Wednesday 29 December 2010

Farmland Birding over Christmas – Brambling-tastic!

With only two posts in the last six weeks, it’s about time I got this blog going again! Suzanne and I had been planning to spend Christmas in the States, Texas to be precise, but thanks to BAA’s utter incompetence we ended up in north-east Wales instead. No disrespect to Suzanne’s side of the family – we had an absolutely fantastic time, getting some proper rest and relaxation – but it was something of a disappointment given our expectations.

Although overnight temperatures were dropping to around –18 Celsius, I did get out for a little bit of birding here and there. The highlight was a few hours spent at Venus Pool, near Shrewsbury, where I witnessed a huge flock of finches, sparrows and buntings on a couple of winter cover crops (maybe quinoa?). The number of Brambling was certainly the highest I’ve seen in one place – 500 is a very conservative count. This photo illustrates just a tiny portion of the flock:

brambling_flock With Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch mixed in, plus at least 100 Yellowhammer and a few Tree Sparrows thrown in for good measure, I reckoned there were getting on for 1500 passerines swirling around. Hardly a surprise that two Sparrowhawks were in close attendance, then. In the cold weather, some of the birds posed fairly well for photos, although a bit of winter sunshine would have made all the difference.

brambling_female tree_sparrowbrambling_male

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Year-listing, American Style

I’ve just been researching a forthcoming trip to the States, and got side-tracked onto a couple of American year-listers’ blogs while I was reading up on recent news. If you thought that year-listing in the UK was bonkers, well, you aint seen nothin’ yet! Here’s some facts to set the scene…

The British List is currently 588. Seeing 300 in a year in the UK is not difficult; 330 represents a concerted effort; 350 is excellent, and any more is really pushing it. The distance from Lands End to John o’ Groats is 874 miles by road, plus about 25 miles to Scilly, and about 100 to the top of Unst. Call it 1000 miles end to end.

By contrast, America is somewhat larger, and has rather a lot of birds. Miami (Florida) to Seattle (Washington) is getting on for 3500 miles. If you then travel from there to Gambell, in the far NW of Alaska, you can add on another couple of thousand miles. The all-time ABA list (which includes Canada as well) is 957 species.

So, you might imagine that year listing is a rather different ball game over the other side of the pond. You’d be right.

Meet Chris Hitt, owner of He’s sensible enough not to be including Alaska or Canada in his year list… but then when you look at the map of his travels at the top of the blog, that’s some pretty scary airmiles! He’s just passed 700 species in the Lower 48 – apparently the first time anyone’s done this.

And then there’s Robert Ake, with this blog: He has been up to Alaska, more than once this year, but that’s not enough, so he’s popped into Canada once or twice as well. He has amassed 730 birds, which is the second highest ABA total ever.

Browsing through the blog archives, some of the travelling and the associated stories are incredible – take a look!

Monday 22 November 2010

A weekend in Norfolk

Got back late last night from a relaxing trip to see family up in Norfolk. Saturday was very murky, and not particularly appealing for birding: I popped down the road to see the immature male Velvet Scoter on Filby Broad, and then spent a while at Strumpshaw hoping for views of Otters. There have been regular sightings of a female with two cubs over the last few weeks – either Brick or Fen Hide seems to be best. They’d been seen before we arrived, but there wasn’t a repeat showing – I’ll go back on a brighter day and give it more time.

Sunday started off at Cley, on a wild plover chase! The flock of Goldies was over 1500 birds, and very skittish, especially with a big female Peregrine around. Each time they were spooked it took about 10 minutes for them to gradually return, but often it would only be part of the flock that had landed before the next scare put them up again. Eventually I found the American Golden Plover on Simmonds Scrape… from North Hide! Think this variant on long distance ID is a site first for me! As I was leaving, news came through that the putative Northern Harrier had been seen between Morston and Stiffkey, so I headed west. Sadly, not quite quickly enough, as the harrier headed inland while I was en route. I consoled myself with lunch from the Wells Deli, and drove along to eat it overlooking Burnham Overy Dunes and marshes.

Arriving there I bumped into a familiar face: Gary Prescott, the Biking Birder. If you haven’t heard, he’s cycling the length and breadth of the UK this year for charity, taking in visits to every single RSPB and WWT reserve. Our paths last crossed in September on Fair Isle, where all the birders were clearly hard at work finding rarities: see pic number seven… ahem! I was fortunate to find the Rough-legged Buzzard as a contribution to his non-motorised year list, and then listened to some of Gary’s occasionally hair-raising tales: sleeping out in hides and bus stops in freezing temperatures, cycling the A17 in terrible weather with artics forcing him into the verge and getting robbed to cap it all! Our paths may yet cross once more this year, since apparently Howard’s talked him into a second visit to Rainham, with the lure of Caspian Gulls and bacon sarnies. In any case, there’s a well deserved tenner heading his way shortly, though – and maybe a few readers might like to chip in as well, it’s a very worthy cause.

Anyway, back to the birds. I spent the final couple of hours light at Burnham Norton marshes, hoping that the harrier would put in a repeat appearance after showing here in the previous two afternoons. It didn’t, but I enjoyed a superb raptor-fest:

  • Two more Rough-legged Buzzards, one showing pretty well in flight over the saltmarsh
  • Two Common Buzzards, one dark, one pale
  • A smart juv Hen Harrier looped around us twice – it clearly had some orange tones underneath, but this took the form of streaking, rather than the more uniform colouration that the Northern type shows
  • Plenty of Marsh Harriers as usual
  • a Barn Owl quartering the marshes
  • Kestrel hunting along the track out to the seawall
  • couple of Sparrowhawks rattling along the saltmarsh channels flushing waders in all directions
  • another Peregrine gave a brisk flypast
  • and best of all, a gorgeous little male Merlin, hunting pipits, and then perched up on a bush – superb scope views, easily the best I’ve had for several years.

Now it would be lovely to move on to illustrate all of this with frame-filling and pin sharp photos of these birds of prey. One topical approach would be to steal someone else’s shots, and pass them off as my own. But oh, no, not on this blog!

So, here are some ducks from Cley. You’ll just have to imagine the hooked bills and sharp talons as they swoop in on some hapless pondweed prey. Sorry… but they are quite pretty!

 mallard teal1 wigeongadwall

Sunday 14 November 2010

Not a weekend for photography…

It feels like it’s barely got light this weekend, so pictures have been hard to come by. The best one isn’t exactly a mega rarity (or even a mega photo), but a smart little bird nonetheless:


Saturday was spent twitching down to Devon, for a certain American visitor and some local specialities, depicted very badly thus:

american_robin cirl_bunting glossy_ibis

Today I was back to local birding. First, I checked out the redpoll flock in Thorndon Country Park, hoping for something white and fluffy. Sadly, it was not to be, though the flock was well over 100 birds and contained at least 5 Mealies. Although redpoll taxonomy and ID is a bit of a minefield, I rather like them (perhaps because they’re so scarce nowadays) and enjoyed spending a couple of hours searching through the mobile flocks. With a handful of Coue’s Arctics in the country, and a flock of 1000+ redpolls reported in Scotland yesterday it appears that birds are arriving in numbers this year, so I’ll try to return to the site and have another look soon.

By the time I’d reached Rainham, the rain had really set in, so the camera didn’t even leave the car. A Jack Snipe was good value bouncing away in front of the Ken Barrett hide, but after re-identifying someone’s Water Rail as a female Teal (yes, really) I decided it was time to move on…

Continuing on away from the centre, the visitor numbers tailed off and the weather worsened. Perhaps bizarrely, I enjoyed this even more: I had the new hide to myself (largely trying to find a Green-winged Teal to wind Hawky up!), and on the walk back I could really appreciate the range of outdoor gear I’ve built up. Waterproof jacket, trousers and boots have cost a pound or two in the last few years, but in foul conditions I was warm, dry and comfortable thanks to Ventile, eVent and Goretex. Similarly, with decent quality waterproof optics you don’t have to worry about getting soaked and can just carry on whatever the elements throw at you. I could completely forget about life and work outside birding, and just relax – this is what the hobby is all about, rain or shine!

Sunday 7 November 2010

Seawatching in Kent: sea showing well, though mobile


Taken at Leysdown-on-sea this afternoon (or should that be Leysdown-under-sea – it might be by now). A brief seawatch from the car was enlivened by the occasional face-full of salt water and squally showers driven in by north-easterlies. Why do I do this again?

A few minutes later, down at Harty Ferry, a Leach’s Petrel reminded me. Unfortunately it was much too distant for photos, but they’re always quality birds to see.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Green Heron at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

I’ll post more photos in the next day or two, but here’s a quick snap hot off the camera. Although we only got flight views of the American Bittern at Zennor (albeit good flight views), the Green Heron showed fantastically, down to about 6 feet! Shame the weather wasn’t a bit better – this shot has been tidied up from ISO 1000.


Wednesday 27 October 2010

Fair Isle Scenery

Been meaning to post these for ages, but work and birding keep getting in the way. Here’s a few snaps from Fair Isle to illustrate the place, rather than just the birds!

So, we arrived on Fair Isle on one of these. Seven passengers max…fair_isle_plane

… and (after enjoying cracking view of the PGTips), we settled in to the new observatory. A surprisingly large building for relatively few people, it’s a fantastically comfortable base. There were generally a flock of Twite outside the front window, and (though you can’t see it here), there’s a small plantation on the north side which is always worthy of checking for that mega passerine!


Looking the other way down the hill from the obs, you can see the harbour. Waders on the beach included Purple and Curlew Sandpipers, while there were usually a few Lapland and Snow Buntings in the vicinity.


This is Easter Lother Water, right up at the north end of the island. Dad probably took this photo while I was crawling around in the heather with the redpolls!


And now to the other end of the island. This view of the south illustrates just how open and un-vegetated the Isle is; basically birding for passerines is focussed on dry stone walls (dykes), along shallow ditches, in steep gullies in the cliffs (geos) and in the small number of gardens. Having said that, though – goodies can turn up anywhere!


Another view of South Light – a really peaceful and beautiful spot. Seals and Eiders were bobbing about in the shallows.


I loved the place – will definitely go back!

Thursday 21 October 2010

No, no…. Not a Little HAWK!

Such was the conversation with a curious non-birder at Lowestoft on Sunday. Here’s why… nice find btw, Jono!

little_auk2 little_auk

Monday 18 October 2010

Out Skerries pics

Dad and I spent our last full day on the beautiful Out Skerries islands, and were well rewarded with some excellent birds, most of which posed for photos.

First up, this (surprisingly dark mantled) Citrine Wagtail was new for Dad and Paul:


… and shortly afterwards, the Black-headed Bunting was new for me as well. It showed exceptionally well, down to a few feet at times.

black-headed buntingThen there was a Red-breasted Flycatcher, feeding around tussocky grass. Although these are often pretty tame, this individual was particularly approachable since it appeared to have a damaged right wing. It was still feeding well, but since it didn’t appear able to get more than a foot off the ground, I guess the future wasn’t looking too bright.

rbfly1 rbfly2

And then this gave us all some exercise, and lessons in Locustella ID.

gropper1  gropper3 gropper2

Thursday 14 October 2010

Lapland Buntings

Quite simply, these were EVERYWHERE on the southern half of Fair Isle! Again, I didn’t ever spend more than a few minutes photographing these, preferring to search for ‘new’ birds, but inevitably some nice opportunities presented themselves. Here’s the best shots.lap1lap3lap2

Wednesday 13 October 2010

A Fair Isle miscellany

This Buff-breasted Sandpiper showed well every time we walked past its favoured field at Barkland, though I never really spent enough time with it to get the shots I wanted. This one was taken just before dusk, in late afternoon sunshine, while the bird was rather dozy and even more approachable than normal!


Next up, an interesting wagtail. Clearly this is a ‘flava’ wag of some description, but it was really strikingly grey and white, the only yellow on the bird under the vent – my instant reaction was Grey Wag before it landed, and I’ve certainly not seen an autumn bird like this before. I think consensus in the obs was that it was probably a Grey-headed, race thunbergi, but I’d be interested in any comments either way.


Now, a rather dodgy photo… but a cracking little charismatic bird! This Subalpine Warbler necessitated a brisk walk down to Lower Leogh on our final afternoon, but was well worth while. Given the other birds turning up on the Northern Isles at the time, I’d speculate that this is probably an Eastern race bird, but I guess I’ll never know for sure.


Finally, a commoner migrant, but one of my favourites. For some reason, I wasn’t really expecting to see many Whinchat this far north by late September, but there was certainly no shortage for the first week of our trip – we regularly saw three or four a day.


Tuesday 12 October 2010

More finches…

Twite were taken on Fair Isle, while the Rosefinch is one of two seen at Quendale on our first afternoon on Shetland, just after we’d seen the River Warbler. It was typical of Shetland birding:

  • walk up to tiny vegetable plot
  • make a few pishing noises
  • two birds immediately pop up
  • both are Rosefinches
  • Cue sound of motor drive

Well, OK, it’s not always quite that easy… but you get the idea.

twite1 twite2rosefinch

Monday 11 October 2010


Back to (very) northern birds again… We saw three Hornemann’s Arctic Redpolls on Shetland, the first two twitched on Unst (see photos on the wires), while the third was found by Tim Cleeves as he stood about two yards to my right on Fair Isle. D’oh! Still, it was a cracking bird, and posed pretty well for pics.

hornemanni_fair_isle1 hornemanni_fair_isle3hornemanni_fair_isle2 hornemanni_unst_1 hornemanni_unst2 

And here’s an interesting ‘north-western’ type Redpoll, photographed alongside the Arctic on Fair Isle. It appeared very cold toned and grey in the field, with heavy streaking on the flanks against a clean white ground colour. Size was pretty similar to the Hornemann’s – ie large!

If anyone has any comment on which subspecies this bird might be (presumably islandica or rostrata), and why, please drop me a line.

nw_redpoll1 nw_redpoll2

Sunday 10 October 2010

Isabelline Wheatear, Lowestoft

And here’s another brief interruption in the flow of photos from Shetland – my second Isabelline Wheatear in Suffolk, this time in glorious sunshine. Good to see a few familiar faces and have a bit of a chat, as well.

isabellline_wheatear isabellline_wheatear2

At long, long last…

…I have seen an Olive-backed Pipit in the UK! This may not seem a particularly impressive or noteworthy achievement, but believe me, after the number of hours I’ve wasted on this species in the last 15 years, it’s made my weekend. Prior to yesterday, I think I’d probably dipped at least seven OBPs, from Scilly to Suffolk, and to make it worse all were present again the following day. I really don’t know how I managed such a ridiculous run of form, but there you are – everyone has a bogey bird, I guess, and I need another one now. Brown Flycatcher, perhaps…

Anyway, here’s what all the fuss is about:

obpobp2 And here’s the scene of the twitch – a long slippery walk over the saltmarsh to reach an approx 100m long line of gorse: