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, 29 December 2016

Birding round-up of the Year 2016!

There’s no doubt about it, 2016 has been a truly exceptional year in the world of birding! Back in January nobody would have predicted that 12 months later we would have experienced an autumn knee deep in Siberian Accentors, that a Red-footed Booby would have been gallivanting on a shingle beach in Sussex no less, or perhaps most miraculously of all, that most doomed and mythical of American vagrants - the notorious Black-billed Cuckoo - would not only survive for more than a few days(!) but would give itself up for the twitching masses to enjoy, unblocking decades worth of anguish. To imply that 2016 has been uneventful would be a downright injustice to say the least!
Siberian Accentor - Easington, Yorkshire
The now famous Easington Siberian Accentor
Red-footed Booby - Sussex (Credit: East Sussex WRAS)
The Red-footed Booby taken in to care in Sussex (Credit: East Sussex WRAS)
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
North Uists very own Black-billed Cuckoo
Naturally, long-held records have tumbled, blockers have been banished and year lists shattered in what was a truly eventful year. The Eastern Kingbird on Barra broke hearts as it flew off high in to the clouds not once, but twice, the bona-fide first for Britain Western Swamphen(/chicken) amused visitors at Minsmere RSPB as it strutted around the reedy pools, while the aforementioned Red-footed Booby set pulses racing for a short while as questions were asked as to whether this Caribbean seabird, a long way from home, would be released in British waters after its recovery (it was eventually flown over to the Cayman Islands to continue rehabilitation there).
Western Swamphen - Minsmere, Suffolk
Minsmere's Purple Swamphen/chicken - aka "Hen"
Several other less convincing ‘firsts’ were also tracked across the country – the arrival of a Dalmatian Pelican in Cornish airspace caused absolute chaos as birders from across the country raced down to the south west tip of Britain to tick this giant visitor, thought by many to be the real deal from Poland until a bit of detective work and digging revealed several free-flying escapes now make their home in Western Europe…
Plastic Fantastic - the Cornish Dalmatian Pelican
Equally as ‘untickable’ was the West Country Lammergeier – the video of an immature seen flying off from rocks on the Severn Estuary quickly went viral and the chase was on to track its movements and whereabouts along the west coast counties. Proving extremely elusive and often vanishing in to the depths of the Devon hills to the despair of many, the question remains as to just what category this British bonecrusher will fall under – reintroduction and captive breeding projects in Europe are unfortunately the most likely source, and several other young birds from these conservation initiatives have also been seen to range up in to northern Europe in the past few years.

Meanwhile the first Forster’s Tern in British seas for 13 years was a welcome addition to many lists, the Great Knot showing well on the beach at Titchwell proved that not all visitors of this species follow the rules of being “Great Dots”, while only the second ever Pale-legged Leaf Warbler crashed in to a window on St Agnes, meeting an untimely end and making those on the island wish they’d paid a little bit more attention to that bright looking Arctic Warbler the day before. The East coast’s flyby Black-browed Albatross both delighted those lucky enough cross paths with it and left others cursing as it gave them the run around in equal measures, while Eyebrowed, Whites, Dusky and Black-throated Thrushes all on the mainland reminded us all exactly what could be lurking out there just waiting to be found over the winter….
Dusky Thrush - Beeley, Derbyshire
Beeley's overwintering Dusky Thrush
Eyebrowed Thrush - Northumberland (Ross Moore)
The Northumberland Eyebrowed Thrush photographed by Ross Moore in December
While narrowly missing out on the top five, there were still a whole host of awe-inspiring species that made the year memorable. The Suffolk Cliff Swallow in the dying embers of the year was a huge grip back after the disappointment of the just slightly too far away St Mary’s bird on Scilly a couple of months previous, as was the Kent ‘Meena’ Oriental Turtle Dove, a species I’ve long rued not going for after the famous Chipping Norton bird. The Aberdeen White-winged Scoter was a bird I had personally wanted to see for a good while, being just the 2nd for Britain to boot, while it doesn’t get much better than a mega just 20 minutes away from your door in the form of the May White-crowned Sparrow at Woolston Eyes.
Cliff Swallow - what a grip back!
Rufous Turtle Dove - Kent
It is an Oriental Turtle Dove...honest!
White-winged Scoter - Aberdeenshire
Digiscoped White-winged Scoter!
White-crowned Sparrow - Woolston Eyes, Cheshire
David Bowman's photo of the Woolston Eyes White-crowned Sparrow in the hand
Several trips abroad during 2016 also resulted in absolutely breath-taking birds – the kaleidoscope of colour that is a male Painted Bunting, the bright burst of salmon pink underparts as a flock of remarkable Scissor-tailed Flycatchers take off from the wires and the elegant, ever graceful Swallow-tailed Kites soaring over the Florida everglades are all truly unforgettable memories.
Painted Bunting - Florida
Painted Bunting - aka "Male" 
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Florida
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Swallow-tailed Kite - Florida
One of the best birds in the world - the Swallow-tailed Kite

And so, to the best birds that 2016 had to offer….

5th place for the year goes to the completely unexpected and out of the blue record of the Connah’s Quay Little Auk back in January. A lifer for me, having never previously seen these adorable looking arctic alcids, we had great views as this usually ocean bound seabird paddled around just feet away in the small pools and inlets of the reserve. A truly amazing birding experience, and I for one was exceptionally glad that my first encounter with a Little Auk was so ‘up close and personal’ as opposed to being a distant dot making its way across a stormy sea.
Little Auk - Connah's Quay
In 4th place has to be one of the most elusive and enigmatic seabirds encountered in British waters – the Wilson’s Storm-petrel. Having endured over 30 hours of seasickness in our quest to catch up with this enchanting tubenose as well as braving 40mph gales and towering walls of crashing water, we finally struck it lucky on our third and final Scilly pelagic of the summer, with no fewer than 4 individuals performing their ocean acrobatics at close range as they danced over the waves. An unforgettable experience and one I’d highly recommend to anyone who’s yet to head out to sea on one of Bob Flood and the team’s now famous voyages.
Wilson's Storm-petrel - Scilly Isles
3rd position is of course the Brunnich’s Guillemot that made Anstruther harbour in Fife its home back in September. With not going down for the Portland bird being a huge regret, I was doubtful another opportunity to see this mega auk in British waters would come along soon, so when news broke that one was providing extremely close views around the boats and appeared to be in full moult (indicating it wouldn’t be going anywhere fast!) we made the long journey up to the east coast of Scotland in an attempt to connect. Swimming to within mere feet away, it’s true that the closest birding encounters are usually the most memorable, and despite the true to form Scottish weather trying to dampen proceedings, it was great to get such fantastic views of the Brunnich’s diving for fish in front of us. Sadly however, as was expected due to its rather peaky looking demeanour and poor feather condition throughout the week, the Brunnich’s was found to have died by Saturday morning, presumably exhausted and representing a tragic end to a top little bird.
Brunnich's Guillemot - Anstruther Harbour, Fife
Brunnich's Guillemot - Anstruther, Fife

Some birds have a mythical, almost legendary status on the British twitching scene, generating a certain level of excitement whenever whispers of news surrounding their arrival surface – Wallcreeper, Rubythroat, and almost any mega American Warbler or Siberian waif from far away all fall in to that category. Another, is of course, the Black-billed Cuckoo – perhaps the most doomed of all American vagrants - absent from British records since the 1980’s and early 90’s, apart from a brief flyby appearance on Orkney two years ago. It seemed an almost impossible feat that this monster cuckoo would be making its way on to any modern lists any time soon….. But, as the saying goes, anything is possible in the world of birding, and news of one photographed sitting on a fencepost on North Uist happily tucking in to caterpillars sent the twitching community in to a spin.  2nd position and narrowly missing out on the top spot is of course none other than North Uist’s cracking Black-billed Cuckoo, the first spring adult of its kind to grace UK shores and an absolutely stonker of a specimen.
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist
Black-billed Cuckoo - narrowly missing out on top spot...
Found late on the Sunday evening and with Coccyzus cuckoos in Britain usually having an expiry date of around 2 days, it was therefore a huge ask for the bird to last a whole week and stay until the following weekend. But stay it did, and Friday evening saw us make the mammoth treck up to Uig on the Isle of Skye to catch the ferry over to Lochmaddy the next day. With an almost heart-breaking sat-nav miscalculation and a frantic drive to the ferry terminal soon forgotten as we sailed over to this beautiful outcrop of Scottish scenery, we finally clapped eyes on our prize – one remarkable adult Black-billed Cuckoo. Our most adventurous twitch to date having never travelled to the far flung Scottish islands in pursuit of one bird before, the trip felt like a personal achievement and just goes to show that those who do make the effort really do reap the rewards. An incredible bird, surrounded by breath-taking scenery in a beautiful location, it really doesn’t get much better than that!
Black-billed Cuckoo - North Uist

Despite all this, 2016 will go down in birding history for one thing – the invasion of a certain golden patterned accentor from the east on an unprecedented scale that many are touting as the birding event of the century so far. Generating interest across the country, providing a spectacle never seen before in Europe let alone on British soil and causing even long-retired twitchers to dust off their bins, in top spot, is of course, the widespread invasion of Siberian Accentors that took Britain by storm this autumn.
Siberian Accentor - Easington, Yorkshire
Number one for 2016 - the Siberian Accentor at Easington
When news broke that perhaps the most widely anticipated first for Britain had finally made landfall on Shetland (where else?!) the entire British birding community collectively lost their minds as one. With photos surfacing depicting this golden sprite showing mind-bogglingly well by a small quarry up in the deepest wilderness of Shetland, it seemed nigh on impossible that the vast majority would ever get this special bird on their lists, instead having to settle for gazing at the many jaw-dropping photographs flooding the net. Fast forward just a matter of days however, and Thursday afternoon saw the news break that stopped all twitchers in their tracks – “Siberian Accentor: Easington, Yorkshire. One by the school”. A mainland Siberian Accentor – the stuff birding dreams are made of. One mad dash later and we were gazing upon this tiny piece of Russian gold for ourselves, hopping around on the now famous mossy covered drive alongside the equally as famous yellow skip. Mind-blowing. 
Siberian Accentor - Easington, Yorkshire
Easington Siberian Accentor Twitch
The famous skip!
For me, this tiny Russian visitor was without doubt the bird of the year, a species I’d never imagined I’d ever see in the world, let alone in Britain. Watching it forage around in the leaf litter alongside Dunnocks and Robins was completely surreal, none the wiser to the absolute chaos, stress and above all excitement its arrival had caused. A magical bird and a worthy winner of the crown for Best Bird of 2016.
Siberian Accentor - Easington, Yorkshire
With 2017 just around the corner, who knows what avian delights await us over the next 12 months – perhaps an overwintering Rubythroat or mega Siberian Thrush, a smattering of brightly coloured American warblers come the autumn or perhaps even that most sought after and ever hoped for modern day twitchable British Wallcreeper. Fingers crossed! 
Best wishes for 2017!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

MEGA!! Dusky Thrush at Beeley, Derbyshire!

“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” – an extremely fitting phrase as the autumn that just keeps on giving conjured up yet another outstanding bird to finish 2016 off nicely, this time in the form of a fine first winter male Dusky Thrush frequenting the gardens and orchards in the rural village of Beeley in Derbyshire. 
Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire
With news breaking late on the Sunday evening, but with the exact location remaining mysteriously cryptic, it was all systems go come Monday morning as news filtered through that the mega thrush was still present and precise site details were revealed to those eager to make the visit in to Derbyshire. Thankfully being able to take the rest of the day off work (I didn’t fancy an agonising week ahead being bombarded with envy-inducing photos over social media) we were soon well on our way through the Peak District, navigating the winding roads and patches of ice to reach our destination just before lunchtime, when we promptly met a large crowd of birders blocking the road and eagerly looking around the gardens. 

With the Dusky Thrush mostly favouring the playground and orchard of Dukes Barn Outdoor Activity Centre, it soon transpired that this was one extremely mobile thrush, commuting between several sites in the area and having also taken a liking to a stand of Hawthorn bushes directly behind the village playing field. Having disappeared from view 10 minutes before arriving, the chase was now on!
Beeley, Derbyshire
The stand of Hawthorns by the playing field the Dusky Thrush took a liking to
Thankfully, we didn’t have long to wait, as a cry from a little further down the road that the Dusky Thrush was in view saw the whole crowd stampede to the right, clamouring for viewing space on the narrow lanes while tripods, hats and bodies obscured the view for those unlucky enough to find themselves at the back of the pack.

Sure enough, there was indeed a bird perched high up in one of the Hawthorns, but the none-abating mist and poor, dull light rendered it just a dark shape nestled amongst the twigs – indistinguishable as the target bird and frustratingly flitting down on to the ground and out of sight. A tantalising glimpse but most definitely not good enough when a 13th for Britain lifer of a mega thrush is on the line! 

Thankfully, around 10 minutes later and to the relief of those around, I managed to re-find our quarry, once again perched in the same Hawthorn tree and this time easily distinguishable from the associating Redwings by the rounded black spots on the breast and flanks, prominent white throat patch, bold supercilium and lack of rusty red on the flanks that the Redwings are famous for. 
Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire
The Dusky Thrush remained frustratingly distant for most of the day!
Flying a tad closer before once again disappearing off over the rooftops, our views were yet again limited to a minute at most, and with no further sign or reappearance for the next hour and a half, we were in for a long, cold wait in an attempt to get better views of what, in good light, is a truly stunning bird.

Eventually, the wish of the swelling crowd was granted as the Dusky Thrush finally gave itself up in the grounds of Dukes Barn late in the afternoon, perching in the small orchard trees and feeding on apples for a prolonged period - allowing all those present to get a good look at this eastern mega. 
Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire
Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire
After a while the Dusky Thrush once more displayed its flighty nature, disappearing off through the trees and out of sight. I was pretty certain as to where it was heading, and sure enough, as just 3 of us climbed the small hill of the playing field to take a look at the row of Hawthorns everyone had been staring at an hour earlier, we were met with the first winter male hopping around on the grass in front of us, parading around proudly and displaying the fine speckled black breast band and dusky tones. These were the views I’d been after! 
Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire
With the crowds cottoning on and with more and more people arriving, the Dusky Thrush soon flew in to the adjacent trees, once again offering a great comparison with the Redwings and Song Thrushes despite the now extremely poor and rapidly fading light.

The Derbyshire Dusky Thrush represents just the 13th record for Britain, hot on the heels of a male photographed on St Marys, Scilly, back in October and just 3 years after the well-twitched (if not somewhat dubious in purity!) Margate bird of May 2013, before which there had been a lengthy gap of 23 years between records! With Margate being too far to twitch at the time and thinking it may have been a regrettable blocker for some time yet, I was especially glad that another bite at the Dusky Thrush cherry had come around so soon, an additional bonus at being just over an hour away from home!

Despite the originally poor views and freezing conditions, the last views of the Dusky Thrush on the grass in front of the wall saved the twitch, and having gripped back this mega thrush we headed home happy! Whether this is the "fat lady’s last song" so to speak remains to be seen however, and judging by how the year has gone so far, there may well be one last throw of the dice in the birding world during the closing weeks of 2016 yet. Here’s hoping! 

Dusky Thrush Map
Dusky Thrush Map!
For those wanting to visit, parking is at Dukes Barn off School Lane (DE4 2NU) for a small donation fee of £3. The Dusky Thrush is extremely mobile and the several spots it seems to favour are highlighted in purple on the map. The best locations to try and spot it are the row of Hawthorn trees as viewed from the small playing field off Chapel Hill, and the apple trees in the orchard as viewed from the Dukes Barn car park.
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