Monday, 30 January 2012



It’s not a particularly big number, in the grand scheme of things. I mean, take Stephen Hester’s proposed bonus – 3,600,000 shares, worth £963,000 – or the total UK government borrowing, at approximately £1,003,000,000,000. (Incidentally, I don’t think either of these are necessarily anywhere near as preposterous as the media have portrayed them to be… but that’s for another time and a more serious argument than I intend to make today).

But 159 is a rather surprisingly big number when placed in context. It’s certainly more than the equivalent number has been in any of the last 20 years. It’s the number of birds I’ve seen so far in 2012.

And I really didn’t mean to! Allow me to describe this weekend’s events, for example…

Suzanne and I hadn’t been up to Norfolk to see my parents this year, or indeed since returning from the Canaries – so there was plenty of catching up to be done. And with a sunny weather forecast, ample opportunity for some nice relaxing walks in the clean, unpolluted country air, too. Excellent! We left early on Saturday, and arrived mid morning… and no sooner had I arrived but my Dad wanted to go out birding. Outrageous! Clearly I tried my best to resist this anti-social and ill-timed suggestion, but faced with uncompromising determination, what could I do but go with him?

He wanted to take some photos of Wigeon in the sunshine – and on arrival at his chosen venue, grudgingly I could see the attraction. Look, they’re rather smart, don’t you think?


But here it all started to go wrong, alas. An unfortunate scan over the grazing marshes found a mixed flock of geese, some with orange legs and dark chocolatey heads! Of all the Wigeon sites in Norfolk, we’d ended up in the Yare valley, and I’d seen another new bird for the yearlist. And what’s this? A dinky-billed, yellow eye-ringed White-front poking its little neck up from the grassy sward into my field of view? My heart sank, and I insisted that we leave quickly before I saw anything else.

I picked a random point of the compass and drove for quite some time, heading steadily away from the despised geese, but regrettably ran out of land at Ness Point, Lowestoft. Rejecting the idea of plunging myself into the sea as penance, I merely covered my eyes. Fortunately no Purple Sandpipers approached to peck at my feet, and the Black Redstarts mercifully remained silent. Phew.

Seizing upon our unfortunately bird-friendly location, Dad, however, was very keen on looking for an adult Iceland Gull which had eluded him previously. At Hamilton Dock, there was no sign (triple phew!), so we headed over to Lake Lothing. There was a supermarket there to purchase lunch, too – how convenient. While I charitably and diligently searched for the gull (under duress, clearly), I couldn’t fail to notice a Shag feeding in the distance and, oh, a Black-throated Diver. Damn. But no Iceland Gull. Obviously, since I’m not yearlisting, I didn’t consider paying £1 to drive into a multi-storey car park to view the docks from the roof, either. That would just be silly.

Correcting my earlier navigational error, we headed back into Norfolk, and turning off the A47 at Acle, I had a brilliant idea: we could go looking for seals at Horsey! They’re cute and photogenic, and better still, they won’t increase my yearlist and I won’t get any more abuse directed my way from East London!


Keen (or suspicious) viewers will at this point note that the EXIF data in the photo above does not entirely support my tale. Once again, I regret to admit that I took a wrong turn, and found myself deep in the Broads amongst a maze of narrow lanes. Seeing signs for a Visitor Information Centre at Ranworth, I followed them, hoping to find a map that would correct my route to the coast – but alas, the centre was closed, and a thoughtless scan of the broad revealed a pointy-headed, ring-billed, spiky-tailed female aythya. The Marsh Tits sneezed in laughter as I wept.


Having determined that we were now quite close to home, and by now thoroughly depressed at all these unwanted additions to 2012’s notes, I considered heading back to base early – but decided it would be very rude to disrupt Mum’s preparations for dinner. Seeing a procession of cars heading up the A149 and into Hickling, I followed, intrigued. They all seemed to be heading down a narrow, muddy lane, to another visitor centre. What could be going on?

Hearing a strange bugling noise in the distance, I followed the crowds who appeared to be converging on a rather ramshackle windmill. How strange! Looking around as the noises got louder, I suddenly realised what was going on: they were BIRD-WATCHERS! And then these flew over before I could avert my eyes (or my lens):


D’oh! For the next hour, I tried hard to concentrate solely on counting the massing hordes of Barbour jackets Marsh Harriers, but try as I might, the booming tones of a fluorescent-waistcoated NWT warden couldn’t be ignored: “There are two Merlins operating in the vicinity of the old mill!”, he yelled, and before anyone could ask what exactly they were operating on (surgically tearing apart an unfortunate Meadow Pipit, perhaps?), an involuntary reaction had taken hold of my palm on the tripod handle, and I’d swung round to year-tick yet another new bird. A sad day, thoroughly unpleasant.

Returning home to reflect on my failed attempts at avoiding birds (and the 150 species now nestling in my notebook), I decided to abandon further attempts at list containment. It just hadn’t worked. So on Sunday, I filthily ticked my way round north-west Norfolk, resulting in the large number at the head of this post, and culminating with a rather superb Black Guillemot at Holkham. Quality – a genuinely tricky bird to see in the county, and totally unexpected.

However, obviously I really wish I’d stayed in London, spent every waking moment trailing round my nearest ‘green space’, beating errant dogs off my shins, getting hacked off with their chavvy owners and seeing b*gger all, don’t I? Clearly that would clearly be superior… in some way that I can’t even begin to fathom.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A path well trodden…

… leads to Hampshire this week, thanks to the presence of a Spanish Sparrow in a coastal village and a Dark-eyed Junco nearby at Hawkhill Inclosure in the New Forest. I followed it early on Saturday morning, picking up Jono, Nick and James en route, and arriving at at rather chilly Calshot around 7.30am to find a crowd of no more than 100 people. Hot bacon rolls showed very well (though briefly, as you might imagine) and shortly afterwards, so did the target bird – my first UK lifer of 2012. I rather liked Nick’s description of the black patterned underparts: “like it’s wearing a dodgy hand-knitted jumper”.


After a leisurely cuppa, dispensed from the enormous Thermos given to me for Christmas, we headed up into the New Forest where a heavy frost was still lying on the ground. Once again, our timing was good as the junco appeared almost immediately we arrived, feeding in and around two fallen trees with numerous Chaffinches and Reed Buntings. Several Crossbills were also seen in the same area, including a couple of stonking red males.


Next stop was to be Blashford Lakes, but missing the turn gave me the opportunity to take a quick look at a large herd of swans at Harbridge – at least 150 Mutes, two family parties of two adult and one juvenile Bewick’s, and a single adult Whooper. Back at Blashford, we quickly located the adult male Ferruginous Duck. Not for the first time, this sparked off a conversation about whether it’s definitely a pure individual, given the atypically rounded head shape (which was constant, all the time we were watching). There’s a bit of debate online >here<, though it doesn’t reach any firm conclusion. Despite the head, the rest of the bird looks spot on: pure white iris; reasonable bill pattern; white belly clearly demarcated. If it is a hybrid, then it must be an F2 or F3 backcross – first generation Pochard x Fudge are way more obvious than this.

Another considerably commoner and less controversial species of duck gave good views while we talked Aythya – I reckon Gadwall are a bit under-rated. And it give me a chance to use a favourite word: check out the vermiculations!



As you see, they even do synchronised swimming!

The other talking point at Blashford were the utterly useless windows in what were otherwise a couple of very nice new hides. Someone in their infinite wisdom has evidently decided that fixed glass windows are a good idea – I would beg to differ! They have a marked blue tint, and looking through them at anything other than a perfect perpendicular angle basically reduces quality optics to little better than milk bottles. Needless to say this meant there was a bit of a scrum to get near the one or two windows that actually opened, to have any chance of taking sharp photos. An enormous shame, since the bird feeding station was attracting Lesser Redpolls, Siskin, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, and a pair of Great-spots… but thanks to the windows, I have no photos to show you.

Final stop was Blackwater Arboretum, on the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive. This is a regular roosting site for Hawfinch, and from about 2.45pm onwards, there was a steady stream of sightings to give Nick his first views of this rather awesome bird. Unfortunately for the photographers, they invariably perch pretty high up, and this combined with fading light made life difficult… but here’s a record shot nonetheless.


This afternoon, I’ve been for a wander at Rainham – still generally very quiet, though a confiding male Reed Bunting was quite smart. At the end of the day, a couple of Short-eared Owls were seen hunting on the silts, though they apparently had a Sunday afternoon lay in and only appeared when the light had all but gone. The pic below was taken last weekend, at high ISO in similarly gloomy conditions. Cracking birds, though – look into those eyes!



Thursday, 5 January 2012

Tenerife & La Gomera scenery

Simply amazing… undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.

The obvious place to start is around El Pico del Teide, a volcanic peak and the highest point in Spain. The surrounding area is a National Park, and the igneous rock formations are extraordinary…


The last eruption was just over 100 years ago, and some of the solidified lava flows from this and previous eruptions are very much in evidence. We took the cable car to within 200m of the top (you need a permit to reach the summit), to enjoy enormous views in wonderfully clear air. The first shot is looking out along the north coast of the island…


…followed by one looking SW over the crater of xx, to La Gomera beyond…


… and finally looking back down at the crazy landscape in the park below.


From almost everywhere on the island (and indeed many places on La Gomera), the conical peak of El Teide dominated the view. This particular example was my favourite, though, taken just above a cloud inversion.


Approaching Tenerife on the La Gomera ferry also gave spectacular views, putting the beachfront holiday development and associated urbanisation into perspective. The volcano is lurking behing the much smaller peaks in the foreground!


And finally, we were treated to some pretty decent sunrises and sunsets… this one was taken from Valle Gran Rey on La Gomera (while I was failing to spot any Little Shearwaters returning to land!)


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Tenerife: some more common birds

First up, one I forgot from Fuerteventura… Great (Southern?) Grey Shrike of the race koenigi. These were relatively abundant on Fuerteventura, and we saw quite a few on the other islands too. In some cases, individuals were pretty spectacularly tame, showing down to under 10m. Relative to the birds I’m used to in the UK, these were notable for having a particularly dark grey mantle.


The Blue Tits were superb value again (note that the wingbars have disappeared!), and we regularly noted a very Crested Tit-like purring call.


This last shot was taken at Las Lajas, the best known Blue Chaffinch site, where the chaffinches and various other birds were attracted in to drink from a dripping tap and adjacent puddle. Another regular visitor was this Great Spotted Woodpecker – the local race was particularly dusky grey underneath:


Around the laurel forest, Grey Wagtail were fairly common, and again relatively confiding. I don’t recall getting this close to one with a camera in the UK.


And finally, the much-maligned Rock Dove. On Fuerteventura, some biggish flocks were heavily tainted by Feral Pigeon influence, containing some really grim looking piebald birds. However, on Tenerife and La Gomera, though, we did run into a few candidates for pure birds – this rather dozy individual was one of a pair at Las Lajas again.


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Tenerife & La Gomera: the specialities

We roll on, out of the Fuerteventuran desert and into the steep laurisilva forest on Tenerife and La Gomera. There are relatively few species of birds here, but they are generally of interest – a few endemics, and some distinct races of common European birds.

Perhaps the best known endemics are Bolle’s and Laurel Pigeons. We spent quite a bit of time standing around at various vantage points over the forest looking for these – they tend to be gloriously picturesque places in their own right. It wasn’t too difficult to get reasonable flight views of both species (though La Gomera is clearly better for Laurel – I only saw one on Tenerife), and the distinctive tail patterns make ID pretty straightforward on all but the briefest of views. However, seeing either species perched up for scope views is quite a mission, and though I did manage it in the end, neither were close. Now, excuses made, here are the photos – Bolle’s first, then Laurel:



I think these are known as ‘record shots’!

Never mind – another Canarian endemic species showed rather better. Blue Chaffinch inhabit the pine forest around 1200-1800m above sea level on Tenerife, and are pretty easily encountered around various picnic sites – we also found a couple around a bar/restaurant high up in the Teide National Park! I never quite got the killer shot I wanted, since they were very reluctant to come out of the shade, but this is OK…


The local tintillon race of Chaffinch is also worth mention, since they’re so smart.


Canary Islands Chiffchaff has only recently been split as a species, but after spending a bit of time looking at (and listening to) them, they seem quite different to ‘our’ collybita birds in various regards. As with many island-dwelling species / sub-species, they have a longer, thinner bill, and the face pattern is dominated by a strong supercilium, rather than an eyering. The primary projection is also very short, accentuating the length of the tail. Finally, the song is really distinctive – a very halting, spiky series of notes, recalling Cetti’s Warbler as the Collins says. Here’s a couple of pics:


The Chiffchaffs were absolutely all over the place, feeding low down a lot of the time rather like a Wren would do here. Another very common bird, yet still new to us was the Canary itself. These were smarter than I’d expected, and the sound of groups of birds calling and singing was very easy on the ear.


Monday, 2 January 2012

Fuerteventura Scenery

Before I plough on with Tenerife and La Gomera, it would be rude not to post a few scenic pics from Fuerteventura. There are some great landscapes there (as long as you don’t mind sand and stones!), especially in the mountains around the beautiful village of Betancuria and Rio Palmas, where most of these were taken.


Sunday, 1 January 2012

Fuerteventura: Common birds… and a mega!

I mentioned before that we targeted a few sites with fresh water on the island, since these tend to pull in a variety of species, regularly including rarities. One of sites was the pool at Rosa de Catalina Garcia, which had just produced the goods in a big way just a few days before our arrival: a vagrant Allen’s Gallinule from sub-Saharan Africa, and something of a Western Palearctic mega.

On arrival at the site, we found a predictably large number of Canarian twitchers – none, and just one guy who’d travelled from Germany! He’d seen the bird the day before, and after about an hour’s wait, it reappeared and showed well for a few minutes, often climbing around a few feet up in the reeds. Never particularly close, this is the best shot I managed. It really was that bright blue!


Catalina Garcia held a number of other decent birds, including a 1w/fem Blue-winged Teal, a Spotted Crake, and a remarkable range of waders over a couple of visits : Little Stint, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, 4 Black-tailed Godwit, Black-winged Stilt, 2 Ruff, up to 18 Little Ringed, a few Ringed and a Kentish Plover, a couple of Dunlin, and a few Common Sandpiper. And I missed a Yellow-browed Warbler, and a Eurasian Bittern which had been seen a few days earlier! All this around a pool no more than 100m across…


Another (rather less spectacular) lifer was bagged easily on a brief wander outside our hotel on the very first morning: Berthelot’s Pipits turned out to be pretty abundant in any suitable habitat, including rough ground earmarked for further development, and even around mirador (viewpoint) laybys – so no habitat shortage there! At times, these were coming closer than my 1.8m minimum focus distance.


A few other pics of relatively common species now – first, an almost hand-tame Raven at another mirador. Not a bird you often see particularly close (leaving the Tower of London aside).


Ruddy Shelducks were all over the place on Fuerteventura. The first breeding record on the island was not long ago, in 1994, but a small population has clearly built up – our peak count was around 120 at Embalse de Los Molinos. There was also an apparent roost gathering of 25+ at Catalina Garcia late afternoon.


The common sparrow on the islands is Spanish – smart birds!


Next, perhaps a bird you wouldn’t have down as common – but Spectacled Warblers were also all over the place, usually picked up initially by their rattlesnake like call.


And finally, one of my favourite birds of the trip: Blue Tits! When you go out of your way to see these in a different context, and they’re strikingly different to the regular British race, you realise just how good value the whole species is – if Blue Tit was rare in the UK, it would pull an enormous crowd!

These are all the degener race found on Fuerteventura. In addition to the very dark blue cap and darker mantle shown by all birds on the Canaries, this race also shows a wing bar, similar to the African ultramarinus race that occurs in Morocco.