23 Nov 2015

Leach's Petrel!

With strong north westerlies for several days last week small numbers of Leach's Petrels were being reported off Hilbre & the north Wirral coast. As the winds were continuing into Saturday I headed across to Hilbre as soon as I could after the tide to do a bit of sea watching. Sure enough I soon picked up a single Leach's Petrel. A good omen I thought. Mistake! It was the only one I saw during the three hours I froze in the sea watching hide. There were actually very few birds around but a Great Northern Diver was picked out on the sea.  It was very actively diving and fishing & I soon lost it in the swell.

A female Eider rode out the storm with her head tucked under her wing with the occasional glance around to get her bearings.

As the tide receded thousands of gulls started feeding along the waters edge. Zooming up through the 'scope I could see they were feeding on Starfish & Razor Clams wrecked during the storms. The picture below shows the mass of Razor Clams washed up on one part of the beach.

Although windy and very cold the skies were clear and the visibility was good enough to see the snow covered Carnedds in N Wales.

After three hours during which I lost the feeling in my fingers I retreated to the warmth of the Obs before heading off the island. 

17 Nov 2015

Wet and windy

An early morning start Saturday saw me awake at 5 am waiting by the phone for news on the proposed canon netting session with SCAN in N Wales. A decision was being made at 6 am depending on the weather. I'd been checking the weather forecasts for the previous 24 hrs and so it was no surprise when Steve emailed me to say it was off! That left me with a simple decision - join Steve for some sea-watching off Hilbre later in the morning!

The weather was pretty grim but unfortunately the forecast gale force westerlies didn't materialise. However, our perseverance was rewarded with  5 Bonxies - including one that chased own and killed a 1st winter Herring Gull by drowning it and then proceeding to eat it - and a Skua species that we tentatively identified as a Pomarine. Good numbers of Great Crested Grebes and smaller numbers of Red-throated Divers were logged along with a small number of Guillemots and Gannets. Our vigil was made more bearable by Clare's gift of a Banana Loaf which we proceeded to devour with enthusiasm.

Star birds though were the 16 Purple Sandpipers roosting snugly on the west side and then appearing in front of the slipway as the tide ebbed.

These charismatic little waders are a feature of winters on Hilbre but in recent years their numbers have plummeted. A flock of 16 is a good number for November and hopefully will increase as the winter progresses.

The resident Rock Pipits put on a show feeding on the walls of the old lifeboat station directly in front of the seawatching hide and we were able to read the ring number from the photo's and determine this was one of the adult birds ringed in April this year.

The pipit was joined by a Pied Wagtail on several occasions but was chased off!

With the tide ebbing and the wind rising we left the hide and retired to the Obs to complete the daily log before heading off pausing only to check the waders on the tide edge and photograph a miserable looking Little Egret hunkered down out of the wind.
By now the rain was torrential and as I headed down the M53 toward home the battery warning light came on in the Landrover. Limping home I found the alternator belt had jumped off its pulleys and can only think the volume of water being thrown up off the road into the engine bay must have caused it. Sunday morning was spent cursing and swearing trying to fix it as one of the alternator bracket nuts had been rounded off!

9 Nov 2015

Crag Martin

Crag Martin is an extremely rare bird in the UK with less than 10 accepted UK records. Most have been one day birds seen by a few lucky local observers. The last twitchable one was at Flamborough Head in 2014. That one stayed a couple of days but I was in Australia.

When news broke on Sunday of one in the centre of Chesterfield only a county away in Derbyshire I didn't hear about it until late on as I'd left my phone in the house whilst working in the garden raking up leaves. A second message came out around 13.30 and I decided to head across towards Stockport and wait and see what materialised. The last news was that the bird had flown off N W and I figured it might end up at Audenshaw reservoir...................................fat chance and with the weather closing in I took the decision to head for home. A wise move as news came out that there was no further sign of the Crag Martin until dusk. That was that or so I thought but I had a lingering suspicion the poor weather meant it wouldn't have got far and would probably get relocated in the morning so I came to work prepared with binoculars and camera. Sure enough I'd hardly walked through the office door and made myself a brew before the news came out is was back flying around the crooked spire of Chesterfields famous parish church.

The weather was appalling and it seemed highly likely the bird was going to hang around at least until the rain cleared so after changing a few work commitments I set off for Chesterfield firstly passing through Stockport and then over the peaks and down into a car park directly below the church. As soon as I got out the car I could see the bird flying around the spire but by the time I'd   grabbed my binoculars it had gone again! After 30 minutes of getting wet through I decided to go back to the car and get my coat on - just as the bird reappeared. This time it hung around for 40 minutes and I enjoyed the surreal experience of watching an ultra-rare Mediterranean vagrant flying around a wet and windy Derbyshire church spire from a public car park!

The conditions for photography weren't good and I settled for a few record shots.

With news that a quorum of the Hilbre Bird Obs committee were on their way I hung around until they arrived before setting off back to the office.

The famous twisted spire of St Mary's church. Apparently the wood used for the spire was still 'green' and the whole thing twisted as the timbers dried out.+


A quick trip to Hilbre resulted in an increase in Purple Sandpiper numbers to three birds and great views of one of the local Curlews. With poor weather all weekend patch birding was confined to sitting in the conservatory watching the feeders and waiting for the appearance of the first winter Blackcap or Brambling.

3 Nov 2015

Thrushes & Goldcrests.

There's been a good movement of thrushes and Goldcrests over Hilbre recently and the spell of misty / foggy weather has grounded a few and we've caught and ringed a few Blackbirds. A quick visit to the island this morning with Chris & Colin was rewarded with a good passage of birds overhead and some on the island with Redwing, Song Thrush and four Blackbirds being ringed.

Star bird though was a first winter male Blackcap caught late morning.

As well as the thrushes there was a good movement of ducks with Wigeon, Teal, Pintail & Mallard also being logged along with a total of 7 Shoveller which are an unusual species to see on Hilbre. The first Purple Sandpiper of the autumn was recorded several weeks ago and it has been joined by two more whilst Brent Goose numbers have built up to over 120 birds with good numbers of juveniles suggesting they've had a good breeding season.

27 Oct 2015

Another week another Island - Chestnut Bunting, Papa Westray

I was in Vienna last week when Fred Fearn sent me a photo of an unusual bunting that had been found on the remote Orkney Island of Papa Westray. The bird was partially obscured but the thoughts were it was a Chestnut Bunting, a bird that so far hasn't made it to the British list due to the uncertainty about escaped cage birds in the past. This bird had all the right credentials though turning up at the same time as other Siberian vagrants on the Northern Isles such as Whites Thrush & Siberian Rubythroat. The bird was forgotten though as it had promptly disappeared and no more thought was given to going to see it.

However, the bird was re-found at the weekend and with space available on a flight I found myself picking up Al early morning and setting off for the airfield. Luckily we received news the bird was still present from the ranger on the island so we  were pretty confident! At the very least Papa was a new island for me.
Co-pilot Orton keeping an eye on proceedings in the cockpit

Jonathan (the ranger) met us of our flight and led us to where the bird was feeding unconcernedly in long vegetation. For the next couple of hours it played hide and seek occasionally showing but only partially whilst feeding voraciously.

Our patience was rewarded though when it flew onto an adjacent dry stone wall.

It showed here for a few minutes before flying over the wall into the next field and suddenly appearing below a 5 bar gate no more than a few metres from where we stood. It showed here unconcerned by human presence, occasionally feeding,  before scuttling off back to feed in its favoured area of pineapple mayweed and annual meadow grass!

A great trip and a fantastic island. Although we didn't see many other birds I did pick up a flyover Lapland Bunting and a small flock of barnacle Geese. With a relatively uneventful flight home (apart from the plane not starting and having to be jump started with the airfield fire engine!) it was a long but satisfying day.
Papa Westray International airport...........................

Hopefully this will be the 1st Chestnut Bunting on the British list! The close views gave us opportunity to check for any signs of captivity such as abnormal feather wear and broken / damaged claws.

Sunset over northern Scotland.

23 Oct 2015

More garden ringing.

The influx of Goldcrests and Coal Tits into the garden continues and follows a national trend. Three more Coal Tits were ringed recently wit ha fourth being a retrap form last month. Another Goldcrest was also ringed. Birds of interest included this adult Great Tit with a deformed bill ringed back in November 2011 as an adult making it at least 5 years old. Its bill was normal in 2011  and it looks as if the lower mandible has been broken at some point and the trauma has resulted in the whole bill growing deformed.

I also cuaght this interesting juvenile Goldfinch that had undergone an extensive post juvenile moult. Goldfinches can occasionally moult some of their primaries in their post juvenile moult but this was unusual in that it had moulted all the inner ones leaving p6 -p10 un-moulted. It had moulted most of its primary coverts leaving the outer two un-moulted and was in the process of moulting its tail. The wear on the tail and primaries was consistent with it being a juvenile bird rather than a bird born last year that had undergone an arrested moult.

Below: close up crop showing retained juvenile primaries and un-moulted primary coverts. The juvenile primary coverts are more pointed and have worn tips compared to the rounder nelwy moulted adult ones.

All interesting stuff and a final photo showing a Great Tit that had retained its two outer juvenile greater coverts during its post juvenile moult. Although Blue Tits commonly do this its much rarer in Great Tits.