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....

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Welsh Pearls - Pearl-bordered Fritillaries at Eyarth Rocks

Having never seen Pearl-bordered Fritillary before and sadly missing them at Glasdrum Wood earlier in the week, reports of a number of individuals on the wing at Eyarth Rocks near Ruthin saw me and Alex plan a visit during half term to try and catch up with them.
Pearl-bordered Fritillary - Eyarth Rocks
Eventually arriving on site, we made our way up the steep woodland slopes to the start of the reserve, navigating the many un-signposted tracks in the wood (with a few wrong turns) before the trees opened up to reveal the sunny hill top summit. Surrounded by open stands of bracken, the area was clearly being managed with Pearl-bordered Fritillaries in mind, and within a matter of minutes we had seen our first individual gliding majestically by.
Pearl-bordered Fritillary - Eyarth Rocks
Despite exploring the summit, it transpired the small patch of ground right at the start near the gate and entrance sign was the most productive, and we had up to four individuals feeding on the buttercups and Birds-foot Trefoil in the vicinity.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Great Knot at Titchwell RSPB Norfolk - To be, or Knot to be?

Great Knot, Red-eyed Vireo and Acadian Flycatcher – the three birds that I have missed through being in work, due to them either being one day wonders or departing before the weekend came around. Undoubtedly there will certainly be another Red-eyed Vireo, and with an almost equal certainty there most definitely WON’T be another Acadian Flycatcher (at least for a very VERY long time!) but Great Knot?

Now endangered in their native range of Australia and SE Asia, and with populations in decline due to habitat destruction, there have only ever been 4 records of Great Knot in Britain – the last of which was the Breydon Water bird in Norfolk two years ago. Before then, the last individual was 10 years earlier in Lancashire back in 2004 - the chances of another one coming around so soon were looking very slim. 

It was therefore quite a surprise and rather unexpected when reports surfaced of a summer plumaged Great Knot found on the Freshmarsh at Titchwell RSPB – an attractive black and rust coloured adult. With the bird remaining throughout the day and relocating to the beach later in the afternoon, there was hope that we might just be able to grip back this mega wader at the weekend.
Great Knot - Titchwell RSPB, Norfolk
The Great Knot at Titchwell!

Monday, 20 June 2016

Checkmate - Chequered Skippers at Glasdrum Wood, Fort William

Chequered Skipper was a species of butterfly I was still yet to see in Britain, and being up in Fort William during the height of their flight season thanks to the Black-billed Cuckoo twitch provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with this charismatic species. 
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
After a delicious cooked breakfast at the B&B (overlooking the beautiful scenery of Loch Linnhe) we made the 40 minute journey along the twisting loch-side roads to Glasdrum Wood NNR, a well-known hotspot for Chequered Skippers and one of the most popular sites in Britain for this species. 
Loch Linnhe - Fort William
Confined to just the North West of Scotland and with a distribution centred largely around Fort William, Chequered Skippers are a true Scottish speciality, and I was especially looking forward to catching up with them having not had time to stop when we visited Mull two years ago when they were on the wing. With glorious sunshine and perfect blue skies the conditions weather-wise were perfect, and after parking up in the car park we were soon making our way up the grassy slope in pursuit of this Highland gem.

Before long we had successfully located several individuals, buzzing through the grass and often landing on any exposed branches or leaves in front of us. Rather frustratingly (perhaps due to the hot midday sun) the skippers rarely opened their wings when they landed, instead choosing to perch with them shut tight and displaying only the underside patterns. 
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Eventually though we managed to find some obliging individuals with their wings flat out, allowing us to get some photos of their distinctive gold and brown checked wings.
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood
With at least two calling cuckoos and a range of other butterfly delights including several Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (which sadly never landed for me to get any photos) and a lone Green Hairstreak, Glasdrum Wood was a fantastic reserve to visit in a truly beautiful setting. The only possible downside was the sudden discovery of a large number of ticks hitching a lift on our shirts and socks – resulting in a swift exit from the site and a thorough checking over and change of clothes before leaving! 

With such a limited distribution, conservation efforts are underway to secure the long-term future of this species and to hopefully expand its at present rather restricted range. Once also occurring in central England, Chequered Skippers were sadly declared extinct there in the 70’s, rendering this species as a true Highland speciality. 
Chequered Skipper - Glasdrum Wood

Getting there and seeing the butterflies:

Glasdrum Wood can be found off the small road to Inver after turning east off the A828 roundabout just after the Loch Creran Bridge. The post code to the car park is PA38 4BQ, and the entrance will be on the left hand side.

The Chequered Skippers are easy to locate at Glasdrum in good weather, and are a short 5 minute walk from the car park. Follow the footpath up the hill to the power lines before turning left along the well-trodden track along the slope, following the power lines across. The skippers are all along this track, along with Pearl and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. We visited at the very end of May/start of June when the skippers were in their prime. Watch out for ticks!! 

For more information, visit the Scotland's NNR Glasdrum Wood website.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Broad-billed Sandpiper at Kimnel Bay!

When news of a Broad-billed Sandpiper seen at Gronant emerged late on a Saturday evening, I was hopeful it would stick around in the area and that I’d finally be able to grip back on the Hoylake bird I missed out on 5 years ago! Unfortunately, the fact that it was still there early on Sunday morning didn’t surface until well in to the afternoon (much too late to travel over especially when a delicious lamb roast was cooking in the oven courtesy of my Mum) and with no sign on Monday, that appeared to be the end of any chances I had of catching up with a Broad-billed Sandpiper any time soon!
Broad-billed Sandpiper - Kimnel Bay
The Broad-billed Sandpiper! 
What I hadn’t bargained for however was eagle-eyed Alex staking out Kimnel Bay and Rhyl Harbour in an effort to relocate it the next day, and sure enough, around high tide just before 7, I received a photo from him depicting one Broad-billed Sandpiper, head tucked under its wing and happily roosting on the pebble shore near Horton’s Nose. Argh!
Broad-billed Sandpiper - Kimnel Bay
Alex's photo he sent to me!
Half way through cooking 5-spice chicken and noodles, I had to wait until we’d gobbled the last strand down before setting off in pursuit of this attractive vagrant shorebird. With Alex heroically staying on site until I got there (3 hours in total!) I had a running commentary on the way over – the bird seemed very flighty and on more than once occasion was flushed and flew away further up the beach. Then, when we were just 7 minutes away, Alex relayed news that it had flown away high to the west after being harassed by a Ringed Plover – nightmare!!

Pulling in to the Rhyl Harbour car park and heading up the path to Kimnel Bay, the Dunlins that the Broad-billed Sandpiper had been associating with had returned, but there was no sandpiper in sight. With the light now fading and the evening dog walkers heading out in force, it was a race against time to see if we could relocate it. With Alex rushing off down the beach where it had last headed, we soon encountered a mixed group of waders feeding in one of the pools further down the shore- it had to be amongst them, surely! With Alex getting a brief glimpse of the Broad-billed Sand in the scope and confirming that it was still there moments before two large dogs flushed the flock, it seemed inevitable that the birds would get spooked and we’d miss our chance – so near yet so far!

Luckily however, the birds stuck around, and with the dogs heading off in to the distance we could focus our efforts on relocating that Broad-billed. Several Turnstones pottered around the rocks looking for morsels while Dunlins scuttled amongst them – then, what was that - a small silver-grey bird dashing across the sand caught our attention. With a strong pattered back and bold stripes across the head it was immediately obvious we had our target! Bingo! One Broad-billed Sandpiper showing nicely!
Broad-billed Sandpiper - Kimnel Bay
Broad-billed Sandpiper - Kimnel Bay
The arrowhead streaks on the flanks were obvious too
With the light now fading it was difficult to get any good photos, but I managed a few record shots as it scurried about on the sand, at one point even flying right towards us and landing on the rocks in front, providing excellent scope views of what is definitely one of the more attractive sandpipers.

Alex's video of the Broad-billed Sandpiper

Broad-billed Sandpiper - Kimnel Bay
A great find by Alex and a well-deserved reward for patching the area so thoroughly – proving that if you put the effort in and search enough times you’ll eventually strike gold and come up with something special! 

Monday, 6 June 2016

Black-billed Cuckoo on North Uist - MEGA!!!!

Come the evening of Sunday 22nd May I don’t know what blew my mind more – the fact that the Birdguides app mega alert sound was in fact the call of a Black-billed Cuckoo (check out Xeno Canto for those that don’t know!) or the fact that there was an actual Black-billed Cuckoo sat on a fence in far-away North Uist, happily feeding on caterpillars and being twitched by a handful of very lucky birders! The photographs that soon surfaced showing a fine, healthy, pristine spring adult gobbling juicy green caterpillars were even more mind blowing.
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
The Uist Black-billed Cuckoo - an absolutely crazy record!
Before now, all previous records of Black-billed Cuckoo in Britain have been of autumn juveniles, each having the same sad glimmer of despair in the eyes and resigned to the inevitable fate that was waiting for them here on this side of the Atlantic – none have lasted longer than 3 days, with American cuckoos being notorious for perishing after making the crossing. Turning up in Britain it seems results in certain death as far as Coccyzus cuckoos are concerned.

With news breaking late on the Sunday night, the chances of it sticking until the following weekend, especially going on the past unfortunate history of this species, may have at first glance appeared extremely slim and approaching zero. This bird however was unchartered territory – never before had a spring individual made it across to these shores, and certainly not a healthy adult. Could it do the unthinkable and stick around for a whole week? Surely not….

As the days slowly ticked by the news remained positive - each day boat and plane loads of birders happily connected and reported the bird as still present and showing well. Plans started to form, and with confirmation that the cuckoo was still in its favoured gardens come Friday morning, I sprang into action and hastily booked us some accommodation for our trip. An overnight stop in Fort William would break up the daunting 9 hour drive after work, with the last 2 ¾ hours to our ferry at Uig on Skye undertaken the following morning. Seemingly simple?

Things started to unravel as we neared Glasgow. An ominous silence on the Cuckoo’s whereabouts since near midday was broken by negative news late on in the evening – the bird hadn’t been seen all afternoon and was last reported as “disappearing over the top of a hill”. This was not good. As another birder had put it, a bird seemingly ‘doing one’ over the top of a hill has never resulted in anything positive when twitching is concerned! Never the less, we ploughed on to Fort William, dodging deer on the way and feeling somewhat disheartened at the fact we were seemingly driving towards a dip.
Birdguides report
The heart-stopping Birdguides report whilst driving up through Glasgow! 
After a much needed night’s sleep in the Travelodge I came out of the shower to be met with the welcome news that the cuckoo was back in the gardens…. twitch on! It transpired that the previous report had been slightly lost in translation, as the bird had simply dropped down in to vegetation between the two houses on the slope and had disappeared from view – not flying away over a hill as we had all feared!
Fort William
Fort William
Luckily, we decided to leave the Travelodge that morning with the aim of getting to the ferry terminal at Uig in good time – 2 hours early to be precise. This proved to be one of the best decisions we’d ever made, as arriving at Mallaig ferry terminal after an hour’s drive, the devastating reality dawned on us – the sat-nav had planned the route to Skye via a small island ferry crossing at Mallaig instead of over the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh. This was a disaster, and I’ve never felt more crushed on a twitch (not even the time when we actually dipped the Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Cornwall after a 7 hour drive through the night). With the next Mallaig ferry not until after 11am and only being offered a standby place, we were well and truly stuck. We were now over an hour away from where we had started off this morning at Fort William, with a further 2 ¾ hours on top of that, and time was fast slipping away. After coming all this way it seemed we had fallen at the final hurdle – we simply weren’t going to make it.

With no guaranteed place on the crossing we made the decision to try and get to Uig – last boarding was at 1:30pm and our sat navs arrival time predicted 1:52pm – a huge feat to try and make up half an hour on the winding mountain roads complete with their caravan induced tailbacks. With Alex driving like an absolute hero and watching our arrival time get steadily shorter, as I eyed the sat-nav dial move down to 1:37pm I started to think we might be in with a chance…..

Remarkably, we eventually made it to Uig at 1:24pm, although no ferry in sight as we were driving down the hill towards the pier convinced me we had somehow come to the wrong port in the absolute cruellest twist of fate – had we messed up again?! We were relieved therefore to pull in to the terminal and be met with a jumble of birders, scopes and tripods. Relief took over – we had somehow made it!

In a sheer stroke of luck, the ferry had been delayed from its departure on Uist and wasn’t due in until quarter to 2, allowing us plenty of time to purchase our tickets, park, unload the car and somehow be one of the first ones on board!
Calmac Ferry - Uig to Lochmaddy
Enjoying the ferry crossing, we were finally able to relax and take in the beautiful scenery and wildlife that Scotland has to offer. A pair of Golden Eagles drifted distantly over the hillside, while a White-tailed Eagle eyrie on the distant Skye cliffs was just about visible through binoculars. Several Black Guillemots – one of my favourite birds – joined the other auks during the crossing, while the occasional summer plumaged Great Northern Divers showed off their spectacular black and white patterns. Two Arctic Skuas bombed past the side of the boat, while both Harbour Porpoises and a distant pod of Bottlenose Dolphins kept us entertained as they took advantage of the rich pickings the Scottish seas produce food wise.  
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Lochmaddy - North Uist
With Dan Pointon getting word that the cuckoo was still present during the 2 hour journey across, once we had docked into Lochmaddy there was a mad scramble to pick up hire cars. With the ferry fully booked for cars on the Saturday sailings seemingly weeks in advance, the majority of birders (us included) were foot passengers, and we were thankfully offered a lift around the island by local Marbury birder Mal and his wife – life savers and we were eternally grateful!

15 minutes later we were on site and the search was on. The cuckoo had apparently disappeared an hour earlier in the gardens down the hill and had yet to be located, and as more and more birders arrived we spread out and covered the surrounding area. Having favoured the same couple of gardens since its arrival a week earlier, the cuckoo had recently become a lot more mobile over the last couple of days, ranging across Loch Sandary in to a number of gardens. With absolutely glorious weather on Uist I was soon regretting wearing my woolly walking boots and thick coat as the sun beat down – for an island up on the northern edges of Britain it was surprisingly warm!

As the time passed there was still a sense of optimism that the cuckoo would be found – it was undoubtedly still in the area and with around 40 or so birders looking it was only a matter of time before someone located it. Serenaded by a soundtrack of the rasping notes of Corncrakes hiding deep in the Irises and with several Common Cuckoos calling and making occasional flights harassed by a mob of Meadow Pipits, after around an hours searching, Alex suddenly pointed ahead of us – “Look, what’s that flying towards us?!”.

It was of course, the cuckoo - flying straight ahead of us and attempting to land on the roof of a nearby house before doubling back and diving straight in to a thick patch of scrub. Familiar with Coccyzus cuckoos in flight after seeing Yellow-billed in America, we knew instantly that we had our prize.   
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Immediately getting the attention of the birders nearby and shouting over that we had it, word soon spread, and before long a steady stream of birders could be seen sprinting up the track, hoping to get a glimpse of this most magical of birds.
     
Black-billed Cuckoo twitch - North Uist
Happy twitchers!
Showing well for the next 45 minutes or so, everyone present was able to enjoy fantastic views of this almost mythical American vagrant as it flitted between the houses and patches of vegetation in the immediate area, perching obligingly at the top of bushes and fence posts and allowing us all to get stunning views of that deep dark curved bill and striking crimson eye ring.    
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Relatively mobile and constantly being harassed by a pair of Meadow Pipits, the cuckoo eventually dropped down in to a large bush and out of sight. It was easy to see how the bird could get lost in this remote habitat for long periods of time, and without large numbers of birders searching the area it could easily go undetected.  
Bayhead - North Uist
The gardens the cuckoo was favouring
Bayhead - North Uist
With the cuckoo off show and with everyone ecstatic about connecting with this truly monstrous bird (some birders even cracked open bottles of Malt Whisky on site to celebrate) we headed back to our accommodation for the evening, taking in the beautiful surroundings that North Uist has to offer and elated that we had managed to pull off what was a truly epic twitch. 
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Lochmaddy - North Uist
The view from our accommodation - gorgeous!
With just 15 records in the UK to date, Black-billed Cuckoo is one of those birds that has a near mythical status on British birders lists. With the fact that individuals rarely last more than a day and with no records in the last 25 years bar an individual seen briefly by a handful of people on Orkney back in 2014, this was a species that no one expected to get on their lists any time soon – and most certainly not this spring! Long gone are the heydays of the 80’s (when remarkably four in one year were recorded in 1982) and coupled with an apparent decline of this species in their natural range in America, the prospects of Black-billed Cuckoo occurring in Britain, let alone being twitchable, looked increasingly bleak.

The eventual stay of 10 days by the North Uist Black-billed Cuckoo before its apparent departure on the following Wednesday also finally put to bed the rumours that have long been doing the rounds that British caterpillars are toxic to American cuckoos (and are the cause of death after they make it over here). Rather, it is far more likely that autumn juveniles just cannot cope with the Atlantic crossing (often in huge debilitating storms) and simply succumb to exhaustion or lack of food. The fact that the Uist bird was an adult,  as well as there perhaps being a greater abundance of caterpillars in the spring compared to the autumn may have set it apart from the rest and ensured its chance of survival.

Another mystery is when and exactly where the cuckoo arrived this side of the Atlantic. While it is possible that it made its way across this spring and made landfall straight on North Uist, there is an alternative scenario that it instead arrived on the back of the huge autumnal storms last October somewhere else in Europe or in Africa, before overwintering on the continent and making a parallel migration north once May approached. Regardless of its arrival, this was an absolutely phenomenal bird that I for one certainly didn’t expect to be seeing any time soon!
Lochmaddy - North Uist
Otter - North Uist
Seconds after I took the top photo, Alex spotted an Otter in the exact spot! The small brown squiggle under the gull may quite possibly be it!
Despite the huge distance up to Uist (Alex heroically did all the driving single-handedly) I always find island twitches to be some of the most enjoyable. The incredibly scenery and wildlife in Scotland (I even saw my first wild Otter) is always a joy to behold, and we both had a fantastic and enjoyable weekend twitching a bird that is sure to live on in the memory for years to come. As they say – he who dares, wins – and we most certainly did on this occasion.
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist

Alex's video of the Black-billed Cuckoo in all it's glory!

Lochmaddy - North Uist
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