30 Dec 2014

Well, that's 2014 done & dusted!

Well. What a year both ornithologically and domestically. Milestones were reached in both. Our son, Joe, is getting married to Danielle next year and we couldn’t be more pleased. That’ll be both our kids married and starting new chapters of their lives.

Ornithologically it was a year of amazing birds and some great moments. A Chimney Swift on Lewis at the end of October was my 500th BOU species!

 Earlier the same month I actually saw two of my bogey birds on Shetland - a really showy White’s Thrush and our very own self found Lanceolated Warbler!

See here for last years review.

With the amount of time I spend on Shetland it’s only fitting that I’ve joined the Shetland Bird Club.
Shetland really produced the goods this year with my second Siberian Rubythroat and second Myrtle Warbler as well as the afore mentioned White’s Thrush & Lanceolated Warbler. Two in a year – I’d only seen my first back at the beginning of the year when one was found coming to feeders in County Durham.

  Another welcome addition was the long staying American Coot at Loch Flemington. Although classed by some as an uninspiring bird it’s still a real rarity with less than 10 UK records. Cretzchmars Bunting, Short-toed Eagle & Spectacled Warbler were also excellent birds to catch up with.

Another god bird was the Eastern Black Redstart at Scalby Mills. Although currently just a race there is some talk of it being a future potential split and becoming a full species in its own right.
I managed to see another major bird missing from my BOU British list in December in the salubrious surroundings of an industrial estate near Wakefield. Avid patch watcher Jonny Holliday found a Blyth’s Pipit! This uber birders bird was one I’ve really wanted to see and with three being found this year I hoped one would stick around long enough for me to catch up with. It did & I did along with Steve Williams. So I end the year on 501 BOU.
I also managed to see my 300th species in Cheshire – a Barred Warbler present for one day in a private garden on the Wirral. Night Heron and Little Bunting were also new Cheshire birds for me.

My twitching career goes all the way back to my teenage years spent in Suffolk during the 1970’s whilst my Cheshire list started in 1979 when I went to Manchester University. I can’t claim that Desert Warbler was my 1st Cheshire tick but it was certainly near the top of the list!

During the intervening times I’ve seen some amazing birds and been to some of the most beautiful places in the British Isles. Places some people only dream of visiting. I’ve also spent time at some of the worst places you can imagine!
To me the numbers are unimportant. What matters is the memories. The people and places. I’ve made some great friends over the years and shared some fantastic experiences. The roll call is too long to mention everyone but they’ll know who they are. When I’m incapable of getting out and about as much as I do now I’ll have these memories and all my notebooks with sketches, photos and notes to refer back to.
Having got my A ringing permit brings a new dimension to my hobby. Time spent on Hilbre is always precious and through my connection with the SCAN ringing group I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with seabird ringing on Puffin Island and canon netting waders. I’m learning something new every time I go out…….
As well as the ringing and general birding I’ve enjoyed my second year of the ‘Patch Challenge’ and spent a lot of time on foot around the house recording as many species as I can. Some good records this year with a number of ‘first’ for the area. I finished up with 106 species – not bad for an inland area consiting mainly of farmland a few ponds and a large wood!
I’ve also enjoyed carrying out survey work on a local farm for Cheshire Wildlife Trust and had the added bonus of being able to ring Swallow nestlings in the farm buildings.
 So what will 2015 bring? A wedding for a start! We’ve also managed to book on to Fair Isle for the 1st week in October so will spend the week here rather than on Shetland mainland. Possibly a risky strategy if something big turns up elsewhere on Shetland but I’ve always wanted to stay at Fair Isle Bird Observatory and I’ll hopefully be able to help with the ringing. Hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to banish the other Shetland bogey birds – Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and Yellow-breasted Bunting

22 Dec 2014

Heads, tails & vermiculations..................

The final SCAN canon netting weekend of the year corresponded with the winter solstice and a big night out! I didn't make the Saturday session but got up early Sunday morning to drive across to Bangor harbour where the nets had been set the previous day ready for, hopefully, an early morning catch.  The target species was Wigeon. Meeting with the rest of the team we were briefed and set off to our hidden position (actually a bus stop) above the beach ready to run down in the event of the nets being fired.

Unfortunately the Wigeon didn't play ball on the rising tide so were were stood down until the tide started ebbing when it was hoped they'd haul to feed on the strand line. Back at the car park everyone had good views of a Long-tailed Duck that had flown in before deploying to check out other local sites for future reference.

Meeting up again around 10.30 this time we were in luck and after a count of 3,2,1 from Steve over the radio Rachel pushed the fire button. The result was a nice catch of Wigeon with bonus Redshank thrown in!

It was an ideal situation with the opportunity to get a close look at these gorgeous ducks and try to understand a bit more about the ageing. The males are really striking birds and there is a huge variation in the amount of green and cream on the head as show below:

Aging the males on the amount of white in the wing was fairly straight forward.

The females are another matter and the fringing on the greater and median coverts and the shape of the greater coverts is important. First year females have poorly defined buff fringes whereas the adults have clear pale fringes.

Adult female below:

1st winter male below:

Ageing of many birds has to take into account a number of different factors including feather wear, colouring  and structure. One method of ageing Wigeon is to look at the tail. Juvenile birds tend to have 'split ends' as is shown nicely below with the comparison between a 1st winter male and an adult male.

Comparison between 1st winter male and adult male Wigeon with adult showing large white wing patches.

They really are stunning birds close up and the vermiculations on the back and flanks is beautifully intricate close up.

With inclement weather and a busy Christmas ahead I'm not sure how much ringing I'll be able to do or even if I'll even get out birding................................

17 Dec 2014

WeBs weekend

A trip to Hilbre was in order Sunday to undertake the regular WeBs count. High tides were early morning and mid afternoon so the count was done at low tide. The weather started off being beautifully sunny with a fantastic sunrise behind me as I drove across to the island.
 Above: looking south east at low level back towards West Kirby Marine lake.
 Below: Rear view mirror shot

Below: the view ahead of me towards Hilbre.
 Below: looking back from the west side of Hilbre.
Apart from the few resident species there were no passerines around and very little on the sea! As the tide began to flood parties of Common Scoter were seen but only single Great-crested grebes & Red-throated Divers. Still, it was nice to be out and I took the opportunity of taking a couple of photos from the top of the air raid shelter and at the north end.

Below: looking north(ish) towards the Buoy Masters store with the newton heli trap by the stone wall

Below: Looking back towards the obs wit the Landrover parked on the drive.
 Below: Newton heligoland trap.
Below: the old lifeboat station bathed in early morning sunlight and reflecting a warm glow off the sandstone.
I lit the old wood burning stove in the Obs and left the windows open to air the place and provide somewhere warm to sit with a mug of tea and reflect on yet another year nearly over......

10 Dec 2014

The big godlewskii

Birds turn up in the strangest places! Who'd have thought a flooded field earmarked for development in the middle of a Yorkshire Industrial estate would host a mega-rare Blyth's Pipit (Anthus godlewskii). Well Jonny Holliday pulled the proverbial long eared leporidae out of his top hat with this one when he found a Blyth's Pipit on his local patch. With only 22 accepted records and many of these being one day birds on offshore islands this was always going to be a popular bird if it stuck around. It did and had the added bonus of only being an hour and a half away meaning Steve & I had the luxury of waiting to see if it was present for a 2nd day before meandering across the Pennines to Wakefield.

Unfortunately the only views we could all get were of the bird in flight but these were sufficient to identify the bird and coupled with its distinctive call made the identity unambiguous.

The species breeds from southern Transbaykalia  (Russia) and eastern Manchuria south to Tibet & winters in India and Sri Lanka so what it thought  of a cold industrial estate in Yorkshire heaven only knows.

Although there have currently only been 22 accepted UK records there have been three Blyth's Pipits (including this one) seen in the UK this autumn so I hoped one would turn up and give me a chance to catch up with one.

No photo's of this bird by me  - I didn't even bother taking the camera! I did get a photo of Jonny though that shows the difficult habitat the bird was frequenting.

Waiting at home until the news came through that the bird was still present gave me the opportunity to photograph the stunning sun rise  from our kitchen.

What does this Blyth's Pipit and my Levi jeans have in common?

I'll leave that for you to work out...................................

8 Dec 2014

Dunnocks & Long-tailed Tits.

With a family get together in Somerset planned for the weekend there wasn't any real opportunity to do much birding. Finishing work by 13.00 on Friday was a bonus and meant I was able to put a mist net up in the garden for an hour or so before it got dark. We've been gettign a party of Long-tailed Tits passing through a couple of times a day but so far I'd only managed to catch and ring one. I'm particularly interested in these birds as the first two controls I caught in the garden were both 'Lotti's' caught in the same week! Since then I've caught a few ringed in previous years so was interested in seeing if any of the current group were ringed or if it's the same group passing through daily.

Thew first bird caught was a young Dunnock that I'd ringed earlier this spring and could still be readily aged by its muddy brown iris.
As with a number of species Dunnock eye colour gets darker with age although this isn't always a foolproof criteria for ageing them. This one was a known age retrap and had a muddy brown eye so aging was straight forward.

Compare the eye colour to the adult I ringed in the spring:
Another interesting bird was this Blue Tit showing a broken 2nd primary - yet another bird with poor quality feathers. This has been something of a feature this year with other ringers commenting on the same thing.
I did manage to catch  10 Long-tailed Tits including 1 retrap - a bird  I ringed last month! Interestingly there was also a retrap Coal Tit associating with the Lotti's. A scarce bird in my garden but I've ringed a few this autumn although I haven't seen one for a few weeks. Hopefully they might pull in a wandering Yellow-browed Warbler over the winter!
Garage ringing station

4 Dec 2014

Kashmir Redstart

A much better sounding name than Eastern Black Redstart of the form phoenicuroides. This form is being touted as a potential split and given full species status rather than being just a race. It was only accepted onto the British list in September this year 23 years after the first was trapped and ringed in November 1981 at Dungeness, Kent. Another bird accepted at the same time was one that graced Wells, Norfolk in 2003.

Fast forward to November 2011 (there's a theme developing here - a true November bird!) when one turned up in Margate, Kent and another on Holy Island, Northumberland. I couldn't get to either!

Low and behold one turns up on Scilly a few days ago and another in Scalby Mills, Yorkshire.
Plans were made and a business trip to Leeds meant I was fortuitously within striking distance if the bird was still there. It was and I saw it!

It was a bit more elusive than it had been and was ranging further afield being seen in the next street but returning to its favoured garden once every 2-3 hours. A cracking little bird and well worth seeing even if it never gets elevated to full species status.

2 Dec 2014

Brent's & Blackbirds

I managed a quick trip over to Hilbre Sunday after the early morning high tide. A beautiful morning with clear skies and a dazzling sunrise and hardly a breath of wind although it clouded over a bit later.
As  I drove up the south end slip I disturbed our resident rabbit. This venerable old beast has been a solitary resident for at least three years now and has adapted with a thick furry coat. Later he or she came out to enjoy the last rays of sunshine by the 5 bar gate and seemed unperturbed by the day trippers that passed on the main track.
There seemed to have been a small fall of Blackbirds with at least three unringed birds flushed from bracken by the air raid shelter. One of these was caught in the Newton heligoland trap and seemed to have accidentally lost its tail which was regrowing. I can't believe it would still be growing it from its post breeding moult.

Brent Geese are one of my favourite birds. I remember when  I was around 8- 9 being taken by my parents to Mersea Island off the Essex coast and seeing my first Brent's. They undertake astonishing migrations and over the years Hilbre's flock of Pale-bellied Brent's has grown to around 200 birds and colour ringed birds have been present that have been coming to the island for several years such as HSWB below:
The history of this bird is well known and is taken from the Hilbre blog here.

 This bird was ringed at Dungarvan Pitch and Putt Golf Course, County Waterford, on 18th December 2008 and was first seen at Hilbre on 12th November 2010 having been at Strangford Lough, County Down, that autumn until 20th October and has returned to the islands every winter since (along with the Canadian ringed bird 'HDRB' also present this autumn). Thanks, as always, to the Irish Brent Goose Research Group for the information.

So for at least 6 years this smallest of our geese has been flying backwards and forwards from arctic Canada, probably via Iceland, to N Ireland and then across to Hilbre. A journey of around 3,500 miles one way! Awesome.

As with other geese and swans Brent's migrate in family groups and these often stick together on the wintering grounds. It was nice to see such a family group comprising of 3 juveniles and a par of adults on the whale-back. The juveniles are easily picked out by the pale fringes to their mantle feathers.
As the morning progressed more people ventured out from West Kirby and the Brent's were disturbed and flew off to a quieter place.
Passerines  were scarce and apart from the Blackbirds only the resident Robins, Wrens and Dunnnock's were noted.
Dunnock basking in the winter sun
As the crowds grew it was time to leave and already by early afternoon the sun was beginning to get lower in the sky towards the south east.