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

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

Thursday, 21 January 2016

2015 Birding Round up!

2015 turned out to be a stonker of a year, with a number of fantastic birds not seen for decades successfully unblocked while several others that were only previously recorded on distant and far away islands finally made it to the mainland. It was also a year that included the inevitable misses, with the one day first for Britain Acadian Flycatcher a particular stinger, while the out of the way Isle of Lewis Wilson’s Warbler, the Scilly Great Blue Heron and the Orkney Chestnut Bunting all proved to be just a touch too far to travel. 

Both the Harlequin Duck and Hudsonian Godwit in the first half of the year were the first truly twitchable birds for 19 and 32 years respectively, both fantastic birds to see and with hopefully a nice healthy gap between the next records! 
Harlequin Duck - River Don, Aberdeenshire
Harlequin Duck on the River Don, Aberdeenshire (11th January 2015)
Hudsonian Godwit - Meare Heath, Somerset
Hudsonian Godwit at Meare Heath, Somerset (25th April 2015)
I also managed to see several notoriously hard to get birds during the course of the year, achieving great views of Serin, Penduline Tit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Red-throated Pipit. The latter in particular was a stunning male demonstrating the beautiful ‘red throated’ plumage, and while even though Blyth’s Reed can appear to be a dull brown job at the best of times, the excellent if brief views we got after working so hard to get just a glimpse of this elusive warbler over the course of two days in Norfolk transformed it in to something wonderful, proving that effort really does pay off.
Serin, Gunners Park, Essex
Serin at Gunners Park, Essex (7th March 2015)
Penduline Tit - Darts Farm RSPB, Devon
Penduline Tit at Darts Farm RSPB, Devon (21st March 2015)
Red-throated Pipit - Ludworth Moor, Derbyshire
Red-throated Pipit at Ludworth Moor in Derbyshire (3rd May 2015)
Not quite making it in to the top ten either were several species that showed amazingly well and exceptionally closely, with the Little Bunting and Ptarmigan especially coming to mind. The masses of Storm Petrels congregating around the boat at close quarters during the Scilly pelagics was also something not to be forgotten!

And so to the ten best birds of 2015….

Tenth place has to go to the New Year’s Day Little Bustard in Fraisthorpe, Yorkshire (now just a distant memory it seems like so long ago!). Making landfall on New Year’s Eve and remarkably being re-found in a kale field later that day after the initial flight view sighting, this mega bird ensured 2015 well and truly started with a bang! Being one of the biggest twitches I’ve been on in terms of the sheer numbers of birders present, the long line of legs and tripods stretching along the road was a testament to just how huge a bird this was in recent times, with the last twitchable record over 18 years ago back in 1996. Disappearing that night and with no sign on the 2nd January, everyone who made the effort and cancelled New Year’s Eve plans was rewarded with Little Bustard on their lists. An incredible bird (despite the fact it didn’t move and just sat munching in the kale field all morning) and a bird I had wanted to see for a good while! 
Little Bustard - Fraisthorpe, Yorkshire
The New Year's Day Little Bustard at Fraisthorpe (1st January 2015)

The Red-rumped Swallow at East Lane Park, Hull also makes it in to the top ten in 9th position, purely for the fact that before connecting with this bird, Red-rumped Swallow was a particular personal nemesis, having dipped at least 3 other individuals. Making it our mission to see one during Spring 2015 and with news coming out that the bird was still present at midday, we made a dash over to Hull and finally nailed our target. Sadly, a few days later, our bird fell victim to an opportunistic Hobby - a sad end to a truly fantastic bird that I was especially glad to finally catch up with! 
Red-rumped Swallow - East Lane Park, Hull
Red-rumped Swallow at East Lane Park, Hull (4th May 2015)

Coming in at 8th place was the Black Stork at Sunk Island, Yorkshire. First arriving at Spurn at the start of August and sticking in the area for several days, work and a trip to the Scilly Isles meant I wouldn’t be able to travel to Yorkshire for at least 3 weeks! Predictably, the bird moved on whilst I was on Scilly, but that was far from the end of the story... Towards the end of August, photos of the stork surfaced online with the bird having been re-found and seeming to favour an area of Sunk Island, an area just a few miles away from Spurn. Armed with gen as to its favourite roosting spot we set off, and after a day spent patrolling the nearby fields and staking out the ditch it supposedly roosted in, just as the light began to fade and we were beginning to give up, a large black figure came slowly in to view, creeping around the reedy corner towards us. The stork! Huge elation all round and a successful grip back against the odds!
Black Stork, Sunk Island, Yorkshire
Black Stork at Sunk Island, Yorkshire (29th August 2015)

7th place goes to the magnificent Capercaillies in Scotland, the first time I had seen this huge grouse and a species I was not too optimistic at finding during our Scottish trip. Anticipating it to be the hardest of our 3 target species to track down, we were both completely taken by surprise when we came across a fine male completely by luck (we were searching for Crested Tits!) and enjoyed great views as he came flying right past us, noisily crashing through the forest and away in to the trees. Absolutely amazing and completely unexpected! 
Capercaillie Poo - Scotland
Capercaillie Poo - Scotland (10th April 2015)

The Great Shearwaters from our Scilly Pelagic in August definitely deserve a spot in the top ten. Waiting until our last of three pelagics to put on an appearance, the whole boat was left in awe as one particular individual performed from us just metres away, at one point coming that close my lens couldn’t focus! Soaring on huge outstretched wings and making repeated trips around the boat, we were treated to a maritime show of extreme flight skills as this amazing bird cut through the air with such grace and speed. A ten minutes I will certainly never forget!
Great Shearwater - Isles of Scilly
Great Shearwater from our last Scilly Pelagic (10th August 2015)

July’s extremely showy and well photographed Red-footed Falcon that took up residence in Staffordshire was definitely a highlight of the year, and was possibly my quickest ever lifer on a twitch after seeing it perched on the grass as soon as I had got out of the car! Making two trips to see this charismatic and attractive falcon, (I couldn’t resist going back for seconds) we had fantastic views as the bird hovered just metres in front of us and foraged in the nearby grass. A true summer sizzler, it was therefore devastating to learn that the very same bird had been found illegally shot dead after relocating to Cambridgeshire in the autumn. An absolutely tragic end to a fantastic bird that had delighted thousands during its stay and a huge reminder that the illegal persecution of raptors in this country needs to be tackled head on and brought to a stop.
Red-footed Falcon - Chatterley, Staffordshire
Red-foooted Falcon in Chatterley, Staffordshire (12th July 2015)

On to the top four, and the Citril Finch in Norfolk definitely deserves a place among one of the best birds of last year. Completely out of the blue, Citril Finch has always been a strong contender for a bird I’d never thought would make it to the UK, being a sedentary and non-migratory species. However, come May 10th, news came out that morning that a Citril Finch had remarkably been seen flying amongst the dunes and pines at Holkham. A huge area, we were doubtful if the bird would stick around, but when further reports surfaced that it was still around and spurred on by the fact a certain Christopher Bridge was already half way there (the sneak!) I made the decision to risk it and drive the epic 4 hour journey to get me and Alex to Norfolk. Luckily everything went in our favour that day, with the reports coming out early enough to ensure we could get to Holkham for around 5pm, and the fact that the bird thankfully chose a Sunday to appear! A tense half hour treck to the edge of the pines later and we had our prize – a pristine male Citril Finch happily feeding amongst the sand. With just one previous record on Fair Isle back in June 2008, there is every chance a miracle may happen for all those that missed this one day wonder, although thankfully, we now won’t have to worry as to when that might be! 
Citril Finch - Holkham, Norfolk
Citril Finch! Holkham Pines, Nofolk (10th May 2015)

Another miracle bird of 2015 was of course the November Crag Martin that graced the skies of Chesterfield for over a week and delighted birders in their thousands. Having missed the 2014 Flamborough bird due to flying out to Spain that day (where we subsequently saw Crag Martins a plenty) I most definitely thought UK Crag Martin was one recent blocker that definitely wouldn’t be getting ‘unblocked’ for a number of years! Luckily, a certain Mediterranean hirundine had other ideas! 

After a rollercoaster week that consisted of dipping, the bird reappearing next morning (doh!) disappearing again, then remarkably getting re-found two days later, come Saturday morning I was feeling understandably tense! After what seemed like an age, and with everyone gathered full of despair at the prospect of dipping when it seemed like the bird was going to be a no show, I spotted an agile shape soaring towards us over the rooftops… the Crag Martin! Shouting out so everyone could get on to it, a huge collective cheer erupted around the car park with arms punching the air as ecstatic birders were relieved our hirundine superstar had finally made an appearance. An incredible moment and I don’t think I’ve ever been so overjoyed at spotting a bird! 
Crag Martin - Chesterfield, Derbyshire
The Chesterfield Crag Martin (14th November 2015)

If I had seen such American delights as the Acadian Flycatcher at Dungeness or the brightly coloured wonder that was the Western Isles Wilson’s Warbler, they would without doubt have taken the top two positions. However, my number 2 bird of 2015 was just as special and a worthy runner up, being a ‘non Shetland/Orkney’ first and making landfall on a beautiful island not too far away from home. It is of course, the Bardsey Island Cretzschmar’s Bunting. The stars aligned when it came to successfully twitching this incredible bird, and working on the Saturday proved to be a blessing in disguise when there was no sign of the Cretzschmar’s all day (and we were able to hurry off to the Black-eared Wheatear and Hudsonian Whimbrel down south after finishing). With news surfacing early on the Sunday morning that the Bunting was back, I decided we had to take our chances and try and get over to the island. Making it in time for the first boat and expecting to be greeted by a mass of birders looking for a place, we were therefore surprised to arrive to a completely deserted beach and just a handful of other people ready to set sail! Incredible! With news coming through that seed had been laid down and the bird was feeding in the lighthouse compound, I was quietly confident that we were about to pull off a spectacular twitch – everything was falling in to place. And so it did…. We got excellent views, being the first boat load to do so, and the first batch of many to successfully twitch this mega bunting. As the week progressed it felt incredibly good to be able to sit back and relax as the craziness unfolded – people sleeping overnight on the beach to ensure a place on the boat, boats being filled up for the day by the early am, twitchers chartering other boats to try and make landfall and a booking system in place where people eventually had to wait days for the next free slot! Being such a relaxed twitch where everything just fell perfectly, this beautiful mega on such stunning surroundings as Bardsey could only be beaten by one bird….. 
Cretzschmar's Bunting - Bardsey Island, Wales
The Bardsey Island Cretzschmar's Bunting (14th June 2015)

I have always loved a bit of myth, magic and mystery, so what better a bird to take the top spot for 2015 than the legendary Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. With rumours long circulating amongst birders that there was now just one male left at a secret site in Bedfordshire, I decided that this was a must see bird that I just had to try and get a glimpse of before the UK population died out completely.

And so, Saturday the 7th of March 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. After a 4 hour wait where I had literally just picked up my rucksack to leave, we got a shout that he was there. In full view on the grass just metres in front of us, was the majestic, one and only, Lady A. I hardly dared breathe. 

Almost as suddenly as he arrived, he headed to the middle of the track – clear to the 5 of us assembled behind the fence that he was about to flee. A brief pause on the top of the hill and there was a truly magical moment when the strong winds caught his tail feathers, flaring them up to frame his black and white body and blowing in the wind to create a gorgeous display of fiery yellows, reds and golds. I will always remember that magnificent view. 
Lady Amherst's Pheasant - Bedfordshire
The one and only Lady Amherst's Pheasant - Bedfordshire (7th March 2015)
While some may scorn and regard the Lady A with contempt almost for being ‘plastic’, for me this was one of the best birding moments I’ve had. The sheer elation I felt when seeing him was unparalleled, a secret world opened up almost. In Britain at least, he is truly the last of his kind, and that is something very special to witness indeed. 

My international (and probably overall best) bird of the year though was without doubt the Blackburnian Warbler from our New York trip back in the spring. After taking an age to get on the first bird Alex found in Central Park (panicking was an understatement!) we subsequently enjoyed amazing views of two individuals (or possibly the same bird relocating) in Prospect Park a day later. My favourite bird species in the world and the one bird above all others I was determined to see over in New York, it was magical to stand and watch as this fiery wonder foraged amongst the leaves. The ultimate trip of a lifetime, other highlights of New York included the huge haul of warblers we managed to find over there, the incredible fall of birds on one particular morning in Prospect Park where the leaves were just teeming with birds, and the amazing feeling of exploring a whole new continent for the first time, where almost every bird around every corner was something new and exciting waiting to be discovered. 
Blackburnian Warbler - New York, America
Blackburnian Warbler - New York (23rd May 2015)
So here’s to another action packed year in the form of 2016 – more megas to keep the heart racing, more fantastic birds to take me to obscure and far flung places across Britain, and of course, the delights of two weeks exploring the sunshine state of Florida come April and seeing what bird treasures we can unearth there! Bring it on!


  1. wow I admire your dedication travelling to all these places to see these rarities - I hope 2016 turns out to be as good a year for you

  2. Great write-up of what sounds like a great year for you!

  3. Thanks guys, hopefully 2016 will be just as good! :)


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