6 Oct 2017

Scilly's double header - Cedar Waxwing & Cliff Swallow.

Hot on the heels of my last trip to the Isles of Scilly last year for an American Cliff Swallow (see here ) news broke of another one  found on Tresco! Following the Minsmere bird last year thats now three in three years. Chill pill taken I relaxed and didn't think anymore about it until the news broke that a Cedat Waxwing had turned up on St Agnes. Chill pill suddenly tasting bitter - there've been a few records over the last few years but no twitchable birds since the Nottingham bird in 1996!

Plans were made for a couple of days on Scilly's then cancelled then an alternative plan was made. Booing return flights from Nequay we reckoned it was possible t oget there and back in less than 24 hrs. Game on. I do love a challenge.......

It was arranged that Stu would meet me, Malc and mark on the M56 and head down in his car as mine was booked in to the garage. Mark would pick me up at 01.15 to meet up with Stu and Malc at 02.00. We'd drive though the night and get the08.45 across to St Marys and then have a quick look for the Cliff Swallow for Stuart then get the 10.15 boat to St Agnes. Great - a workable plan.............

Only it didn't quite happen like that......ringing Mark told me he'd left his photo I.D at home so had to return for it and was going to be 15 minutes late. I started walking along the lanes to meet him and save a bit of time as we were on a tight schedule. I'd got about a mile and a half before I saw his headlights coming towards me. Bad news. Somehow he'd got lost, taken a wrong turn and hit a curb. His front tyre was completely flat. No problem, 5 minutes to change the wheel and we'd be on our way. 'Ummm, Mark, wheres the wheel brace'? 'What wheel brace. Dunno mate'. Shit. We had no choice but to limp back to mine, grab some tools and change the wheel in the pouring rain and pitch black on an unlit lane. Managing to take a chunk out of my finger and bleeding like a stuck pig the wheel was duly changed and we set off after warning the others we'd be at least 30 minutes late.

'Mark, we need this turning'.
'No, its the next one'.......

We ended up on the M6 at Lymn and having to do a quick turn round as we'd missed the correct junction.

It was blowing a gale and the rain was biblical. Stewart did a great driving job and we arrived at Newquay airport in the dark at around 07.30 to be told the bad weather wasn't moving through as fast as the weather forecast had promised and our flight was likely to be delayed until at least 10.00!

Agghhhhh. Luckily, we had a back up plan. We were going to miss the scheduled boat to St Agnes but had a telephone number for a charter boat. A quick chart with other birders at the airport and we'd arranged the Falcon for £50.00 between 7 of us on a one way trip. We also arranged a minibus to take us directly from the airport to the quayside. Fantastic. Game on again. We eventually took off around 10.15 and the rest of the arrangements went like clockwork.

The Cedar Waxwing had been a bit elusive but we struck lucky. After a 10 minute walk from the Quayside we found a small group watching the bird and for the next 2-3 hours we kept a respectable distance and watched as it fed on coprosma berries and then retreated into the bushes to digest its meal.

What a smart little bird - I even heard it call once. A long drawn out trill, higher pitched and more weedy sounding than our normal Bohemian Waxwings.

With Stuart still not having seen the Cliff Swallow we decided to head to the Turks Head for a dressed crab salad and a drink before getting the scheduled boat back to St Mary's at 14.15. Arranging with our friendly cab driver to meet us at the Quay.

The Swallow was getting seen regularly at the airfield and was actually flying around our plane when we landed but by the time we got off birders watching it told us it had headed towards New Town. Deciding that was a good starting point we instructed our driver to head that way. As soon as we got there we met Chris Webb (Spider) who pointed it out flying around the airport buildings! Fantastic and with the sun out the Cliff Swallow put on a display along with the local Swallows and House Martins  for the next few hours until our flight home! With an Isabelline Wheatear on the grass surrounding the runway it was a case of East meets West.

This time I did have my camera and although it was moving so fast photography was virtually impossible I did manage a few record shots.

The Issy Wheatear was always on view and provided a nice distraction when the swallow occasionally flew out of sight.

Our flight actually left early so we arrived in Newquay ahead of schedule at 18.15 so we managed a good hour of the drive in daylight in vastly improved weather conditions than on the way down. An uneventful journey was enlivened by lots of banter and laughter and before we knew it we were back at our meeting point where  I off loaded my gear and Mark drove me home.  I eventually arrived at 11.55 and climbed straight into my much needed bed.

Mark trying to be inconspicuous behind a rock whilst photographing the Waxwing.

2 Oct 2017

Pallid Harrier on the Dee estuary - potentially a 1st for Cheshire.

Pallid harrier is one of those rarities that seem to have got commoner over the last decade as they've increased their breeding range westwards into Finland. A pair also bred for the 1st time in Holland this year and there was a long staying male displaying at Bowland. With a winter harrier roost off parkgate Old Baths we've been hoping for a Pallid Harrier for some time - especially as their now almost expected on our annual Shetland jaunt. The 1st one I ever saw was when I was working in Finland in 1983 when it was still scarce over there and I twitched it with a mad group of Finnish birders. The first UK one I saw was the juvenile at Winterton, Norfolk in June 2006 - I took a very young Dan Pointon along with me! Photo's of this bird I took are below:

When Alan Davies reported he'd seen an interesting, small, long winged harrier distantly on the Dee estuary last week my interest was aroused. Unfortunately I couldn't get down during the week and after a few days with no news it was temporarily forgotten. Until the weekend............

Independently both Eddie Williams and Mark Garner saw it and both confirmed it was a Pallid Harrier. Mark P arranged to come to our house and we travelled the short distance to the marshes in pouring rain to find we'd just missed the harrier by a few minutes! It was quite a social gathering of Cheshire & Wirral's finest waiting patiently in the pouring rain. At this point the bird was tentatively being aged as an adult female, not a juvenile, and to make things even more confusing there was a ring-tailed Hen Harrier in the same location that some people were watching whilst others were watching the Pallid Harrier! It didn't help when people claimed they'd seen it then asked what it looked like and what the identifying features were. No wonder the bird information services got their undies in a twist on the Sunday and were putting out Pallid / Hen Harrier!

After a long wait the bird appeared again and flew past at distance before pitching down into the marsh where it spent the next 90 minutes barely visible. A Hen harrier appeared and we were all watching that and comparing diagnostic features when the Pallid decided to fly again! This time it put on a good show to an appreciative audience and video footage and photo's were obtained seemingly proving it was an adult female.

Mindful of the spectre of hybridisation with Hen Harrier (common in Finland) a great deal of attention was paid to the all important wing formula. Jack Ashton Booth's blog was great help in this respect:

A bird we also saw at Loch Hillwell, Shetland that had been apparently oiled by a Fulmar also caused a lot of discussion at the time. See here:

Overall we were happy it was a sub adult female rather than a juvenile. I didn't take my camera with me because of the pouring rain. Luckily Simon Slade was braver than me and took the pictures below.

A great afternoons birding with great company, a good craic, some good discussion and some good birds. As well as the Pallid Harrier there was a supporting cast of 3 Short-eared Owls (all in the air together), Hen Harrier, at least 3 different Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Peregrine and Kestrel as well as at least 2 Great-white Egrets (seen together).

26 Sep 2017

Calidris canutus - Knot ringing at Altcar

An invitation to help canon netting Knot as part of  long term colour flagging / marking project came my way recently and  I couldn't resist. The project was instigated with the following aims in mind:

The aim of catching at Formby Point is to colour mark a sample of Knot as part of a long running study in Norway and Iceland trying to show the differences in migration routes to Greenland and Canada of the Icelandica knot.  Typically in spring and autumn very few Knot on the West coast are being seen with colour marks.  This increases over winter and drops again in spring.  Colour marking birds in Autumn, along with recording moult, should provide an insight into whether these birds generally migrate via Iceland rather than the more traditionally studied route via Norway.

A lot of behind the scenes work went on to get permission off the MOD to access the site via Altcar training camp and a large team of people from SCAN, South West Lancs Ringing Group & Hilbre Bird Observatory duly turned up at the gatehouse with the required identification.

Nets were set on the beach where Knot had been congregating over previous high tides and the waiting game began....... so did the rain. Lying quietly, virtually motionless and out of site in the dunes in a rain storm waiting for the feathered canutes to decide they couldn't force the tide to turn wasn't exactly pleasant.

The view from base camp - it looks a bit grim!

As part of the base camp team we couldn't see anything and daren't show ourselves incase  we disturbed the birds but as the high tide came closer we could hear the sounds of Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling and Grey Plover all around us. 

Finally the order to fire came and we ran down to the net to make sure it was clear of the water and start extracting the birds. Only then did we realise how big a catch we'd made. 

Once the birds were safely extracted and put into holding cages to keep them safe, dry and warm we set about building a temporary ringing station with gazebos, tarpaulins and tents to try and provide some shelter from the intermittent rain showers.

Pop up ringing station.

What a catch! 
Final totals were: 1155 Knot (only 8 juveniles though) including 44 controls.

One of the few juvenile Knot showing typical scaly plumage. Sanderling and Knot breed in the same areas and have obviously had a very poor breeding season.

                               374 Sanderling (only 12 juveniles) including 46 controls of which 3 were from   
                                 75 Dunlin (46 juveniles) including 2 controls including 1 from Norway
                                   4 Grey Plover - all adults.
A grand total of 1,610 birds - the biggest catch by a long margin that I've ever been involved with. 

I even got a new species to add to my list of birds ringed when I was fortunate enough to be able to ring one of the Grey Plover. What stunning birds. 

 However, this is what the day was all about. Colour ringed Knot.

Please keep an eye out for these birds - we've already had one sighted on the Wirral, 10 km from the ringing site, the next day! 

After a gruelling but satisfying day I got home around 19.00 had a curry, a few beers and a shower (well, actually, it was beer, curry, beer, shower, beer) and set the alarm to do it all again with the SCAN team the following morning. This time it was N Wales and the target species was Oystercatcher! Another good catch was made but this time the weather was warm and dry. 

21 Sep 2017

A few recent garden birds.

The new patch / garden list is now up to 95 species with the addition of a flyover Green Sandpiper that presumably was disturbed from one of the several local ponds.We've also recently had the first winter Pinkfeet over and there has been a small but continuous movement of Meadow Pipits.

Here's a few shots I've taken from the bedroom window recently!

 Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker
 Male House Sparrow

Juvenile Robin
Female / juv Blackcap

18 Sep 2017

Bonxie - Hilbre

Another Hilbre visit  at the weekend with Al & Steve. Waiting for my lift in the dark at West Kirby the sound of waders calling filled the air. Dunlin, Redshank & Oystercatchers were all on the move. Arriving at the Obs as the sun was just beginning to rise we were greeted by the call of a Goldcrest and a Robin 'ticking' nearby. A quick round of the traps was rewarded with a solitary Goldcrest that was duly ringed and released. Whilst Al was making a brew he called me to look through the kitchen window at 2 Chiffchaff that were flitting around the bushes. At least 3 Wheatears were also on. One of the Chiffchaffs found its way into a heligoland trap thus doubling the total number of birds ringed for the day.

Three different Rock Pipits were seen and two more dropped out of the sky calling and landed on the west side cliffs and there was a small passage of swallow.

All the waders and gulls on Middle Eye were behaving a bit strangely and kept flying up and circling around. A couple of Peregrines were around and this seemed to be the cause of the disturbance. However, they all seemed to abandon Middle Eye which seemed very unusual. All was revealed when a Bonxie was spotted by Al flying off the beach at the south end of Hilbre and over the Obs before flying off north.

What a bruiser!

With the tide ebbing far enough to drive off we left the island only to be momentarily distracted by a Rock Pipit perched up on the cliff alongside the vehicle ramp. Using Al's car as a hide I managed  couple of decent shots through the open window.

Another great morning.

15 Sep 2017

Hilbre and a close encounter with a grebe!

For the first time for several years the weather gods colluded to give us prolonged north westerlies - Leach's weather! With my Landrover still off the road Steve kindly lent me his for a quick afternoon trip to Hilbre accompanied by Col & Kenny.

The tide was already flooding three hours before high tide when we set off from West Kirby. A stranded Great -crested Grebe was spotted on the rocks adjacent to the Landrover track by Middle Eye and Kenny leapt out of the vehicle and caught it. Grebes can't take off on or walk well on land as their legs are so far back. A quick examination showed it didn't appear to be injured and was probably exhausted - in fact Kenny sustained more injuries than the grebe had in trying to rescue it!

Arriving at the Obs we put it into a large bag to keep and warm and calm with the intention of releasing at at high tide.

Leachs Petrels were spotted from the Obs balcony almost on arrival and after a quick brew we headed down towards the sea-watching hide with the grebe in its bag for release.

It dived under water immediately it was released and we last saw it swimming back out to sea.

A good seawatch ensued with 16 Leach's Petrels being tallied along with 3 Arctic Skuas, Manx Shearwater and a pristine summer plumaged Black-throated Diver. We also had 6 Black Terns including 5 in one flock and numerous Sandwich terns but only two Kittiwakes.

31 Aug 2017

Long shadows

Long shadows and darker evenings - autumn is certainly on its way. Gossamer in the morning dew, brilliant sunsets and ripening apples on our trees. More sure signs the autumn equinox is on its way. The red berries of Cuckoo Pint make a brilliant splash of colour beneath in the dark areas beneath the hedges in the garden. Amphibians are already hibernating and an early morning collection of an unused pallet of paving slabs revealed a bewildered Toad. I moved him to the shed where he crawled underneath to find a new resting place. The Little Owl is already moving around and proclaiming his territory and wasn't best pleased to see me standing in the garden at 6.15 this morning with a mug of tea.

On the birding front my UK BOU list has increased by one as last years mad dash to Minsmere to see
what was (and now is) potentially the first UK record of Western Swamphen was worthwhile as its now been accepted on to the British list.
See here for report of that trip