch up with this North American visitor, and the setting sun on the lake made for a great break from our 4 hour trip back from Devon.
Coot
The Coots were making the most of the evening light (Sadly not an American Coot....)
Recently, I also stumbled across a local site for Ruddy Duck when looking at nearby Birdtrack records in the area. Having not seen one now for around 4 years, I made the 20 minute journey to see if I could locate one. As soon as we arrived at the lake, Alex (Ruddy Duck obsessive) immediately locked on to the bird, a fine looking male that spent most of its time asleep before finally waking up and displaying that electric blue bull for us to admire.
Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Ducks, once a common sight across our UK water bodies, have now drastically reduced in numbers, with just a handful of individuals scattered throughout Britain. Due to the threat that this non-native North American species poses to the White-headed Duck population in Spain through inbreeding, the government took the decision to cull all individuals in Britain to protect the rarer Spanish residents.

Escaping from captivity back in 1948 and with over 6,500 individuals at their peak, the latest data as of 2014 indicated that just 10 females remained, and the future culling efforts will be fixed on eradicating these last breeding individuals. With British birds finding their way to Europe and arriving in France, Holland, Belgium and Spain, it was the discovery of hybrids in 1990 in Spain that resulted in the widespread cull being undertaken with the aim to completely remove any threat to the native Spanish birds.
White-headed Duck, Spain
White-headed Ducks at Bonanza Pools in Spain last August

I remember a time when Ruddy Ducks were a regular occurrence at Marbury, Neumann’s and Moore, but recently they have proved very hard to come across. Without doubt, they will become extinct in Britain in the wild within the next 5 years. It’s unclear how long this particular drake has been here for and indeed how long how long he will be able to avoid the cull!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Clocaenog Forest Birding

A trip out to Clocaenog Forest to look for displaying Goshawks on Sunday drew a blank, with just several Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk taking to the skies raptor-wise. However, the forest was absolutely teeming with Siskins – they were everywhere! Calling and flitting from tree to tree, as well as providing a show with their beautiful display flight, these small bright yellow wonders seemed to be dripping off the branches wherever we turned to look!  Great to see after not coming across any so far this year on my travels!

We also stumbled upon a small flock of Crossbills (our other target at Clocaenog) perched happily in one of the trees at the edge of a windy track, the first I’ve seen in over 2 years! It was good to see that Crossbills are still around in the forest, although they were slightly away from the more dense stands of trees as I would have expected and instead favouring an area surrounded mainly by fields.
Common Crossbill, Clocaenog

Common Crossbill, Clocaenog

Common Crossbill, Clocaenog
Record shots of the Crossbills
Further up the track we also stumbled across a really productive section with a real abundance of finches – masses of food lining the trees by the side of the track, coupled with a plentiful water supply in the form of puddles and ditches lining the road had caused them to congregate in here. Large numbers of Chaffinches, Goldfinches, and Siskins all flitted about, with a handful of Lesser Redpolls (my first of the year – seemingly scarcer than usual) a solitary Greenfinch and two cracking summer plumaged Bramblings mixed in – a great spot by Alex just moments after we had exclaimed that all we needed now was to have some Bramblings! It was great to see the finches in such good numbers, and I was especially pleased to come across the Bramblings – a bird I seem to have trouble catching up with in recent years with just the odd one annually. With none coming to the garden anymore, and a distinct lack of birds at my previous hot spot in Northwich, this looks to be a really promising location. Definitely a site to revisit in future years! 

Surf Scoters in North Wales

After failing to catch up with the regular Surf Scoters that can be found off the North Wales coast each year for an incredible 4 winters (despite numerous visits probably nudging in to the 20s!!) I finally saw them for the first time last January off Pensarn.

This weekend as the weather was gloriously sunny (perfect for scoter searching) I made a return trip – this time to Old Colwyn where the reports suggested the birds had been spotted earlier that morning.

Ranging across Llandulas, Pensarn and Old Colwyn, it is always useful to know beforehand where the birds are favouring. Whereas last year they were mostly spotted off Pensarn near to the café, this year the birds seemed to have switched preferences to nearby Old Colwyn, where the majority of the reports have come from this winter.

Used to spending several cold hours staring out to sea in search of them, after around 5 or 10 minutes I couldn’t believe it when I actually picked one out! In one of the more distant flocks, the perfect spring sun made the distinctive white patch on the back of the head and brightly coloured bill literally stand out a mile away. Alex later spotted the second drake a little closer in, and eventually the two came together – a pair of white blobs clearly visible amongst a sea of thousands of all-black Common Scoters.
Surf Scoter, Old Colwyn
My phone scoped scoter!
Finding 2 Surf Scoters amongst a flock of thousands upon thousands of Common Scoters may seem daunting, but it is the large white patch on the back of the head and a second white patch where the bill is (sometimes they are too distant to make out the yellow and orange colouration) that gives them away.
Surf Scoter, Old Colwyn
The white on the back of the head is clearly visible even at a distance
The light was absolutely perfect for seawatching and by timing it with an exceptionally high tide at midday with a flat calm sea and no wind, I couldn’t have asked for more ideal conditions. Several Velvet Scoters were also in some of the closer rafts – the yellow lower bill and even the white around the eye of the drakes visible through the scope! One in particular seemed very active – flying from raft to raft and proudly displaying the gorgeous bold white squares on the wings as he flew.
Velvet Scoter, Old Colwyn
The white eye and yellow bill of the velvet (third from the right) can just be made out in Alex's picture
Velvet Scoter, Old Colwyn
The structural differences between the Velvet and Commons is also obvious
It’s definitely worth waiting for the ideal day to come along, as this makes it so much easier to spot the Surfs in the good light as opposed to fruitlessly scanning a choppy sea in gloomy weather. When all the birds are constantly bobbing behind the waves it can soon turn in to an absolute nightmare!

The birds will soon be leaving the wintering grounds along the North Wales coast to head to their breeding grounds, and with up to 7 drakes spotted this year, they must surely be breeding somewhere in Europe along with the many thousands of Commons. Fingers crossed they all return next year – who knows, they may even reach double figures!

To view from the Rainbow Bridge at Old Colwyn, park next to the small playground on Glan-Y-Mor Road (LL29 9AY) and follow the path to the right towards the sea and past the cliffs. Go over the large bridge that crosses the A55 road and find a good vantage point on the rocks near the small stone hut. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Lapland Bunting showing well at Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey

The Lapland Bunting at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey had been showing really well for several days last week, so me and Alex decided to take a trip across to try and catch up with this confiding individual. Having seen a group of Lapland Buntings on the Great Orme in Llandudno a few autumns prior, but with them often staying quite hidden in the grass, I was keen to drop in on this particular bird as it had been allowing views of just a few feet away.

Sure enough, after a short wait, the bird flew in from the east and began feeding on the sprinkling of seed that remained on the path, allowing truly amazing views at just a metre away and providing some fantastic photo opportunities!
Lapland Bunting, Anglesey

Lapland Bunting, Anglesey

Lapland Bunting, Anglesey

Lapland Bunting, Anglesey
This individual was particularly great to see as it was nearing breeding plumage – being far more bright and colourful than the autumn birds I’ve seen before with the bold black markings on the chest and the gorgeous rustic reds on the neck really standing out.
Lapland Bunting, Anglesey

Lapland Bunting, Anglesey

Lapland Bunting, Anglesey
It was great to finally catch up with a Lapland Bunting at Cemlyn, after dipping a small flock that frequented the area nearly 4 years ago, with just some Barnacle Geese in one of the fields for consolation!
Lapland Bunting, Anglesey


Lapland Bunting, Anglesey
For anyone going, (it was still reported up to Tuesday) the bird is just a short walk from the car park near to the tern viewing area, a few metres up on the track that heads north and towards the sea.  It seems to favour the grassy patch and section of footpath near the old tumbling down buildings, just where the path turns left next to the wall by the fields. 
Lapland Bunting, Anglesey


Friday, 13 March 2015

Serins at Gunner's Park - Essex

With the Lady Amherst’s Pheasants wrapped up by half 10 and the Essex Serins at Gunner’s Park being just an hour and a half away from Bedford, after a quick pit stop back at the hotel we were soon on our way!

Arriving at Gunner’s Park car park, I immediately clocked on to a group of birders with scopes and cameras  at the far end – clearly the Serins were nearby. Joining the group, they told us the pair had just flown in to a weedy scrubby patch of grass and were still presumably in there – they hadn’t been seen to fly away so it was just a matter or waiting and watching for them to appear.


Looking desperately for a few minutes, the birds remained hidden in the grass – were they still there even? Then, suddenly, one popped up on a dead plant in front of us, actively foraging amongst the seed. 

Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex

Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex
It gave good views before taking off high and flying round in a circle, later relocated in one of the alder trees surrounding the large pond. We followed the Serins for a good hour in the early afternoon sunshine, the birds returning to their favoured patch of grass at the far end of the car park by the houses, feeding amongst the grass and weeds and happily tolerating their many admirers.
Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex

Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex

Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex
It was great to catch up with these two birds, the 4 hour journey from Cheshire was just a little bit too far for me, but with the time cut down to under 2 hours from Bedfordshire, it was the ideal opportunity. Serins are always a bird that I’ve struggled to catch up with nearby – a brief report of one from the Wirral a couple of years ago was the closest near me, and the vast majority reported are often flyovers. It’s really unusual to get such a twitcher-friendly bird providing such great views, especially a gorgeous male – let alone two! I’ve seen Serins before whilst in Spain, but even then we didn’t have as good views as the two in Essex provided.
Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex

Serin, Gunner's Park, Essex
Overshooting from Europe, we get a scattering of records a year, and it was great to seize the opportunity to finally see these two at Gunner’s Park. Present for over a month now, originally they proved difficult to catch up with when they first arrived, elusive and only present briefly before disappearing for hours at a time as they presumably headed off over the adjacent houses. However, they seem to have settled in to a reliable pattern now, favouring their little scrubby grass patch on the car park opposite the row of houses, as well as the trees surrounding the large pond at the far end. Easily identified by their bright yellow colouration and characteristic yellow rump, it would be well worth learning the call to latch on to any flyovers that might occur in the future!
The Serins were busy feeding the whole time
This was a great opportunity to really admire these birds up close and they seemed totally unfased by our presence – I’m really glad I made the journey down! 

Serins at Gunner's Park, Essex
A map showing the locations the Serins favour near the car park at Gunner's Park

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The last Lady Amherst's Pheasant in Bedfordshire

Saturday morning was one of those absolutely amazing birding experiences that you’ll never forget. One that will always stick in the mind. Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, In the wild. In Britain.

Having decided last year that in 2015 I was going to make Lady Amherst’s Pheasant my main target before it was too late and the species died out, I received news at the beginning of March that the male had been seen in its last remaining location in Bedfordshire.

With just one, possibly two males left in existence in the wild in the whole of the Western Palaearctic, let alone Britain, this species truly is the next Great Auk over here, destined to become extinct in Britain within the next few years. With 5 males known from 3 sites in Bedfordshire 7 years ago, their numbers have slowly dwindled, with no known surviving females.

Once a well established introduced species in Britain, found mainly in their strongholds of the Bedfordshire woodlands, Lady Amherst's Pheasants are now resigned to category C6 on the British list, reserved for former naturalised species whose populations are no longer considered to be self-sustaining or are now extinct. Interestingly, there was once a population local to me at Pentre Halkyn Cemetery in North Wales throughout the 80’s, with reports persisting there up until the mid 90’s and possibly even 2000, when sadly the population was thought to have died out.

Named after Sarah, countess of Amherst, her husband William was responsible for sending the first birds to London in the early 1800’s, and they were introduced here to the wild in around 1930. Shy and difficult to spot, the Lady Amherst's have a habit of staying hidden deep in the thick vegetation like their native counterparts in China, so we would be extremely lucky to catch a glimpse.

Staying overnight in Bedfordshire and arriving at dawn, it was a matter of waiting for the bird to appear (4 hours!) and at 10:00am one of our small group assembled at our chosen viewing spot on the path outside the fence exclaimed that the bird was showing. Having literally just picked up my rucksack and deciding to head off, I couldn’t believe it! With a rush of excitement, I immediately checked through my bins, and sure enough, there he was. He was there. I took a look through the scope to see the gorgeous male in full view in the grass in front of us. I hardly dared breathe, let alone move – the 4 Common Pheasants we had seen that morning got spooked and fled immediately as soon as anyone took a step.

Lady Amhersts Pheasant, Bedfordshire
Holding a phone in one hand trying to ring someone does not make for taking good photos! Still, it is my very own picture, showing a Lady Amherst, in the wild, in Britain :)
The gorgeous white belly and dark green iridescent and black tinged chest were magnificent to look at, the stylish white and black pattered neck a sight truly to behold. The bird looked quite nervous, despite us being relatively far away and concealed by the surrounding foliage, almost retreating back in to the undergrowth at one point, before he ventured out in to the open, displaying his absolutely magnificent tail for all to admire – the black and white stripes looking truly spectacular.

Almost as quickly as he arrived, he headed to the middle of the track – clear to everyone he was about to flee. A brief pause on the top of the hill, and there was a magical moment when the strong winds caught the tail feathers, flaring them up to frame the body and blowing in the wind to create a gorgeous display, the fiery yellows, golds and reds amongst the tail a kaleidoscope of colour around our black and white wonder.

Then, just like that, he was gone. Almost certainly never to be seen again by me in my lifetime. I will always remember that magnificent view - that brief moment when he paused on the hill – absolutely stunning.


Whilst some may scorn and regard the Lady Amherst’s with contempt almost, for me this was one of the best birding moments I’ve had, the sheer elation I felt when seeing him was unparalleled. In Britain, at least, he is truly the last of his kind, and that is something very special to witness indeed. 

Weekend Birding

Having wanted to call in and see the local Long-eared Owl at Burton Mere and the Red-throated Diver up at Fairhaven Lake since they both arrived, but not having a free weekend to do so with trips to Paris, Cardiff and Cornwall, I finally got the chance to see them both this weekend as I had a little bit of free time on my hands.

On arriving at Fairhaven Lake on the Saturday morning, I quickly spotted the Red-throated Diver sitting on the water outside the café, positioned in between the island and the bank, so made my way across to get some photos and a closer view. The bird showed really well, with the beautiful speckled plumage on the back and even the bright red eye visible – amazing up close views and details that you just wouldn’t see out on the sea. 
Red-throated Diver, Fairhaven Lake
I was really keen to see this bird as I always think it’s great to get good views of a species in order to really admire the features up close and see the finer details that distant views just don’t provide. I also find that these individuals stick in the memory far more than those that are far away with relatively poor views achieved.
Red-throated Diver, Fairhaven Lake

Red-throated Diver, Fairhaven Lake
Red-throated Diver is also a species that I’ve only ever seen on the sea off North Wales and at a distance before, so I was glad I took the trip up – I wouldn’t normally get these types of views and Red-throated Divers aren’t recorded inland as frequently as Great Northern or Black Throated are. With amazing views of a Great Northern Diver on Rhyl Marine Lake a few years ago feeding just a couple of metres away, I now only need great up-close views of Black Throated (and Pacific if another reservoir bird is found!) to complete the set.
Red-throated Diver, Fairhaven Lake

Red-throated Diver, Fairhaven Lake

After discovering a Black Redstart had been present on a street in Newton-le-Willows for a good week or so, and with this being just off the M6 on the way back, I called in on the way home to see if it was showing. The bird has been favouring Brookfield Street (post code WA12 9QN), in particular house 4, where it can be seen on the crown shaped chimney pot and adjoining roof – although the bird does sometimes range all along the street. However, it tends to be seen most often on the houses nearest the main road.

After walking the length of Brookfield Street and the adjacent    Street, the owner of house 4 kindly unlocked the gate to the alleyway behind the houses for me to check along – a good spot where the bird is most often seen. I checked all the houses for a good ten minutes, but no sign – until I turned around to leave through the gate only to see the bird happily perched on the roof of the building opposite! Success! I crossed over the road to get better views and the bird hopped on to the chimneys, flicking its tail in that characteristic Redstart manner! 
Black Redstart
Sunday brought with it considerable showers, but this didn’t stop me from enjoying amazingly close views of the juvenile Iceland Gull that has been hanging around Pensarn beach for the last week or so. 
Iceland Gull - Pensarn

Iceland Gull - Pensarn

Iceland Gull - Pensarn
Ranging on the pebbly shore along the seafront and around the small car park, I was lucky to get the bird on the sand, coming too close for my lens at one point as it enjoyed scoffing bread left by its admirers.
Iceland Gull - Pensarn

Iceland Gull - Pensarn

Iceland Gull - Pensarn
stop at Burton Mere Wetlands in the afternoon saw me FINALLY catch up with the Long-eared Owl, showing quite well in a thick, scraggly Hawthorn tree to the right of the bridge near Inner Marsh Farm, having moved further down the path away from the hide and towards the bridge than its previous roost spots. 
Long-eared Owl, Burton Mere

Long-eared Owl, Burton Mere
Relatively out in the open, it was great to watch this little chap winking at us as he sat calmly on his branch – probably fully aware of his admirers! Thanks to Alex for coming along on the Sunday even though he'd seen the birds already!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Pacific Diver in Marazion

As we had a whole weekend free after visiting the Little Bunting, me and Alex decided to head back down to Cornwall to try and spot the Pacific Diver that overwinters around Mounts Bay near Marazion each year.

Pacific Divers have only recently been split from the near-related Black-throated Divers, and with only 8 accepted records for the UK, is a real mega. There were no accepted records in the UK or Europe even prior to 2007, but early that year 3 different individuals were identified, a first winter inland at Farnham Gravel-pits in Yorkshire from the 12th January to the 4th February, another first winter on the Llys-y-fran Reservoir in Pembrokeshire from the 2nd Feb to the 20th March, and this adult bird in Mount’s Bay, Penzance which first arrived on the 17th February. What caused this mini influx is unknown, although the fact that the species became wider known to birders, with more people aware of the ID features, may have contributed to the 2 other birds being found and subsequently IDed that very same winter.

Remarkably this is the 9th winter the Marazion bird has been back, although vagrant Pacific Divers do seem to show a tendency for remaining faithful to a site, as incredibly the Llys-y-fran bird returned again in the Februarys of both 2008 and 2009! Who knows how long the Cornwall bird will continue coming back for, although it has been showing far more regularly and reliably this winter than in previous years.

St Michael's Mount, Marazion
A view of St Michael's Mount from the Station Car Park
On arriving at the Station Car Park, we soon picked up several close in Great Northern Divers, but after determining the Pacific wasn’t anywhere near this car park, we adopted a different strategy to our first visit and decided to make our way along the bay, stopping off at various points. We headed over to Penzance, viewing from the road, where another GN was picked up along with a Black-throated not too far away in front of the rocks – the white diagnostic flank patch visible even at a distance. 2 Eiders fishing near the marina were nice to see, as were a pair of Gannets diving just off shore.

Deciding the best point to view from would be Long Rock Car Park itself, especially as that was where all the reports had been coming from lately, we the headed that way – managing to find it this time tucked away over a level crossing down one of the small lanes (on our last visit we just viewed from the Station Car Park, unaware of this better viewing point).  With just a few Great Northerns hanging around, there was still no sign of the Pacific, having last been reported at 10:30am that morning. Several other birders turned up as it neared to high tide, including the birder that had reported it this morning, but with still no sign we decided to head back round to Penzance and check the Jubilee Pool area. With no luck there, we returned to Longrock for one last check before the light faded, and joined the birder who had seen it that morning.

Alex spotted a different looking diver relatively far out beyond the rocks and as we got our scopes on the bird it was clear to see it wasn’t a Great Northern – structurally different with an exceptionally dark back, rounded head, and a clear, bright white contrasting throat and chest. The black line along the throat was also solid – no white collar indentations or dark curves around the neck. As divers tend to have a habit of doing as their name suggests, we were lucky that this one was busy preening, allowing us to really study the features. Despite the distance, our bird was clearly visible above the water, and the absence of the white flank patch that would otherwise indicate a Black-throated was apparent from all angles – the bird was a solid black colour all over down to the waterline. It had to be the Pacific. The man who had seen it earlier was also confident that this was the bird that he had seen this morning, and with it being way to far to determine a definite chinstrap, the absence of the white flank patch clinched the ID for me.

Sadly the light faded at this point, rendering viewing much harder (especially in my scope!) and we watched in dimming light until the bird eventually took off from the water and flew out far to sea – presumably to roost.

On our previous visit we had encountered a similar looking diver at very close range, and on seeing the bird again it was now clear that it was the same that we had been watching 2 weeks earlier. On our first visit we just weren’t armed with enough knowledge on the ID, and actually talked ourselves out of it being the Pacific back in the hotel! Having never seen one before and being alone with no one else to confirm, we just weren’t 100% confident on the ID to add it to our lists.


This brilliant video taken by Mark Hipkin in November 2014 was really useful in getting to know how the Pacific Diver would look in the field.

A lone diver’s proportions and size is always difficult to assess when it’s on its own with no other birds to compare it to, although the much smaller size (at one point I exclaimed it was nearer GC Grebe size) and the much shorter, stubbier bill that we noted should have told us it was the Pacific that we were watching and not a GN diver or BT, especially as there was a clear absence of a white flank patch.

It just goes to show that a little bit of research, knowledge and ID insights can go a long way (my excuse is that Pacific isn’t well document in my Collins!) and that you really need to know what you’re looking for in the field (as demonstrated on our first visit, when a couple were adamant that a young GN diver was the Pacific over and over again!). Having only ever seen one Black-throated Diver before (extremely distantly at Carsington Water, where it was the only diver present) I also wasn’t familiar or experienced enough with the structure of smaller divers in the field – another point that meant I just wasn’t 100% sure what we were looking at on our first visit. I always like to be 100% sure of a bird’s ID myself before I add it to my list, so I’m really glad we made the huge effort to come back to Cornwall in order to be fully sure that we had indeed seen the Pacific Diver.


For anyone looking to visit, the best vantage points can be seen on the map below. 

Pacific Diver Marazion Map

Pacific Diver Marazion Map
We saw the diver at points 1 and 3, and it apparently favours the area around the rocks (2)

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