31 Dec 2013

2013 - what a year!

Well the end of the year is nigh and what a fabulous year it’s been for rare birds. A real year of grip-backs. I missed a few – the White-throated Needletail debacle hurt and the Suffolk Pacific Swift coincided with a business trip to Bahrain and we dipped the ‘hybrid’ Dusky Thrush in Margate but I still managed to creep 8 birds closer to the 500 BOU mark and ended the year on 492 suggesting 2014 could be the year I reach the magic number.
With large movements of Pine Grosbeaks being reported throughout northern Europe in the autumn of 2012 we were disappointed none made it to the UK. But, unbeknown to everyone, one did although it wasn’t ‘discovered’ until early 2013.
The next new bird was, predictably, back ‘up north’ – somewhere.  I was returning to after visiting my parents in Somerset. A text from Stu Taylor saying he was watching a male Harlequin Duck had me initially texting him and asking if he was in Iceland. At this time the news hadn’t broken that it was actually on N Uist. I pulled over into the services and made a few calls and a plan was made to drive up to Uig and get the ferry across. Stu arranged the accommodation and met us at the site and led us in convoy to where the original finder was sat looking at the Harlequin. With a supporting cast of Ring-necked Duck, 2 Snow Geese, small race Canada goose and White-tailed Eagle it was a great two day trip.

Next up was the discovery of a Rock Thrush at Spurn. The news broke early one weekday morning & luckily I was in a position to leave almost immediately.
 I was playing golf with my wife when news of the Bridled Tern on the Farnes broke and so was completely oblivious to the myriad of missed calls until I got back in the car! Luckily for me Frank Duff knew I’d want to see this bird and arranged for my name to be on the list for the first charter boat leaving Seahouses the following morning. Top man.
 Jase Atkinson & I spent a few days ringing (or trying) at Marazion Mars has part of a project looking at Aquatic Warblers during August. Unfortunately heavy rain put paid too much ringing but we did end up seawatching off Porthgwarra. A few people were there in the morning and it was fairly successful with Cory’s & Balearic Shearwaters being seen amongst the hundreds of Manx Shearwaters streaming past. A lunchtime meeting meant we had to return to Marazion to meet up with the ringer in charge of the project but we decided to go back to Porthgwarra in the afternoon. It’s just as well we did. Just before we packed up I picked up a Fea’s Petrel flying in from the east past the Runnelstone before heading off out towards the Scilly’s! Little did I think I’d be back in Cornwall for another lifer later in the year……….
I love Shetland and look forward to my now annual autumn trip with optimism. I still haven’t seen Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler or White Thrush in the 7 years I’ve been making the trip but I’m eternally optimistic. This time I did strike lucky. We were bashing the bushes around Hoswick when Jase Atkinson phoned at the only spot in the entire village where I probably had phone reception! Thick-billed Warbler, Geosetter. Less than 10 minutes away. The news spawned the immortal line yelled across the Swinister Burn to the others at the top of my voice ‘get in the F***ing car now!’ What a brilliant decision. Shetland was also memorable for a very showy Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and a ridiculously tame Arctic Warbler as well as an influx of Great-spotted Woodpeckers from Scandinavia.

No sooner had we returned from Shetland then a Semi-palmated Plover was found at South Hayling Island near Southampton. It settled into a bit of a pattern and with both Fred, Malc & me all having unavoidable work commitments for a few days we couldn’t go until the weekend. A tense couple of hours at its usual spot ensued as it didn’t show. Not surprising really with the numpties actually on the spit it had been roosting on. Luckily it had been relocated the previous day at another spot after leaving the roost and we decided to head the couple of miles back into town and check it out…..just is the bird flew in!
 I had a feeling I’d be back on Shetland & I wasn’t wrong. Mike Pennington found a Cape May Warbler and this proved to be the first twitchable UK record. Work commitments mean I don’t have the luxury of spending 3-4 days travelling there and back so an offer of a place on charter flight late the same night (cheers Danny boy) was well received and meant we were back the same day having only missed 1 day off work.
 Finally a Hermit Thrush was discovered at Porthgwarra coincided with me having to go to Cornwall on business. What a result!
County-wise there were some good new birds as well with Blue-winged teal & Lesser Scaup at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB, Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the Wirral and a cracking inland Caspian Tern discovered coming into roost by Gill & Steve Barber. Last but not least was Eddie Williams’ stonking Buff-bellied Pipit at Burton. What a year!

So that's it. Tomorrow will be another year. Many thanks to all my mates who have made so many trips so enjoyable this year and to the lads and lasses from Hilbre Bird Obs and SCAN ringing group.

28 Dec 2013

Hilbre & another Wirral Snow Bunting

A quick trip to Hilbre this morning to see how the Island & Obs had fared in the recent gales. Not to much damage thankfully but not many birds around either. I counted 172 Pale-bellied Brent Geese, including the two regular colour ringed birds and a single Dark-bellied bird. Wader numbers seem lower than usual but there were still plenty of the ubiquitous Oystercatchers, Redshank & Curlew.

Highlight though was bumping into the male Snow Bunting that was last reported Christmas Day before the gales. It was feeding unconcernedly amongst the tide wrack and rock pools.

Looking at the darkness of the rump, flight feathers and wing coverts I reckon this bird can be assigned to the Icelandic race insulae whereas the recent Wallasey bird was probably the Greenland race nivalis.

26 Dec 2013

Redwings and Blackbrids

The  Rowan berries around the house have been completely stripped by hordes of Redwings and Blackbirds over the last couple of weeks. Even the hawthorn berries have now bee neaten. The birds were extremely shy but by photographing fro man upstairs window I got some reasonable shots.

The Blackbird below was so stuffed it couldn't close its bill - you can see the berries in its cheeks yet still it tried to carry on feeding.

This bird can be aged as 3 or a calendar year bird by the moult contrast in the greater coverts with the new dark adult ones contrasting with the brown outer juvenile ones. The scaly appearance of this bird may indicate a Scandinavian origin. There again there's no definitive proof.

Even the local House Sparrows have been getting in on the act.

Christmas came early for me as at first light Christmas Eve two Little Egrets flew over the garden heading south west. The first garden and local patch records!

23 Dec 2013

More on the Buff-bellied Pipit

I've seen several Buff-bellied Pipits in the UK since my  first at Farmoor Reservoir in 2007 - since that one I've seen three on Shetland where they've become a bit of an autumn speciality. What struck me about the Burton bird was how un-buff it looked which caused me concern and had me researching the Siberian race 'japonicus'. Martin Garner obviously had the same thoughts and we discussed the bird over numerous phone calls and emails over a three hour period! Other people had the same thoughts - Steve deliberately captioned his photo's as 'Buff-bellied' rather than with the prefix 'American' and the twitterati were on the case.

The photos below illustrate the case in point. The first one is the Burton bird and the 2nd one is my photo of the American Buff-bellied Pipit found by Martin Garner at Quendale, Shetland about 3 years ago. Chalk & cheese...............

All the other birds I've seen have been at the end of September or early October so were in much fresher plumage having just completed either adult or post juvenile moult. The Burton bird showed very little buff colouration. Being 2-3 months older plumage wise than the others maybe its just worn & faded.

21 Dec 2013

Buff-bellied Pipit, Cheshire.

Watching all the Wagtails and Pipits feeding on the debris washed up by the tidal surge last weekend I commented to Mark Payne that there'll be a rare pipit or Wheatear on this lot this winter. Roll forward 6 days. After a busy day ringing in Barry's garden I'm sat in the pub enjoying a quiet pint with Barry waiting for Steve who rushes in uttering oaths over a photo Eddie Williams  has sent him. The lads had found an odd pipit on the crap washed up at the bottom of Denhall Lane. Unhappy with the initial views Eddie went back and made a positive I.D before getting photos that he sent to was only a fecking Buff-bellied Pipit.  Unfortunately at my age I now require reading glasses & didn't have the necessary eye-gear to see the photo's on the back of the iPhone and reluctant to take up Barry's suggestion of asking anyone in the pub had reading glasses I had to make do with a blurry image that we compared to the one I'd photographed on Shetland a couple of years ago. The decision was made to try and nail the bird at first light before putting the news out about such a potentially big bird.

Thank goodness its the shortest day today and first light meant a bit of a lie in. Reaching site just after 8 I met with Steve, Barry, Allan Conlin, Eddie, Kenny D and Colin Wells and endured a tense 30 minutes searching before Kenny yelled he'd got it.

Reviewing the bird and photo's when I got home I was unhappy with the colouration for rubescens and started thinking along the line of japonicas. Martin Garner phoned and was having similar thoughts based on the photo Steve had tweeted earlier. This was potentially a very big bird.

Chris Batty then phoned and I forwarded the photos to him & Martin with the consensus being rubescens.

18 Dec 2013

Siberian Chiffchaff, American Wigeon and showy chats.

Mark Payne picked me up and we took a trip down to Burton marsh Sunday to check out a 'wheatear, that had been belatedly reported from the previous Friday. Given the time of year Desert Wheatear was a distinct possibility. No Wheatear for us but two distinctly showy Stonechats along the footpath towards Denhall Old Quay.

Meeting up with Phil Oddy we'd decided to go and look for the possible Siberian Chiffchaff found the previous day by Eddie & Kenny. We found it easily enough feeding on the debris washed up by the recent tidal surge with several other Chiffchaff. Some of these were definite nominate collybita but there was another bird, photographed by mark, that seems to be well within the variation of tristis.

The most striking bird (shown below) showed the Bonelli's type wing panel, black bill & legs, tobacco brown ear coverts, brownish supercillium and overall brown hues now associated  with Siberian Chiffchaff. It was only heard to call once and the 'peep' call also fits with tristis.

Its a little cracker and well worth the effort. Compare this bird to the one mark photographed below and you'll see what I mean about there being possibly two birds. This one was initially identified as abietinus but recent mitochondrial DNA testing on a number of birds thought to be of this race showed they were in fact trisits.

More information on these Chiffchaff races can be found by following these links:

Note the resemblance to the first bird photographed above.

With the American Wigeon having gone temporarily AWOL we decided on a cup of tea and a piece of cake at the newly opened café. Replete we decided to view the marsh from the higher vantage point of the café garden and sure enough the first bird mark set his scope on was the Yankee Wigeon - most likely a returning bird from this spring.

Great stuff and wit ha supporting cast of Merlin, Hen Harrier (3), Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard and a calling Little Owl it was a good afternoons birding. The debris washed up by the high tide is attracting hundreds of Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails and it'll surely attract either a rare pipit or Black Redstart before the winters out.