Monday, 22 April 2013

Subalpine Warbler: a l(l)ovely day on Lleyn!

Once again, Suzanne and I headed over to North Wales and her parents’ place at the weekend. I’d negotiated a day’s birding, balancing a day of building flatpack furniture, shopping and various other jobs and errands – and with the forecast favouring Saturday, and a decent bird making a timely appearance over on the Lleyn peninsula, it was an easy decision about where and when to go.

So, Saturday morning dawned to see me emerging from the luxurious Auberge Mondeo at the end of the road at Uwchmynydd… and presenting me with a pretty damn fine view back into North Wales in one direction, as the sun rose:



… and over the channel to Bardsey island in the opposite direction.


The bird in question was a singing male Western Subalpine Warbler – a smart little thing, and had it been in the south-east there would undoubtedly have been a number of people looking for it. However, this was a remote spot in NW Wales, so there was one chap heading off to do some survey work, and me. Excellent! From the word go, there were plenty of migrants about, predominantly Wheatears (up to 30 of these), but quite a few Meadow Pipits and smaller numbers of alba Wagtails moving north as well. On the ground, a few Willow Warblers were obvious, but it took me a couple of loops around the area that the Subalp had been favouring before it appeared…. flying right round me and straight into a bare gorse bush in front. Happy days… they don’t come much better than this!


I ended up spending getting on for eight hours on site in the end, wandering around various other areas and looking for migrants, then periodically returning to the Subalp, and chatting to the tiny number of other birders – no more than a dozen in the whole time. The bird was wonderfully confiding at times, and allowed a close approach (given a bit of care and fieldcraft), so I took plenty of photos. Here’s a few of the better ones…


I never quite got the killer shot I wanted, what with a fast-moving bird in dense vegetation, and unhelpfully strong sunlight most of the day. But they’ll do for the time being, plenty good enough to remember a stunning bird in a glorious location.

Other migrants included a typically elusive Grasshopper Warbler, which appeared right next to the Subalp a couple of times before vanishing without trace, and a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t male Whinchat which must have headed on straight through. Residents were well represented, too, with a couple of pairs of Chough, and numerous pairs of Stonechat:


Once I eventually tore myself away, the drive back to Chirk was broken unexpectedly quickly just beyond Aberdaron, where a birder I’d met earlier was waving frantically beside the road… and with good cause, since he’d just found this on the telephone wires:


A Woodchat Shrike… pretty smart! Ten minutes earlier, and it could’ve been nestling on my self-found list. But hey-ho, still another very smart bird, albeit one to make me wonder what else had made landfall in the area, and gone undetected.

After the shrike had gone missing, I returned to the route home, and finished up with a final scenic stop in the edge of Snowdonia. Here, a couple of newly arrived male Redstarts were chasing each other around a meadow, Willow Warblers and Nuthatches sang all around, and once again, there were no people. No dog walkers. No noise. No litter. Sure as heck beats birding in some other places I could mention…

Saturday, 13 April 2013

And yet more ducks!

There’s a small pond fairly close to where I live, right beside a main road junction that I use at least once or twice a week. Since it’s on the edge of Epping Forest, with its established population of Mandarin Ducks, I make a point of looking at it every time I go past. Never seen a Mandarin on there, in four or five years – presumably it gets a bit too much disturbance, and there’s not much cover.

Or maybe you just can’t see them if you’re in the driver’s seat… since Nick had no trouble whatsoever picking up a pair in the pouring rain this afternoon, at the first time of trying! We bailed out of the car to take a few hasty photos – not nice light at all, and not nice conditions for a non-waterproof lens, but worth it for pretty smart birds, enhanced by the water droplets on their plumage. Maybe these two will hang around; I’ll certainly go back for a lengthier visit if they do.


And, continuing the theme, here’s the Green-winged Teal that Rich B found at Crossness yesterday. A London tick for me, these have been surprisingly scarce for a few years in the capital. You’d think that Rainham would get one sooner or later, given that plenty of us check all the Teal pretty carefully, but (unless this individual pays a visit to the reserve) it’s getting a bit late for this winter.


The bird showed pretty well for scope views, dabbling around on the sewage outfall (another glamorous and lovely birding location, I hear you cry), but still a bit far for the camera. Head-on, the much fainter yellow lines around the green head panel were clearly different compared to Teal, as well as a warmer-toned pinkish colour to the breast. Oh, and the massive solid white vertical lines on the fore-flanks help, too…

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Ducking and diving

Just a few quick record shots from a full day in the field in London – three species that are all somewhere between scarce and rare in the area. The first two birds, a female 1st-summer male Long-tailed Duck and a female Scaup, were seen on the KGV Reservoir. [edit: thanks to Barry’s attention to detail, it’s been pointed out that I screwed up the ID of the LTD: it’s a boy, not a girl! The pink panel on the bill is the giveaway, as well as the white scaps and crown…]


The third, the rarest of the lot, a Red-throated Diver, was on the Thames at Rainham. Thanks to Jonathan Wasse and Shaun Harvey for the tweets to get the news out.


Sadly this bird doesn’t appear to have a bright future, with a large oil patch on its flanks and vent, and in its constant effort to preen, it must be ingesting a fair amount of toxic rubbish. On a couple of occasions, it hauled itself out onto the soft mud in Aveley Bay… not the act of a healthy bird, and pretty depressing to watch.

Hoping for something a bit more cheery tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Black Guillemots in Oban

Just one more post from my trip to Scotland, before I return to long-overdue Moroccan pics….

Having arrived back in Oban later than planned, due to exceptionally low tides on Uist delaying our departure by two hours, we opted to stay in town that night rather than make progress a bit further south. With blue skies and sunshine greeting us the next morning, a bit of type around the harbour with the local Black Guillemots was in order! Jono has been here once or twice before, and raves about the photo opportunities – and now I’ve visited too, I can see why. With a high tide early morning, we counted at least 25 birds off the harbour wall near the church, many of which were visiting nest holes in the wall just under the promenade.

We could easily have spent more time here, but these are the best shots I managed before we needed to hit the road for the 9 hour drive home!


Monday, 1 April 2013

Hebridean scenery

One more photo-heavy post from the Hebs – the birds are great, but the backdrop is pretty awesome too!

The night after seeing the Harlequin, we stayed at the Gatliff Trust hostel on Berneray – a small island connected to North Uist by a causeway. It’s somewhat off the beaten track, but after Suzanne and I spent nearly two weeks there the summer after graduating, I’ve got a very soft spot for the place. The hostel is located right on the shoreline, overlooking the Sound of Harris; you can look for divers, seaduck and otters from a bench outside the front door! The accommodation is basic – but with cooking facilities, a hot shower and a bed to sleep in, how much do you really need? Especially when the sunrise is this good….


Nick getting in some early morning Otter-watching – though sadly the only animal we saw this trip was the thatched one on the roof!


And then we headed over to the island’s glorious west beach. Unbroken white sand extends for about four miles, with a view out over an ultramarine bay to Boreray, Pabbay, and Harris in the distance.


As the day brightened up, the views were pretty awesome down on South Uist, too. The following couple of photos were taken from the southwest corner of Loch Bee – first, looking north-east to the whaleback mountain of Eaval, and then looking south to the three peaks of Hecla, Beinn Choradail and Beinn Mhor (from left to right). The latter is the highest point on the Uists, at 620m above sea-level, less than two miles from the sea!


Sadly, it was all too soon time to say goodbye to the Hebrides again, leaving Lochboisdale behind, and switching to seawatching for a few hours.


The islands are still a simply stunning place to go, and I’d completely recommend them to anyone (birder or otherwise) who loves unspoilt, wild places.


Harlequin on the Hebs

Got back last night from another epic trip to Scotland, this time to the Outer Hebrides with Jono, Nick and Bob. Once again, we took a few days over it, in order to enjoy much more than ‘just’ the target bird – Britain’s 18th ever Harlequin Duck. The whole thing was a great success, encompassing some superb birding, several more national rarities, beautiful scenery, and even some good local food!

And, to cut to the chase, we had cracking views of the Harlequin. Arriving early morning on Good Friday, after the long ferry crossing into South Uist from Oban the night before, we found five other birders already on site watching the bird offshore from the south end of Traigh Iar – the duck’s favoured spot throughout its stay. Initially, it was some way offshore, still well within good scope view range, but not really offering much in the photographic stakes. As the tide dropped, though, it became possible to walk out onto the rocky promontory and get a bit closer, and with a bit of patience, the Harlequin came in closer to us, at one point down to around 25-30m.

What a bird!


We enjoyed watching it for probably about three hours in total, before heading away to enjoy more general birding, and look for a couple of other nearby rarities. A female Ring-necked Duck was only half a mile away and easily found, but the Richardson’s Canada Goose was more difficult and took quite a bit of searching for. Happily, though, we found a flock of around 1000 Barnacle Geese near Loch Paible, and after a while the tiny vagrant was picked out. It was notably smaller and shorter-necked than the Barnies, and showed a clear thin white band below the lower edge of the black neck, as well as a tiny little bill. Even once we knew where it was in the flock, the bird could easily disappear completely for some time – remarkable how difficult some of these vagrant geese can be to pick up in a flock of what you’d think were totally different looking birds!

Other highlights on the Hebs included at least 3 more White-tailed Eagles, skydancing Hen Harriers (first time I’ve ever seen a displaying male, I think), 3 Merlin (including a gorgeous male), Peregrine, 4 Pale-bellied and about 20 Greenland White-fronted Geese, adult Glaucous and a 1st winter Kumliens Gull, 4 summer-plumage Slav Grebes, at least 30 Great Northern Divers, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Scoter, 12 Snow Bunting, and heaps of Purple Sandpiper and Twite. Brilliant!

In honour of the Harlequin, we splashed out on dinner in the Langass Lodge hotel, south of Lochmaddy. Local hot-smoked salmon, rib-eye steaks, Dover sole, lamb shank and hand-dived Hebridean scallops all featured on our table, and were delicious. Highly recommended for any other duck-twitchers with something to celebrate!