26 May 2023

Red Kite from the garden

Red Kite is a scarce but increasingly commonly sighted bird in Cheshire. I've only ever seen one before in the village - until recently. I'd arranged with Alan H to go and check Pied Flycatcher nest boxes with him and was waiting for him to arrive when  I got a phone call from a friend just down the lane from us.

'Where are you?'

'Just abut to leave home, why?'

'There's a Red Kite behind our houses in the silage field'

Cue panic as  I tried to see it from the bedroom window whilst John was trying to give me directions. Grabbing the binoculars I ran outside into the garden and got it as it was circling over the railway line just as Alan pulled up. Giving him my binoculars I ran back into the house and grabbed the camera to get some record shots. 

They've been cutting silage in the fields recently and this has attracted a large number of corvids and Lesser  Black-backed Gulls. I think these, in turn, attracted the Kite which was last seen heading north pursued by corvids! 

Apparently this , or another bird, was seen the previous day over the old Mollington golf course. From our house this is around 1 mile from where we saw it.

A great start to the day! 

22 May 2023

Pied Flycatchers in N Wales

Alan H invited me recently to help check the nest boxes at his study site in N wales. As part of the Pied Flycatcher network (see here for information) nest boxes have been put up by volunteers to try and encourage more pairs of Pied Flycatchers to breed. This year seems to be a good year. Normally the Pied Flycatchers arrive back from Africa and find all the suitable nest boxes have been taken over by Blue or Great Tits. This year the tits appear to be nesting late. Other ringers have reported similar late dates and it seems the very wet early May Bank Holiday caused many to desert as we found several boxes that had partially built nests when checked a few weeks ago now empty.

Because of this the Pied Flys have arrived back to find suitable boxes empty and available! We found 5 nests with eggs and two further territories with singing males and possibly a partially built nest. The  boxes that were occupied, by tits, were either still at the egg stage or had young to small to ring. We managed to ring a single brood of Great Tits.

Pied Flycatcher nests are easy to recognise as they contain a lot more large leaves than tit nests. When they contain the beautiful sky -blue eggs they're even easier to identify. We also caught and ringed two females - both of which had very obvious brood patches. Hopefully this will contribute to our understanding of adult survival rates and site fidelity in future years.

We also had good views of singing males and these provided some good photo opportunities. 

Al picked up a damselfly flitting through a sun lit glade quite away from the nearest river and it turned out to be a Beautiful Demoiselle - a stunning looking jewel of an insect.

With the woodland full of Pied Flycatcher song, Bullfinches, Song & Mistle Thrushes and a distantly singing Redstart it was a great few hours. We'll back soon to check on progress.

14 May 2023

Black-winged Stilt at Buron Mere Wetlands RSPB

Black-winged Stilts are a scarce bird in the UK but becoming increasingly regular with at least one pair attempting to breed in most years. The last time I saw a 'stilt' in Cheshire was the pair that bred at Ashtons Flash, near Northwich, in 2008 - found by that late great Pod. I think the first pair to breed successfully were at Holme in Norfolk in 1987 and I've still got a signed print done by Richard Millington of those birds.

With several birds being seen around the North Wales coast recently there was an expectation that one would turn up at our local RSPB reserve at Burton Mere Wetlands. Sure enough, whilst on Hilbre, news came through that a female stilt had turned up and was showing well! 

Having already planned to check on Swallows nests at a nearby farm I was going to be passing the entrance to the reserve so it wasn't much of a detour to call in! 

I was soon watching the Stilt walk around in front of the Marsh Covert Hide on those impossibly long legs. With summer plumaged Spotted Redshank, Avocet and Black-tailed Godwits sharing the same lagoon it made for a nice little diversion.

7 May 2023

Grey-headed Plover

As is the norm with birders on a road trip Mark & I were discussing what new birds could turn up this spring on our trip back from seeing the Stejnegers Scoter in Fife. I really couldn't think of anything apart from a long overdue Rupelle's Warbler! Adamant I wasn't going anywhere on the Bank Holiday Monday I'd started working in the garden when news broke of a Grey-headed Lapwing in Northumberland! Another potential 1st for Britain found by Gary Woodburn on his local patch at Low Newton.  This species is usually found in East Asia and China but is highly migratory and with four previous records in Europe it was on the birding radar as a potential 1st for the UK so should get a fairly easy ride with the rarities committee! 

Luckily for me Fred pinged a message out that he was going and would anyone else like to join him so, despite my rash promise, I found myself driving to his office and joining him, Mark and Paul for the journey north again! 

Once again the journey passed relatively quickly as the four of us chatted about past trips and birds we'd seen (or not seen!) and we soon arrived at the designated car park at Low Newton and walked the short way to where the bird had been showing all day.

Some rare birds don't have the looks to attract much attention - think Double-crested Cormorant! This one had everything! What a beautiful bird. It was actively feeding in a wet pasture and with its grey head, black breast band, white belly and striking red eyes it was a feast for the eyes. Its smart black-tipped yellow bill matched the colour of its long yellow legs and it occasionally flapped its wings to show its striking wing pattern - very reminiscent of Sociable Plover.

Looking at the extensive wing moult this bird could stay awhile until its grown new flight feathers. 

There was a good turnover of people there with the earlier arrivals, who'd travelled less far, leaving and those with longer journeys taking their place. It was nice to see some familiar faces and say hello to old friends. 

After feasting our eyes for a couple of hours we decided to head back to Cheshire where, for the second night running, I got in late and found Mrs W in full control of the TV remote. To cap off a great couple of days birding I had a Barn Owl fly over the Landrover asd I drove down our lane in the dark!

4 May 2023

That man Stejneger again

Not content with having a Stonechat named after him Leonhard Stejneger, the man with unpronounceable name, has a Scoter named after him! Universally shortened to Stej.  Long on the radar as a 1st for Britain after one turned up in Ireland a few years ago and a few others in Europe, one turned up on the east coast just before Christmas. At the time we had a family crisis in Australia and with my wife having to make a sudden journey to be by our daughters hospital bedside I didn't feel the inclination to travel for it. 

I thought the opportunity had been missed but it, or another, turned up at Lower Largo a fe miles north of Edinburgh. To act as an extra incentive there was also a White-winged Scoter present to add to the mix. I'd seen White-winged Scoter in 2011 - see here.

After an early morning start Friday doing a breeding bird survey I wasn't inclined to travel far on the Saturday. Sunday morning, the 30th April,  dawned and we joined friends for a cooked breakfast at our local cafe, before Mrs W went to play in a golf competition. My phone was constantly pinging with updates of the bird and it appeared the bird was showing reasonably well with s nice calm sea.

A conversation with Mark P swayed me into going that day and by 11.00 we were on our way in atrocious weather. Luckily the forecast was for clearer weather as we arrived at Lower Largo and parked up.

Even luckier Dan Pointon was already there on site and had got his eye in and we were soon watching both  'the Stej' and White-winged Scoter together in a flock of at least 800 Velvet Scoter. Once we got our eyes in the distinctive bill shapes were quite readily picked out with the White-winged (deglandi) having visibly browner flanks. Both species have a more pronounced 'tear drop' around the eye than Velvet Scoter but this was surprisingly hard to pick out given that it started raining again and a bit of a sea mist started rolling in.

I didn't manage any photos but luckily Neill Hunt has let me use his digiscoped photos below that clearly show the distinctive bill shape of Stejnegers Scoter

Stejneger Scoter by Neill Hunt 

Deciding we weren't going to get much better views and knowing we had a long drive ahead we left and arrived home just before 10 pm 

30 Apr 2023

Back to Altcar

We made it back to Altcar Army base to canon net and flag waders as part of an on going study. A previously planned attempt was cancelled as the gods of wind and rain combined to create a high tidal surge which meant there was no beach for the waders to roost on!  This time, however, the conditions were almost ideal. An offshore wind combined with a hight tide and reports of plenty of birds roosting on site.

Arriving at the base with Chris we soon signed in and waited for the rest of the team to assemble before driving to the site where we set 4 canon nets. From then on it was a waiting game with a small team  of 'lifters' lying quietly in the dunes just behind the nets so we could get there quickly and start lifting when and if the canons were fired. The rest of the team would drive down from the car park where spotters were keeping an eye on the birds moments around the nets to make sure we were  safe to fire

All great in theory if the birds play ball. We could hear birds coming into roost all round us and at one pount had a good number in the catching area but it wasn't safe to fire as there were birds in the air above the net. Still we waited  - then a Sparrowhawk flew through and put everything up! The birds were jittery and and started dispersing so people were dispatched to try and 'twinkle' them back along the beach. Finally on a falling tide a catch was made. I didn't hear the canons fire as I'd been dispatched further dow nthe beach to try and twinkle birds along. Wearing fleece line trousers and chest waders I jogged down the dunes for 20 minutes before emerging on the beach and gradually working my way north again. I didn't have any radio reception and couldn't raise any one on the phone but I guess my mission was successful as when Chris did ring me he told me the team had made a good catch. I reckon I lost 3-4 kg in sweat!

When I eventually arrived back at the catching site I found a very happy team! A good catch had been made of the target species - Knot and Grey Plover  - meaning a meaningful sample could be flagged. We also caught good numbers of Dunlin and Sanderling.

Provisional totals from Richard were:

Grey Plover. New 29.  Retrap 1

Ringed 2019 ~35 sightings since ringing, all around Altcar

Sanderling. New 44.  Retrap 3 

Dunlin. New 366.  Retrap 3 

Knot. New 224.  Retrap 6 
SR77834 - ringed 22/09/2017 Altcar, no flag, no resightings
SK04281 - ringed 27/05/2021 Ainsdale, no flag, no resightings
SR77354 - ringed 30/03/2018 Altcar, was this reflagged? 
SR74747 - ringed 17/01/2010 Penmon Quarry, Beaumaris, no flag, no resightings
SK15325 - ringed 11/09/2022 probably Ynyslas point, TTM flag, only recently first seen
SV56511 - ringed 28/10/2022 Hoylake

A lot of the birds were attaining their breeding plumage and looked stunning - especially the Knot who certainly lived up to their full English name of 'Red Knot'

Hopefully there will be as many sightings of these birds as ones we've previously flagged and the data will provide us with more information about their migrations and stop-over points to aid with their conservation. 

Grey Plover are one of my favourite waders so it was a treat to see them close up. A summer plumaged Grey Plover looks like a dandy highway man with its black mask and silver spangled plumage - the Adam Ant of the wader world. They're very distinctive in flight with the black axillary feathers creating a black 'armpit' which is very visible

The Dunlin were interesting as we had two distinct races in the catch. the majority were schinzzi that winter in the UK but a few were alpina that winter further south. In summer plumage schinzzi has mantle feathers fringed yellow / red (left hand bird in photo below), whilst alpina has mantle feathers chestnut fringed (right hand bird in photo below)

Its always nice to see Sanderling in the hand and some of the birds caught were beginning to get their summer plumage.

All in all a great day and it was good to catch up with old friends - some I hadn't seen since before Covid! I got home shattered and went straight to the fridge for a cold beer to celebrate a successful day.

24 Apr 2023

A luscious locustella

Locustella warblers are fascinating birds, primarily because of their generally skulking habits and their 'reeling' songs. Locustella luscinioides, or Savi's Warbler, is no exception and it takes a tuned ear to differentiate its reeling song from that of Grasshopper Warbler. Kudos then to the guys that found the recent bird at our local RSPB reserve literally 10 km from my home. News broke on a Bank Holiday Monday when we were visiting family in N Wales but I wasn't to concerned as most singing birds tend to stay a few days at least. The last one I saw was in N Wales in 2019 where it was on territory from 14th June until 25th July. See  here for details on my sightings of that bird. I started getting concerned though when friends messaged me and said the weather the next day was going to be awful so decided to go that same evening once I'd dropped Jan off at home. 

It was very windy and showery when I arrived but armed with the advice not to stand near the 'reedbed screen' (where people were apt to congregate and chat making picking out the Savi's song above the wind even more difficult) I positioned myself about 50 m away and waited....and waited. Picking up a snatch of distant song I was happy enough that it was the Savi's but decided tio stay until the reserve closing time at 8 pm as there was supposed to be a break in the weather and the sun was supposed to shine for a short while. 

There weren't many people there when I arrived and they gradually drifted away until only Mark, Greg & I were left. Mark left and no sooner had he done so then the sun broke out and on cue the Savi's started singing & even gave a brief view as it flew across a channel in the reeds to sing from another hidden position! 

Luckily Mark was still at the car park and hurried straight back, sans coat, in time to hear it reeling away. I even managed a recording with my phone.

As closing time was fast approaching and it had begun to rain we left and headed for the car park and home. Another new species for my Cheshire list  - thats two already this spring! 

As far as I know there have been  3-4 previous records of Savi's Warbler in Cheshire with none since 1994 so this was a very welcome record for many county listers.