Monday 10 December 2012

The hornemanni twitch… a few more pics

A few more photos from yesterday’s trip to Aldeburgh. The redpoll was a cracking bird, but it was also great to see a number of friends enjoying really good-natured, fuss-free twitch.

Well, almost fuss-free: after washing the car on Saturday, and leaving London with it spotless (at least on the outside) it would appear I need to do it again! Parking next to a muddy puddle on the carpark approach led to this artistic polka-dot paintjob, presumably thanks to a nervous twitcher arriving at speed:


The crowd wasn’t ever that big,though, no more than 100 at one time enjoying the bird at close quarters…


… some of whom utilised stealthy fieldcraft (and especially camouflaged headwear) to gain closer views with state-of-the art equipment, whilst scattering surplus optics on the surrounding shingle…


… and others employed somewhat simpler technology.


Crofty, already a veteran of multiple Shetland Hornemann’s, appeared casual and relaxed throughout. Here he is, striking a sultry pose for the Wanstead winter collection…


… and here, hoping for the ultimate shot of flyover hornemanni undertail coverts.


Cheers to all the guys shown here, and everyone else we spoke to, for making a memorable day out!

And finally, lest anyone forgets what the point of the whole crazy exercise was… here’s a video of ‘the boy’:

Sunday 9 December 2012

Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll, Aldeburgh

Ok, I’ve seen a few of these before on the Shetlands, but it was still absolutely awesome… hopping around, unconcernedly, no more than about 8 or 10 feet away. Beautiful little bird, mega rarity, huge distance from its home, and not far from ours. Excellent!

Here’s my selection of the many, many photos taken on the beach today. As usual, click any to view a larger (1280px) image.


Saturday 8 December 2012


Or, for those that still speak proper, “Oh, my goodness! A Red-necked Grebe on the King George V Reservoir!”

The grebe was a pleasant surprise this morning on the first scan across the south basin, initially out towards the middle, but then later on significantly closer in towards the south bank once the sailing club had got themselves mobile. I think it’s only the third I’ve seen in London (after Wraysbury in May 2004, and then Staines in October 2009), and about the 20th in the UK. In the scope, views were superb and although the photos don’t really show it, the bird still has a little bit of colour on the neck. Hopefully this one won’t be troubling the local records committee for long!


This Grey Wagtail was also really smart and confiding, though by the time I reached its favoured shore on the north basin, the light had taken a turn for the worse, and I didn’t quite nail the crisp shot I’d hoped for.


KGV is a funny old place, two enormous concrete sided basins surrounded by industrial estates on one side, a main road on another, and relatively open countryside on the remainder. It’s not watched all that much these days (or, at least, that’s my impression), but has turned up plenty of good birds. Despite the somewhat gritty suburban location, once you’re on there it’s pretty quiet and pleasant, and to be honest I should probably get over there more. Gotta be a chance of something like a Ring-necked Duck or a Lesser Scaup one of these days…


Anyway, just after the wagtail had bombed off ahead of me, I got a call from H at Rainham to let me know about 3 Bewicks Swans that had arrived on Purfleet Scrape. I’d been wondering about somewhere to grab a coffee, so that sounded perfect and off I went. After fighting my way through ridiculous traffic in Woodford, I eventually arrived to find the swans still present, coffee, sandwich and cake available, and Messrs Vaughan, Croft and Harvey loitering for a chat. All good!

I finished up the day down at the west end of the site, where two Short-eared Owls showed rather poorly – though the peace and quiet, and the sunset were more than good enough for me.


Before I sign off, just one more quick photo – the female Long-tailed Duck from Grange Waters at South Ockendon last week. An excellent find by Paul H, and well worth negotiating the commando-style obstacle course I faced to get access… birders laugh in the faces of ploughed fields, watery ditches, barbed wire, hawthorn scrub and trail bikers!


Sunday 2 December 2012

What, no birds?

The area where Suzanne grew up is only just over the border into Wales along the beautiful Ceiriog valley; it’s not a particularly well-known area for tourists to visit, but I’m always struck by how great the scenery is around there – it feels like you’re suddenly in another world as soon as you turn off the A5 at Chirk.

As mentioned in the last post, we were over there last weekend and after a night of pouring rain, the weather was glorious on the Sunday morning so I headed out with the camera. First stop was on the back road over the top to Llangollen. The second of these two shots is looking across towards the Panorama – a spectacular limestone outcrop, and a well known landmark.


Then I retraced my steps down into Glyn Ceiriog, and took the road further up the valley to Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog and over the top again towards Llanrhaedr-ym-Mochnant (couple of good place names there for the student of Welsh pronunciation). Again, the views aren’t too shabby:


And then finally, I reached my destination: Pistyll Rhaeadr, the highest waterfall in Wales, at 80m. After a few days of heavy rainfall, it was in spectacular form!


Taking these and posting them up here, has reminded me that I really should take more landscape and scenic photos, given the quality of the places I visit regularly. Maybe there’s a new year’s resolution coming?

Saturday 1 December 2012

A day in north-east Wales

Last weekend, Suzanne and I went across to see her extended family for the usual pre-Christmas meal and present-swapping extravaganza over a lovely relaxed Sunday lunch in the Britannia Inn, just down from the Horseshoe Pass outside Llangollen. That morning had clear bright blue skies, and hopefully there are some nice landscape photos of the area to come in a future post – watch this space! Unfortunately, the Saturday wasn’t so good weather-wise, but I headed out fairly early and managed to find some good birds to the north of Glyn Ceiriog.

First destination was the area around Denbigh, where a large flock of 200+ Waxwings had been seen on an industrial estate the day before, so I was hoping for some photos if the birds were still around and would come down low. I didn’t get that far before finding the target, though, since I stumbled across two smaller flocks (maybe offshoots of the original group) by the roadside between Ruthin and Denbigh. On this occasion, they didn’t show particularly well for photos, staying high up in trees against grey skies… but something tells me I might get a few more opportunities at Waxwing photography this winter!

While watching the second flock, I noticed a bird song that I’ve not heard for years and years – a Dipper singing under the road bridge! Creeping up a bit closer, in fact there was a pair, with the male singing persistently and even displaying at times. Although the light was really poor, the Dippers were more paying more attention to each other than to me, so I managed to get fairly close for a series of photos. Check out the white eyelids!


These are just brilliant little birds, really smart and characterful. A real shame I don’t see them more often, though I’ve already made a mental note to return to that bridge on a brighter day next year and try to get some better shots!

While putting stuff away into the car, and wondering where to go next, news came through of a Desert Wheatear on the seafront at Rhyl – not really that surprising given that a Wheatear had been reported there the day before, which although not unprecedented, would’ve been very late. Given that I wasn’t too far away, and that rare wheatears often show well, it was an easy decision to go and take a look.

The Wheatear showed pretty well, though with quite a few cyclists, joggers and dogwalkers going up and down its favoured stretch of the coastline, it was fairly mobile and generally not as confiding as the recent Abberton bird. A good bird for Wales, though, I think only about the sixth record ever.


From here, I spent about half an hour scanning a large and mostly distant flock of scoter off Llanddulas, hoping to pick out one of the three Surfies, before bailing out of that and going searching for Chough above Aber Falls. No joy here (though stunning scenery), and by mid afternoon the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and it was back down the A5 in the rain.

Better late than never…

So, it’s time to bring the blog back to life with a series of posts to recap on a few very busy weeks.

What seems like ages ago, but in fact only two weeks back, a glorious sunny day took me down to Dungeness with Jono, and Monkey and Shaun putting in a rare appearance too! The Pallas’s Warbler present for a couple of days previously had cleared out (though many folk seemed to take an amazingly long time to cotton on…), but the Glaucous Gull was showing well on the beach north of the fishing boats.


This blog post from almost the same date serves to illustrate how it’s changed since last year.

While we endured a tediously long wait for a still-not-really-that-good breakfast, news broke of a Desert Warbler not far away at Samphire Hoe, between Folkestone and Dover. Given that it would be a new British species for all of us, we ended up spending the rest of the day with a surprisingly small group of other birders trying to relocate it… no joy, but pleasantly warm sunshine for the time of year, and a decent site to wander round.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

A colourful Mediterranean supporting cast

So, after bagging the Olivaceous Warbler and getting the photos I wanted, Mick and I headed back west (going in any other direction from Fife Ness is going to end in tears…) to take a look at Largo Bay. This place has an excellent reputation for giving great views of seaduck, divers and grebes, and although it’s still early in the season we did OK: about 20 odd Velvet and a few Common Scoter, some of the former much closer than you ever see down south; a handful of Long-tailed Ducks in with the Eider; one or two Slavonian Grebes and Red-throated Divers; and a few common auks. We couldn’t find the reported Surf Scoter, but not to worry – I’d already seen enough to earmark the site for a future midwinter or early spring visit, it would be fantastic on a cold still blue-sky day!

After lunch, I made a start on the long drive south, but had only just got across the bridge when Mick texted local news of a Red-rumped Swallow at Blackness. Eventually, I found the right spot and got a series of very brief and somewhat distant views of the bird feeding low over a wood, where it presumably went to roost. Certainly no pics of this – for a while, views were bordering on untickable for me, though the bird had showed much better earlier on.

Overnight accommodation was bagged for the princely sum of £7 at Berwick YHA – a newly refurbished, clean and comfortable spot. And they also gave me an excellent tip for dinner in the Queen’s Head… superb meal, and a couple of well-deserved tasty local pints.

After an early night, I was up and out early, heading optimistically down the deserted A1 towards the reported Lesser Kestrel at Marsden. Lesser Kestrel in the UK is a bit of a sore point for me, given that I missed the Suffolk bird by about two minutes at dusk, having twitched from Dungeness the moment the news came out. The fact that all my mates saw it doesn’t help, either… Unfortunately the big grip-back wasn’t to be, with no sign in the first few hours of the day. I revisited Trow Quarry just down the road, reliving the Eastern Crowned Warbler experience from a few years back, but it was almost birdless this time.

Happier news soon came on the pager, though, in the form of the Bee-eater just down the road in Seaburn. This is probably up there with the most bizarre birds I’ve seen, as a stunning Mediterranean species flying around a residential area trying to catch wasps on a pretty chilly day in November! I don’t rate its survival chances if it hangs around much longer, but for the moment it seems to be doing OK and perched up to give nice views. The colours are just awesome – real ‘explosion in a paint factory’ stuff…


It was never quite close enough for killer shots with my lens, always a bit high, and flight shots were even harder to come by in the time I was there. These two still give you the idea, though – Bee-eaters are no less stunning in the air!


Monday 5 November 2012

Call me crazy, but…

… I popped up to Fife, in east Scotland, to see a little sandy brown bird at the weekend. Not just any little brown bird, but an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler from south-east Europe – in fact a bird I’ve seen plenty of in Greece before! In the UK, though, there have only been around 20 records, and very few of those have hung around anywhere accessible for people to go and see. Uncharacteristically, this bird has hung around for over three weeks now, lingering late into the autumn (giving rise to a few suggestions that it might even attempt to winter?).

One of the benefits of waiting a while before twitching a bird this rare is that the crowds will have subsided – so when I arrived on Saturday morning, expertly chauffeured through the wilds of Fife by Mick F, there were only around four or five other people present… and three of those, Dave Gray’s crew from the Midlands, headed off fairly soon after. This left me able to pick my spot and wait for the bird to come close, and then eventually get some decent photos.


For a bird that isn’t endowed with a vast number of striking features or colours, it was actually pretty charismatic. For a start, it was calling constantly, a harsh fairly loud ‘chack’ note, which made it really easy to keep tabs on throughout as it fed in generally dense vegetation. And then it pretty much never sat still – the characteristic tail-pumping was going on non-stop, and it appeared to be feeding well, even venturing out on a few flycatcher-like sallies above the vegetation for some choice morsels.


Plumage-wise, it could be a bit of a chameleon, by turns resembling a very pallid Icterine or Reed Warbler, though it always felt like a fairly big bird, never recalling Booted or Sykes’s Warbler for me (though clearly the latter is a very real ID pitfall – separated by the primary projection, tail action and subtle differences in call). Another obvious structural feature was the bill – a long ‘broomhandle’ affair, with a completely pale lower mandible and a very broad base when seen head-on. It also seemed to have really sturdy legs, and pretty enormous feet!

All told – cracking views of a cracking lifer, and in combination with the rest of the weekend’s trip, well worth the distance travelled in the end. Many thanks to Mick for doing the last hour’s driving each way from his place near the Forth Bridge, and for the much-needed coffees and lunch – cheers mate!

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Abberton Desert Wheatear… and new software!

Another quick trip out today to go and enjoy the confiding Desert Wheatear at Abberton Reservoir – a somewhat unusual location for what is usually a coastal vagrant. The Prof and I timed our arrival well to find the bird showing down to a few feet in the carpark, though it only hung around for a couple of minutes before heading off to feed along the causeway. Happily, though, I managed a few reasonable shots in that time… though if it lingers until the weekend, I may well go back for more.

This post is also the first after changing my photo editing software – I’ve just got a copy of Lightroom 4, and a book to learn how to use it! Suffice to say there’s going to be a fair old learning curve, but I’m already satisfied that the range of possibilities is much broader than anything I ever used in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, and there’s plenty of potential.

Anyway, here are the first efforts, thanks to a very co-operative subject – what do you reckon?


I’d be genuinely interested in any constructive comments or suggestions for how other people might have edited these, or any other photos I post going forward. (Of course, whether I can work out how to make the necessary adjustments in Lightroom is another story… but at least I can try!)

Sunday 28 October 2012

South Africa: more colourful gems…

Not too much birding for me this weekend, while I’ve been over in Wales with Suzanne’s family, though a bit of a wander in the back of beyond yesterday lunchtime resulted in a couple of Black Grouse – I really must go back and see them lek again sometime soon. I also got gently reprimanded for not having finished dealing with all the photos from South Africa: fair enough, it was over two months ago now! I’ve finished processing (read: deleting most of) my bird photos, so just the landscapes and some bits of Suzanne’s video to go.

So, in the absence of British bird images, here are some of the Cape’s smartest species…


First up, this is a Black-headed Oriole. Just like the Golden Orioles in the UK, these have a fluty whistling song, a harsh angry cat-like call, and are generally ridiculously difficult to see for a brightly coloured bird, frequently dense foliage in tall trees!


Much easier to see, the Bokmakierie is a type of bush-shrike, fond of sitting up on obvious perches amongst dense scrubby fynbos vegetation.


Sunbirds were probably the most attractive family of birds going on the trip, and we enjoyed no less than six different species. The handsome fella pictured above is the biggest of the bunch: a Malachite Sunbird, pictured in the superb Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Continuing on the theme, the next two shots are Orange-breasted Sunbirds, an endemic to the Western Cape, but relatively easily seen amongst proteas and fynbos. Smart!


… and the following is an even commoner Southern African species, the Southern Double-collared Sunbird. These were seen most days, but still invariably prompted a quick grab for the camera by the end of the trip!


Southern Red Bishops are a pretty common sight along the roadsides, utterly unmistakable even from a car travelling at 120kph! We came across a couple of large breeding colonies in reeds along riverbeds, where many of the males were displaying. This was a general feature of visiting in August, as resident species started to gear up for the breeding season to come.


To finish with, a couple of poorer quality photos of trickier forest birds. One of my most-wanted for the trip was a Narina Trogon. All the members of this tropical forest inhabiting family are really smart, but take a bit of effort to find, hiding their bright colours in shady and often dense forest. I was really hoping to see one, but it was too much to expect anything… So finding this guy perched up at eye level on the trail around Nature’s Valley was one of the birding highlights of the trip! It took a little while to successfully point it out to Suzanne through the tangle of branches and creepers, but the bird was surprisingly confiding, swooping only a few yards through the trees as we moved closer to get clearer views. It invariably seemed to perch with its back to us, peering back over its shoulder like a tired old man!


Another magic moment came along one of the ‘kingfisher trails’ on the edge of Wilderness, creeping slowly and carefully through pretty dense forest, listening to a bewildering array of calls from up in the canopy, and generally seeing very little. This was ‘real birding’ – no pager messages, tour guides or crowds of birders to help find or identify anything! A couple of small thrush-like shapes flicked through the understorey in front of us, and after a moment or two, the first popped out to reveal itself as a Chorister Robin-chat… very smart. The second was harder to pin down, though, never going far but always perching just out of view behind a log, or in a little dip, taunting us…

And then when I finally did get a view: “What the **** is THAT?”. I had no idea what it was! I thought I’d been fairly careful in studying ‘the targets’ in the field guide (what else is there to do on a 12 hour flight?!), but this bird hadn’t figured in my preparations at all. It was stunningly smart, too: bright orange underparts and outer-tail; greenish-olive mantle; dark wings; and a slaty-blue head. Once we’d both seen it properly, and I’d got the dodgy flash-lit record shot you see below, the field-guide came out, and pretty quickly the answer became clear: a White-starred Robin, named for the tiny white spot in front of the eye.


As it turns out, these are merely a tricky bird to see in the area, rather than being out and out rarities. And indeed there were other good birds throughout the trip that played hard to get… but the excitement of working hard to find something new, difficult and beautiful will live long in the memory. That’s what foreign birding is all about, and I can’t wait to do plenty more!