Saturday, 9 March 2013

Catch-up!! The year at a glance! Jan - April 2012

So...... talk about a REALLY overdue update..... how to fit 12 months of birding fun and games into something that won't have to be sent to the publishers and rival the bible for number of pages..... Let's see....


Well, I was still doing my second stint as the RSPB Informtion Officer for the Starlings on the Somerset Levels...... the winter had been pretty mild compared tot he year before and the flock was smaller.... but still over 1 million strong and on occasions performed fantastically well!

Through the eye of the murmuration
There was a Dark-eyed Junco down in Hampshire which had been found on the 31st Dec but having already seen one in Cheshire in 1998 I decided not to go down for it. Otherwise a Lesser Yellowlegs at Bridgewater, Somerset which had been there for a while was a nice start to the year, but we were all waiting for the first 'biggie' of the year... What would it be and where?

We didn't have to wait long.... On the 9th January the news came.... MEGA - HANTS: SPANISH SPARROW..... OK.... working for the next 3 days.... it'll stay... won't it? But then the fears were laid to rest as the information started to trickle out. The bird had been in the area for at least a year and had been thought to have bred with the local House Sparrow population! Albeit a little bit frustrating that the news had been sat on for such a long time (unfortunately there are still too many cases of supression for the wrong reasons...... mainly one-upmanship), it was certainly useful to know that this wasn't going to be a one or two day bird.

So on the 13th, I went down first thing in the morning to Calshot.... there was already a reasonable crowd gathered in the estate, but there had been no sign of the bird. It was only another 20 minutes of scanning hedges and checking out the bundles of sparrows flying around until someone shouted that it was in a bush over the road.... it was partially obscures, but the plain chestnut head and the black streaks down it's flanks could easily be seen through the scope and it didn't move for a good 10 minutes before taking flight with a small flock and disappeared over the houses. I hadn't managed to get any decent pics of it as I'd spent most of my time watching it, so I thought I'd hang around for a bit to try and refind it.

Again, only a few minutes later and one of the local residents came out of his house to tell us it was in his garden and did we want to go into his kitchen to watch it on his feeders..... I was chatting to Matt Meehan at the time and we were the first people the guy decided to talk to! Prime spot in the kitchen taken and we were getting cracking views of the bird munching away on the seeds in the feeder.

Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolenisis) - Calshot, Hants 13/01/11
It was then off to Hawkhill Enclosure to look for the Dark-eyed Junco..... while I was there it would have rude not to. The bird showed pretty well if distant and I only managed a couple of pretty poor record shots.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), Hawkhill Enclosure - 13/01/11
I had a bit of a wander around the site and added Woodlark and Crossbill to the day trip list, then decided to make my way back home. A good start to the year, but seeing the Junco made me wonder what other yanks were hidden away in the country.


Bird of the month had to go to the incredible discovery of a 1st winter male Common Yellowthroat just outside Newport at Rhiwderin, Gwent. A frantic call to Matt Meehan the evening it was found got the information needed to get to the site first thing... thankfully I was staying in Bristol that night so it would only be a short hop across the bridge. A carload sorted and at dawn we were trudging down the field to the hedge where it had mostly been seen. Already a hundred or so were gathered waiting for any sign and the wait began..... 1 hour came and went.... 2....... and then.... a glimpse by a twitcher half  way up the line who said it flown up the hedgeline towards a thicket..... cue pandamonium....... thankfully, for the moment, everyone was giving the bird a bit of room andit flicked out enough for some of us (myself included) to get eyes on it..... then it was on the move again and this time frustration and panic started to get the better of several of the crowd and the bird was soon getting flushed from pillar to post..... chased across the field...... it was getting stupid. After a few of these 'charges' from onrushing twitchers, Kev Rylands gave them a bit of a bollocking telling the crowd to give it a bit of room.... and.... hey presto.... after a little while of getting itself together, out it popped and gave some brilliant views!

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) at Rhiwderin, Gwent - 17/02/11

March was a pretty quiet month in terms of rarities, but the birding was good, the first migrants started appearing.... Wheatears, Sand Martins and others started flooding into the country so there was always plenty to see.

The adders were out as well at Shapwick Heath which gave me a bit of time to spend taking a few photos of these fantastic reptiles.

Adder (Vipera berus), Shapwick Heath - 26/03/13

Adder (Vipera berus), Shapwick Heath - 27/03/12
The main 'happening' of the month though was of a personal nature.... towards mid-March I had been searching for a new job.... but my contract at the starlings was fast coming to an end and there was nothing on the horizon.... I was starting to panic.... whenever you work in conservation there is always a possibility that you can be left without work for a while, ending up having to work in warehouses, offices.... anything that you can get really and I've done my fair share of that in the past. It wasn't the direction I wanted to go, but with only a week left until I finished with the RSPB, it felt like it was going to be the only option.

Then, with 1 day left on my contract I received a phonecall from Kevin Webb, the husband of my bosses boss..... he asked me if I'd found work and whether or not I'd be interested in an Ornithologist position for the Environmental Conservancy that he worked for..... erm...... ''Shit yes'' was my reply.... maybe not the most professional acceptance, but I'd previously spoken to Kev a couple of times before at an RSPB chritmas do and at Symonds Yat in 2010 when I was showing people Peregrine Falcons, and I felt pretty sure he wouldn't hold that against me!

An interview a couple of days later, (well.... I say interview.... a few cups of coffee, a look through some photos from his days as Warden at Sandwich Bay of birds in the hand and Kev just telling me right from the beginning that I was starting in the middle of April!), and I was starting to prepare for moving north of the border to Brora, a little town on the east coast of Sutherland.

As a end of season treat Matt Brierley, Jen Clark and I went to Gigrin Farm to go and watch the Red Kites being fed.... it's a brilliant experience. At one point there were so many kites in the air at the same time it was difficult to count, but we estimated a good 150.... the hides giving a great opportunity to try and get some shots as they performed their aerobatics.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - Gigrin Farm, Rhyader

Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - Gigrin Farm, Rhyader

Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - Gigrin Farm, Rhyader

A quick visit to Chew Valley Lake to pick up my new scop with Matt Brierley and Gary Haskins led to picking up Lesser Scaup and Long-tailed Duck for the year and that was my last bit of birding in Somerset before I set off on my new venture.

Working to conduct the ornithology work for the Environmental Impact Assessment of wind farms is not everyones cup of tea..... some feel that it can be quite a pressured environment, to ensure areas for are 'safe' for development despite what wildlife is seen there.... so I was a little concerned when I first started, but Kev laid those fears to rest straight away.... 'If there's eagles or divers or anything else breeding on site I'll make sure that the proper procedures are followed and absolutely no development will ensue to keep whatever's there, there.'....

Well..... there was nothing..... I mean absolutely, completely, totally devoid of anything! I couldn't believe it..... the habitat was great, so why wasn't anything there? No Hen Harrier, no Short-eared Owl, no divers whatsoever.... plenty of Crossbills, Tree Pipits, Cuckoos, but nothing else.... surely this had to change?

Anyway, being up in the far north gave me the chance to see some great bits and pieces like summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe, Capercaillie lekking, Crested Tit, Golden Eagles and Ptarmigan.... superb stuff!

Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus), undisclosed site, Highlands

Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus), undisclosed site, Highlands
Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), Cairn Gorm, Highlands
Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), Cairn Gorm, Highlands
There was also a 'Black' Scoter reported from Portmahomack half way through the month, so I went to have a look.... when I found the bird something didn't fit quite right to me.... I'd seen a 'Black' Scoter in North Wales a few years before and this one seemed more like a Common Scoter in shape, but still had the large yellow knob on its bill which was like the american duck..... the only logical conclusion that I could come up with was that it was a hybrid.... still a nice bird and it did stick out really well in the flock.

Another trip to see Jen Clark who was now working for the RSPB at the Loch Garten Osprey project led to a day on the north-east coast by Aberdeen, mainly going to look for the Greater Yellowlegs at Loch of Strathbeg RSPB.... most likely the bird that I had missed in Cornwall last autumn. We managed to find the Greaterlegs within minutes of getting into the hide, but almost as soon as we found it, a Peregrine went through and spooked everything off the scrape.... unfortunately the bird disappeared and dispite looking for it again there was no joy.... we did, however, have 2 Common Cranes fly by and some great views of Tree Sparrows back at the car park.

Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus), Loch of Strathbeg RSPB, Aberdeens
Common Crane (Grus grus), Loch of Strathbeg RSPB, Aberdeens
It was then on to the Ythan Estuary to have a look for the drake King Eider that returns there every year.... this was a bird I really wanted to see... they are so unbelievably photogenic and amazing looking ducks. After making the trek to where the Eiders were hanging out near to the estuary mouth we found a massive bank of Grey Seals hauled out.... around 300 or so and Eiders everywhere! Scanning through them all it felt like we were going to be out of luck, but then, behind a drake Eider, a multi-coloured bill appeared.... incredible..... For over an hour we watched the King Eider swim about getting pretty close to us, preening and feeding too.... a brilliant, brilliant bird, something would have to be pretty special to top this bird for the year!

King Eider (Somateria spectabilis), Ythan Estuary, Aberdeens

King Eider (Somateria spectabilis), Ythan Estuary, Aberdeens

Friday, 8 March 2013

Long time no post - Norfolk (Part 2)

Day 2.

5.30am..... still dark, but overhead the cackling of huge skeins of Pink-footed Geese echo out in the still bitter air. "What the crap am I doing up now?" I thought to myself as we pulled into the layby at Burnham Overy Staithe. The evening before, Ross and I had discussed the game plan and (for some reason) decided it was probably best to try the Barn Owls first thing as we were told that sometimes they show much better at the break of dawn.

Waiting in the dark wasn't fun though.... bloody freezing, and with at least another half an hour before the light would start to break I started to regret the decision.

Thankfully, the heater in the car was welcome relief and as the sun appeared over the fields we were treated to a spectacular sunrise.... the mist drifting over the fields creating a fantastical atmosphere.

Sunrise at Burnham Overy Staithe

Unfortunately, the owls weren't forthcoming, so after a couple of hours, we decided to head onward to Holkham Gap to try and find Shore Lark. We knew that there had been 4 seen there for the previous couple of weeks, so we were hoping that they would show themselves in order to get some decent shots.... alas this wasn't the case... for an hour we wandered round the saltmarsh searching in vain for them, until we happened to be in the right place at the right time as they bobbed their head up from the vegetation. They kept eluding every attempt we tried to get views of them in the open, and we had to settle for distant views as they decided that they wanted to spend their time grubbing around in the thick stuff. After half an hour of fleeting glimpses, that was it... the birds took flight and disappeared over the dunes. Despite an hour of searching we couldn't relocate them so we decided to crack on down toTitchwell to look for the Coue's Arctic Redpoll that had been hanging out there for some time.

On arrival we were told that the Redpoll hadn't been seen all morning, but had been hanging around with a group of Lesser Redpoll near the Fen Trail and in the trees around the picnic area. We decided to give the Fen Trail a go and it was great to wander down a bit of my own handy-work! (When I was doing my GCSE's I chose to spend a couple of weeks at the reserve for my work experience placement where I was involved in building the boardwalk that I was now wandering along.)

There was no sign of the Coue's, but we did see a Water Vole and flushed a Woodcock near the start of the trail next to the little brook.... So we went to check out the picnic area. As soon as we arrived a flock of Redpoll flitted in and after a quick scan the Coue's appeared into view. It wasn't that hard to find... it stuck out like a sore thumb!

We grilled it for a good 45 minutes getting all the salient features: small stubby bill, large unmarked white rump, cold grey colouration and the single shaft on the undertail coverts. The latter was the hardest to see, but the bird showed fantasticly well down to 10 foot above our heads and gave us the crippling views needed to nail the undertail coverts.

Coue's Arctic Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni exilipes) at Titchwell RSPB

We spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the reserve including going into the new 'spacestation' hide which was interesting..... I'm not totally sure it fits with it's surroundings, but I guess I'm more of a traditionlist! We ended up with good views of Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff and several other common wader species from the hides and Red-throated and Great Northen Diver in the sea.

As the sun started to go down, we got back into the car and set off on the road back home. A quality couple of days birding in a quality, quality location. I already can't wait to return!