31 Dec 2021

2021 done and dusted!

I think everyone will be glad to see the back of 2021. Covid 19 lockdowns meant many peoples plans were severely disrupted and many of our plans were put on the back-burner! I managed 4 new species for the year taking my life list up to 531- new birds were Northern Mockingbird, Red-necked Stint and Belted Kingfisher! the 4th was an 'armchair tick' with the long overdue addition of Ross's Goose to the British list. Unfortunately I missed some really good birds by being either to slow off the mark or away! Sulphur-bellied Warbler was one such bird where I dithered about going incase  I couldn't get a boat to Lundy. Hindsights a wonderful thing and in retrospect I should have just gone as there were apparently plenty of seats available on various charter boats. I can't really complain at missing the Varied Thrush on Papa Westray as I was in the Maldives belatedly celebrating my 60th birthday trip that had been rescheduled from the beginning of the year. I ticked two of my most wanted of my all time bucket list on that trip - diving with Manta Rays and best of all Whale Shark!

Most of my birding these days is done within walking distance of our house. Unless I'm twitching something thats where  I prefer to be. An exception to this is our annual trip to Shetland (see write up here). I consider Shetland as my home from home and look forward to our annual sojourn every year. By no means a classic year but good company and we did find a few good birds.

The local patch is mainly improved pasture with some arable and a few ponds - one of which is conveniently opposite my study window and has my telescope trained on it most of the time! It has turned up some good birds and this year I added three new species to the house / patch list (all three were seen from the house!) - Red Kite, Cattle Egret & Goshawk! Looks like I'll have to submit a couple of county rarities forms! Another local highlight was the successful breeding of our local Little Owls. They hadn't bred successfully for three years since the original female was killed by a Sparrowhawk in our garden.

Ringing been a major part of my birding year with regular trips out with SCAN canon netting waders and ringing seabirds on Puffin Island. I didn't get to Hilbre as much as I'd like this year due to various other issues we've had at home but hopefully I'll get across more in 2022. I was on the island when the Melodious Warbler was trapped and ringed and that was a nice addition to my county & Hilbre lists! (see here)

Another highlight was a June trip to Shetland with some good mates. We didn't see the hoped for Orca but didn't do to badly! - see here. Breeding Red-necked Phalaropes and an adult Long-tailed Skua holding territory were pretty good. Coupled with an adult male Snowy Owl on Ronas Hill and some good company it was  memorable trip.

One of the major highlights of my year was undoubtedly my first trip to Bardsey with Chris to help install the Observatories solar system. A steep learning curve for me! Steve and Emma looked after us extremely well and we even got to ring some Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. A write up on that trip can be read here). A fabulous place and I really don't know why I hadn't been across before.

So, what will 2022 bring? Hopefully we'll all be free of Covid19 and its various mutations. As parents of an Australian citizen we've got a special permit to enter the country and hope to go in February. Amy & Jeremy have bought us a hot air ballon flight as a Christmas present. Taking off from one of the local wineries and then landing for a champagne breakfast somewhere! Another one off the bucket list of things to do before I become too decrepit. Another bird on my all time wanted list is the Australian Regents Honeyeater and their new house is in one of the hot spots for this rapidly declining species. It will be looking like the needle in the proverbial haystack though with an estimated 300 birds left in an area the size of the British Isles! 

Again, we're hoping that a delayed trip to Africa will come off later in the year with a week on safari in the Masai Mara and a week in Zanzibar. I've already booked our accommodation on Fetlar in October and it'll be my 15th consecutive autumn on Shetland.

Heres wishing all my friends and family a Covid free and happy  new year. I'll see you all on the other side.

20 Dec 2021

Osystercatchers with SCAN

 I managed to get out canon netting on Saturday with SCAN with the aim of catching a sample of Oystercatchers and Redshank as part of the ongoing studies on Lavan Sands. An early start saw me up at 5.30 am having breakfast and filling flasks of tea before steering the Landrover west along the North Wales coast road to our designated meeting point.

Because of the early tide the nets had been set the previous night so it was just a case of driving along the farm track to the beach and waiting in the vehicles until the rising tide pushed the birds up the beach to roost. 

After a bit of a nail biting wait as the birds seemed unsettled we made a decent catch of 96 Oystercatchers and 6 Redshank. The Oystercatchers included an Icelandic control with a Reykjavic metal ring and colour rings! 

As usual it was interesting to see these birds close up and refresh knowledge on ageing based on eye colour, bill colour and leg colour. Juvenile birds (Euring 3) have muddy brown eyes and dull greyish legs whereas (depending on their exact age) adults have redder eyes and pinker legs. Juvenile bills are darker tipped than adults as well and generally duller.

Juvenile (3) Oystercatcher with brown eyes, dull dark tipped bill and 
grey / pink legs

Adult (Euring 8) Oystercatcher (furthest from camera) with ruby red eye and bright pink legs compared to juvenile (Euring 3) 

Of course theres a whole load of age groups in between and it enabled everyone to become familiar with these. Compared to small passerines waders are long lived birds and some species can be aged on plumage and soft part characteristics / colours way beyond what is normally possible for small passerines who generally attain full adult plumage after their first post breeding moult in their 2nd year. The adult Oystercatcher above (Euring 8), for example, is at least 3 years old and probably older. The bird below is a  second calendar year bird (Euring 5) hatched last yer. The eye isn't as bright as the Euring 8 bird above and the bill still retains a lot of dark pigmentation and the legs are dull.

Oystercatcher Euring 5 (second calendar year) with dull bill and legs but brighter eye than juvenile.

It was a beautiful and frosty December morning and it was nice to be out and see some familiar friendly faces. With all the birds processed the gear was packed up and I set off back home and a hot mug of tea to warm me up. 

13 Dec 2021

Storm Arwen and local birding

Storm Arwen caused a fair bit of damage in our village. Trees and power lines were brought down and several houses and farm buildings sustained serious structural damage. We escaped relatively unscathed suffering just a power outage for three days and a missing roof tile. The garden also escaped relatively unharmed with just a few branches being blown off some of our trees. Others had to be surgically removed with a chainsaw to save further damage to the tree. 

One thing we noticed in the immediate aftermath was an increased number of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls. We only normally see flocks like this during the spring when they're moving to their breeding grounds. Since Arwen we're regularly getting 4-500 gulls feeding on flooded pasture in front of the house. As usual I check them all for either colour rings or something rarer. I was surprised to find an adult winter plumaged Med Gull with them as, again, this is a bird I usually associate with spring movements. 

This one had the bonus of being colour ringed but unfortunately never came close enough for me to read the darvics combination. Very frustrating.

I also picked out at least two separate metal ringed Black-headed Gulls but had no chance of reading those numbers either!

After our recent Cattle Egret (see write up here) and my comments about the scarcity of Little Egrets (even though they breed fairly close) we recently had two Egret days! One day I looked out of one of the the rear facing windows and saw two Little Egrets in with cows and the next day there was one. I'd never have thought 51 years ago when I started birding that I'd see Cattle & Little Egrets in the UK from our rural location. Actually, at nine years old I'd probably never even heard of them!

The gull flock also held this leucistic Black-headed Gull. A very striking looking bird and a useful pointer to the fact that the gulls returning each day were part of the same flock even if the Med Gull hasn't (so far) been seen again.

7 Dec 2021

A bit of garden ringing - winter visitors

 I love winter ringing in the garden. Especially early morning and dusk sessions trying to catch and ring the Redwing that come to fill their crops on our berry laden trees. I don't catch many but its always a thrill to catch one or two each session knowing they've come across from Scandinavia for the winter and will return there to breed in the spring. 

We also get an influx of Blackbirds from Scandinavia and northern Europe in the winter and the majority of these birds are identifiable in the hand by being distinctly bigger with longer wings and a heavier body weight. Young males also tend to have all dark bills such as this bird we caught and ringed at another local site.

Another Scandinavian migrant we've had in the garden recently was this male Brambling. Returning from having my flu jab I went out in the garden to fil the bird feeders and heard a familiar call from the top of a tall beech tree in next doors garden. No sooner had  I filled the feeders and returned to the warmth of the conservatory then this male Brambling flew in with a small flock of Goldfinches and Chaffinches! 

They're less than annual in our garden so it was nice to see one. Unfortunately it didn't hang around for long.

At the moment I'm not able to do any ringing in the garden as the village is in a bird flu 10 km surveillance zone with an outbreak at a poultry farm / processor in Mouldsworth. The second November running theres been an outbreak in the same area!

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.