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25 Oct 2014

I'm all about the Swift, about the Swift and no Cuckoo

Hurricane Gonzalo was awaited with bated breath in anticipation of what American land birds it might bring across caught up in its wake. This time of year we all watch the weather forecasts and maps trying to predict what vagrant birds may turn up. Steve & I had been discussing this very fact on Hilbre recently and although late in the autumn there is a good smattering of records including Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift and various catharus thrushes.

The first inkling that, for once, our anticipation was founded was when records of Hermit Thrush & Grey-cheeked Thrush started appearing from the northern Isles. No pressure there as I'd seen both these species in the UK. Things started hotting up when a Yellow -billed Cuckoo was found in Cornwall. This has become a seriously rare bird with the American's announcing its now on the endangered list due to loss of habitat. And relax......................I'd stumbled (literally) across one of these on Orkney whilst going en route to Shetland for the Sandhill Crane that had arrived over in similar conditions. See http://wirralbirders.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/northern-isles-part-1.html . These American Cuckoo's never seem to survive long over here and its rarely one has been seen for more than one day.

The next message had me jumping though. Black-billed Cuckoo - an even rarer bird with only a handful ever being recorded. Unfortunately it was on North Ronaldsay and a check of flight and ferry times quickly showed there was no chance of getting there the next day. When news filtered out that it had been seen landing in a tree pursued by a Merlin and then flew off it seemed reasonable to assume it probably wasn't going to be re-found or survive. Relax.

Hurricane Gonzalo was certainly delivering the goods. The next message had me cursing. Chimney Swift, Lewis, Outer Hebrides. Ouch! I'd been to York a few year ago when one of these had been reported but was then found to be an aberrant strangely moulting Swift when photo's were examined. There have only been 19 UK & Irish records of this species with the last records in 2005 when there seemed to be a bit of an invasion with the majority being short- staying birds or in Ireland. One was also seen over Woolston Eyes in Cheshire the same year but didn't hang around and another contentious bird was over Holy Island, Northumbria for an afternoon. Contentious as we'd been on the island in the morning but left before the tide and the bird was subsequently found later in the afternoon. Some people viewed it from the mainland about 1.5 miles away as it flew around the buildings but we decided that, at that distance, we weren't going to get satisfactory views so left.

Hmm. Looking at the flight options and knowing these Swifts had a reputation for not sticking around I mulled it over whilst making a few phone calls. Nothing materialised until later that evening I was at home and hte news came through it had been seen around 17.30 in the same area. Surely it would be going to roost and there was a chance it would get seen the next morning? Checking flights again I got a text off Dan Pointon. He was just driving from Cornwall back to Bristol and was interested in going for the Chimney Swift but couldn't manage the driving alone. A quick decision & we were off. Arranging to meet on the M6 in Cheshire around midnight we took my car to give Dan a rest & I drove us up to Inverness through the night to get the first flight across to Stornoway, pick up a car and drive the 20 miles up to the area where the swift had been seen. Easy........

We were on a tight schedule so I drove non-stop the full 400 miles to Inverness in 6 hours  arriving an hour before our flight. Making full use of the free food in the executive lounge the plans were falling into place nicely. We hoped to get to site just after first light knowing that quite often swifts & hirundines will only hang around for a short time before departing often never to be seen again.

Dan had texted a car hire company and they'd got the text and met us at the airport with a Fiat Panda. As I'd taken the night shift Dan took the day shift and we were soon hurtling (literally) through the Lewis countryside amid rain showers and rainbows.

Photo taken from a Fiat Panda moving at 60 mph driven by Dan Pointon.

Arriving outside at the Decca B & B (A good omen I thought - the place we stay at on Shetland is called the Decca) we were met by local birder Tony Marr and the birds finder, Nick! Tony organised a welcome cup of tea from the owners of the Decca before we split up to start looking. Nothing. As the hours rolled by we got seriously worried and started looking further afield including at the Butt of Lewis where the bird had first been seen. We found out the bird had been seen in the dark trying to roost on the side of the Decca so knew it hadn't gone anywhere overnight unless it had died after its long journey across the Atlantic. We decided to give ourselves until midday and then try looking at other sites nearby as we headed back to Stornoway. By now we'd not given up all hope but were feeling pretty despondent.

We decided on one more drive around the loch before heading south but no sooner had we completed two sides of the triangle then Tony rang to say Jenny, Who works for the RSPB on the Island, had seen it over Port Nis just the other side of a ridge from where we were! We were there in less than a minute and spent the next hour watching this American vagrant hurtling around the skies in the autumn sunshine. Tony and a couple of other  locals soon joined us and there was a grand total of sixof us watching the bird!







Fantastic! To cap it all this was my 500th UK species under British Ornithological Union classifications! Its taken me many years to get here unlike Dan who, at 24, will surely reach this milestone in the next couple of years. From my first solo 'twitch' for a Sociable Plover whilst still at school when we lived in Suffolk, through long distance car shares and hitches at university and now having a good bunch of mates who share my passion for birds and share the costs I've moostly enjoyed every minute of it!

Some people get a T shirt when they reach this milestone. Dan took a photo of me with a hand scribbled sign!


To save money we'd arranged to take the ferry back from Stornoway to Ullapool and then get a bus back to Inverness and a  second bus back to the airport to pick my car up. Giving Nick a lift to the boat we were soon tucking into some well earned food before trying (unsuccessfully) to get some desperately needed sleep before the long drive home. Four hours later we were back at Inverness and fueling up at the local Tesco's (me with diesel and Dan with more food!) before heading home to Cheshire.

I've known Dan since 2006 when, as a callow youth, I took him to twitch a Pallid Harrier in Winterton Norfolk when he was 16! A great lad even though his trainers nearly killed me when he took them off in  the car on the way home last night. We had a good craic on this trip.

Arriving home around 02.30 am exactly 27 hours after I'd left on Thursday night I had some toast, a well needed shower and slept in until 11 am this morning.






20 Oct 2014

Autumn gales.

We've not had any N W gales year this year to blow any Leach's petrels into Liverpool bay. This weekend was no exception but with the wind firmly in the SW blowing force 7-8 I still decided to make the trip across to Hilbre following the tide out Sunday morning in the hope that a Yellow-browed Warbler might have showed up. Unfortunately the idea was right just the place was wrong with Jane having one in her garden just across the sand in West Kirby!

Despite the wind the weather was beautiful and very warm. As the tide was just ebbing the waders were close in and I had great views using the Landrover as a hide.

Several hundred Cormorants were on the tides edge between Little Eye and the Tanskies.


Between Middle and Hilbre this Curlew was busy catching small crabs. It was fascinating to watch it probe its bill into the bladder wrack and come up with a small crab. It then tossed it in the air before catching it the right way round to swallow.


 Oystercatchers were present in their thousands but I couldn't make out any colour ringed birds although  I did pick out two birds with metal rings on their right legs.
 Good numbers of Redshank  were also feeding along the newly exposed shoreline.
 A few Ringed Plover flew in to feed.


Star bird though was this very late Sandwich Tern hunkered down in with the the roosting gulls.

Despite the wind direction not being conducive to migration there were a few land birds around on the island with a female Chaffinch in the Observatory garden and a Reed Bunting appearing in the SK paddock. Later a Wheatear appeared in flight down the sheltered east side and was seen to land on the beach at the south end.

Back at home the highlight of the weekend was a skein of 40-50 Pinkfeets that flew calling over the house late Sunday afternoon.

14 Oct 2014

Oystercatchers.

As I was feeling slightly better Sunday I spent the day in the beautiful autumnal sunshine canon netting Oystercatchers in North Wales with SCAN.

A leisurely start saw us meeting up at 08.45 and setting three nets along a shingle ridge well before the high tide. The next three hours were spent lying down in a sandy hollow listening to the radio chatter but not being able to see where the birds were. We had couple of false alarms when we thought we had a reasonable number of birds in the catching area but they got spooked. Finally Steve gave the order to be ready and he remotely fired the canons.

Racing from our position after lying dormant for three hours wasn't the best warm up ever designed and there were a few cramped falls and tweaked muscles!

After covering with sheets of  hessian to keep them calm experienced people extracted birds from the net and passed them to runners to put into holding cages where they were kept warm and calm before ringing and processing. Photo below shows the ringing team and the holding cages with team hound, Noko, showing a complete disregard for whats going on around her.


Quite a few retraps from previous years were caught including some of our previous colour ringed birds. Star bird though was one I extracted with a combination of black and white colour rings - not one of our combinations. When processed it was found to be wearing a ring from the Icelandic ringing scheme!!!

All birds were weighed and had their total head / bill depth measured as this gives an indication of the sex ratio between males and females. Most of the birds were adults and in various states of moult - see photo below:

Oystercatcher having total head / bill and bill depth measurements taken by Ros. Females have sharper bills whilst males have blunter deeper bills. This enables them to utilise slightly different food sources avoiding competition in severe weather.

Eye colour changes with age in Oystercatchers with adults having a deep red eye whilst juveniles are muddy brown. Quite a few of the birds had 'blown' irises as can be seen from the photo's below. The reason for this is not really well known but a study of Black Oystercatchers in New Zealand suggests it may be related to the sex of the bird being more common in females.


A great day with around 350 Oystercatchers being caught and processed. Once again there were quite a few undergraduates from the Bangor University Bird Club present and hopefully a few will be keen enough to come again and start training as the next generation of ringers.

9 Oct 2014

Shetland day 8. Lanceolated Warbler.

We were all up early around 06.00 to pack  our belongings and clean the apartment before heading back to Quendale via a quick stop off at Hoswick where we found a Shetland rarity - Great Tit!
. Before we arrived at Quendale the news had come out that our Lanceolated Warbler was still there and with a beautiful sunny day and a distinct lack of wind we headed off in the hope it would show much better. It did!!!!! Job done.







In better light with no rain and with a dry bird all the features could be seen and there were congratulations all round from the small group of assembled birders. It even had the decency to pose out in the open for a few minutes basking in the sun.
Happy Lanceolated Warbler watchers - the bird was in the irises just below the bank and there were a similar number of people my side.

With time pressing we decided to go back to Levenwick for a last view of the Siberain Rubythroat before heading towards Sumburgh and the airport for the journey home.




Due to a technical fault our pane from Sumburgh got cancelled so we missed our connection in Aberdeen to Manchester. We ended up getting diverted to Birmingham and then getting a taxi back to Manchester to collect my car at  gone midnight! Despite this the whole trip was fantastic with good company, a few laughs, a few more beers and some superb birds. It was also great to meet up with local bird watchers such as Rebecca Nason, Phil Harris, Hugh Harrop, Jim Nicholson, Rob fray, Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington again. The roll of the birding dice meant I'd got to see two of the Shetland big four specialities this year despite not seeing any of them in the last eight years!



Shetland day 7. Locustella madness


The penultimate day of our trip. With gale force S & SE easterly winds for the last few days surely there was something big to find out there? With rain showers still  swirling around us and Sean & Al electing to stay in the warmth it was left to me, Mark & Chris to get togged up and go out looking for birds. First stop was Helendale, in Lerwick, where we searched the mature gardens for new migrants. It soon became obvious that there had been a major movement of Robins, Warblers and Thrushes during the night. They were everywhere! I commented to Chris & Mark that  I thought we were going to find something good today.............

With the weather improving though still very windy we returned to the apartment to pick up Al & Sean. Deciding  heading south was a good bet and checked areas in Hoswick, Scalloway and Channerwick adding yet more Yellow-browed Warblers and another Barred Warbler to the list.

Pinkfooted Geese, Qunedale

 I love Quendale and wading through the burn and iris beds. It typifies what Shetland birding is all about. Getting your wellies on and staggering through swampy iris beds looking for good birds. Anyway, that's where we ended up. Chris  & I amp;  elected for the hard slog up the burn whilst the others checked the lower burn and around the farm. Already it was obvious new birds had arrived - a juvenile Yellow Wagtail was fresh in as was a Garden Warbler and Whinchat. As we walked the iris beds and burn uphill good numbers of commoner migrants such as Blackcap, Chiffchaff,  Robins, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds and Redwings materialised in front of us.  With the two of us walking in parallel one each side of the burn we were about 2/3 way up towards the quarry when Chris yelled 'what the f**k was that, what the f**k was that'. All I could see was a Redwing that landed miles away on the edge of  a fence line but he was pointing further forward to an iris bed just out of my line of sight.

Walking slowly forward a small dark looking warbler flushed in front of us and flew low for another few metres before dropping into the iris beds again. This was looking good!!! I think at this stage both of us were fully adrenalined up and had our suspicions. Once again the bird was flushed and we both yelled out 'its a locustella'  - on Shetland that means its probably rare - either a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler or Lanceolated Warbler. Both birds are hard to connect with even on Shetland and in 8 years of coming every autumn I'd still not seen either Another move forward another flush - this time the bird streaked off low and into a rabbit burrow before heading back into the irises. By now we knew we needed help. Our suspicions were Palla's Grasshopper Warbler based on the dark tail but I had my nagging doubts about the size - it looked smaller than the Grasshopper Warblers I'm used to seeing on Hilbre! In reality there is only 1 cm difference between the two birds with Lanceolated being the smallest so trying to assess size was probably pointless. With 35-40 mile gusts of wind trying to pin this down was going to be a nightmare. My phone record shows it was 16.28 when I rang mark and told him to get the others up here as soon as they could as Chris & I'd found a locustella, possibly a PG Tips (the birders  acronym for Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler). Chris & I knew where the bird had last been seen to fly into an iris bed but we also knew locustella's run like little feathered mice. Frustratingly I looked through the binoculars down towards Quendale mill and could see the others dawdling along without a care in the world. With the light already fading what were they playing at? Another call to Mark had a comical affect as suddenly they started moving at twice the speed. Mark had misheard what I'd said and thought we'd found an Olive-backed Pipit. I think he needs to get his ears syringed! Once the Chinese whispers had been overcome and he got the full message there was a dramatic increase in urgency.

Spreading out we walked the iris birds each side of the burn and once again the bird flew off in front of us, keeping low and dropping either into the irises or into the long grass and scurrying away. This was going to be very hard work. Realising the best thing to do was try and get photo's and then establish the identification from those rather than the other way around Al told Chris to concentrate on  to get some shots. The bird perched up in view in the long grass briefly allowing us all to get binoculars on it for an instant and for Chris to rattle off a few shots. In that instant I thought it was a Lancelated Warbler and voiced that opinion but the combination of seemingly all dark tail and undertail coverts with no spots seemed to point towards Pallas's.  By now we'd rung RBA and the news had gone out so we waited for other birders to arrive in  the hope reinforcements would help clinch the identification. With a few more bodies and the light fading fast we saw the bird in flight several more times before it flew into the quarry. We then decided to leave it as it was almost dark and hopefully it would roost overnight. The general consensus from those that had seen it was Palla's Grasshopper Warbler..................




With Sean, Al and Mark going to the pub for s couple of pints with Fearn, who met us in Tesco's car park, Chris  & I returned to the Decca. After a shower I wrote three pages of notes on what I'd seen before we looked at the photo's. It was only when we reviewed the photos' Chris had managed to get with Fred Fearn that we realised we'd made a mistake. We'd made the mistake of trying to match the features to fit our preconceived ideas (and everyone else s) of what species we thought it was rather than looking at it with an open mind. Fred got us doing that...........In retrospect the head pattern screamed Lanceolated Warbler and we realised the dark tail was  due to the bird being extremely wet. Similarly the undertail coverts were also wet and even though the bird appeared 'capped'  with a supercillium the head pattern wasn't contrasting enough for Pallas's Grasshopper ! A late night ensued as we downed a few beers and put photo's up on bird forum and twitter for people to comment. My mobile phone was ringing with friends on Shetland wanting updates and directions. The general consensus was Lanceolated Warbler and an email conversation with local expert Paul Harvey confirmed it. Chris's final photo nailed it. Only Lancie has faint streaks on the throat. We'd found a Lanceolated Warbler!!!!! A bird I'd been waiting to see for years and we'd found it ourselves. I couldn't sleep that night at all. Tomorrow was a our last day....



Day 6 Shetland. Soggy Redpolls & Little Buntings.

The weather has been truly horrendous but a clear window of windy but dry weather meant we could get out and about early morning. First thing on the agenda was the short drive to Veensgarth as Mark had never seen Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll. We soon located the bird with two Meally Redpolls and a Lesser Redpoll. Not as impressive as some of the Hornemann's I've seen on Shetland and I'm not entirely convinced!


Two Common (Mealy) Redpolls above and the Arctic below:


Whilst there news broke of a Raddes Warbler at Sumburgh and with Chris never having seen one we all drove south only to find the bird had been found moribund beneath a car and placed in a potato field. It was last seen staggering with its eyes shut and had probably died. A real shame as Raddes have got increasingly scarce in the last few years. A Long-eared Owl sheltering beneath a dry stone wall was small consolation. 

Deciding to try Wester Quarff, as we reasoned it would be slightly less windy, we went first to Boddam where another Little Bunting was showing reasonably well by the side of the road.


We found the bird easily enough and searched other likely spots in the area finding yet another Yellow - Browed Warbler before heading for Wester Quarff.

Our hunch appeared right as local gardens were full if Bramblings & Redwings along with a Willow Warbler & a few Blackcaps. Highlight for me was finding my own Little Bunting. That's my 5th this year including the Hilbre bird.


By now the weather had seriously deteriorated. It wasn't worth staying out to get soaking wet so early afternoon we retired back to our apartment.


Wester Quarff- the field where I found the Little Bunting is just to the right of the left hand white bungalow.

Day 5 Shetland. Ruby, ruby ,ruby

Man flu! The worst kind. It's laid me low and the inclement weather doesn't help. Still I managed to get out & about with the first stop being a second look at the Siberian Rubythroat that had gone missing and not reliably reported from its original garden yesterday. Al C & Steve W had come up from Cheshire for it but locally it was relocated in another garden about 400 m away late Saturday afternoon. 

The bird showed a lot better today and was doing a circuit of the garden and frequently appearing on the drive. 



A search if the areas around Hoswick & Channerwick resulted in finding 2 Barred Warblers and an elusive Bluethroat. Whilst I returned to the apartment Chris & Al Orton took a drive to nearby Tingwall to see if they could see the Paalid Harrier. Not a sign but they did jam in on an Arctic Redpoll.

After cooking a roast lamb dinner for the lads I retired to bed at 8.30 pm. Even a couple of Bowmore malts didn't help the man flu.