31 Dec 2019

Review of my birding year 2019

Not a spectacular year but a memorable one for many reasons. My first year as a fully retired birder! It still didn't mean I had anymore time though!

Highlights included the famous Shetland Tengmalm's Owl that put on a superb display for us at Bixter in February. See here for details here

A fantastic bird and probably on most peoples most wanted list.

Lifers were few and far between this year but it was more quality than quantity. I was in Madeira during when Britains 1st Brown Booby turned up but unbelievably a 2nd bird was found at Kynance Cove, Cornwall, whilst  I was sat in the airport at Funchal waiting for my return flight - subsequently I virtually got straight off the plane and drove to Cornwall overnight. See blog post here.

I had to wait until October for my next new species. Probably one of the least inspiring birds missing off my British list - Eastern Yellow Wagtail! Luckily this one was closer to home and we duly mafde the short trip to Cemlyn on Anglesey. See here

The final new bird for 2019 was also in Cornwall when, incredibly, Britains (and the Western palearctics) 1st Paddyfield Pipit was identified firstly by sonogram analysis and confirmed by DNA in November. Playing it cool Fred and I left it until the day before it departed (or was killed by the local cat) before making yet another overnight trip to Cornwall. See Strange Pipits.

My now annual Shetland trip took a twist this year with the sad destruction of the bird observatory on Fair Isle. We'd already booked flights so decided to try Fetlar  - a place we'd often talked about spending a week on and trying to find our own birds. We certainly did that when I turned up a male Siberian Rubythroat! Without a doubt the best bird I've ever found. A dream bird and my third (all males) in the UK and my third in Shetland!

Photo by Jason Atkinson.

Closer to home I added Puffin to my Cheshire list with a bird off Hilbre with the only other new addition being Siberian Stonechat in December. From a garden perspective I added both Little Egret and Barn Owl to the garden list (both had been seen on my local patch but not from the garden).

I've done a fair bit of ringing this year - including a memorable few days on Fetlar where we caught a good number of Bramblings in the garden of our accomodation! Not much ringing has been done in our garden but with the addition of a whoosh net endorsement to my permit we've spent a lot of time catching Starlings in Janes garden and House Sparrows with Barry. Later in the Autumn I used a lure to mist net Redwings and the whoosh net to catch and ring a few Fieldfares. Puffin Island trips are always a highlight and this year we were blessed with good weather. Other highlights included a trip to Cemlyn ringing Sandwich Terns and The Skerries for Arctic Terns.

30 Dec 2019

Goa, November - December 2019

For my wife's big birthday we went with her brothers and sisters to Goa. The first time any of us had been to India apart from work. We stayed at a fabulous hotel in South Goa which had its own golf course and extensive grounds full of plants, trees and lagoons. It was also right next to the beach with the sea one side and an estuary the other. Although not really a birding holiday I took my binoculars and camera intending to add as many new species to my word list as I could!

What a fabulous place. The hotel was outstanding and everyone was friendly and eager to help. Coupled with superb local food and wildlife what more could  I want. From our hotel room we overlooked one of the lagoons and were regularly visited by White-throated & Stork-billed Kingfishers whilst Green Beeeaters, White-breasted Swamphen & Indian Pond Heron were common.

 Green Beeeater
 Stork Billed Kingfisher - above & below

 White-throated Kingfisher

Indian Pond heron
Whtie-breasted Swamphen

What was really strange was seeing Common Sandpipers walking on Lilypads! A number of snakes were usually seen swimming across the lagoons and I identified these as  Checkered Keelbacks. The biggest was just over a metre long. Another common species was White-browed Wagtail, seen most days hunting for insects. 

Checkered Keelback
 White-browed Wagtail

Asian Kohl - male & female below.

Species such as Red Whiskered Bulbul, Little Spider Hunter and Purple-rumped Sunbirds were also common in the hotel grounds whilst the ubiquitous House Crows were everywhere.

Cattle Egrets roamed the grounds and scavenged by the swimming pool whilst Great Egrets and Little Cormorants were common. A familiar call registering with something deep in my memory turned out to be a Hume's Warbler.

The golf course hosted a pair of Spotted Owlets which could be seen hunting moths attracted to the lights alongside the path leading to the course.

The beach was fabulous with breakers crashing over the sand and flocks of Kentish Plovers dodging the waves and White-bellied Sea Eagles occasionally being seen hunting further out to sea.

We took a boat trip down the Sal River and out into the main estuary t osee dolphins and other wildlife. The crew handed out guide books and binoculars for people t ouse but most were more interested in the unlimited free booze! This proved to be a great trip with the estuary hosting Pallas's Gull, Greenshank, Redshank and a number of Terek Sandpipers. Brahminy Kites, Black Kites and Shikra were all seen well whilst a colony of Fruit Bats were one of the highlights - these could be seen feeding at night in our hotel grounds as well. I was particularly pleased to see Asian Openbill - a bird I'd hoped to see but we only saw one in flight.

Above: Asian Openbill
 Black Kite
 Black-necked Ibis
 Brahminy Kite - adult above, Juvenile below.

 Fruit bat.
 Western Reef Heron

A great trip with 79 species being seen of which a number were completely new to me. I'd certainly recommend going to Goa but be aware the level bureaucracy at the airport is almost enough to drive you mad!

21 Dec 2019


Following on from my recent success in catching and ringing Redwings feeding in the garden, I've had a bit of success with their larger Scandinavian cousins! Having a number of apple trees in the garden we've been getting a few each winter feeding on windfalls.  I've never had any success mist netting them in previous years but this year I've been using the whoosh net I've built with a remote release mechanism I can fire from the warmth and comfort of the conservatory. See blog post here about the whoosh net and how it works.

Fieldfares are extremely protective and territorial so its unusual to get more than 2-3 feeding in the garden on their preferred apple at the same time so I wasn't expecting to catch big numbers. So far I've caught three and three Blackbirds. All three Fieldfares were sexed as males based on the pattern of the black markings concealed in the centre of the grey crown feathers -- see photo below. Females have a much narrower black 'arrowhead'.

Two have been adult males (Euring age 4) and one a 1st winter (Euring age 3). Fieldfares are aged on the shape of the tail and the presence, or otherwise, of a moult limit in the greater coverts. 1st year birds will undergo a partial post juvenile moult in their first autumn but usually won't moult all the greater coverts so you can generally find a moult limit between the older juvenile feathers and the recently grown adult type.

 Beautiful birds and a real treat to see them up closely - I've not ringed very many as theyre usually difficult to catch.

14 Dec 2019


Redwings are one of the highlights of the birding autumn. For  me nothing epitomises the change of the season from summer to autumn than the first 'tseep' calls of Redwings passing over in the dark as they migrate from their Scandinavian and Icelandic breeding grounds to feast in our hedgerows over winter.

We are lucky to get them feeding in the garden on the numerous hawthorn and yew berries we have most years and I look forward to catching and ringing a few of these special little thrushes.

This year has been a good one with 1-2 caught most sessions when I've been able to put a net up either at dusk or early morning The bonus has been catching a few Blackbirds and a Song Thrush as well. The Blackbirds feel like they may be migrants. Big chunky birds with long wings and hefty weights.

The Redwings I've been catching are the Scandinavian race Turdus iliacus iliacus rather than the darker and more rarely seen Icelandic race coburni

See here for my experiences with both races on Fair Isle in 2017.

Above: Song Thrush - a 1st ringed in the garden although they are regular visitors

Note the juvenile type tail feathers in the photo above - nice and pointed. The bird below appears to have accidentally lost T5 & T6 on the left side of its tail and the new ones are adult type & much more rounded.

Above: Redwing showing how they got their name!

24 Nov 2019

Pinkfeet flying over house.

The yelping of Pinkfooted geese in the late autumn and winter is something I look forward to hearing every year. We are very lucky as our house is directly on their flight line from their roost on the Dee Estuary to their feeding grounds.

The numbers on the Dee have increased dramatically over the last few years and at times we can have several thousand passing overhead.

18 Nov 2019

Strange pipits

It's a strange thing when some birds can't be identified to species level without DNA. As our knowledge increase more and more cryptic species are being uncovered and 'identified'. I don't know how I feel about this to be honest as some of the recent splits seem arbitrary to say the least - the Western form of Eastern Yellow Wagtail can be confused with the eastern forms of Western Yellow Wagtail. It feels almost as if every birders kit will have to include a DNA sampling kit in the future.
When a strange Pipit turned up in Cornwall recently that didn't appear to conform with any of the known vagrants everyone was left scratching their heads. A sound recording was analysed and unbelievably came back as Paddyfield Pipit - as species never recorded before in the western palearctic and a normally sedentary, or at best, short distant migrant in its range of India, Malaysia, Thailand & Indonesia? A faecal sample was collected and sent off for DNA analysis and the results are still being awaited..........

Questions have been rightly asked about how on earth this bird got here - 6,000 miles from its normal range. It was in heavy moult with very abraded out er primaries so there were theories that it was an escape. The moults not a problem, I've seen Meadow Pipits with similarly worn outer primaries at the end of the breeding season and Paddyfield Pipits normally undertake their post breeding moult in November on their wintering grounds.

So, what is it? Paddyfield Pipit seems so extreme that I couldn't bring myself to believe it was one. Surely the sonogram must be wrong? But, apparently, sonograms never lie...........

I couldn't really summon the enthusiasm to go all the way to Sennen to see a bird I had no idea what it was and resisted for several weeks until Fred decided he was going and offered me a lift.

Thats how I found myself at stupid o'clock in the morning (2.15 am) heading along the M56 to meet him at his office before heading to Cornwall in his car. We spent a leisurely journey reminiscing about other twitches with numerous stops before arriving on site at around 09.30 to be met with some glum faces. Incredibly nearly 3 weeks after the bird had appeared we weren't the only ones still looking. The bird wasn't around but realising we were probably in the wrong area we moved to an area where the bird had previously seemed to prefer and within seconds we'd seen it! Waving the others over we pored over  the bird trying to make our own minds up.

To me it looked more like a Tawny Pipit than a Richards Pipit. I'm not sure if the crown streaking is to heavy for Paddyfield Pipit and yet the newly moulted median coverts looked good for Richards Pipit. In short, I still don't know what it is but if the DNA confirms the sonogram as Paddyfield Pipit its an incredible record.

Unfortunately, a day or so after we visited, it appears the bird had a run in with  a local cat. Although it seemed to have escaped it wasn't seen the following day so it appears that the moggy had another more successful attempt.

11 Nov 2019


Whilst trying (unsuccessfully) to catch some Redwings in the garden one evening recently I caught this 1st calendar year, Euring code 3, male Sparrowhawk. He really was a tiny dainty bird.
He was followed closely by a 2nd calendar year female. A much bigger bird. This one was subsequently re-trapped a few days later and is obviously a regular visitor to the garden. Look at the colour of the eye on the 2nd calendar year bird compared to the 1st year bird and then compare it to the known adult further down.

Ringing at Janes a few days later we re-trapped an adult male that had been initially ringed by Al Hitchmough in his West Kirby garden on 1st March 2013 and then subsequently controlled on 13t hApril 2013 on Hilbre. This was the first time it had been re-trappped since that date.

Obviously there are plumage differences but the two photos show quite nicely how the eye colour gets oranger as these birds get older. See here for a photo of the same bird when it was re-trapped on Hilbre in 2013.

This male is at least 7 calendar years old. The oldest recorded in the BTO ringing scheme is 17 years old so he's got a long way to go!
Sparrowhawk  Accipiter nisus     17 years 1 month 11 days
EF80696Nestling Female28-07-1982   Micheldever: 51°8'N 1°14'W (Hampshire) 
Freshly dead  (hit by car)08-09-1999   Pennington, Lymington: 50°44'N 1°33'W (Hampshire)   49km   SSW   17y 1m 11d (Map)

2 Nov 2019

Ringing on Fetlar

Before we went to Fetlar I had the idea of taking a mist net and doing some ringing in the nicely enclosed garden of our accommodation. Contacting the ShetlandRinging Group  I found no one was active on Fetlar so there wouldn't be an issue. Thanks to Rebecca Nason & Phil Harris I was able to borrow some poles.

With Jase being a C permit holder it seemed an ideal opportunity. We'd decided to bait an area with bird seed in the hope of attracting migrant finches and buntings and it certainly worked! initially we only got House Sparrows and Starlings down (Shetland race zetlandicus) but also caught severa lRobins, Blackbirds and Shetland Wrens. These birds are huge compared to our Wrens and again are a separate race (zetlandicus) so it was nice to see them in the hand. The Wrens are bigger and darker than the ones we see at home.

After a day or so we attracted the 1st Brambling and eventually the flock built up to 60+ birds. We ringed 23 in two short sessions first thing on the morning and just before dusk.

Bramblings are really beautiful little finches and it was a privilege to catch so many. Hopefully we'll get a few in Cheshire this year.

25 Oct 2019

Fetlar, October 2019

With the sad destruction of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory earlier this year we decided to take the opportunity to visit one of the remoter Shetland Islands and made plans to stay at The Lodge in Houbie on Fetlar. Unfortunately Fred couldn't make and had to pull out at the last minute so there was only Jason, Mark & myself.

Unfortunately Loganair changed our flight so rather than flying directly from Manchester to Sumburgh were were rerouted via Inverness. When we arrived at Inverness we were told our flight was delayed until the next morning due to air traffic control restrictions at Sumburgh! The airline staff quickly sorted out accommodation for us and taxis to a nearby hotel. This meant we arrived at Sumburgh almost 15 hours alter than we should have done so didn't have any time to do any birding before having to head north to Lerwick and a big shop at Tesco's before heading for the ferry to Yell and then ultimately to Fetlar. We also brought a 25 kg bag of bird seed intending to seed the area in front of our accommodation hoping to attract in a rare bunting or migrant finches.

What a great place and a great view! With an enclosed walled garden we hoped to be able to do some ringing so I took a mist net, some rings and borrowed some mist net poles from Phil Harris & Rebecca Nason, calling in to their fabulous B & B in Lerwick on our way north.

The trip started well when, as we were waiting for a ferry from Toft, A Hoopoe flew over the car pursued by 2 Rock Pipits. Whilst waiting for the ferry we also got to meet Fetlar based birder Paul Macklin and exchanged phone numbers so we could keep in contact.

There are only a few birding hotspots on Fetlar and our first afternoon was spent exploring these areas and familiarising ourselves with the terrain. Feal Burn was within walking distance and we got into the routine of checking it early morning, lunchtime and evening!

Another hot spot was the remote farm of Peter Coutt's at Everland. We found some good birds around this area including an eastern looking Lesser Whitethroat, Redstart, Ring Ouzel and numerous thrushes including 2 Ring Ouzels.

 Above: Mark checking the dockens at Everland.
 Below: ruined house and crofts at Everland. I can't get over the straightness of that block work on a building probably 2-300 years old
Below: Eastern type Lesser Whitethroat, Everland
Below: Redstart, Everland

The weather was incredible. With heavy rain back home in Cheshire we were blessed with sunshine - apart from one day when, to use the local dialect, it was 'dreich'
Above: view from top of Feal Burn on a dreich day.

Birds arrived during the day and quite often we'd check an area in the morning to find nothing but on checking again later birds had arrived. At certain times birds were literally dropping out of the sky. On one memorable occasion we had a rare shower whilst checking Feal Burn and 8 Goldcrests spiralled down in to the shelter of the plantation.

An area near Aith known locally as the piggeries hosted up to 2 Black Redstarts for a few days - see below. Every small bit of 'habitat' attracts birds and they can be found in the least inspiring places. This was a small field churned into mud by pigs but in attracting insects the Black Redstarts found it irresistible. Drivng along the lane leading to Velzie one day a Water Rail ran out of a roadside ditch in front of the car for a few metres before dashing back in again and promptly disappeared.

On our first day we found a Hawfinch in the plantation along Feal Burn. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me and next morning it had disappeared. Luckily it reappeared in a garden at Velzie feeding on rose hips. THis ws our afternoon route. After the lunch time trip up Feal Burn and a quick bite to eat we'd head towards South Dale and Velzie, check the gardens, walk the burn and then head towards The Manse and the gardens at Tresta where the bird of the trip turned up - see here
 Below: Hooded Crow.
 Below: lichen covered fence post showing how clean the air is up here.
 Below: view across the bay to our accommodation at Houbie
 Below: Fetlar interpretive centre. We were first here in 2007 twitching a Swainsons Thrush!
We visited again a few years later for a Taiga Flycatcher.
 Below: the team from 2007. Left to right. Me, Jase, Al & Malc.

 Below: Ragged Robin, Funzie.

 Above: curious rams.
 Below: Jase inspecting the bacon

Below: one of two baby hedgehogs we found wandering around 

Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Yellow-browed Warblers were the commonest warblers we saw but on the last day Jason found a skulking 'acro' round an old croft which eventually gave itself up in the smallest of nettle patches and revealed itself to be a Reed Warbler.

We ended up with a trip list of 81 species  for Fetlar. We did twitch off island once and visited Unst to try (unsuccessfully) to catch up with a possible Stegjeners Stonechat and wit hDougie Preston who was making the trip up from Yell. We also caught up with Wirral birder Allan Conlin who was staying at his house at Haroldswick. Al & Paula have a fabulous property that they rent out, or, at certain times, run as a B & B. See Bordnanoost Lodge here

Al had found a Lapland Bunting near the house so we met him there before retiring to his comfortable conservatory for tea and biscuits whilst taking in the view across the bay which hosted both Red-throated and Black-throated Dive!

 Nearby a Coue's Arctic Redpoll had been seen wit ha small flock of Common Redpolls so we took the opportunity to catch up with it and refresh our collective memories on the current state of Redpoll taxinomony
 Above: Common Redpoll.
Below: Coue's Arctic Redpoll

 We reckon there were two different bird and I think Dougie is submitting as such.

With an early morning flight o nthe Saturday we had to leave Fetlar Friday afternoon intending to return the mist net poles to Phil & Rebecca and stay at their B & B - see Ortolan House here. Before that though we took the opportunity to do a bit of twitching and drove south towards Sumburgh to catch up with a nice male Eastern Subalpine Warbler and a Red-breasted Flycatcher!

Checking in at our accommodation we had a quick change of clothes before heading out ot the local Thai  restaurant to meet up with Al again who was heading home the Wirral on the same early morning flight we were.

A great trip and we'll certainly be back to Fetlar. After walking 10 -12 miles each day in wellies and waterproofs I was certainly fitter than when I left home.