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, 12 May 2016

Whiskered Terns at Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire

With Whiskered Tern still being a species I needed in Britain, two turning up at Long Eaton Gravel Pits in Derbyshire on Friday morning before relocating to Attenborough Nature Reserve across the border in Nottingham for the remainder of the evening had me tempted to make the journey over the next day for my last remaining species of ‘Marsh Tern’ to see in the UK.

However, it seems the terns had other ideas, and checking my phone in the early hours of Saturday revealed them to have departed overnight, leaving just a solitary Black Tern in their wake. Fast forward a few hours and having drifted back off to sleep, I was this time woken up by a phone call from Alex (my previous weeks lie in had been cut short by the news of the White-crowned Sparrow at Woolston Eyes) – the two Whiskered Terns had been re-found at Sandbach Flashes in Cheshire, just 20 minutes away from my house.

Grabbing a quick breakfast on the way out, we were soon on our way, and 20 minutes later were enjoying great views as the two terns paraded around Elton Hall Flash, swooping low over the surface of the water to feed and displaying their gorgeous sooty grey bellies and bright white contrasting under tails.
Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Perching regularly on several of the wooden fence posts submerged in the water, we were treated to excellent scope views of the pair, on some occasions even flying alongside and perching with the single Common Tern that was present and in turn offering a great comparison between the two species.
Whiskered Terns - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Both Whiskered Terns together
Whiskered Terns - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Common and Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Common Tern on the left, Whiskered Tern on the right
The size different was extremely noticeable in flight – the Whiskered Terns being much smaller, while the Common’s longer tail feathers were also apparent. We were also able to note another key identification feature of Whiskered Tern - their shallow forked tails were clear to see as they dipped and dived, while their greyish rumps also contrasted to the Common’s pure white backs.
Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
The shorter forked tail and grey rump of the Whiskered Tern is clear to see in flight
Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Mostly keeping their distance and remaining in the middle of the flash, one would occasionally power over to the near side, on one occasion feeding just metres away in the corner, giving outstanding views to the gathered crowd before moving swiftly back over to the far edge of the water.
Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Looking superficially like a cross between a Black Tern and a Common Tern, the gorgeous jet black hoods, blood red bills and dark crimson feet all stood out, even at a distance.
Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Whiskered Tern - Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Departing as expected the next day, two (probably the same) were reported from Saltholme RSPB in Cleveland, adding further mileage to their tour of the UK. With several other Whiskered Terns reported in Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Somerset over the past few days, the warm weather and winds from the continent seem to have resulted in a mini influx of these delightfully acrobatic terns, and being the very first site record, they are another great local bird for Sandbach Flashes.
Sandbach Flashes, Cheshire
Elton Hall Flash
Having seen just a single bird in Southern Spain two years ago and having missed a juvenile bird at Burton Mere Wetlands in the Autumn of 2010, these were the first local Whiskered Terns in 5 years that I could get to, and it was great to see this European rarity relatively close to home – always ideal!  

Monday, 9 May 2016

A taste of the Orient - Oriental Turtle Dove in Otford, Kent (MEENA!)

When news came out that an Oriental Turtle Dove of the subspecies meena had been visiting a back garden in Kent whilst I was away in Florida at the beginning of April, I was a tad gutted to say the least. Not going down for the Chipping Norton Oriental Turtle Dove back at the beginning of 2011 has always been a bit of a regret, and this was a bird that I had thought I would struggle to get back, with there being just one other previous twitchable mainland bird in Caithness, Scotland in 2003.

It later transpired that the Kent bird had been present in the garden of finder Tony Rose on the 18th February, but with no sign the next day and without an exact location other than the village of Otford, it seemed this particular bird would remain out of grasp and the trail sadly went cold.
Oriental Turtle Dove (Meena) - Kent
An EXTREME record shot of the Meena!
However, this all changed on Thursday 28th April, when a report came through that the bird had been spotted again the previous Sunday. With further sightings on the Friday and with the exact location being expertly nailed down and released on Saturday when the bird showed well during the late afternoon and evening, I was therefore weighing up whether or not to make the long journey down to Kent from Cheshire the next day, especially as Alex, having seen the Chipping Norton bird, wouldn’t even get a lifer from it!

Deciding to wait until the weekend after, photos surfacing of the bird perching obligingly in the tree the next morning swiftly changed my mind – the bird was again present and showing well. Becoming determined to get down and see the beautiful dusky pink tones of the meena for myself, we were soon well on our way along the M6 - Alex in tow having been persuaded to come along for the ride, despite his protests that meenas were just a ‘regular’ bird after the recent individual in Shetland! (Just 5 records ever in Britain would suggest otherwise...)

Arriving at Old Walk Road on the small housing estate just off the A225 some 4 hours later, we turned the corner to be met by a large crowd of birders and scopes stationed on “The Butts”, all staring intently in to the back gardens of the houses while bemused residents and passers stopped to take photos of the assembled gathering.
Oriental Turtle Dove twitch - Kent
The gathered crowd
Luckily, despite the bird not having been seen since that morning, we didn’t have long to wait before it put in an appearance, flying up and in to a large Sycamore tree at the end of the garden. Apparently having established a routine - being seen first thing in the morning for a couple of hours and again in the evening from 4pm onwards - the bird powers in from the south from an unknown location each day before flying in to the trees and perching intermittently on view before dropping down in to the garden out of sight to feed.
Oriental Turtle Dove - Kent
The trees in question the Meena has been favouring during dawn and late evening
Providing good scope views, the Meena remained slightly obscured at times, sadly not perching out in the open in one of the bare leaved trees as so many of the great photos captured depict. Never the less, we were treated to a show of the diagnostic features as the bird moved through the leaves – the smaller darker eye, reduced white on the barred collar and the overall darker, more rufous appearance all apparent. Giving prolonged views for a good 20 minutes or so, the dove eventually dropped down and in to the garden out of sight, not reappearing again for another two hours – we’d timed our arrival perfectly.
Oriental Turtle Dove (Meena) - Kent
The reduced white on the collar is clear to see, as well as the more dusky colour tones
Oriental Turtle Dove (Meena) - Kent
The smaller darker eye and more rufous tones can still be made out despite the horrendousness of the photo!
With two races of Oriental Turtle Dove recorded in Britain (meena and orientalis), the Kent record follows in the footsteps of the recent Shetland bird back in December, making meena the now greater recorded race here in Britain out of the two with 5 records as opposed to 4. With meenas originating from central Asia as opposed to the Far East and Siberian localities of orientalis, there are also slight differences between the two races in appearance (orientalis being larger, with a darker and duller colouration than the brighter pink of the meena, while meenas also have a distinctive large white under patch on the base of the tail). Despite these differences though, there are no immediate plans to split the two.
Oriental Turtle Dove (Meena) - Kent
Oriental Turtle Dove (Meena) - Kent
With 8 out of the 13 records of Oriental Turtle Dove coming after the turn of the century (5 being in the past 5 years), awareness of this species is clearly improving, and with the majority of records originating in gardens, hopefully there will be many more sightings to come in the future of this charming eastern dove.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Mega!! White-crowned Sparrow at Woolston Eyes, Cheshire!

"Woolston Eyes – White-crowned Sparrow trapped and ringed, access will be arranged soon."

Still lazing in bed on the Saturday morning, the above email message from Paul Brewster at just before quarter past 9 soon had me leaping in to action! White-crowned Sparrow in Cheshire?! – Mega!! Just over 20 minutes away from my house, this was a huge bird for Cheshire, not to mention Britain, with just 5 previous records on these shores. With well twitched individuals such as the Seaforth bird back in October 1995 and the long staying Cley bird in 2008, this was a much needed species for the more recent listers, and not having been actively twitching 8 years ago, this was definitely a must-see bird, especially being so close to home.
White-crowned Sparrow - Woolston Eyes, Cheshire (David Bowman)
White-crowned Sparrow - Woolston Eyes, Cheshire (David Bowman)
David Bowman's lovely photos of the White-crowned Sparrow in the hand
With the sparrow having been released near the feeders at John Morgan hide and access hastily arranged for non-permit holders, I arranged to meet Alex on site at just before 11 – having been out on the Clwyd this was the earliest he could make it. Initially sceptical as to whether we would be able to connect (trapped and ringed birds often have a habit of completely vanishing once released) and with no further sign by 9:50am, the news at just after half 10 that it was back and showing well by the feeders came as a welcome surprise – maybe we would score after all!

Having duly paid our £2 to gain access in to the reserve and hurrying over to the hide in question, our hopes of this attractive American sparrow happily feeding on a mass of golden seed under the feeders and performing well for a crowd of admirers were soon dashed – the bird had apparently gone in to hiding in a large thicket of bush to the left hand side of the hide, and despite being just metres away from the assembled birders, had been impossible to locate for well over an hour. In fact, it later transpired that it was only spotted when two birders had walked in to the bush to ascertain whether it was still there or not, and the bird had flown on to a nearby branch.

Joining the swelling crowd and enduring frequent showers of heavy rain and hail, we kept our eyes focused on the bush the sparrow had last been seen in, willing it to make a reappearance and to get a glimpse of a flash of white from inside the thicket. Moving away from the shelter of the hide and further around the spot where the sparrow was last seen, it soon became clear that there was no movement amongst the bottom branches or the leaf litter – the White-crowned Sparrow most definitely wasn’t under there. Whilst everyone else was staring transfixed on the spot, I decided to scan the surrounding bushes just in case the sparrow had taken an escape route undetected. Turning my attention to the next bush across, I immediately clocked several Blackcaps and Robins feeding amongst the hawthorn, while a Chiffchaff flitted in-between the leaves.
White-crowned Sparrow twitch - Woolston Eyes, Cheshire
The trees where the White-crowned Sparrow was hiding!
Then, a small brown and grey bird sat in the join of a branch soon caught my eye. Its head slightly obscured by the tangle of Hawthorn leaves, it was hard to pick out – could it be a Dunnock? Grey and black striped facial markings as the bird moved its head convinced me otherwise, and as it hopped down to a lower branch and out of view, a prominent white wing bar (looking like a string of pearls) became obvious. This looked increasingly good - although never having seen one before and with the crown partially obscured, I wasn’t 100% sure. Alerting Alex to get on the spot whilst checking my Collin’s app for the finer features of White-crowned Sparrow ID, Alex soon called out he had it – the bird had reappeared and settled on a branch for a matter of seconds before dropping down again – just long enough for Alex and several other nearby birders to get on it and get views of the white crown, confirming my suspicions. Fantastic!! White-crowned Sparrow in the bag!!
White-crowned Sparrow ID
The finer points of White-crowned Sparrow ID!
With many birders yet to get on it but with our sparrow seemingly vanishing in to thin air, despite further vigils staring in to the bush, many left disappointed, and with no further sign throughout the afternoon and in to the next day, our sighting was seemingly the last of this trans-Atlantic vagrant. Incredibly jammy to say the least.
White-crowned Sparrow bush - Woolston Eyes, Cheshire
The bush the sparrow disappeared into
With the White-crowned sparrow most likely to have found its way over to Britain last autumn during the storms, or perhaps even elsewhere in Europe, the arrival at Woolston Eyes could well have been the result of a natural parallel migration north - American birds would also be heading north at this time of year in their normal range. The fact that the ringers reported that it appeared to be in a good condition when captured with plenty of muscle mass (as well as there being no particularly adverse weather during the spring originating from across the Atlantic) would support this theory, while a first summer Rose-breasted Grosbeak found yesterday on a feeder in Shetland only adds further weight to this - presumably another parallel migrant on the wrong side of the ocean.

White-crowned Sparrow was actually one of the American sparrow species we had missed on both of our visits to the states, so it was a stroke of luck and completely unexpected to be getting it as a lifer here in Britain! With lengthy gaps between records, it could be some time yet before Britain scores another, especially one minutes away from my house, so we both felt extremely fortunate to see it – albeit briefly – and it was refreshing to get our first mega of 2016. Woolston Eyes was also a fantastic reserve to visit, and with this only being my second visit (the first was for an escaped Bufflehead last year), I may well look in to investing in a permit for future trips. 
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