30 Nov 2021

Cattle Egret. New for the garden & patch list.

Despite being common on the Dee Estuary, and at nearby Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB, Little Egret is remarkable scarce on my local patch with only 4 records in 5 years living here. One of those was of multiple birds (3) seen flying past the study window so as a consequence its on the house and garden list! 

Cattle Egret is very scarce with most of the records coming from Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB (BMW) or Wirral. BMW is about 11 km in a straight-line from us and slightly north west. It was one of the last species I expected to add to the house list anytime soon!

Storm Arwen hit us hard Friday night and we lost power around 11 pm. Saturday morning dawned to devastation all around us. Apart from no power and a missing roof tile we escaped quite lightly but the garden was strewn with fallen branches. A neighbouring barn had lost its roof and many trees were blown over. Once the storm abated the weather became bitterly cold and as we didn't have power the central heating wasn't working. Trying to keep warm working in the garden I took a break, made a brew and took it up to the study to check on the gulls I'd noticed in the field opposite the house. Even without binoculars I could see one bird that stood out glowing white compared to the larids.

Getting the binoculars on it I was stunned to see it was actually a Cattle Egret and it was doing what Cattle Egrets do the World over! Hanging around with cattle and snaffling insects that they disturbed in the grass.

Cue panic as  I tried to get a record photo / video before the bird disappeared as all around us chainsaws were working removing fallen trees blocking the lane and that had fallen across power lines.

The bird stayed for about an hour before disappearing. I didn't see it fly but next time I looked up it, and all the gulls, had disappeared. A great local record and some reward for being without electricity for nearly 3 days. That puts the garden list up to 111 in 4 years of living here.

26 Nov 2021

What a belter of a Kingfisher

In October 1979 I started as an undergraduate studying biology at Manchester University. That same year a Belted Kingfisher turned up at Sladesbridge Cornwall. Although it stayed for awhile it was pretty elusive and getting there would have entailed a long hitch from Manchester to Cornwall. Stupidly I never made the effort. If I'd known then that there wouldn't have been another one in the UK until 2005 I'd have made more of an effort but at the time I was a conscientious student.

For years it had been on my most wanted list of birds to see in the UK. With several birds being seen in Ireland and in Spain the hope was one of these birds would migrate and make it to the UK. April 1st 2005 saw me skiing in Andorra with my wife and two kids. A message about a Belted Kingfisher at Shugbourough was viewed as a April fool hoax. Only it wasn't and most of my Cheshire compatriots made the short journey to Shugborough to see this Jackdaw sized Kingfisher. It's a Mega in so many ways.

April the 2nd dawned with many disappointed faces as the bird had gone. Only to be relocated later that day in Yorkshire. Again it eluded the masses before finally pitching up in Peterculter, Scotland where it showed from the 4-8th April. We arrived home from Andorra on the 9th. Another one missed.

Roll forward to April 18th 2018 when one was found on the Scillies and seemed settled at Porth Hellick. Surely it would be 3rd time lucky? Al Orton and I thought so as we drove through the night to Cornwall and get a flight from Lands End to St Mary's. Or so we thought. Bad weather meant the flight was cancelled and we had to get the ferry from Penzance. Surely the bird wouldn't have moved on in such bad weather? It had and another opportunity was lost. 

Unbelievably a fisherman dangling his maggots on the River Ribble just north of Brockholes NNR in Lancashire videoed one using his phone on 9th November this year. We were there within a couple of hours of the news breaking but despite staying until dark there was no sign until the 14th November when it was reported again from exactly the same spot. Again, birders turned up but failed to find any trace. How could a bird this big and loud disappear? With no more sightings we pored over OS maps to look at areas where there was access to the river bank and where a Belted Kingfisher could possibly hangout. Despite us, & lots of people searching large stretches of the Ribble, there was no further sign.

When a Long-toed Stint was reported in Cumbria it took quite a bit of sleuthing by a few people to determine where it might be. I'd missed the Yorkshire bird in October as we were on Fetlar. We'd arranged to drive straight there after getting off Shetland only for it to disappear the very day we were going. Keen to catch up with this ultra rare stint I arranged with Chris we'd drive to Carlisle in the hope the bird would show and access could be arranged. As we passed Brockholes on the M6 Chris jokingly said he had a good feeling about the day and that he fully expected to get the Long-toed Stint and then the Belted Kingfisher on the way home! Unbelievably the news came through from RBA that the Kingfisher was showing well in exactly the same spot when we were only 20 minutes from Rockcliffe Marsh where the stint had been seen! Deciding to carry on we soon found there was no viewing on site, no access and no sign of the bird.....

With news the Belted Kingfisher was still showing well we decided to cut our losses and head back down the M6 to Brockholes. News kept coming through that it had moved but was still showing, next it had been flushed, by who or what we didn't know, but eventually at 2.20 pm we pulled up in the crematorium carpark and raced down to the river bank down a very steep muddy embankment. Distant it may have been compared to the views people had earlier but finally after 42 years I had my Belted Kingfisher. We watched it move around a bit before at around 2.50 it flew upstream and wasn't seen again.

What an incredible end to a long wait! Hopefully its now getting into a more regular routine & there'll be another chance to catch up with this spectacular bird. Surely it will overwinter in the area now? 

22 Nov 2021

SCAN - Dunlin & Redshank

After being away for the first SCAN canon netting session of the winter I was more than happy to make the early morning trip across to North Wales to meet up with the rest of the ringing team in an attempt to catch a good sample size catch of Dunlin & Redshank. Donning enough layers to keep an Arctic explorer warm I was soon sweating walking across the marsh to the designated meeting point but knew I'd appreciate the extra layers once we'd been sitting in the same spot for a few hours! 

A team had already set the nets at 06.30 so all the rest of us latecomers had to do was get comfortable and listen to the briefing given by Richard.We could hear birds moving the other side of the embankment we were ensconced behind and Steve gave updates over the radio. 

With a boom that made a few people jump the nets were fired and we were off running to the catch site to lift the net onto higher ground and cover the birds to keep them calm whilst we extracted the catch into holding cages ready for processing. 

A great catch of 620 Dunlin and 24 Redshanks was duly ringed and processed. There were quite a few retraps from previous ringing sessions and a few controls - including two Dunlin ringed in Norway and a SCAN bird that had acquired a darvic ring in Poland! It'll be interesting to see where this bird was ringed.

Many of the birds were juveniles and these were identified by the retained juvenile feathers in the wing - not to be confused with retained breeding plumage in adults! Some were very subtle and others, such as this bird below, a lot easier with distinct buff tipped coverts visible in with the adult type with grey /white fringes.

Redshank are beuatifully marked and very understated birds. Close up the intricacies of the plumage become apparent as most of the time people see them as little brown and white waders with red legs as the fly away calling after being disturbed. Known as the 'sentinel of the marshes' they're usually the first waders to give an alarm call and fly off when something disturbs them. Again, it was good to get my eye in on ageing them as I hadn't seen one in the hand (due to Covid restrictions in 2020) since 2019!

Juveniles (Euring 3) are identified by their retained tertial(s) which are saw toothed and white edged. As usual with feathers the white parts wear more quickly and the tertials look ragged. Some birds also retain some of their juvenile inner median coverts with a white tip and dark subterminal band.

All in all a great day and the unseasonably mild weather meant we enjoyed a bit of late November sunshine.


17 Oct 2021

Fetlar 2021

This year was our 2nd annual trip to Fetlar. We couldn't go last year due to Scottish Covid restrictions but  this year we were able to get across and spend just over a week searching for scarce birds from our base in Houbie. The weather was pretty dire at times with gale force westerlies and driving rain. The birding was hard but when the weather was fine the scenery was adequate compensation! 

Leaving the house at 03.30 on a Saturday morning I picked up Jason on the way before heading to Glasgow Airport for the flight to Sumburgh. The flight was on time and we had no issues picking up the hire car and headed straight to Tesco's in Lerwick for a big shop. Meeting Chris in the car park we piled him and his bags into the car before heading north for the ferries from mainland to Yell and then from Yell across to Unst and finally Fetlar. By the time we arrived at our accommodation it was almost dark so there wasn't much time to do anything apart from admire the view and put some bird seed out on the drive! 

The Lodge, Houbie. Our accommodation for the week.

It soon became apparent there were very few common migrants around. Its the first year since I've been coming to Shetland (2007) that we failed to find a Yellow-browed Warbler or even a Goldcrest. We were basically seeing single figures of birds we'd expect to see in other years. Early in the trip the best bird we found was a Spotted Flycatcher that spent the duration of our stay fly catching around the pig pen near the shop. At least the pig was happy enough to see us and get a daily scratch behind its ears! 

Spotted Flycatcher coughing up a pellet

We got into a routine of walking Feal Burn before breakfast before heading up to Everland and working our way back to Funzie, checking all suitable habitat on the way, and then walking Feal Burn again before lunch. With birds were moving through out the day it was necessary to check prime habitat several times to ensure we hadn't missed anything! A case in point came a few days into our trip when, after waling Feal Burn twice already our third and final trip just before dusk, was rewarded with a Bluethroat that suddenly appeared! We never saw it again! 

Typically we'd spend the afternoons working around Tresta, The Glebe and Velzie before returning back to the accommodation before a final walk of the burn. Unfortunately the rarest bird we found was actually a common bird for us, but a major rarity on Fetlar, with local birders needing it for their Fetlar list! A Shelduck! Whilst at Funzie looking for cetaceans and admiring the 450 million year old geology, in the form of a conglomerate, a bird picked up flying in off the sea turned out to be a Shelduck that Chris managed a couple of records shots of as it flew over our heads.

Not quite the rarity we were hoping for! 

News of Orca passing round Unst on day had us scurrying the ferry terminla in the hope they'd come through the Bluemull sound in horrendous weather conditions. No Orca but we did see an Otter that, form the number of smashed shells on the breakwater, was feeding on Sea Urchins.The weather was so windy the only place I could hold the binoculars steady was by lying in the boot of the car.

One evening we also watched an Otter from our front window as it hunted for crabs in the bay below our house.

Many of the Greylag Geese seen on Shetland are Icelandic migrants and its always worth checking through the flocks for something rarer. Several Bean Geese had already been reported on other Islands and we found three Pinkfooted Geese among a flock of Greylags.

Its a hard slog walking fields and ditches in wellingtons and wet weather gear and by the time we got home in the evenings we were ready for Jasons superb cooking - Chilli, Dahl & a hearty stew were all sampled and heartily approved of whilst the occasional wee dram didn't go amiss either! 
One of the undoubted highlights of the week was the night the aurora showed over Shetland. We drove up to the the old airfield to enjoy this spectacle and spent several hours on a bitterly cold night watching the  lights dancing in the sky.

Greylag Geese coming in off the sea at Everland

Male Siskin, Feal Burn

Brambling, Velzie

Curious Highland Cow - Funzi

Working the fields and dry stone walls around Houbie

Looking back fro mthe plantation at the top of Feal Burn to Houbie

Dramatic sky's over Houbie
Rainbow over Loch Funzie

Ultimately its all about getting outside and searching for birds. Even when the waether was bad we were out as soon as there was a small window of opportunity. On our last full day before travelling home we proved this point in style. We'd booked a late morning ferry to Unst to go and see a few good birds that had turned up there but still gave ourselves time for our morning walk along Feal Burn and Houbie. Whilst checking the garden of the health centre a small passerine popped up before promptly disappearing. We'd seen Blackcaps and a Garden Warbler in this garden but this looked different. Quietly walking each side of the wall and hedge the bird suddenly showed itself in front of Chris. A first winter Common Rosefinch. Not the most exciting of scarcities but still a good find! It was eating rose hips before flying to the road to pick up grit to aid its digestion.

Our quick trip to Unst took us up to Norwick where we met up with resident birder Dave Cooper whilst watching two superb Hornemann's Arctic Redpolls. Stunning little finches and I never get tired of seeing them .The best place to see them in the autumn is Shetland and they're almost annual in single figure numbers. I've only ever seen one away from Shetland.

Strong winds again hampered photography and the wind also made the birds very flighty and jittery. The nearby beach at Norwick had been hosting some very photogenic Long-tailed Ducks that, with a little patience, allowed really close views as they came to the edge of the surf to feed. 

A quicktour around Unst added a few more birds to our trip list with Easter Loch being especially productive with Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Whooper Swans and a single Pochard.

Before returning to Fetlar we had time for a quick drive up to a loch near the ferry terminal on Yell for a male Ring-necked Duck that showed distantly along with a couple of Tufted Ducks.

The return trip home started early with a 6am alarm call as we had to be packed and out the house t oget the 07.50 ferry to Unst and then Yell before driving to Lerwicjk to drop Chris off at the ferry terminal. Jase and I had enough time to call in to the Orca Inn at Hoswick to see a Red-breasted Flycatcher before heading to the airport. A great trip with good company . We didn't find anything majorly rare this year but found and a couple of scarcities which we'd be extremely fortunate to see home in Cheshire. We're already planning next years trip and have booked the Lodge for the same dates. 

27 Sept 2021

Wilsons Phalarope, Cheshire

We'd got back from Scotland the previous evening, after a long drive and epic journey round the NC500 taking on Orkney on the way, and  I was unpacking the car after breakfast when the news came through that Graham Jones had found a Wilsons Phalarope at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB just a few minutes away from the house. Abandoning the unpacking I grab binoculars, scope and camera and set off. Luckily the bird was on view, albeit distantly, when I arrived and  I was soon watching my 2nd Wilsons Phalarope for Cheshire - almost 40 years to the day as I saw my first ever and first Cheshire one at Frodsham as a student at Manchester University! 

There have been 11 previous records in Cheshire and this makes it 12. The last one was in 1991 so this was a very popular bird for a younger generation of Cheshire birders! I've seen 6 in the UK with the last one being at Seaforth Docks in 2009. In recent years they've become much scarcer in the UK. They're beautiful little birds and like our more familiar Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes will feed by spinning on the surface of the water to disturb invertebrates up from the mud on the bottom. They also feed on and and have a very distinctive feeding action - almost like a small egret chasing prey!

After almost 3 weeks away it was also good to catch up with a few friends I hadn't seen for awhile. Another good wader for the CAWOS recording area after recent Long-billed Dowithcers and American Golden Plovers.

17 Sept 2021

A Curlews call

 Our Curlews are in trouble. The UK's breeding population us halved in the last 25 years. Once common in some areas of lowland Britain such as the Brecklands of East Anglia and in moorland areas such as the peak District and areas of  North Wales their haunting bubbling display call is becoming a less familiar sound. They are amber listed in the UK and classified as globally threatened across their range. A number of factors are thought to be playing their part in the species decline including agricultural intensification and predation. 

Their onomatopoeic 'curlew, curlew' call is still a familiar sound on our estuaries as UK numbers are boosted by winter migrants from northern Europe but our resident breeding population is in a downward spiralling decline.

As such theres a lot of research going on as to what is causing this decline and eggs that would otherwise been destroyed on military bases in the Brecks are now being hatched in incubators and the youngsters being returned to the wild. See here for more information on the head starting project. When humans have to intervene in this way you know a species is in serious trouble.

The ECHOES  project is another project looking at Curlew populations  - ECHOES studies the effect of climate change on bird habitats around the Irish Sea. See here for more information. This includes the North Wales coast where the SCAN ringing group have been monitoring wading bird populations for many years. I was lucky enough to join them on a recent Curlew catch where a good sample were canon netted and as well as new birds ringed we caught a number of retraps giving valuable data on longevity and survival.

To no longer hear Curlew calling when walking in our moorland national parks would be a sad reflection on our society. Hopefully the research thats being carried out can help reverse the fortunes of this charismatic species. As a kid I used to visit my grandparents, who lived on the edge of Dartmoor, and listened to the Curlews calling in the meadows behind their house through the open windows. Now they're probably extinct as a breeding species on Dartmoor. It's sad to think this has happened in my lifetime.

30 Aug 2021

American Golden Plover on the Wirral.

The day Chris & I returned from Bardsey expert rarity finder, Tim Kinch, found a juvenile Golden Plover at Hoylake. By all accounts it was showing pretty well! I've seen quite a few before on Orkney and Shetland, where they turn up almost annually,  but my only Cheshire / Wirral bird was a fly-over calling found by me & Al Conlin on 11th October 2009. There's only been 5 previous records in the county and only one (1987) stayed for more than one day. Luckily for Chris it was very close to where he lives so after dropping me off he managed to see it. I left it hoping it would stay until the next day. Luckily it did and  I caught up with it Sunday morning on the beach where it showed well with a flock of Dunlin & Ringed Plover in very blowy conditions!

A great find by Tim and another great bird for the Wirral this year following on from Melodious Warbler, Hoopoe, Long-billed Dowitcher & Pectoral Sandpiper.