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, 25 May 2017

The Great Reed Warbler chase - Albert Village Lake in Leicestershire!

Great Reed Warbler is a species I’d not yet managed to catch up with in the UK – not quite mega enough to warrant a 4 hour trip to Norfolk or Suffolk but sufficiently rare enough that only a small sprinkling of records occur in Britain each year. Bar a 1 day individual that took up residence in the West Midlands back in May 2015 (unfortunately on a weekday!) there hadn’t been any other birds nearby to twitch in recent years which meant Great Reed Warbler had remained off my list. 
Great Reed Warbler - Albert Village Lake, Leicestershire
Great Reed Warbler - a master of hide and seek!
Therefore, when reports surfaced of an individual found singing in the reeds at Albert Village Lake in Leicestershire a few weeks ago, I was keen to get down there to see if we could connect. Making the 2 ½ journey down to the midlands, we were soon approaching the southern reedbed the bird had been found in that morning, reports of it being extremely elusive playing on our minds and eyeing the grey rainclouds overhead ominously, hoping they would hold out until the evening.

Spotting several scopes on the opposite bank trained towards the reedbed, it transpired there was a 50/50 chance of picking the right viewpoint – heading over to the other side for distant views as the bird flew between the reeds or stick on the main reedbed side and hope the warbler revealed itself! Immediately hearing the distinctive scratchy and deafeningly loud song emanating from a nearby Hawthorn, we gathered round and hoped this impressive warbler would shortly make an appearance. 4 hours later, we were still waiting….

Tantalisingly close and a metre or so away at one point, it’s fair to say that the Great Reed most definitely won the game of hide and seek, teasing us with its song but refusing to show.
Albert Village Lake, Leicestershire
The reedbed at Albert Village Lake that the Great Reed Warbler favoured
As the afternoon wore on and with silence on the singing front for the past half an hour, we were just about to throw in the towel when our songster started up again, a brief glimpse obtained as it bombed down in to the bottom of the reed edge right next to the lake. Frustratingly we could see the reeds moving as it worked its way along, but just couldn’t see it due to the thick vegetation! Luckily at this point, fellow birder Jake Gearty (who had been watching it from the other side of the lake) ran back to the let the crowd on our side know it was on view and visible from the opposite edge – cue a frantic dash around the lake! 

After a few tense moments when the bird had disappeared, the Great Reed finally gave itself up, proceeding to work its way along the edge of the reeds, occasionally perching on an exposed stem to belt out its song, audible even at this range. Luckily I managed a handful of distant record shots – extremely hard when the bird was constantly on the move! Despite the distance, the extreme size difference from our regular Reed Warblers was apparent, as was the huge bill as it stopped to sing. Success, relief, and after 4 hours patiently waiting we had finally nailed our target. Proof that perseverance does eventually pay off! 
Great Reed Warbler - Albert Village Lake, Leicestershire
With the rain now threatening to break and the Great Reed retreating back in to the reedbed, we decided to call it a day, admiring the displaying male ducks in the bay as we passed and feeling exceptionally glad that we’d took a chance and tried our luck! 

Monday, 22 May 2017

Beautiful Bempton - but no Black-browed Albatrosses!

Albatrosses are truly a thing of awe – masters of the open oceans and enough to make any land based birder go weak at the knees at the prospect of seeing one cruise past on a seawatch off a British headland. Having never seen an albatross of any kind in either British waters or elsewhere, the thought of a Black-browed Albatross frequenting the seabird cliffs of Bempton RSPB was more than enough to tempt us up to Yorkshire for an all-weekend albatross stake-out.
Black-browed Albatross at Bempton - Joe Fryer
12 year old Joe Fryer's amazing Black-browed Albatross photos from Bempton!
First seen and photographed last Saturday by an eagle-eyed 12 year old boy and his Grandad, there had since been a subsequent two more reported sightings during the week from Bartlett Nab viewpoint at Bempton, when the bird was apparently seen flying close in to the cliffs. With no photographs to accompany these two reports however, there has been doubt cast by some amidst possible confusion for the unwary with immature Gannets, but without photographic evidence, who can honestly say they would have instantly believed a 12 year old excitedly running into the RSPB Visitor Centre claiming an albatross!

As to be expected, despite a Saturday and Sunday vigil through rain and shine watching from the cliffs, we didn’t even catch a sniff of the albatross, the bird being reported still from Sylt in Germany on the Saturday evening (having been roosting for 4 hours with swans on the lake at Rantumbrecken while we were battling torrential rain on the cliffs hoping it would pitch up there!) putting paid to any realistic hopes it might materialise off Bempton. Indeed, further reports surfaced later on the Sunday that the bird was still present at Sylt that morning (though we didn’t see this until after we were back!).

Nevertheless, the spectacle of the seabird city that is Bempton was enough to keep us occupied during the weekend, with Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Guillemots galore, along with firm seabird favourite the Puffin putting in several appearances. It was also great to be able to watch the Gannets up close, a small group perched on the cliffs in front of the viewpoint offering a fantastic insight in to their secret oceanic world and providing front row seats to their mesmerising courtship displays and neck dancing.
Gannets - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire
Not albatrosses...
Gannets - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire
...but still every bit as beautiful
With the albatross now seemingly back frequenting the German island of Sylt, having been reported there from Thursday onwards after its sojourn across the North Sea, now that it is aware that Bempton and its thousands of breeding Gannets exists, there is every chance that it could return in the future and settle down for a spell in Yorkshire - in which case we most certainly will be back for another albatross stake out! Indeed it seems to be becoming increasingly disenchanted from its previous favoured spot of Heligoland in Germany, and after realising that no breeding success is to be had there, could well venture further afield in the North Sea in search of a mate.

Having first rocked up at Heligoland back in 2014 this is not the first time the albatross has ventured across the North Sea either - underwing patterns revealed that the Fair Isle bird back on the 28th May last year was one and the same, having made a day trip over to Shetland from Germany, while the presumed same individual was remarkably photographed resting on a pool at Minsmere in Suffolk back on the 12th July 2015. With huge potential to turn up on the east coast, particularly when there have been no recent sightings over in Germany, it could certainly pay off by keeping a watchful eye from Bempton or any other prominent east coast headlands.

For up to date albatross sightings in Germany, it is best to check the ornitho.de website here, where all the recent sightings are displayed in the right hand column, or through the search function.
Ornitho.de
With perhaps the most famous Northern Hemisphere albatross “Albert” taking up residence for almost 30 years in various Gannet colonies off Scotland (Bass Rock from 1967-1969 and Hermaness in Shetland from 1972-1995) as well as an albatross frequenting the Gannetry at Sula Sgeir during the spring and summers of 2005-2007 for several days each year, hopefully another ‘breeding’ bird will take up residence in a British Gannet colony once more during our lifetime!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Skydancer - Pallid Harrier at the Forest of Bowland

Living in England, male Hen Harriers are not a sight I get to see very often. Driving along a stretch of grassy meadows sadly doesn’t yield a floating figure quartering over the fields as it does in Spain and other European countries, and instead numbers have now been depleted to just a few upland breeding sites – if they can cling on amongst the gunfire that besieges them that is. My first ever male Hen Harrier was an individual at Parkgate Marshes many years ago, a ghostly figure hunting distantly on the horizon, no more than a grey spec on the far away skyline. Fast forward several years and I haven’t seen another male Hen Harrier in England since – a very sad sign of the times indeed.

Therefore when a male Pallid Harrier (even more stunning than a male Hen Harrier) was reported as being present at the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire just before the bank holiday weekend - observed displaying and even nest building - it was simply too good of an opportunity to be missed to catch up with this impressive individual. Having seen a juvenile Pallid Harrier down in Somerset a few years ago, this wasn’t a new bird for either myself or Alex, but with only a very small handful of male Pallid Harriers making it over to our shores compared to juveniles, we couldn’t resist going to see this graceful beauty for ourselves.
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Making the gruelling 4km treck to the best viewing spot along the winding hillside, we were immediately met by a hauntingly pale figure quartering over the moors, swooping down and gliding swiftly along the valley bottom, white wings shining out as he twisted and turned in the air. Glorious, and the tiring journey up to the moors was soon forgotten as we watched him perform.
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Over the course of the next two hours the crowd watched on in awe as our ghostly visitor completed several circuits over the hillside, often sat perched preening on the fence posts for periods at a time as well as bringing small sticks back to the nest site on several occasions, spindly twigs held tightly in his bright yellow feet.
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
With a pattern soon emerging of crossing over the road to our right and swooping back overhead, eventually the moment happened that his captive audience had been waiting for, and to appreciative woops and gasps our male Pallid Harrier begun to skydance. Tumbling through the air with extreme grace and speed, wings twisting in a remarkable butterfly-esque style while his trilling call echoed out over the valley, he had the crowd of 30 or so birders completely mesmerised and hooked on his every move.

Sheer beauty, and to have a male Pallid Harrier skydancing over your head is a thing of enchanting magic. Without doubt this was one of the most exquisite birds I’ve seen, and to watch him perform was an absolute privilege. For anyone thinking of going, but hasn’t yet got around to it or who may be put off by the long walk – go! You won’t regret it!
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Pallid Harrier - Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Hopefully the amount of attention the Pallid Harrier is receiving will save him from the unwelcome persecution from gamekeepers in the area - indeed, it’s lucky that it was a birdwatcher that discovered him before the guns did. Sadly though, his aerial acrobatics will most probably be in vain, as the lack of Hen Harriers (and raptors in general) during our walk in the Forest of Bowland area was startling. With the likelihood of a female Pallid Harrier stumbling upon his airtime show almost nil, it seems the chances of a female Hen Harrier joining him at the nest (as was the case in Orkney in 1995) are just as depressingly slim.
Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
Emperor Moth
Emperor Moth
Male Emperor Moth!! What an amazing creature!
With the added bonus of our first ever Emperor moth causing excitement on the moors, as well as a supporting cast of Dipper, Common Sandpipers and Grey Wagtails on the brook, we were exceptionally glad we made the effort to head up to Lancashire to see this incredible bird and endure the tiring 5 mile round walk - although our aching legs and weary feet were nothing a tasty sausage batch once home couldn’t sort out!

For information on where is best to view the Pallid Harrier from, check out the directions page from the RSPB.

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