30 Sept 2012

Autumnal bluster

A long planned joint visit to Hilbre by the RSPB / Ranger Service and the Sea Watch Foundation took place yesterday amid a blustery N W gale force 5 -6. Perfect weather for the planned seawatch!

About 50 -60 people attended and from our position on the Obs balcony we could see them struggling into the head wind.

Despite the winds not seemingly prolonged enough we scored with at least three Leach's Petrels although other sea birds were predictably scarcer with a couple of Fulmars, a few R T Divers, Common Scoters and an obliging Bonxie being the pick. A single Manx Shearwater and  couple of distant Arctic Skuas completed the list. More details can be seen here here

It was great to be able to show people around the Observatory and give them a talk about what we do and I think most people enjoyed their day despite the blustery conditions. At least it didn't rain.

More locally I took a walk around the stubble fields Friday pm hoping to turn up a rare pipit or something.  remote possibility inland on the west coat I know but you can never  give up.......

A couple of flyover Skylarks and a handful of Meadow Pipits proved migration is still taking place and there was also a decent flock of hirundines that suddenly appeared high up feeding and moving gradually south at the same time. The same thermals kept the local Buzzards happy with the heavily moulting adults still seemingly being pursued by the relentless keening of this years young.

The only other birds of note were the large number of corvids with Rooks and Jackdaws feeding on grain or grubs amongst the soggy stubble.

26 Sept 2012

Locustella invasion

Three mainland Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers and a Lanceolated on Fair Isle. The 4th Lancie in a week! Unprecedented! Surely there will be one on Shetland next week.....................

22 Sept 2012

Wirral peep show

I was in Sweden on Wednesday when Steve rang me to tell me Allan had found a Semi-palmated Sandpiper at Meols. Two days later the bird was still there but debate is raging over its identity with some people thinking its a juvenile Western Sandpiper.

With a funeral to attend Friday morning I couldn't get to the coast until early afternoon. Luckily for me the bird was on view when I first arrived but promptly flew west down the foreshore before I got decent views. By now it was raining quite hard so I drove through the back streets to come out on the one way system along the prom close to the bus shelters where Allan was watching along with Eddie Williams. The bird had flown straight past rather than settling on the spartina and so I headed west to Kings Gap where a large group of birders were watching an even larger flock of mixed calidrids. The weather was now evil as only Wirral birders can know with the wind and the rain coming straight into your face. Jase Atkinson, Colin Jones, Mark Turner, Colin Davis & Andy Vincen were amongst the crowd scanning the flock as the tide came further in when suddenly a visiting birder from Shropshire, Anthony Griffiths, announced he'd got a White-rumped Sandpiper. Instant pandemonium as people struggled in the adverse weather to get on the bird and phone calls were made to other locals who'd gone home to get warm! Desperate for a pee I stuck with it trying to pick up the bird in the scope and then the camera.

Suddenly the whole flock flew as a dog rampaged through the flock. Colin Davis tracked it east but lost it as the flock split up. Walking back to where I'd parked to check a portion of the flock near the lifeboat station I got a call from Zac Hinchcliffe to say he and Alex Jones were watching it about a 100 m away. Nice one lads.

Despite the inclement weather I got some record shots which at least show what the bird is!

By now my bladder was seriously complaining, I was soaking wet and so was the camera (despite being in a 'shower proof' bag. When Simon Slade cadged a lift back to where he'd left his car about 1/2 mile away I took the opportunity to relieve myself at the infamous public toilets where Mr C & Al Orton picked up a Little Shearwater a few years ago. Phew. Pressure off then, in more ways than one, with two good Cheshire peeps under the belt.

Just as I'd got back into the Landrover and was heading back down the prom Mark T rang me to say he and Eddie had the Semi-Western from the bus shelter on the spartina! At least now the rain was only torrential and not monsoon and by the time I got there it had reduced to a heavy shower with the peep showing well about 50 m away.

It was a manic little bird, always on the move and a belligerent little beggar squaring up to the larger Dunlin and Sanderling on occasions. As the tide ebbed the flock dispersed just before Mark Payne & Phil Locker arrived but luckily Steve relocated the bird after I'd left and they both got to see it.

After the crap weather of Friday this morning dawned calm and clear - a beautiful autumnal morning materialised as the early morning mist dispered on Hilbre. A few birds were caught and proof of the arrival of autumn, if needed, was provided by the range of species. Goldcrests, Robins and a single Chiffchaff. Star bird though was a cracking first calender year Stonechat which I was fortunate enough to be allowed to ring - thanks Colin & Steve!

16 Sept 2012

More of the same - seawatch part two.

Although the wind was forecast to ease of to a moderate force 4 gusting to 5 a decision was made to try another seawatch off Hilbre Saturday in the hope that some of Fridays birds might still be lingering. In particular Mark Payne wanted to see both Long-tailed Skua and Pomarine Skua as both were Cheshire ticks for him.

We drove across picking up a couple from Manchester on the way and met up with Colin Davis just as we arrived at the Obs to find Degsy just departing but with the news he'd seen a juvenile Long--tailed Skua off the north end. At least one of the target birds was still lingering.

After a quick brew we set off to open up the hide to find a handful of birders already gathered on the slipway including Simon Slade & his wife Helen. I've met Simon on several twitches before so it was nice t ocatch up and he joined us in the hide.

No sooner had we opened the viewing flaps then Colin picked out a skua sat on the sea about 200 m away. It looked good for the Long-tailed Skua and both Simon & I sat with shutter fingers poised to try and get a record shot. I gave up but Simon stuck with it and eventually got some impressive shots (considering the distance!) which can be seen on the Hilbre blog. Mine weren't so impressive but its nice to have photographic proof of a L T Skua on Hilbre for once.

Note the elongated rear end, the fine two-toned bill and the long 'hand'. Good stuff and a Cheshire tick for Mark & Colin.

Birds were much scarcer than yesterday with fewer Arctic Skua's (10 logged) and Gannets. A summer plumaged Red-throated Diver was one of 4 seen and we recorded 2 Bonxies. The one photographed below is an adult in heavy moult and the abnormal looking white patches on the wings are the feather shafts revealed as the bird has moulted (and not yet regrown) some of its wing coverts.

By midday the wind had backed right off and the waves dropped considerably. Not surprisingly most of the birds cleared out to sea and our final notable sighting of pelagic birds was of two juvenile Kittiwakes heading out towards the Irish Sea.

Just as we were about to pack it in and call it a day Mark picked up an Osprey coming in from the north high over the wind farm. It started gliding lower and we promptly lost it but one was later seen over the Wirral.

By now the sun was beating down and we walked back to the Obs in shirt sleeves, locked up and set off for home.

14 Sept 2012


The first real gale of the autumn had Steve & I hurrying over to Hilbre before the tide this morning. With a WNW gale force 7-8 blowing things were looking good and we weren't disappointed!

White horses were being whipped up by the winds and spray was already coming over the narrows at the north end when we entered the seawatching hide and settled ourselves in for the next 5 hours..............

Almost immediately we started recording Arctic Skua's, Gannets & Manx Shearwaters. Next up was a pale(ish) juvenile Long-tailed Skua followed by the first of 5 Bonxies. Steve picked out a juv Sabines Gull over to the west that had somehow slipped past unnoticed and we then picked out the first of two sub-adult Pomarine Skuas followed closely by the first Leach's Petrel of the day.

Birds were coming at us thick and fast and another darker juvenile Long-tailed Skua came shearing in almost tern like from the east whist another juvenile Sabines Gull appeared in front of the windfarm.

Next up was a fantastic adult pale phase Arctic Skua that came close enough for a few shots.

Steve yelled at me to get on a small grey / white wader careering across the wave tops out towards the HE2 & HE3 buoys. Next minute it pitched down on the water - our only Grey Phalarope of the day. Allan rang us to say he'd had a Fulmar and sure enough we picked it up in front of the hide about 15 minutes later.

Some Manx Shearwaters came close enough to photograph and were obviously tired as they were settling on the sea.

By now we had seriously numb arses and my hands were getting pretty cold but there was just time for an adult Sabs Gull which Allan had rung us about from Leasowe Gunsites and a final closer Leach's Petrel.

A fantastic day and what autumns all about when the winds blowing in from the NW on the Wirral.

12 Sept 2012

Baillon's Crake.

A Baillon's Crake did indeed turn up but unfortunately about as far away from Cheshire and in the worst direction it could possibly be! Rainham Marshes - a trip involving the M25 and not one for a Sunday. The other bird is a long awaited Semi-palmated Plover on South Uist. Another long journey but a rarer bird and an infinitely more attractive journey than Rainham.......

Did I really say that?

Well that's what I said a few days ago but the longer the bird stayed the more my resolve began to crumble and when Mark rang and suggested going early doors today I cracked and agreed to keep him company.

Leaving home at 03.00 we were on site at 07.00 and were let in by one of the cleaners around 07.15 but we couldn't get beyond the visitors centre. A nice lady from the RSPB then turned up and allowed us to walk round to the hide but told us it might not be open was and several people were already there as one of the volunteers had arrived even earlier at 06.00 but had to lock the gates behind him until reinforcements arrived. The bird had shown emerging from its presumed roost around 06.30 but hadn't been seen since. Aghhh! Knowing we would have a better chance before the noisy late risers arrived with their banging of tripods and scraping of chairs we were getting a bit worried after an hour and a half of not even a sniff and more frustrated by the single idiot who insisted in leaving his phone on and taking three calls whilst in the hide!

Luckily an astute birder to our right picked it up walking in the channel through the back of the reeds. Cue pandemonium and musical chairs as everyone tried to get a glimpse. Eventually I picked it up in my scope in all its spangly glory and had good views whilst at the same time tryign to get others on it. No pics as there wasn't the elbow room to move!

With more late comers arrivng we decided to head off and give others a chance in the prime position we we'd got by getting there early. Great views of at least two hunting Hobbies outside the visitors centre whilst we indulged in a breakfast of meat pies / pasties and homemade cakes.  They really are excellent and all cooked on site. Back in the office by mid afternoon.

Another good bird for the burgeoning year of the grip back.

10 Sept 2012

A relatively quiet weekend!

Considering the mega alert went off twice I had a relatively quiet weekend. A Baillon's Crake did indeed turn up but infortunately about as far away from Cheshire and in the worst direction it could possibly be! Rainham Marshes - a trip involving the M25 and not one for a Sunday. The other bird is a long awaited Semi-palmated Plover on South Uist. Another long journey but a rarer bird and an infinitely more attractive journey than Rainham.......

A great day on Hilbre Saturday with beautiful sunny weather but few birds. The first Brent Geese have arrived back around three weeks earlier than the previous earliest date and a couple of Chiffchaff's and a single Wheatear completed the migrant activity. An adult Yellow-legged Gull was picked out amongst the roosting gulls but was lost to view when a marauding Peregrine frightened the proverbials out of everything.
 The Wheatear spent most of its time in the cottage gardens and seemed to be finding plenty of grubs in the short grass to eat.

Sunday was spent tidying up in the garden and trimming hedges and just as I'd finished and was about to sit down the phone went with a message telling me about a possible Purple Heron at Parkgate so  I drove the 15 minute trip and joined a few other desperados for a fruitless 3 hour vigil. We did notch up both Hen and Marsh Harrier though and a couple of Greenshank occasionally gave a distant fly  around but were mainly heard calling. No sign of the Purple Heron but a dark Juvenile Grey Heron gave us all a momentary scare. Here's hoping it gets refound!

Meanwhile back to the Semi-palmated Plover............................

6 Sept 2012

The blockers keep tumbling in the year of the grip-back

When a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher was photographed at Lodmoor RSPB reserve near Weymouth no one paid much attention apart from a few mutterings of 'it can't be an juvenile its to early' and 'those tertials an arf look stripey'. All credit to Rich Bonser who suggested people take a second look. Cue mild panic as better photo's became available. The cat was emerging from the bag and as luck would have it I was working in Devon and was already on the M5 heading south when the first tentative probable Short-billed Dowitcher messages began filtering through.................

Even luckier I was staying at my parents only 40 minutes away that night so I'd have two bites of the cherry. I called in briefly Tuesday lunchtime and was just in time for a brief glimpse as the bird flew off and then had to shoot down to my meeting. With no further sign that afternoon I enjoyed a couple of beers and went to bed to be woken by the phone buzzing around midnight. RBA had mega'd the bird as a Short-billed Dowitcher and put the message out - cheers Stu! That's the kind of message I don't mind being woken for. Re-setting the alarm for an earlier time to get some work out the way before driving the short distance to Weymouth I promptly went back to sleep dreaming about how jammy I was being in the right place at the right time for a change.

It's many years since I've left on a twitch being waved off by Mum with a carry-out in tin foil and a flask of tea and it brought back numerous memories of trips from our Suffolk home in the '70's.

I got to site around 11 to find the bird hadn't been seen since about 8 am so rather than sticking with the crowds a couple of use deiced to wander around the reserve and have a good search. The weather was extremely hot and the heat haze began to be a problem as did the sunburn! A couple of hours later after seeing nothing more than a few Common Sandpipers and a Painted Lady we were wandering back to the car park to grab a butty when someone reported the bird had just been seen for a few seconds before heading back into deep cover.

That someone was our old mate Dan 'Paddy' Pointon and his chief mucker 'Big Al Orton'. To general disbelief in some quarters they'd seen the bird emerge briefly from a channel in some juncus before disappearing again. Mutterings of 'it's a Snipe' and 'some one must be desparate' failed to deter our heroes and after an hours vigilance the bird suddenly showed again. I even got a text asking if someone was stringing a Snipe. This time the mutterings turned to shouts ' I can't see the f***g thing, some one give me directions', 'I'm not tall enough, someone please move' and the classic 'I think I've got it - its either that or it might be a Moorhen'. (It was a Moorhen to which the polite version of the response was I'd give up and go home mate'.)

From our vantage point on the bank alongside the reserve we could see the bird but were quite distant so after awhile we went back down to the main track where we'd be about 40 m nearer although the bird was still a good 60 -70 m away. A good move as the bird suddenly showed a lot better and gave prolonged views albeit still sticking close to the juncus. But it allowed the requisite 'record shots'.

The bright sunshine was a major issue as can be seen by the completely burnt out white of the Black-headed Gulls in the foreground. The photo's are heavily cropped as can be seen from an uncropped original below.

With a long drive back to Cheshire ahead I left around 3 pm and had a decent run back arriving at 7.30 with no stops and no major hold ups. The 5th major blocker to fall so far this year along with Common Yellowthroat, Cream-coloured Courser, Little Swift and Orphean Warbler. Here's hoping for a nice juvenile Baillon's Crake at Burton Mere Wetlands.............................................................
Thats 481 BOU for my UK life list. 19 to go for the magic 500 BOU with not a dodgy split or any Irish birds amongst them. I might even treat myself to a dodgy 'T' shirt.