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, 30 June 2015

Southern Spain Trip Report - Day 2

Day 2 - Wednesday 13th August

The second day saw us head south to the fantastic Rock of Gibraltar to take in the sights and see what birds and other wildlife may be on offer on this well-known British Oversees territory. Waking up relatively early, I was greeted by an absolutely amazing sight out of the apartment window of thousands of Black Kites drifting effortlessly on the air currents and beginning their migration south – sure to filter through to Gibraltar later on in the day. With the sky filled with Kites at eye level due to our height in the apartment, it was truly breath-taking to watch – a definite highlight of the trip.

Driving down to Gibraltar and heading for the lighthouse on the southernmost tip at Europa Point, we scanned the gorgeous periwinkle blue waves for any seabirds that might have been patrolling over the ocean. Several stunning summer plumaged Audouin’s Gulls drifted overhead as we watched, their bright blood red bills clear to see as they passed. Not a lifer for neither Chris nor Alex but one for myself, I was exceptionally glad to catch up with this species, as I was unsure if we would see any on the trip. 
Europa Point - Gibraltar
Europa Point lighthouse
With a complete lack of Shearwaters and other pelagic species, we headed round the corner to view the rock itself. A migration hotspot, Black Kites in groups of hundreds at a time steadily rose on the thermals, a constant presence in the skies above us and fantastic to see. Still a touch early for the true spectacle of autumn migration, a few weeks later buzzards, eagles, raptors and storks would all be passing here in their hundreds and thousands - at present we were merely touching on the very start of migration. A small kestrel perched on the side of the huge rock itself was just a bit too distant to firmly nail as a Lesser Kestrel, and like the majority seen on our trip, was frustratingly yet another female!
Black Kite - Gibraltar
Black Kite flying over the point
Rock of Gibraltar
A trip to Gibraltar wouldn’t be complete without stopping off to admire the iconic monkeys that live on the rock, and several individuals were happy to oblige and have photos taken with us.
Monkey - Gibraltar
Monkeys at Gibraltar
Monkeys at Gibraltar
Bitey monkey going in for the kill....
We decided to venture up to the top of Gibraltar and explore, seeing what the Nature Reserve had to offer. Heading up the steep slopes we encountered a number of gorgeous butterflies, including a very showy and photogenic Two-tailed Pasha, reminiscent of the captive bred insects found in the butterfly Jungles I used to love.
Two-tailed Pasha - Gibraltar
Two-tailed Pasha
The view of Gibraltar down below
Approaching the summit, we were pleased to see a large gathering of swifts directly overhead, our height on the mountain meaning they were considerably lower down than they usually would be and consequently flying right over our heads. One much larger than the others zoomed between the rocks – a second Alpine Swift – that large white belly and huge wings unmistakeable as it passed overhead on several occasions, happily providing much better views than the brief encounter on the first day. Several more Pallid Swifts darted above us, whilst the continued presence of the ongoing raptor migration was felt with an absolutely huge gathering of Black Kites slowly drifting overhead, with a possible Honey Buzzard trying to go unnoticed amongst them.
Rock of Gibraltar
Black Kites - Gibraltar
Black Kite migration
Heading back to the hotel ready for an early start tomorrow in search of Red-necked Nightjars, we tucked in to a nice Japanese meal after enjoying a poolside paradise that was apparently part of a private golf club resort! Hopefully nobody noticed....
Southern Spain

Monday, 29 June 2015

Southern Spain Trip Report Day 1

Day 1 - Tuesday 12th August 2014

Arriving at Malaga airport extremely late on the evening of the 11th August, Chris Alex and myself headed straight for our hotel for a good night’s sleep ready to depart bright and early the next morning. With the hire car picked up we were soon well on our way to begin tracking down our first major target of the trip – the rare and localised White-rumped Swift. Our main target for the week, Southern Spain is the only breeding location in Europe for these enigmatic aerial acrobats.

A large flock of swifts circling at the side of the road provided our first Pallid Swifts of the trip, artfully weaving through the air in pursuit of the abundance of insects enjoying the warm weather. Taking in my first ever views of Pallids, the cry soon went up of “Alpine Swift!” A huge swift with a bright white belly was hurtling through the flock, darting over our heads and away over the trees and we had excellent but all too brief views of this super-sized swift. Alpine swift was actually one of my most wanted birds for the trip, and I was especially pleased to have connected so soon on our journey – hopefully our first day would prove to be a “three swift day”! 

Carrying on in to the small village of Jimena de la Frontera, Alex thought he spotted a Spanish Sparrow on one of the railings lining the terracotta coloured houses, catching a brief glimpse as we drove by. There was was no time to stop however (even though this would be a lifer for me!) and I was told that we’d see plenty of Spanish Sparrows on the trip (we didn’t!!) so we carried on our way and in to the scenic Spanish countryside.

Stopping at a small river, the extreme heat of the Southern Spanish summer was apparent (the water had practically dried up) and we regularly reached temperatures nearing 40 degrees throughout the trip – it was impossible to stay out in the harsh sun for too long. Several Crag Martins zoomed by at eye level, nesting in the shade underneath the bridge, whilst a group of Terrapins sunbathed in the shallow water below, evidently loving the sun’s rays!
Terrapin - Spain
Terrapin sunbathing!
There was disappointingly no sign of any White-rumped Swifts in the area, although a female Golden Oriole picked up by Chris and Alex was a nice consolation. 

Getting lost and disorientated down an extremely narrow track (that soon turned in to a surface so potholed and boulder strewn it was like driving on an actual mountain) we had flashbacks of our first hire car’s destruction on our previous trip to Spain, so carefully manoeuvred down the track ensuring the tyres didn’t come off worse for wares. After such careful driving by Alex, it was a bit of a slap in the face to subsequently realise the track was in fact a dead end and that we would somehow have to do a 3 point turn and do it all again to get back to the main road!!
Castellar de la Frontera - Spain
Our second site of Castellar de la Frontera also proved fruitless, with more Pallid and Common Swifts darting around the top of the mountainside, so we headed over to Alcaidesa near San Roque, where our apartment for the next few days was based and conveniently where White-rumped Swifts using the pond opposite to drink were reported just a few days earlier.
Castellar de la Frontera - Spain
Sadly there were no White-rumped Swifts at Castellar de la Frontera
Approaching the area we were greeted by a tremendous swift flock, with hundreds of birds making the most of the afternoon bonanza of flies to feast upon.

A large flock of migrating Black Kites were visible in the distance taking advantage of a thermal, while a small Gecko scurried in and out of the bark in one of the ornamental palm trees lining the road. A showy male Sardinian Warbler serenaded us from a nearby bush, hopping between the branches, his scratchy song carrying on the sunny breeze, whilst cicadas chirruped noisily from the vegetation.
Alcaidesa - Spain
Alcaidesa Golf Resort where the swifts were flying over
Turning our attention to the swifts, the previously distant flock moved ever closer, and after around half an hour eagle-eyed Chris shouted out that he’d got one! In a flock of hundreds of fast moving swifts, getting us all on the White-rumped Swift may have proved a challenge in itself, but despite the trees and the swift being quite distant, both me and Alex managed to pick up the bird in question, the white rump clearly visible and its sheer size and wing length making it stand out from the accompanying House Martins.

With the flock heading closer still, we waited, and miraculously just a few metres above us and directly in front, me and Chris picked up the White-rumped, showing fantastically well and providing exceptional views! Calling Alex over, all 3 of us watched the bird zooming around until it became lost amongst the many hundreds of hirundines in the flock. 

Ecstatic that it was mission success on the swift front, we headed back to the apartment happy, where a Night Heron quietly searching for its evening supper on the pool opposite was a nice end to the day before bed. 
Alcaidesa - Spain

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Coralroot Orchids - Sandscale Haws, Cumbria

Having previously travelled to Sandscale Haws in Cumbria a few years back in search of Coralroot Orchids but unfortunately drawing a blank and failing to find any in the extensive dune system, I was determined to finally catch up with my ‘nemesis orchid’ this year upon hearing they were having one of the best flowering seasons at the site in over 20 years.

With none recorded in 2013 and just 177 plants counted in 2014, this year’s showing of over 1000 plants was reminiscent of the huge numbers found in the late 80s and early 90s, and meant I had the best chance in several years of finding them.

Luckily, the warden was on site at the car park when we arrived, and after explaining the reason for visiting, he kindly drove us up the beach and to the slacks the Coralroots were growing in – success was guaranteed this time around! After a short ten minute walk through the dune system we had arrived, and sure enough I spotted a small yellow flower nestled amongst the Creeping Willow next to his boot – my first Coralroot Orchid!
Coralroot Orchid - Sandscale Haws, Cumbria
Coralroot Orchid - Sandscale Haws, Cumbria
With the orchids scattered all around the adjacent area amongst the dune vegetation, the warden led us to the flowers that were still in pristine condition (a trip to New York during the peak of flowering meant this was the earliest opportunity to go, with several plants now edging past their best) and left us to admire the colony in all its glory.
Coralroot Orchid - Sandscale Haws, Cumbria
Distributed over a northerly range in the UK, Coralroot Orchids can be found across Scotland and in several colonies in the north of England, although most populations are thought to be relatively small (Sandscale Haws being one of the most popular along with Gosforth Park in Northumberland).

Found in the dune habitat at Sandscale as opposed to woodland and tending to favour the younger and wetter slacks with short vegetation, Coralroot Orchids can soon get overcrowded by the other vegetation here. Grazing and habitat management are therefore critical for this population’s survival, as sadly the dunes are no longer mobile enough to create the new areas of pioneer dune slacks the orchids would naturally colonise after their current slacks age and become unsuitable.
Sandscale Haws - Cumrbia
The slack where the Coralroots were favouring
Sandscale Haws - Cumbria
Creeping Willow plays an important role in Coralroot growth, with the orchid forming a symbiotic relationship with this species in order to survive.
Just 5-14cm tall and with small, dainty white and yellow flowers measuring just 5mm across, Coralroot Orchids are extremely hard to spot unless you get your eye in! Without knowing the exact slacks they grew in a few years ago, it was clear to see how I never quite managed to find them last time around in the absolute maze of dune systems at Sandscale!
Coralroot Orchid - Sandscale Haws, Cumbria
A small in-situ shot from my phone where the surrounding Creeping Willow is obvious
With a variety of other coastal plants and a soundtrack of singing pipits and skylarks, it was a great morning where thankfully the rainclouds that were threatening to break held off and the sun shone throughout! Here’s hoping that the Coralroots have another bumper season in 2016 and continue to thrive here for years to come!
Coralroot Orchid - Sandscale Haws, Cumbria

Monday, 22 June 2015

Melodious Warbler in the Midlands

With the Cretzschmar’s Bunting on Bardsey taking over Sunday and meaning I didn’t get a chance to visit the singing Melodious Warbler that was in the West Midlands at the weekend like planned, I decided to go straight after work on the Monday. Having been present for 5 days already and still singing happily in the same corner of trees since its arrival, I was confident to connect after the short 1 and a ½ hour journey down the motorway.

Walking down the bridleway from the A452 I could hear the fluid song emanating from its favoured tree from several metres away down the path, and joining the assembled 5 or so birders already present we soon locked on to the warbler perched near the top of the tree, partially obscured by the foliage.

The Melodious thankfully showed really well right out in the open on several occasions, at one point even feeding in the gorse bush in front of the fence just a few feet away from where I was standing and offering excellent views, with the huge orange bill particularly striking. Quite a showy individual, it spend its time between the favoured corner tree, a line of small oak trees towards the back of the area and a small holly bush on the opposite side of the path, and we watched for a good hour as it flitted between perches and lived up to its name with frequent bursts of melodious song that serenaded us as we stood.
Melodious Warbler - West Midlands
Melodious Warbler - West Midlands
Looking in to the sun made photographing it quite tricky
Melodious Warbler - West Midlands

Originating from south western Europe, the song can be a very helpful identifying feature (as in this case), although non-singing autumn individuals can be a little tricky, with the lack of pale fringes to the greater coverts and short primary projection separating it from the very similar Icterine warbler.
Melodious Warbler - West Midlands
The thick orange bill is really clear to see
Melodious Warbler - West Midlands
Now coming up to a stay of 2 weeks and still favouring the same small patch of trees on the bridleway, this is a great bird to catch up with, especially being so close to home and not having to travel several hours to the coast as is often the case with this species!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Cretzschmar's Bunting at Bardsey delights the crowds!

First spotted on a Wednesday morning by a sharp eyed visitor (who originally thought it was an Ortolan before realising the true magnitude of the find) and with only a brief sighting two days later at Friday lunchtime, it seemed unlikely that many would be able to connect with the Cretzschmar’s Bunting that was teasing birders on Bardsey Island in Wales. With boat loads drawing a blank for the rest of Friday and with no sign at all on the Saturday, it seemed the likely option that this mega Bunting had slipped through the net and departed.

It came as some surprise therefore when I awoke early on Sunday morning to see a report had just come on that the bird had been seen again that morning at the lighthouse compound – on several occasions. With a second message confirming that it had returned to the same spot 5 times that morning and had even been singing, I made a quick on the spot decision that this (like the recent Citril Finch) was a bird not to be missed and managed to persuade Alex that we needed to at least try our luck – he who dares wins after all….

After a 3 hour journey and arriving 15 minutes before the first scheduled boat departure, I was expecting a mass of birders to greet us at the boat platform with all the places already taken – therefore it was a bit of a shock when the ramp leading to the sea was completely deserted and there were just 7 other birders waiting in the boat! Everyone had either clearly been put off by the fact the bird had so far been extremely unreliable during its stay, or the first come first serve basis of the crossings had deterred them!

Either way, half an hour later we had landed on the beautiful Bardsey Island, departing amongst Grey Seals and seabirds and ready to make the short ten minute walk through the carpet of wild flowers and up the lighthouse compound where the bird had been favouring. 
Bardsey Island, Wales
Joining a small nervous crowd who hadn’t yet connected and with seed now having been laid down on the paving slabs that morning by the observatory staff, we were told the bunting had flown in to a small patch of clover and flowers to the left hand side of the wall -  and as of yet hadn’t been seen to exit. However, after ¾ of an hour anxiously waiting for the bird to reveal itself but with no sign at all, it began to cross my mind that our bunting may indeed have slipped away unnoticed.
Bardsey Island Lighthouse, Wales
The lighthouse compound where the bird was favouring
A small brown bird flitting down from the lighthouse suddenly caught my eye, and raising my bins I was greeted with the stunning male Cretzschmar’s! The gorgeous slate grey head was clear to see, as were the rusty orange underparts, moustache and throat patch- much darker in colouration than the similar Ortolan. Getting all those assembled on it, we enjoyed excellent but brief views as it fed amongst the Sea Thrift, hopping between the paving stones for several minutes before flying off around the corner of the lighthouse building and out of sight!
Cretzschmar's Bunting - Bardsey Island, Wales
Relieved and elated at being the first boatload to successfully twitch the bunting, we enjoyed views once again half an hour later when the second boat arrived, and it soon became clear that it was following a pattern of feeding on the seed for 2-3 minutes before disappearing for 60-90 minutes at a time.
Cretzschmar's Bunting - Bardsey Island, Wales
Cretzschmar's Bunting - Bardsey Island, Wales
With the bunting vanishing towards the inaccessible area of the lighthouse once again, we headed over to the observatory to take a look around the island before our scheduled boat departed. Several Chough were busy feeding on the turf offering excellent views, whilst Manx Shearwaters cruised past on the distant waves as Peregrine Falcons patrolled the cliffs.

An absolutely stunning location in the glorious summer weather, Bardsey was a fantastic place to spend a sunny afternoon, and a huge thanks must go out to the brilliant staff there who put in so many hours relocating the bunting after it did its disappearing act (it was first seen at the other end of the island) and subsequently managing to get so many birders to connect in what has been a really well organised twitch.
Happy twitcher
Someone was happy to connect
Bardsey Island, WalesOnly the 6th record for Britain ever, this has solely been a Shetland/Orkney bird before now, meaning this accessible individual (once pinned down) was extremely welcome for many! With half of all records occurring in the last 7 years and with another bird currently present in Finland, it may yet become a more frequent visitor to the UK over the years.

Since the Sunday, every boatload of birders appears to have connected and this is down to the hard work by everyone at the observatory coupled with Colin the boatman’s efforts in getting everyone across. Still present and into its 10th day (closing in on the record 11 day stay by the very first Fair Isle bird in 1967) it is likely that this individual will continue to wow the crowds and draw people to visit this fantastic island for days to come!
Bardsey Island, Wales

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Black-eared Wheatear and Hudsonian Whimbrel make for a mega Saturday!

Having to work on a Saturday for one of only around 3 times during the whole year, and with June having a habit of throwing up monster birds (Short-toed Eagle anyone) a mega was bound to turn up, and sure enough, news came out of only the 9th Hudsonian Whimbrel down in West Sussex on the Tuesday, swiftly followed by a Cretzschmar’s Bunting spotted at Bardsey bird observatory in Wales on the Wednesday! Nightmare! With a blank on Thursday, only a brief sighting of the bunting again at Friday lunchtime and with limited boats making the crossing, the Whimbrel seemed the best option – that is until a Black-eared Wheatear was discovered at Acres Down in the New Forest late on Saturday morning! Could this get any worse!!

Deciding the Wheatear was a more pressing matter due to the fact that the Whimbrel seemed settled and was already well in to its 5th day, we made the 3 and a bit hours drive down to the beautiful New Forest on Saturday afternoon. Arriving at the site and negotiating through the forest and heathland landscape, we immediately locked on to this gorgeous eastern vagrant at the opposite end of the field, flitting from tree trunk to fence post and back again, busily hovering and feeding on the clear abundance of insects present.
Black-eared Wheatear, Acres Down, New Forest - Hampshire
Record shot at distance of the Wheatear
Black-eared Wheatear, Acres Down, New Forest - Hampshire
With beautiful contrasting black and white colouration, this was a completely different plumage to the Black-eared Wheatears we had seen in northern Spain last April, with a complete absence of any orange or russet tones to the breast and neck.
Black-eared Wheatear, Spain
The western race of Black-eared Wheatear that we saw in Spain
Even though there have been 58 accepted records of Black-eared Wheatears in Britain, this has been the first twitchable mainland record since the 2002 10 day bird in Cornwall, with significantly fewer records since the new millennium. Originating from the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey, this form is a potential future split, with the last record of an eastern race being a male on Scilly back in 2009.
Black-eared Wheatear, Acres Down, New Forest - Hampshire
Black-eared Wheatear, Acres Down, New Forest - Hampshire
The lack of a thick black tail band is obvious in flight
Looking extremely out of place from its more usual rocky habitats and busy feeding up through the evening, it came as no surprise when the reports came out of no sign the next morning, and with an eastern individual recorded in Holland as the 4th Dutch record just 4 days later, it is more than likely the same bird, miraculously re-found nearly 300 miles away!

With the Husonian Whimbrel only an hour away, we carried on towards West Sussex, and after finding the small car park at Church Norton near Pagham Harbour, we made our way through the churchyard and along the trail to the mudflats.
Pagham Harbour, West Sussex
The Hudsonian Whimbrel was (although distant) immediately on show, and thankfully flew closer towards us as soon as we got our scopes on it, demonstrating the cinnamon coloured underwings and the distinctive lack of a white wedge on the rump - the main features that distinguish this American race of Whimbrel from our own. 
Hudsonian Whimbrel - West Sussex
Record shot of the Hudsonian Whimbrel
Only very recently split by the BOU in 2011, this is only the second record in the five years since the decision was made, with another bird present on Shetland for 3 days back in 2013. Whilst there is some debate as to whether the two should indeed by separated (it is not recognised as distinct species by the IOC) and whether they will be lumped back together in the future, it was still great to observe the differences from our own European birds first hand in the field.
Hudsonian Whimbrel - West Sussex
Hudsonian Whimbrel - West Sussex
Feeding amongst the salt marsh grass, the longer bill and paler and more well defined head were both clear as it fed on various molluscs and crustaceans in the sand, the central crown stripe and supercilium standing out even at range. As the tide gradually crept higher and higher, we were treated to much better views as the rising water eventually became too much and the bird took flight – again giving away the diagnostic features of the darker underwing and plain brown rump.
Hudsonian Whimbrel - West Sussex
Record shots of the cinnamon coloured underwing
Hudsonian Whimbrel - West Sussex

Hudsonian Whimbrel - West Sussex
Clearly no white wedge on the rump
Still present and seeming settled, the bird may well choose to over-summer here now (like the Greater Yellowlegs seems to be doing at Titchfield Haven) and as the Walney Island bird did in 2007, which remarkably stayed from mid-June to the end of August. Huge thanks to Alex who did an absolutely mammoth drive back to Cheshire at 2am, and with both Hudsonian Godwit and Hudsonian Whimbrel seen this year, 2015 is shaping up to be a truly fantastic year!

Pagham Harbour, West Sussex

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Little Terns at Gronant

Paying a visit to the fantastic Little Tern colony at Gronant earlier in June, upon arriving at the shingle nest site we were greeted by hundreds of these beautiful and dainty terns bombing through the sky, busily catching fish to bring back to their waiting chicks and mates. The only nesting colony nearby, it is well worth a visit during the late spring and summer months to watch them in action and admire these tiny wonders up close as they go about their business during the breeding season. 
Little Tern - Gronant, North Wales
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