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....

Monday, 30 January 2017

Pacific Diver at Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland - MEGA!!

When a Pacific Diver remarkably turned up on an inland pool in Northumberland last week, it was extremely tempting to make the long journey up north in an attempt to catch up with this American visitor. Despite having previously seen the returning Penzance bird in Cornwall on two separate occasions, this was a great chance to watch this mega diver species up close and an opportunity we simply couldn’t pass up! I’ve always maintained I would twitch an inland Pacific Diver should one ever occur again, and sure enough Saturday morning saw us travelling north up the M1 to Northumberland!
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Arriving on site just after lunch and with the diver having relocated to Druridge Bay CP (after apparently attempting to fly back out to sea before doing a u-turn and crash landing on the ice), straight away we were afforded outstanding views as it made several circuits right in front of us around the north west corner of Ladyburn Lake. 
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
With the Penzance Pacific Diver remaining mostly distant, this was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to really see the distinguishing features up close for ourselves and to try and get some photographs. Being present for 3 days before the ID was nailed as Pacific instead of the previously thought Black-throated Diver, the lack of a pale white flank patch was the giveaway to its true identity, while the black, albeit faint chinstrap visible at closer range sealed the deal. 
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Enjoying amazing views of the diver for a good hour and a half as it swam and dived right in front of us, it seemed totally unfazed by its squad of paparazzi admirers, at several points surfacing mere metres away from the crowd! It’s not every day you get to see a diver show so well, let alone a 6th for Britain Pacific Diver!
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
With several other features distinguishing Pacific Divers from the similar Black-throated (it was only very recently split) the black vent strap was visible on several photographs, while the slightly smaller structure and size as well as the short, fine bill on the Pacific Diver were some of the more subtle features we noted that separate the two species.
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
We also noticed that the Pacific Diver also tended to leap out of the water quite considerably when diving compared to other species of diver, again, another subtle difference from the Black-throated.
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Ladyburn Lake - the Pacific Diver often came to within feet! 
Far more used to an ocean-going existence, fingers crossed the diver will be ok and eventually make it back out to sea – whilst it was diving constantly during our visit, we only saw it feed successfully twice, and even then on exceptionally small fish.

Alex's great video of the Pacific Diver in action!

Never the less, this was an incredible experience to get so close to a remarkable bird, and even my car breaking down mid-route northbound up the A1 wasn’t going to stop us seeing it!  

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Pine Bunting at Venus Pools in Shropshire - MEGA!!

When news of a female Pine Bunting at Venus Pools in Shropshire broke on New Year’s Day, we were keen to catch up with this mega bunting first hand, and at only 1 hour 20 from Cheshire, the short distance to travel came as a welcome change!
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire (Jim Almond)
The female Pine Bunting by Jim Almond
Arriving on site the next day for just after 10 and with news put out earlier that the Pine Bunting had been seen and showing well in the kale mid-morning, it seemed to be a no brainer that we would connect soon.

Unfortunately however, it seemed the Pine Bunting had other ideas, and a frustrating few hours ensued in bitterly cold weather where despite the abundance of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Corn Buntings on site, the Pine Bunting failed to put in an appearance.
Venus Pools Pine Bunting twitch
Venus Pools, Shropshire
The Pine Bunting hedge!
All good things come to those who wait however, and despite my feet having now turned into literal blocks of ice having been nestled in the frost covered grass all morning, eventually Alex picked up a very pale looking bunting moving through the hedge before dropping down in to the grassy verge below.

Getting the 20 or so birders immediately around us on it, simultaneous cries of joy went up: “That’s it – Pine Bunting!” Success! Watching this greyscale bunting hop around for a good few minutes we were able to note a number of features, the two white wing bars and white edged primaries the most notable differentiating feature, along with the pale white chest lined with delicate, fine rusty brown speckles forming a necklace of sorts. The head pattern was also notably different from the associating Reed and Corn Buntings, none of the clearly defined facial patches or rustic brown and cream tones we had been used to seeing on the Reed Buntings all morning, instead sporting a plain grey nape, overall plain grey face and we were just able to make out the fine dark lines near the eye and small white spot on the cheek.
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire (Jim Almond)
The female Pine Bunting by Jim Almond. It reminded more of an American sparrow looks wise.
Hopping back up on to the hedge for a period of time, the greyish buff tones and stripes on the back looked clearer in comparison to the nearby Reeds, while other birders watching made note of the rusty coloured rump.
The pure white wing diagnostic of Pine Buntings and eliminating any Yellowhammer doubts. Photo by Jim Almond.
Books and images of female Pine Buntings can only get you so far however, and having no field experience we were a little unsure as to what would be noticeable in the field and what wouldn’t. However, once spotted, the Pine Bunting, despite the differences being relatively subtle, did stand out, giving the overall impression of “frosty bunting that looked as if it had been frosted with frost”.

This video of a female Pine Bunting clearly shows the identification features of this tricky species, and is exactly how our bird looked in the field.

This great document explores the identification of Pine Buntings in all plumage stages in extreme detail, and is a fantastic tool when trying to clinch the ID of what can be a tricky species. The excellent Birding Frontiers article also illustrates what to look for when separating female Pine Buntings from other similar species. 

It was, nevertheless, great to have other birders on site who had direct experience with often tricky female Pine Buntings, having seen multiple different individuals before and all offering their confirmation that this was indeed the bird we had travelled to see. Certainly, throughout the afternoon there were a lot of false alarms and confusion in the crowds, with several faintly marked Reed Buntings trapping the unwary while later in the week a Corn Bunting with extensive white on the primaries tricked more than one observer on separate occasions. With Corn Buntings having a much larger, chunkier bill, overall “yellow ochre” colouring and extensive black markings on the chest however, careful observation should be enough to eliminate these as a potential pitfall.
Corn Bunting
Corn Bunting - note the thicker bill and darker spotted chest
Unfortunately, the very few record shots that we did manage to take did very little to do the Pine Bunting justice, my poor ability at taking photos with my phone through a scope attributing to this! 
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire
Dreadful photo!
Rather disappointingly, some individuals who weren’t actually on site tried to ID the bird from this one poor record shot, ignoring ours and everyone else’s field observations in the process and maintaining that it wasn’t the Pine Bunting. It is always worth remembering that field observations on site are always a better way to judge the ID of a bird as opposed to one single photograph depicting the bird in poor quality and at a bad angle, as the recent Orphean Warbler/Lesser Whitethroat mix up in Suffolk just goes to prove. It’s much better to take detailed field notes in correlation with other observers who have past experience of the species in question in the field, than to try and judge from a single shot. 
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
It's hard to make out the details on this set of photos of the Pine Bunting too, illustrating how certain features can be affected by picture quality.
Indeed, if a record shot showing the bird clearly IDable to others is required for all new species seen by a person, then the Dorset Short-toed Eagle, Blyth’s Pipit, Pied-billed Grebe and Wilson’s Phalarope would all have to be taken off my list for a start!
Short-toed Eagle - Dorset
Blyth's Pipit - Yorkshire
Pied-billed Grebe - Gloucestershire
Wilson's Phalarope - Essex
All of which showed well through the scope, despite the poor record shots!
With no confirmed sightings of the Shropshire Pine Bunting since the 2nd, and with the vast majority of photos over the following days depicting the aberrant Corn Bunting, our eastern visitor seems to have moved on. After such strong easterlies during the autumn however and with a bit of a mini influx of Pine Buntings occurring this year, there may well be more hiding out there in Yellowhammer flocks across the country!
Venus Pools, Shropshire

Monday, 9 January 2017

Black-throated Thrush in St Asaph, North Wales!

When news broke of a Black-throated Thrush photographed only an hour away in St Asaph towards the end of December, it was a no brainer to make the short journey over the next day in an attempt to catch up with this Siberian visitor. With just a single observation in the Hawthorn trees surrounding the football pitch on the Friday afternoon and again showing itself only on one occasion early on Saturday morning to just a handful of birders, the trail went cold over the following days as the thrush seemingly vanished in to thin air, despite the hundred or so strong flock of Redwings and Blackbirds remaining to take advantage of the rich pickings in the leaf litter.
Black-throated Thrush - St Asaph, North Wales
The St Asaph Black-throated Thrush
Luckily, Alex was on the case living just 10 minutes away, and over successive visits throughout the next two days, he finally managed to pin down this elusive thrush’s location! Having been frequenting an area just a short hop over the other side of the River Elwy and favouring the stubble field and Hawthorn tree next to the New Inn pub, the re-find certainly made a lot of local birders extremely happy! A large amount of people were able to connect over the following days as a result, but being back in work meant I wasn’t able to see this local rarity myself until the Thursday. Unfortunately, the thrush didn’t play ball upon my arrival after two days of showing well, and the trail once more went cold as it did a disappearing act mid-morning shortly before I arrived – I couldn’t dip for a third time surely?! 
St Asaph
The Hawthorn alleyway I'd been scoping for most of the day
Thankfully, 4 ½ hours of trudging up and down the muddy riverside path later, a pale brown thrush flew in to the favoured Hawthorn tree and the shouts went up that all those remaining looking had been hoping for: “That’s it – Black-throated Thrush, here now!!” Abandoning my half eaten sandwich I quickly got it in the scope, the gorgeous brown speckled chest almost glowing in the late afternoon sun as it perched proudly in the bare winter branches. Fantastic!
Black-throated Thrush - St Asaph, North Wales
Luckily we had prime position on our side of the river – the 30 or so others on the opposite bank had the agonising choice to make of whether to try and scope into the ditch the thrush had now flown in to (out of sight from the east side and at an impossible angle to see) or walk all the way back around to the bridge and hope that it stayed feeding until they could get on it!!

It did indeed stay, and over the next half an hour or so we enjoyed great views as the thrush fed in the stubble field - showing off the light brown chest that indicated that this was a female and lacking the jet black throat that a male bird would display. At one point it pulled up a huge worm, tucking in before eventually flying off over towards the nearby houses.
Black-throated Thrush - St Asaph, North Wales
Black-throated Thrush - St Asaph, North Wales
The Black-throated Thrush's favourite stubble field
Heading back to the car as the light was fading, a quick check of the Hawthorn alleyway I’d been scoping all day surprisingly revealed the thrush had perched up for a last feed before dark, and we enjoyed great views just to ourselves as it scrambled through the branches above us before flying off in to the tall trees behind the houses – presumably to roost.
Black-throated Thrush - St Asaph, North Wales
Black-throated Thrush - St Asaph, North Wales
St Asaph
The gardens and houses the Black-throated Thrush had been frequenting
An absolute nightmare to catch up with and one of the most elusive birds I’ve ever twitched, it was a relief to finally get it on my 3rd attempt after over 11 hours of searching! With the Black-throated Thrush staying in the same stubble field and surrounding Hawthorns up until New Year’s Eve, there has been no sign of it since the turn of the New Year, the firework display at the New Inn pub perhaps moving it on overnight to a new patch of ground and favoured feeding spot. A great local bird to catch up with and yet another rare thrush delivered after an exceptional autumn! Overwintering Siberian Thrush now anyone?!
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