28 Feb 2013

Sanderling in the hand.

A great opportunity recently to see Sanderling in the hand and compare the subtleties of adult and 1st winter plumage. The bird below is aged as a first winter by the white edges / spots on the tertials and inner median coverts. This can be hard to see in worn birds but this one was a 'classic'.

 Unfortunately I forgot to get a photograph of the feet. How do you recognise a Sanderling from its feet? Cos its got no rear toe! That's why they always look as if they're rocking on their heels. In a strong head wind they fall over backwards.

As well as ageing, taking the wing measurements and weighing each bird had its bill length from base of bill to tip and total head & bill measured from back of skull to tip of bill. Gorgeous little birds.

We also caught a few Turnstone and Ringed Plover. Its hard to believe these little birds will soon be heading even further 'up north' to their Arctic breeding grounds.

Another short ringing session in the garden resulted in another one of the four Blackcaps that have been spending the winter here being ringed. With 'our' wintering birds originating from central Europe it will be interesting to see if this one gets picked up on its return migration.

21 Feb 2013


A few weeks ago someone asked what bird I'd really like to see in the N W. Harlequin Duck I replied. Preferably a male! Monday I got my wish - albeit a bit further N W than I'd anticipated.
A text from old friend Stu Taylor on N Uist started the chain of events.
'Just watching a Harlequin Duck'
Oh shit. A few texts later followed by a phone call from Frankley services, as we returned north from a visit to my parents in Somerset, determined two key facts - firstly it was a male and secondly it was in the UK (just!). At this point Stu didn't realise the news hadn't gone out nationally. I quickly Mark with the news and a request to get some of the other lads together for a trip.

Tuesday saw us chewing finger nails whilst waiting for news that wasn't forthcoming until late afternoon. With positive news it was all systems go as the ferry was booked and Stu contacted to confirm our arrival so he could arrange our accommodation at a local bunkhouse.

Leaving home at 21.15 I picked up the other four and we set off for the long trip north to Uig on the Isle of Skye. it was a beautifully clear night and we played dodge the Red Deer across the Highlands. Nine hours later we arrived in darkness and settled down for a couple of hours sleep. No chance - not with Malc snoring! As daylight broke a four other birders joined the queue. Including one poor guy who'd hit a Red Deer on the way up and whose car looked a write off.

Deer damage.

Before we boarded the ferry we had two good bits of news - the bird was still there and Stuart was going to meet us on site and spend the rest of the day showing us around.  Passing the news round to the other birders there was a pretty happy atmosphere aboard the Calmac ferry as we spent the trip sea watching.  O nthe approach to Portmaddy I picked up a White-taield Eagle soaring in the distant and we watched as it made a lazy pass at a Greater Black-backed gull that promptly squirted out a load of white adrenalin before heading straight down to  the sanctuary of the sea.

A sunny but breezy day greeted us at Lochmaddy and set off for Balranald RSPB reserve about 40 minutes away. True to his word Stu was there to lead the convoy down the track to the bay where the bird had been frequenting. If Carling organised twitches this would be it - 9 hours drive, 1.5 hours ferry and then walk up to where the finder, Brian Rabitts, had the Harlequin Duck firmly in his view! All this with only twelve of us watching it..........

Twitching doesn't get better than this. A 'crowd' of 12 including Stuart on 'crowd control' and three locals.

What a bird in a stunning location.

With a supporting cast of a juvenile Glaucous Gull performing a flypast we filled our boots with this gem of a duck.

After a couple of hours we returned to the visitors centre to look for the Richardson's Canada Goose that had been frequenting the area with Barnacle Geese. No problem - Stuart almost immediately picked it up and we spent the next hour watching this diminutive Canada.

Next target was a nearby female Ring-necked Duck and with that safely tucked away on the trip list it was time to look for a pair of Snow Geese at Loch Paible. Once again we were successful.

Time was ticking away as was the daylight as we made a stop at Stinky Bay where we found a pair of Long-tailed Ducks before going to our accommodation with an arrangement for Stuart to meet us at 6.30 and lead us to the local pub for a couple of pints and some food. Hoping for a good nights sleep after being awake for over forty hours we put the snorers in one room whilst the non-snorers were in another. Unfortunately one of our room mates failed to admit he was a snorer and proceeded to keep Mark & I awake half the night with his  nasal reverberations.

Although we'd booked to return on the midday ferry we decided to get up early and try to get a standby berth on the earlier one so set our alarms for 5am. Very luckily we did get one of the few standby places and it was a tired but happy group that disembarked 5 hours earlier than anticipated at Uig for the long drive home in superb weather.

A great couple of days with very little sleep some superb birds and a chance to meet up again with Stu to whom we owe a few more beers next time we meet.

15 Feb 2013

More seawatching

Last Saturday saw me driving over to Hilbre in the dark with Cheshire year listers Mark Payne & Phil Oddy. Arriving just after 07.10 we treated ourselves to a well earned cooked breakfast before embarking on a marathon seawatch from the hide. As it was also WeBs count day we spent a good 4 hours in the hide noting down everything we saw.
Groucho does the business in the kitchen.
Although the wind was in the SE (and bitterly cold) hopes were high the recent stormy weather further north may have driven some unusual birds south to seek shelter. Expectations were high and we weren't disappointed. Although the hoped for Long-tailed Duck or rare grebe didn't materialise we did score with all three diver species with the Black-throated Diver once again showing just before high tide before swimming further out to sea. A Great Northern Diver was picked up flying further out before pitching in on the sea and there were good numbers of Red-throated Divers for comparison.
Although there were plenty of Common Scoter we didn't pick up any Velvets amongst them  - one of these days one of the Llandulas Surf Scoters will also head our way.....................
17 Purple Sandpipers roosted over the tide in their usual spot and the Brent Geese numbered well in excess of 200.

As the tide ebbed the Purple Sandpipers came out to play and once again provided good photo opportunities.

Sundays weather was piss poor with rain all day. A day to stay in read the papers and watch England beat Ireland in the Rugby. As well as the female Brambling photographed in the garden a few weeks back a male made an appearance but was incredibly shy and I had to settle for a photo through the conservatory window.

10 Feb 2013

Barry's Garden

An update on last weekends ringing session in Barry's garden the day before the Grosbeak twitch. Another good day with finches galore. Good numbers of Siskin and Lesser Redpoll were ringed along with Goldfinch, Chaffinch & Greenfinch. Its been really nice to see Siskins up close as I hadn't ringed many before.

Like other finches Siskins can sometimes be aged on the shape of their tail feathers with juveniles being more pointed than the rounder feathers of the adult. This feature can't be used alone though as it has been known for young birds to accidentally lose their tails and grow and adult type replacement or, in some cases, moult their tails during their post-juvenile moult.

The photograph above shows a classic juvenile tail on the right compared to an adult one on the left.
The main focus on the studies in Barry's garden are the Blue Tits and Great Tits. By this time of year most young Blue Tits have moulted all their greater coverts but retain their greenish juvenile primary coverts. Normally these are moulted in sequence and we occasionally find a bird that has still retained one or more of the outer greater coverts which contrast with the fresh adult type. Very occasionally we find a bird like this one that has moulted its greater coverts out of sequence or accidentally lost one and grown a new adult type.

4 Feb 2013

Pine Grosbeak.

Pine Grosbeaks are on most birders 'must see' list in the UK. They're almost mythical. Breeding high in the Arctic tundra they occasionally have irruption years where they swarm through the Baltic countries and then stop when they reach Norway. Every irruption year British birders say 'this'll be the year'. Last year was no exception. Come the autumn, come the bird(s). Thousands of them flying west from Siberia and Russia in a feathered horde. A handful turned up in Denmark and Holland. 'This is it, this'll be the year' was the cry.............................. Feck all.

Until last Thursday. News broke that one had been photographed in a Shetland garden on the Tuesday but with negative news all day Friday it looked as if another opportunity had passed us by. There have only been 11 records since 1950 and the majority of those were inaccessible 1 day stayers. The last (un)twitchable one that wasn't, if you get my drift, was in Easington in November 2004. It had spent 3 days coming to drink in a puddle on someones drive and was thought to be a Crossbill. Re-identified (like this one) from photo's it duly disappeared the day we all got there. No one saw it apart from the house owners. Prior to that the only other long stayer was a bird that took up territory in Shetland from March until April 1992. The previous record to that was in 1975. This was going to be a very popular bird.

Saturday saw me once again ringing in Barry's garden in Burton.. The phone pinged. A message from RBA. Rebecca Nason had refound the Grosbeak!! Cue pandemonium as Fred's Tours sprang in to motion. Within hours a flight had been arranged and a minivan booked on Shetland!

Leaving the house at 04.15 I met up with the other lads to drive up to our designated pick-up point and we arrived at Sumburgh airport without drama bang on schedule at 10.45 when the airport opened. Star Car rentals were waiting for my credit card and within 15 minutes of landing we were heading north to Collafirth where the bird had been seen the previous day. By this time we knew the Grosbeak was still present. Two thirds of the twitch completed - 1/3 get there, 2/3 know the bird is still present. 3/3 actually seeing it. There isn't a fourth third or even a fourth quarter. Planning doesn't usually include getting home. We don't think that far ahead.

A low pass over Fair Isle...

An hour later we arrived to find only 3 other people on site. 'You want the good news or the bad news' we were asked. Sounded ominous. It transpired the bird hadn't been seen for 50 minutes. Given the gale force winds it wasn't surprising. Our look was in. Before we'd even finished exchanging pleasantries we were whistled over into the field behind the garden where the Grosbeak had just showed itself. Result! Over the next couple of hours the bird started showing exceptionally well but the high winds and dull weather made photography a nightmare.

What a beaut. There were never more than 20 of us present and the bird performed admirably - as Grosbeaks usually do. Although secretive on their breeding grounds once they irrupt they become ridiculously tame and I've seen them in Finland coming to berries in peoples gardens. It looks as if this bird has actually been present since November when it was photographed in another garden nearby. Judging by the stripped buds on the conifers it favoured it seems to be thriving.

With our flight scheduled at 16.00 we meandered back to Sumburgh looking for Otters and a reported White-billed Diver. We got the otters but no diver. Satisfied we all crashed out on the plane and I was back home by 20.30 with a well deserved beer.

1 Feb 2013


Not Nicole Kidman (or Chris Evans for that matter).

Redhead Smews are becoming quite regular in Cheshire over the last few years with birds being seen at Rostherne, Tatton Park & Deer Park Mere. They've become almost annual in the last 4 years but the last male I saw was at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB on the 5th February 2005.

This bird has been 'resident' on the Birchwood Pool at Moore nature reserve and although  I saw it a few weeks ago on my return from Australia I couldn't resist a go with the camera as the sun came out on the way to a meeting in Clitheroe.

Mind you if I'd taken the advice of the guy who was just leaving the hide as  I arrived I wouldn't have seen it. Apparently there was no sign.....................first bird I picked out amongst the loafing Tufties.

Chehire has had a good run of good birds on inland waters this January - Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe & Smew. Long may it continue. A nice male Velvet Scoter would please the Cheshire year listers. Even better ... Surf Scoter. The Weaver bend perhaps?