Tuesday 24 August 2010

News from the Point

A couple of weekends ago, I hit Blakeney Point in search of the autumn’s first windswept passerine migrants. As you may have read elsewhere, we didn’t find much. You might also have gathered that the Sanderling were very co-operative, and perhaps seen an image rather like this one, posing obligingly in mid-air:


However, I can also add breaking news from that day, involving sightings of two minor celebrities from different fields of society. Both of the parties concerned were noted in quick succession, and their similarity of appearance led to some confusion for Hawky and myself…


Anyone able to recommend a barbers in Wanstead? And how many Greenish Warblers will drop out in the clippings when Jono finds one?

Monday 23 August 2010

Scilly Pelagics: some more flight shots

I spent Friday and Saturday seawatching from Porthgwarra and basically seeing all the same birds as two weeks ago off the Scillies, but this time:

  • in weather ranging from murky, to drizzly, to simply wet
  • the birds were typically way outside photographic range
  • nothing was even a year tick, let alone a lifer.

That’s all OK though – it was good fun, and there was certainly enough passage to offer the possibility of something good.

However, it does leave me a bit short of pictures for this post. Fortunately, though, I think I threatened promised to show you some more flight shots from the Scillies a couple of weeks ago. Here they are – just imagine seeing these through rain-coated optics at considerable range, and you get a slice of the Porthgwarra experience.

sooty3gbb herring_gull lbbgannet_ad gannet_ad2 gannet_takeoff

Monday 16 August 2010

Scilly Pelagics: Day Four

After yesterday’s rather light seabird showing, the plan was rather different today. Chumming was thought likely to be a waste of time, given the almost total lack of any wind to carry the smell over waves, so Bob and Joe decided to head NW towards a small French trawler fleet. We hoped that these boats would already have an attendant collection of birds, feeding as the fishermen hauled in nets and threw out bycatch. The weather was gloriously sunny, so the lengthy cruise out of St Marys was really pleasant.

As we closed in on the first couple of trawlers, anticipation was high – a big cloud of gulls were milling around, and we could see reasonable number of Stormies flicking about over the waves. Surely there had to be something good in the mix? We quickly located a couple of Sooty Shearwaters, and Bonxies hurtled straight over our heads, but nothing unusual could be found…

sooty2Sooty Shearwater – note the crazy double shadow!


Having sifted through every bird we could find, it was time to move on again, and steamed on again towards another trawler or two. This time there were less birds, though, and ultimately we ended up returning to the original boats, drifting along slowly behind one as it hauled nets. Storm Petrel numbers were looking reasonable, with at least 50 in the trawler’s wake and more at greater distance. I can’t think of a harder photographic subject, though – a tiny bird with unpredictable flight; flying over an ever-moving surface to confuse auto-focus; black and white colouring offering ample opportunity to screw up the exposure; and to cap it all you’re attempting to stand steady on a rocking boat. Great fun! Here’s the best I managed over the weekend – plenty of room for improvement here.

storm_petrel storm_petrel3storm_petrel2

Finally, after some time searching, a joyful shout went up from the bow of the boat: “Great Shearwater, right behind the trawler!” After a brief flurry of activity to make sure everyone saw the bird, we settled down to enjoy grandstand views – it would shear in behind the trawler, drop into the melee and fight gulls and Fulmars for food, drift away in the wake, and then shear up past us again. No apologies for posting a few more shots of this superb bird!

great_shear2 great_shear3 great_shear4

By now, it was mid afternoon, and time to steam back to Hugh Town. Higgo was throwing the remaining mackerel off the back of the boat to pull in gulls, Fulmars and Gannets, and in superb light, all the photographers had ample opportunity to practise their birds in flight technique. (Evidence to follow in a future post!) A Minke Whale surfaced briefly some distance away from the boat, adding more cetacean interest.



So, would I go again? It’s not a cheap trip by the time you’ve factored in travel to/from Scilly, accommodation and food, and as this weekend illustrated, you’re not guaranteed a glut of rarities. And if you don’t go out on all the trips, you risk ending up totally gutted at missing something good.

But despite all that, I’d definitely repeat the exercise! Several reasons:

  • there is no more likely means of seeing Wilson’s Petrel (or rarer seabirds) in the UK… and the locals leading the pelagics have so much experience and knowledge to maximise the chances of picking one out
  • even if you could see most of the same birds off a Cornish headland, the views from a boat are just streets ahead
  • and, as a result of this, the photographic opportunities are second to none. How else would I photograph Great Shear this well in the UK?
  • the Scillies are undeniably a lovely place to stay, whether birding or not. Several people had travelled over with non-birding family to combine the pelagics with a longer holiday.

Anyone for 2011?!

Scilly scenery

Before I go back into pelagic birding blog posts (and have to start the blurry Storm Petrel deletion marathon!), here’s a few scenic shots taken on the Saturday night while I was out to enjoy a fantastic sunset. The panoramic shot illustrates Old Town Bay, while the remaining three were taken from Peninnis Head.

old_townpeninnis_towards_st_agnes peninnis1peninnis_towads_hugh_town

Saturday 14 August 2010

Scilly Pelagics: Day Three

Given the plan for the day involved about ten hours on a boat on the Atlantic, the sight of a full English breakfast less than an hour before departure made me somewhat nervous… was this a good idea? Would I regret it later?

As it turned out, I was absolutely fine all day, despite rather choppy conditions following fresh westerlies overnight. Today, we headed out past Annet and around the western isles, passing south of the Bishop Rock lighthouse. Pretty early on, someone spotted a Basking Shark, and skipper Joe Pender was able to get us in fairly close for a look. Much more impressive in real life than on a photo!


There were no more than about 25 birders on board, so there was plenty of room to move about the boat and find the best spot for viewing or photography. (This is a big plus compared to the Scillonian pelagic, where I occasionally found it a real struggle to get clear views past people’s heads etc – ideally you need to bag one of the best seats hours in advance there). I recognised a few faces from around the country – Martin Bonfield from a few junctions up the M11; Dave and Andy Appleton from Norfolk and Kent respectively; Richard Stonier, a Scilly regular in the autumn; and three of the self-styled ASBO birders – Stevie Dunn, Adam Archer and Mike Feely.

Since the majority of people on the boat hadn’t been out and seen the Wilson’s the night before, this was the target again today. We headed out to Poll Bank, about 3 miles SW of Bishop Rock, cut the engine, and opened up the infamous chum. Apparently if you’re a petrel, fish offal and especially liver is a favourite, so Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher deployed a combination of popcorn mixed with dogfish liver, plus bread soaked in cod-liver oil, to create a pretty foul-smelling slick on the surface behind the boat. Mmmm, lovely!


We continued to drift for about three or four hours, scouring the Storm Petrels around the back of the boat. Although there was never a huge number visible at one time, there seemed to be a fairly steady flow of ‘new’ birds coming in, and so persistence seemed worthwhile. The Bonxie pictured above got stuck into the gulls a couple of times, and we saw a Grey Phalarope in flight briefly as it came into the slick. On the whole, it was rather slow going though… until interest picked up when Joe caught quite a big fish!


This is an impressive Blue Shark, just over six feet long; as part of the UK Shark Tagging Programme, it was landed, tagged and released. As this link shows, sharks tagged on Scilly have been recaptured as far away as the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands – up to almost 2000 miles away!

blue_shark3When handling sharks, always wear suitable foot protection.

blue_shark2  Ready for release – note the small orange tag near the dorsal fin

Unfortunately, we still couldn’t find another Wilson’s Petrel, so took an indirect route back to Hugh Town trying out the ‘steam and chum’ technique. Basically this involves cruising along as normal, while some lucky person gets to throw chunks of mackerel off the back of the boat. Gulls, Gannets and Fulmars move in very quickly, and there’s always the chance that some shearwaters, petrels or skuas will come and join in. On this occasion, though, the interest was provided a group of three Common Dolphins that spent about 30-40 minutes bow-riding. The photos below were taken with a short 10-20mm landscape lens, so you can imagine how close they must have been – lying on the bow of the boat watching them directly below was a fantastic experience!

dolphins1 dolphins2

Scilly Pelagics: Day Two

Leaving the hostel in Penzance by about 0730, I drove down to deposit the car with Penzance Parking, conveniently close to the Quay. The weather was pretty murky with more than a hint of drizzle… promising for a few birds on the Scillonian crossing. Compared to my previous experience on the boat (the extremely rough 2008 pelagic), this was to be a relatively smooth and pleasant crossing. A small number of Scilly-bound birders were scanning from the upper deck at the stern, and with a Sooty Shearwater seen shortly after leaving the quay, things were looking promising.


We also picked up a stream of Storm Petrels off the southern side of the boat, totalling about 15-20 over the course of the first hour. Unfortunately, the seabirds tailed off as we travelled west though, with only about 5 Manx Shearwaters seen, and certainly nothing else much better.

Arriving on St Marys at lunchtime, I dropped my bags off in the B&B, sourced a bite to eat, and headed out to refresh my memory of the island. Peninnis Head held little more than a few Stonechats and a Linnet flock, but heading round past Old Town and alongside the airfield was better – I came across a juvenile Cuckoo begging for food from its overworked surrogate parent, a Rock Pipit in this case. Sadly, I had no camera with me… I continued down to Porth Hellick and along the trail through Higher Moors (happy memories of Blackpoll Warbler!). 2 Green and 1 Common Sandpiper, and 6 Greenshank, were around the muddy fringes, but there was no sign of the Wood Sand that had been reported the day before.

By now, it was mid afternoon, and therefore time to head for the quay again. Over the last few years, pelagic trips from St Mary's have produced some of the rarest seabirds in British waters: Madeiran, Swinhoe’s and Fea’s Petrels, plus Scopoli’s Shearwater and literally hundreds of Wilson’s Petrels. Although I was booked on two full day trips over the weekend, there was no way I’d pass up the extra opportunity to get out there for a look.

fulmar1 As we steamed out past the Garrison, I asked where we were heading for – having heard about various underwater reefs and banks that contribute to productive seabird feeding areas, I guessed it would be one of these. Not so… “we’re just going five or six miles out to the SE, and then we’ll drift”. Scientific stuff, clearly. But, my God, did it ever work for us! Within about 10 minutes of switching the engine off, a couple of Storm Petrels came past the stern of the Sapphire, and then there was the shout we’d been waiting for: “Wilson’s in the wake!” Given the small number of birds in the area at the time, I was on it immediately, and enjoyed pretty good views. After the initial view, it reappeared near the boat on two more occasions, allowing everyone to note a few more features and get some experience of the bird’s jizz.

And if that isn’t lucky enough, try this. Also on the boat were two guys from the West Midlands; they’d been booked onto the Scillonian pelagic, which was now cancelled. Not wishing to abandon the idea of a pelagic trip completely, they had come down to Scilly for just one night, and would be returning the next day. Neither of them had ever been out looking for Wilson’s Petrel before – they’d just jammed straight in, trip number one, under an hour on the boat!

To be honest, the rest of the trip was something of an anticlimax… we did see a rather pale juv Arctic Skua and another Sooty Shearwater, plus sifted through about another 20 odd Storm Petrels, but my thoughts had already settled on “Anything else this weekend is a bonus". Wilson’s was the target: played for and got, as a certain Wanstead-based birder might say.

Thursday 12 August 2010

But now for something completely different…

Scilly Pelagic Trip: Day One. I can just see you settling down to read tales of Pterodromas and Puffinus, cetaceans and chum, salt spray and seasickness. Well, scrap that for now – I live in London, so I had to get there first! And as regular visitors to Porthgwarra and Pendeen will know (and readers of the Reservoir Cats blog will appreciate), the road from London to Lands End definitely goes through East Prawle. Very close to the Piglet Stores, in fact. I just happened to be in the area.

OK, OK, guilty confession time – I went to see the House Finch. I don’t think it’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted, but I like Prawle Point, I like Cirl Buntings, and I don’t like driving for six hours non-stop, so it seemed like a reasonable plan. And look, it’s gone pink now – clearly wild! ;-)

housefinch1 housefinch2

Actually, it’s newfound pinkness is perhaps the final nail in this bird’s already well-sealed coffin – is this the sign of a formerly captive bird now feeding on a more natural diet?

Anyway, wherever this individual came from, there are no such doubts about Prawle’s other speciality passerines. After negotiating the tight lane down to the carpark, I quickly found three or four Cirl Buntings near the point, mostly juveniles giving the subtle ‘sit’ call, but also a smart male singing from a rocky perch. Much more satisfying! Slipping into seawatching mode briefly, I picked out a single Balearic Shearwater from a trickle of about 30 Manxies, but there wasn’t a great deal happening, and odonata were calling.

Thanks to a heads-up from Paul W and the BDS’s ‘Hot News’ page, I’d discovered a site near Plymouth to try for some new damselflies. Smallhanger Waste, NE of Hemerdon, is a disused china clay works, featuring a multitude of small acidic pools set in heathland. Armed with a field guide, a pair of wellies, and a map (kindly provided by Dave Smallshire – thanks!), I headed out for a look round.

Despite the weather being rather overcast and breezy, I was very pleased with the results: no less than four new species! Two, Keeled Skimmer and Black Darter are ‘available’ much closer to home (e.g. in Norfolk, or Surrey), but I’d never been looking in the right place at the right time. Scarce Blue-tailed and Small Red Damselfly are rarer, though – I think the closest populations of these are in the New Forest. Anyway, here’s pics of three of the four – the skimmers just wouldn’t pose!

black_darter scarce_bluetailed_damsel small_red_damsel

The following blue damselfly is currently unidentified… any suggestions very welcome! Click the image to enlarge, if it helps.


From here, a rather tedious mid-afternoon drive got me down to Penzance, where I booked into the Youth Hostel on the edge of town. (This has been refurbished since I was last there, and is a decent budget option). I popped down to Porthgwarra for an hour or so in the evening; had a quick chat to Tom McKinney as he was concluding Seawatch SW duties for the day, but noted little more than a distant Great Skua on the bird front. However, we were both hopeful that a weather front rolling in with rain from the Atlantic would lead to some better passage the next day…

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Pelagic Magic

Got back last night from an excellent long weekend in the south-west, including three pelagic trips on the Sapphire from St Marys. The major goal was Wilson’s Petrel, and although they’ve been in short supply this year, I was fortunate enough to see one on the Friday evening excursion. We were very lucky – it was one of the first birds to come in behind the boat, no more than 45 minutes after leaving the quay! Photo opps weren’t great in rather murky conditions, but there’s no doubt about this…


Note the long legs protruding behind the tail; the lack of white on the underwing; and the wing profile, showing a straight trailing edge and rather pointed wing tip. One or two other shots suggest a slightly hooked wingtip, consistent with primary moult, while grey carpal bars were noted on the upperwing. The bird showed three times in about half an hour, and given good views like these, picking out Wilson’s from Stormies doesn’t feel too taxing a task. I won’t be claiming any off the Runnelstone from Gwennap Head, though!

The other significant highlight was a Great Shearwater found feeding behind a French trawler on the Sunday afternoon, in gloriously sunny (but seabird unfriendly) weather. I suspect you may be seeing more photos of this fantastic creature in a future post, but here’s one to set the scene…


I’ll post up a full account in stages over the next few days, so keep checking back!

Sunday 1 August 2010

Willow Emeralds in Suffolk

Yet another new damselfly tick today – I saw a few Willow Emeralds at Candlet Farm near Trimley, and some more (including the one depicted below) at Bromeswell, near Melton. The weather wasn’t really conducive to great photos, but this will do for the moment. Note the creamy-white pterostigma!


I also popped in to Minsmere, where this little chap posed rather well behind Island Mere…