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!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Olive-backed pop-out

Was quite well-placed today, having been working from home since early morning when news of an Olive-backed Pipit just down the road in Essex came through. Until recently, this was my biggest ‘bogey bird’ in the UK, having dipped at least seven individuals before finally seeing one… and then promptly seen another one the following year! They’re certainly smart though, and given the likelihood of a small midweek crowd, I decided to chance a flying visit.

Glad I did: ‘the boy’ showed pretty well perched in the open for a couple of minutes, not long after I got there. I’m sure others (Steve A? James L?) will have better photos by now, but here are a few ropey efforts from me. I call this effect “pipit in the mist”….


As I said, very ropey – but enough to show the distinctive head pattern with dark and white spots on the ear coverts and, on one shot the distinct dark upper border to the superciilium; rather plain dark mantle; and a very heavily streaked upper breast on yellowish ground colour. If you use a bit of imagination, the tertial fringes are buffy rather than white, as well! Also very noticeable was the bird’s habit of constantly pumping its tail while perched – a characteristic OBP feature. I didn’t hear it call, unfortunately.

Not bad for a lunch break, though!

Sunday 21 October 2012

To brighten up a dull day

Well, if yesterday was just the start, then I certainly didn’t find anything rare to finish it off properly! Birding was pretty hard work at times today, with a freshening north-easterly breeze and almost constant rain – at times verging on torrential during the late morning. That said, there were a reasonable number of birds about – within the first hour of daylight at Shingle Street, I’d picked up a flyover Lapland Bunting on call, a handful of Redpolls and various other finches on the move, and a nice Black Redstart. Promising stuff, but from here things went downhill, as I got a proper soaking at Thorpeness for nothing better than a Firecrest and a smart male Sparrowhawk. After lunch, there was a bit of a break in the weather, so I persevered at Sizewell Hall and then Greyfriars Wood in Dunwich, but no joy.

Hey ho… can’t win them all. I’m still somewhere between excited and nervous about the week to come – with a non-stop easterly vector to the wind, a quality bird or two wouldn’t surprise me. Hopefully if it happens, it will a) linger, and b) be within range!

But anyway, having taken precisely zero photos today, I thought it was time to get back into editing the remaining shots from South Africa, taken back in August. I’ve worked through a number of species this evening, some of which will be posted in due course – but when I came across this guy, it put a smile on my face. It seems the ideal antidote to a grey and miserable British autumn day!


This is a Malachite Kingfisher, an absolutely tiny little bird, but pretty unmistakable given the colours! These shots were taken just outside Wilderness from the bird hide at Langevlei, just after the bird had been bathing and preening. Aren’t the hairstyles fantastic?!

Saturday 20 October 2012

Just the warm-up act?

Popped out this afternoon to The Naze – a decent site that I probably don’t visit often enough, given the potential it’s got. (I also don’t know how regularly it’s checked at the moment – any ideas?) Anyway, it was rather good, with a decent scatter of autumn migrants and no other birders. The only downside was the ridiculous number of dogs romping around, being utterly ignored by their loud but vacant owners. S’pose it is Essex, though…

Anyway, back to the birds. I had a slow wander around the undercliff area to start off with, almost immediately stumbling across a Brambling and this rather nice (and very tame) Lesser Redpoll feeding in the pathside weeds:


Over the course of the afternoon, I heard about half a dozen more Redpolls calling overhead – most likely all Lessers. Continuing further north through the scrub on no particular route, a few Goldcrest and Chaffinch were feeding either side of the path, so I resumed Shetland-style tactics with a bit of pishing to see what else might come in. Shetland-style, this did:


Yawn! Yet another one… but still, Yellow-browed Warblers are rather lovely, and when you think how far they’ve come, quite impressive migrants. Unusually, this one didn’t call at all during the 10 minutes or so that I watched it, perhaps too busy feeding up again!

Around the rest of the site, a couple of Swallows were overhead on their way south, and I was pretty surprised to flush a Jack Snipe out of some long grass and low brambles – presumably another newly arrived migrant. Returning back to the car just before dusk, a good concentration of thrushes in the western hedges contained at least one of the hoped-for Ring Ouzels, photographed here at ridiculously high ISO.


So, not bad for less than four hours out. It’s raining here now, and the wind is due to go round into the NE overnight. Hopefully that’ll bring plenty onto the coast tomorrow, where I’ll be from dawn!

Saturday 6 October 2012

Shetland: Days 7 & 8

We had a better day yesterday, in lighter winds and much more sunshine – even warm enough for birding in shirtsleeves for a while! Paul and I opted to head over to West Mainland for a poke around a few lesser-watched sites, starting with a quick look for the reported Red-breasted Flycatcher in Tresta. However, after only about ten minutes here, the plan changed when we heard that Hawky and Jono’s crew had found a probable Great Reed Warbler back down south at Rerwick and were trying to relocate it.

With a somewhat uncharitable hope that the ID might been incorrect (Thick-billed Warbler, anyone?!), we made good time getting down there and found the guys near some irises at the bottom of a reedbed – the latter not a habitat I’ve ever encountered on Shetland before. Shortly before we got there, they’d had further views and it was clear that the bird was definitely a Great Reed. Full credit to Matt Eade for a quality find – as one of the locals pointed out, arguably a better bird in Shetland than a Pechora! Views were limited to in-flight only, and I struggled to even get a record shot… this is not one of my finest photographic moments!


We also heard a Water Rail calling here, another relatively tricky bird to catch up with here. With the sun blazing down (well, at least pleasantly warm), we headed away from the twitch fairly swiftly in the hope of finding some birds of our own elsewhere. First stop was Geosetter, just down the road. Aside from doing my best to fall off a bridge into the burn, the highlight was another Yellow-browed Warbler found by the eagle-eyed Prof (though just after pointing in the opposite direction and shouting “Look over there!” to distract me… dirty tricks!)

Although easily seen up here, and also on the east coast in autumn, these are really superb little birds and often show well. I still haven’t got the killer shot that I’m looking for, though, so there’s a good excuse to keep searching for them!


We popped into Hoswick for a quick look at the trees by the Orca Inn, adding Wood and Garden Warblers to the trip list, before reverting to Plan A and the west side of the island. Around Tresta, we still couldn’t find the RBFly, only managing half a dozen Siskins. Down at the Gairdins i Sand, the Yellow-browed Warbler was stiil present and showing well, but without anything much else as support.

From here, we toured a route around Walls and Dale of Walls, stopping to check various likely looking sites, before heading up to the Melby and Norby area. Leaving Paul in the car for a quick snooze, I had a bit of a scare when I saw a small, dark dove twice in flight. Initial thoughts of Mourning Dove were soon banished (wrong general colour, and no evidence of the long pointed tail), and when we inadvertantly flushed it again, I managed some (awful) photos to pin down the ID as a Turtle Dove – not a species you’d expect this far north in October!


We also had the books out to check that it couldn’t be a vagrant Rufous Turtle Dove… but the combination of extensive white belly sharply contrasting with the darker breast, prominent bare skin around the eye, and the bird’s small size all point to the commoner species. Shame, but still a decent find, I think.

That evening, I organised a curry in Lerwick for several of the visiting groups of birders – 20 people in all. It was a good laugh and great to get everyone together for a chat and a beer, so thanks to everyone that came long. We also coughed up a fiver each to settle the bird finders’ sweepstake that had been running for the week – Matt’s Great Reed Warbler took the prize as the only BBRC rarity found this week. Perhaps not the mega-rare Sibe or Yank that we’ve all been hoping for, but a quality bird nonetheless.

And then the less said about today, the better! For the first time in the week, Paul and I have given up on birding, due to driving rain and a cold NW wind gusting over 40mph. Basically unbirdable this afternoon… so we’ll get all the cleaning up and packing done, ready to maximise time in the field in better weather tomorrow before we head home. The avian highlight of the morning was a group of 5 Swallows feeding low around a row of houses, and perching on washing lines to escape the weather. Probably wondering what on earth they’re doing up here… perhaps like some of the birders!

Thursday 4 October 2012

Shetland, Days 4 - 6

Still having a great time up here, though somewhat lacking in new birds and the excitement that comes with seeking them out. Today, in particular, has been pretty hard work in strong westerlies and increasingly heavy driving rain showers through the afternoon. But tomorrow is due to be brighter and calmer, so hopefully some new bits and bobs will come out of the woodwork and get pinned down. There’s still plenty of potential!

Back on Tuesday, we started off at Kergord – it always feels really rare in there to me, but this time we couldn’t even manage a paltry Yellow-browed Warbler. A Pied Fly was a nice find, but after this the notebook swiftly degenerates to Chaffinch and Robin (both the first of the trip), Bramblings and a Song Thrush! Not exactly mega…


Heading west in a rain shower, we decided to check out a couple of ‘green bits’ on the map at Sand, SW of Bixter. The 'Gairdins i Sand’ are a cracking little area of bushes and small trees, protected by dense conifer shelter belts along the roadside. Some persistent pishing in an area of willows produced a showy Yellow-browed, and at least one Common Redpoll was mixed in with Twite.

While birding here, we go a heads-up message that the American Golden Plover was back at Veensgarth. Now recent visitors may recall that I closed the previous post with a mystery Goldie, also photographed at Veensgarth the previous day. Everyone that responded gave the same wrong answer: an American Golden Plover. Paul and I had been watching this bird for around 45 minutes, trying to talk ourselves into it being an AGP (though clearly not the original bird), before it did the decent thing and had a massive wing-stretch to reveal gleaming white underwings and confirm the ID as a standard European Golden Plover. Just goes to show how variable these birds are, and how easy it is to find a ‘different’ bird that shows some of the right features.

Anyway, back to Tuesday: the real AGP was present when we arrived, and showed pretty well with a small flock of its European relatives. A smart bird!


The Prof was struggling to stay awake through all this excitement and wanted to seek out a coffee in Scalloway. While he did this, I dived into a favourite patch of sycamores and willows, and promptly emerged with another Yellow-browed Warbler in the bag. Very nice, but please can one of them be a different phyllosc one of these days?


Again based on positive news on the grapevine, we headed south to have another go at the Siberian Stonechat in Hoswick. This time, I practically walked into the bird as it perched in a sheltered spot behind some houses, and after a while out of view, it returned to the same spot and briefly posed for photos. Only my second in the UK, these have been pretty rare in the country since they were split as a full species, so I was pleased to connect.


Finally, to end a pretty good day, we met up with the other London guys over at Sandwick where they’d just relocated a Red-backed Shrike. Good stuff!

Wednesday brought a brief change in the weather, with Shetland positioned in the centre of a low pressure system and consequently getting calm conditions for a while and even a hint of east in the wind. Paul and I made an early start to get down south for dawn, starting off at Sumburgh Head. A Spotted Flycatcher showed well around the lighthouse buildings, a few Song Thrushes were tsip-ping around on the eastern cliffs, and a handful of Meadow Pipits were setting off south out to sea… but on the whole, there wasn’t a huge amount happening.

We finally got lucky with the Invisibelline Shrike near the play area in Hestingott, before spending some time (now in deteriorating weather) around Boddam, checking out part of a large Golden Plover flock. There were a bare minimum of 1200 birds in the area, though typically they spent much time high in the air circling around above us, and when they did land, many weren’t visible from a sensible viewpoint. We also had a single Black-tailed Godwit here, and a Lesser Whitethroat in a garden.

Heading north slowly, further Yellow-browed Warblers were detected at Netherton and Channerwick, with a Tree Pipit also at the latter site, showing fairly well. With the afternoon getting windier and windier, our final destination was Wester Quarff. Although this didn’t provide as much shelter as we’d hope, fate dealt us an ace when a small bird popped out of the edge of a plantation onto a wire fence. “Flycatcher” we both exclaimed together, before I got a good view of it flicking back into the trees revealing a striking black and white tail pattern: “It’s a Red-breasted!”. This was a bird I’ve wanted to find for ages, given that I’ve seen plenty on the east coast, and always enjoyed their charm and often confiding nature – so I was absolutely delighted with this piece of good fortune. Perhaps just reward for continuing to plug away in the rain and wind that afternoon?!

Although the bird was very elusive in the wind, and never really sat still in view for more than a second or so, a number of other birders got to see it before dark. Other birds noted on site included a predictable Yellow-browed Warbler, and 5 Swallows, one of which was briefly chased by a female Merlin!

Today has been even windier, and we’ve seen considerably less in the way of birds. We headed over to Bressay (an island tick for me) to explore some new sites. Our first stop was the rather remote plantation at Gorie on the east side of the island. After a mile or so walking in over the moor, we arrived to find the Barred Warbler still present and showing unusually well – that’s two of these in a few weeks, what’s going on?!


Judging by the staining around the base of the bill and the absence of any other birders, it’s presumably eaten them all… or else we failed to notice a patch of elders somewhere nearby! The same little patch also held 3 Blackcaps, a couple of Chaffinch and a Chiffchaff.

Elsewhere around the island, we managed to uncover a smart silvery abietinus Chiffchaff, our first Redstart of the trip, a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits, and an unprecedented 8 Woodpigeons! Rock and roll…

Hopefully tomorrow will dawn calmer, and someone will stumble across the ‘big bird’ that everyone’s hoping for!

Monday 1 October 2012

Shetland, Days 1-3

Despite constant breezy south-westerlies, we’re off to a pretty decent start on Shetland once again, with plenty of decent birds to see. Arriving on Saturday afternoon, we were given the runaround by an atypically elusive and ultra-mobile Isabelline Shrike and a vanishing Olive-backed Pipit, before getting good views of the showy Little Bunting at Sumburgh Farm in the last of the light.


Little Bunting

With rain forecast early on Sunday, the Prof and I opted to drive north to Unst and then hopefully enjoy improving weather. We did OK, with a brief view of the hornemanni Arctic Redpoll for Paul, and I managed to relocate the very tricky Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the Halligarth plantation. So no photos of either of those! We also enjoyed about 15 rostrata Common Redpoll (thanks to Martin G for the ID lessons!), a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers, a female Scaup and a cracking male Merlin.


Common Redpoll, race rostrata (Martin mentioned the strong dark ‘cat clawed’ flank streaks)

Bit disappointing to hear about the Hornemann’s showing really well in the evening, and then more so when the Pechora Pipit photos emerged, but hey, you can’t see ‘em all.

Today, we initially headed north to the Voe area, where we had another Yellow-browed Warbler, the drake Surf Scoter in Olna Firth (off Foula Wick), and a smart 1st winter Spotted Sandpiper at Lower Voe. It was pretty mobile during the time we were there, but I managed to grab a couple of record shots:


Spotted Sandpiper: a vagrant from North America

Returning back to South Mainland, we timed our arrival at Scousburgh spot on and picked up the Buff-bellied Pipit immediately on arrival, with only half a dozen other people present. Although this was also quite mobile, it gave excellent scope views and was also noted calling a few times – a somewhat bunting-like ‘tsip’, along with more Meadow Pipit-like sounds. Until a few years ago, this was a truly mega-rarity in the UK, but (perhaps due to changing weather patterns across the Atlantic?) it’s become much more regular and predictable… and since I’ve now seen three, they can’t be that rare!


American Buff-bellied Pipit

Also in the bay, a couple of cracking Great Northern Divers were still mostly in summer plumage. Continuing south, we had another failed attempt at the Toab Isabelline Shrike (just Spotted Flycatcher, a couple of Wheatears and another Merlin of note here), before checking out the Hoswick and Sandwick area. Despite spending two or three hours here, we somehow managed to miss the Siberian Stonechat (even though it was present before and after our visit – doh!), but were rewarded with a brief Hawfinch, yet another Yellow-browed Warbler, a few Redwing, couple of Swallows and a Brambling.


And finally, I’ll leave you with a mystery bird from today… more on this in due course.