Tuesday 31 December 2013

Rarity distribution in pictures: 2013, and before

This is far from a typical end-of-year review (but there are enough of those out there already). Instead, I’ve spent an hour or two playing around with some new data visualisation tools in the latest version of Excel, and my birding records from the year. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then this is going to be pretty long!

First up: where have I seen anything good this year? The chart below tells the story…


On the left, we have my nine British lifers – I think this validates the story that there’s been lots of amazing birds, but few of them close to home! (You can also see from the colour key that one of the nine was a bit of a tart, the Great Snipe at Kilnsea… but compensated for by the ridiculously good view!)

On the right, we have all the other species that I log all records for – basically anything unusual, scarce migrants and better. The bigger circles (disproportionately big, I reckon?) are sites with multiple goodies: the Uwchmynydd peninsula in Wales, or St. Abbs Head, for instance. One slight surprise from all this is that I’ve not been down to the far southwest at all in 2013… I’ve been missing out! And even though we didn’t have the mass of megas we’d hoped for on Shetland, the rash of bubbles says we didn’t do badly!

Next – how do those lifers’ locations compare to those in the previous five years, say? Those are shown in the following chart:


There’s less scatter here, with a predictable bias towards the south-east. And a few hotspots emerge: Dungeness is in the lead with three (including the tarty, turquoise coloured Melodious Warbler!), and for an inland site, Chew Valley Lake has done well to give me two (Sharp-tailed Sand and Franklin’s Gull). Portland has two more megas (Eastern Bonelli’s and Collared Fly), as well, to put alongside this week’s unexpected Alcid addition.

But that wide distribution is a huge change to how my birding started as a teenager in the early 90’s! No national twitching back then, as the next pic illustrates – this is all lifers between 1992 (at the start of which I had a British list of around 230) and 2003 (when I graduated from university, with the list on around 310):


Clearly, it was all about East Anglia, with just a tiny handful of holiday bonuses elsewhere!

Obviously I’ve had plenty of excellent birding up there since then as well.So the next chart illustrates that region in more detail, showing all notable records from 1992 to date, again with lifers on the left and everything else on the right.


Looking at the lifers, there’s clearly no shortage of quality in that lot! This clearly reveals a tendency to only go for rarer birds further away from the area where I grew up, near Great Yarmouth – for instance, Canvasback and Pied-billed Grebe in west Norfolk… and the navy megas in south Suffolk are all relatively recent.

On the right-hand side, you can see some happy hunting grounds highlighted with larger circles: for instance, Minsmere, Lowestoft, Winterton, and Sheringham (dominated by seawatching records, principally ‘local’ birds in a big turquoise slice of the pie). And of course, the North Norfolk coast is simply littered with great birds – shown below in more detail:


No prizes for guessing where Cley is here… the best site for sheer number of species for me, anywhere in the country – though Rainham is certainly punching above its weight here!


And I could easily go on – where on earth have I seen exactly 100 Yellow-browed Warblers, 26 Red-backed Shrikes or 21 Pec Sands? Where have I seen most stuff on Shetland, or Scilly? What are the peak weeks of the year for scarcities, rarities, and megas?

But in conclusion for now, I hope this just goes to show the value in keeping records over a period of time, since it’s easier and easier to draw out patterns and insight as better software comes along. I’m already thinking that I need to keep more data electronically – perhaps all species, not just the rarer ones, with full counts? And then I should submit it all to the BTO, so they can draw much more interesting (and important) conclusions from the data, across all observers, as they’ve done with the excellent Bird Atlas.

Maybe there’s a New Year’s resolution in there somewhere?

Friday 27 December 2013

A very Murre Christmas!

Just a couple of photos from the final twitch of 2013 (or maybe not, given the way this year’s been going on?!)

Like many other birders, I practically had to read the message twice when it popped up in the morning: Brunnich’s Guillemot in Portland Harbour. Whaaaaaat??? And then there’s a photo – it definitely is a Brunnich’s, and it looks like it’s paddling around at the finder’s feet. Better get cracking!

I didn’t have much time to play with, and the traffic was painfully bad for most of the route down there – problems on the M25 and M3, and then the road west from the M27 never seems to be quick in daylight (at least, not when there’s a good bird on Portland!). Fortunately, though, the usual bottlenecks around Weymouth were clear, and a phone-call with directions to the best parking spot from Matt was well timed as I crossed the end of the Fleet.

It’s never that easy, though – as I joined the crowd of c. 70 people, it was clear that the bird had been lost, and as usual in these situations the ratio of folk looking to talking was not favourable! After legging it backwards and forwards up and down the Castletown seafront with a few others, getting a couple of tantalisingly brief views of the back-end of a very black-and-white auk diving, the Brunnich’s eventually gave itself up again… and in style, down to 10 metres at times.


The distance it covered underwater was nothing short of amazing – I imagine any non-birding bystanders watching a bunch of grown men literally running along the quayside trying to keep up were probably in hysterics.

Regardless, what a bird, though! I’ve seen Brunnich’s well previously on Hornoya, a small island off Vardo in NE Norway (more details here – and what a trip that was, by the way!), but a live, twitchable bird in England (and maybe even anywhere outside the Northern Isles?) is unprecedented. Whether the combination of this one, and Mark Pearson’s bird at Filey, within a short space of time is just a coincidence or the start of a change in status, we’ll have to wait and see. Glad I got this one, though… that’s all I’m saying!


PS: thanks to Tony B for the pun-tastic title… had me laughing out loud on the quayside when it appeared on my phone!

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Shetland summary (and since)

I was up on Shetland from 14-20 October with Messrs Eade, Lethbridge, Croft and Johnson – bit later than previous years, so a slightly different experience and mix of birds, but still a fantastic place and a great trip. Since getting back to work on the following Tuesday morning, I’ve been pretty busy there, and then birding at the weekends so this feels a bit like ancient history now. Never mind.

The birding was unsurprisingly quite hard work, with relatively few migrants this late in the season. We still scored a fair range of rarities and scarcities, generally on our own, with very few other visiting birders remaining. The most exciting (but also most challenging) period was the last couple of days, with a strong constant easterly wind and pretty much constant rain. At times, pretty foul conditions – but it was obvious that birds were arriving. Our spirits were buoyed by finding an super-skulky Olive-backed Pipit on the Saturday, and the near-certainty that there was a ‘big one’ out there somewhere to be found kept us going non-stop til the end.

We were right, as well – but the fact it was a male Rubythroat, on Fair Isle, with news breaking while we were on the A1 near Newcastle, was a bit of a kick in the teeth. Still, surely that was it, so not too bad? (I’m sure there will be at least one twitchable mainland Rubythroat in the next ten years, given the recent surge in records). Oh dear: the kick in the teeth was followed by a Cape May style slap in the face. Ouch.

But enough complaining – any trip of this kind is almost guaranteed to miss something good by a day or two, it’s just the nature of the beast. I love these remote places, and rare bird searching / finding (far more than the idea of smash-and-grab twitching megas from down south)… so I’m happy with the outcome, even if it could’ve been better still.

The rarity roll-call featured:

  • Wilson’s Phalarope – the moulting adult at Sand
  • Western Bonelli’s Warbler – cracking views on Whalsay, with the bird calling quite a bit too


  • Little Bunting: very close, though very brief views at Quendale
  • Citrine Wagtail: another showy bird, at Fleck, just down the road from Boddam:


  • the aforementioned self-found Olive-backed Pipit – a real team effort, found and identified in horrid weather. (Hard to believe this was my bogey bird, with seven dips prior to 2010, yet now I’ve seen one every year since then, and co-found one).
  • White-rumped Sandpiper – good views of a rather bright juvenile bird at Boddam, again in driving rain!
  • four Yellow-browed Warblers, including a close bird in small patches of irises out on Garths Ness – maybe newly arrived?


  • a lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher
  • no less than 11 Great Spotted Woodpeckers – pretty scarce on Shetland, but there’s been an impressive influx this year. One bird in the second Sumburgh quarry regularly took cover in a hole in the rocks, in the absence of trees!
  • a stonking male Northern Bullfinch
  • Long-eared Owl in broad daylight
  • numerous educational Siberian Chiffchaffs
  • hundreds of Mealy Redpolls
  • plenty of Crossbills – sadly all Common for us

And of course, the place itself is fantastic, leaving the birds aside. This scene from Whalsay includes the Bonelli’s favoured gardens…


… while these scenes are from Lamba Ness right up at the top of Unst. Beautiful, if rather bleak…


Finally, in the way home, a diversion via St Abbs was well worth it, scoring the Sardinian Warbler immediately, and then enjoying a range of late autumn migrants including more Yellow-browed Warblers.

Since then, I’ve scored a lifer (and got soaked for my trouble) with the Semipalmated Plover on the south coast, enjoyed the cracking male Two-barred Crossbill in Kent, and been buzzed down to a couple of feet by the awesome pair of Pallid Swifts along the clifftops at Foreness Point in Margate.


So, while there’s plenty in the country that I’d like to see right now (hopefully some of it will stick around – for ages!), I can’t really complain. It’s been pretty good!

Friday 11 October 2013

Herons of the Pantanal

Just time for one final set of photos from Brazil, before heading off up north tonight, first for Matt and Claire’s wedding in Aberdeen, and then on to Shetland for the week. Hopes are high!

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that the Pantanal has lots of different herons, given that it’s partially underwater for a good chunk of the year. They’re pretty a smart and photogenic bunch, though, so it would be a mistake to overlook them.

First up is the rarest of the bunch, Zigzag Heron:


We finally tracked this down from a late afternoon boat trip from the Hotel Pantanal Mato Grosso, midway along the Transpantaneira. They’re absolutely tiny, and very skulking. Fortunately this one was calling regularly, and our boatman skilfully got us in amongst the vegetation. The photo was taken at ISO 6400, with a spotlight on the bird – it was almost totally invisible otherwise!

Another weird looking beast was Boat-billed Heron, picture below. These are coloured rather like Black-capped Night Heron, but the bill is pretty amazing. Again, these are skulkers, sticking to the shady banks all the time.


A couple of more familiar looking species next – Cocoi Heron is pretty similar to Grey and Great Blue Heron, and Striated Heron is a bird that I’ve seen all over the place (including at least three American birds in the UK). Both were pretty common.


One of the most striking species was the fantastically named Rufescent Tiger Heron, below. We thought that the patterned young birds, like this one, were actually smarter than the more rufescent adults!


We also had good views of Jabiru, Wood and Maguari Storks, plus Roseate Spoonbills, Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, Capped, Whistling, Little Blue and Night Herons. Not a bad haul!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Giant River Otters

Second only to the stunning Jaguars in the mammal department, these guys were fantastic value on the River Cuiaba and subsidiaries in the Pantanal.


Clearly very sociable creatures, we had the privilege of watching two different family groups interacting and feeding during our time on the river, both times around half a dozen animals.


The species is now categorised as endangered, with only a few thousand left in the world, centred around the Amazon basin. The biggest individuals are well over five feet long, and all have a pretty ferocious set of teeth.

From some angles, the somewhat sinister and slippery face with big beady eyes recalled Gollum…


… but from others it has to be said that they’re really quite cute!


Monday 7 October 2013

Pantanal Kingfishers

As you might expect for one of the world’s greatest wetlands, Kingfishers were not in short supply. There are only five species and we saw the lot – but the camera only caught up with two of these, so there’s not much diversity here!

The most obliging from a photographic point of view were Amazon Kingfishers, frequently remaining perched as the boat slid in closer and closer. The male has a large chestnut/rufous patch on the upper breast, while the female is metallic bottle green and white – both pretty smart!


The other species that got caught on camera was the huge Ringed Kingfisher – a fairly common, and often noisy, bird. We’d seen one or two of these in the Lower Rio Grande valley in Texas a few years previously.


Of the remaining three species, Green Kingfisher was reasonably common, but not as easy to see well, while American Pygmy Kingfisher and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher were only seen once or twice, in flight only.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Raptors of the Pantanal, part II

Another of the most common birds was Snail Kite, shown below in adult plumage with a striking red eye and slaty grey upperparts (and a slightly hazy photo – taking even half-decent photos in the heat of the day was nigh-on impossible out here).


The young Snail Kite shown below was ridiculously obliging, while struggling with a crab in a roadside bush. You would simply never be able to just slowly walk straight up to a bird of prey in the UK as I could with this one…



And finally, this is a Southern Caracara, just metres away from the same Snail Kite. I reckon it was trying its luck for a free meal, but didn’t get any joy this time.


Aside from the birds photographed here, you can add Crane Hawk, Great Black Hawk, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture to the list, plus a few others that I’ve probably forgotten. Not a bad selection, I reckon…

Saturday 5 October 2013

Raptors of the Pantanal, part I

Time for another belated photo instalment from our August trip to Brazil (facilitated by a quietish day today in the south-east, getting home at a reasonable hour!)

The Transpantaneira road is a raptor enthusiast’s dream, with a fair range of species, birds in decent numbers, and above all, close views. (Best to look away now, Dave…)

One of the most abundant is the aptly named Roadside Hawk, readily identified by the unusual demarcation between vertical barring on the upper breast and horizontal on the lower. The individual below was actually a riverside hawk, but still a bit of a poser.


Another regular sight on the river was Black-collared Hawk. These birds regularly catch fish from the surface, a neat adaptation. The first shot was taken as the hawk was whistled in by a boatman, before it (unsuccessfully) made a grab for the fish he threw. I was unsuccessful in getting a shot of the bird fishing, too…


One of the scarcer birds along the road was this tiny Pearl Kite, the only individual we saw during the trip…


… while by contrast, Savanna Hawks like this one were abundant, hunting over grassland.


Monday 30 September 2013

Catching up again…

Just a few quick pics from the last couple of weekends, hoping that the next one might involve some more birds!

Two weekends ago, both days were pretty relaxed, given plenty of nice weather and not much happening on the bird score. Saturday morning involved a spot of pre-Shetland shopping (ditch-dwelling Sibes beware, I’ve got some new wellies!) on the way up to Suffolk, where we enjoyed great views of the 1st winter Lesser Grey Shrike near Sizewell, and of a rather sickly Arctic Skua on the beach. The latter was somewhat oiled and a bit scruffy from some angles, but was at least still feeding well in the usual piratic manner.


Sunday kicked off at a pretty ungodly hour, in order for us to be at Snettisham for a big spring tide, and the resulting wader spectacular. Despite counting myself very much as a Norfolk birder, I’ve never actually enjoyed this experience before – it’s just a bit of a trek across there from the east coast. However, it’s well worth it – just the sound of thousands of Knot and Oystercatcher wheeling around and whooshing overhead is amazing. And the massed ranks of birds on the shingle over the highest part of the tide is well up there with the best wildlife sights in the country, for sure.



And then this weekend featured a brief stop at Thorpeness (highlights: Willow Emerald damselfly and a couple of Firecrests) on the way up to my sisters’ place, and then a relaxed meander around a few sites in E Norfolk on Sunday. The only notable bird here was this typically uninspiring Rose-coloured Starling – it certainly has nothing on the adult from Wells in the spring!


Monday 16 September 2013

More of the Kilnsea Great Snipe

So, as promised – some more pics!


But before I get carried away, a bit more on the background to the bird.

There have been over 600 accepted records in the UK – so why the big fuss, you might ask? Well, for a start, the vast majority of those are pre-1950, and relate to birds shot (or ‘obtained’, which is the same thing!). Not much use to the modern day twitcher! Of the records since 1980, over 60% were seen on one day only (probably many by the finders only), and many were on the Northern Isles. Even when a bird has hung around somewhere accessible for a few hours, or even a second day, views are pretty much always of a bird in flight that has been flushed out of cover. So… a tricky species to catch up with, let alone see well. And I should know – I’ve narrowly missed at least five, including one which must have flown past or over me!

And I nearly didn’t even go for it…

News broke late afternoon on Saturday, as I was driving home from a seawatching session in Norfolk (content with finding a smart adult Sabine’s Gull, since you ask). When the second message came through indicating that the bird was still showing, I stopped to consider my options. Certainly couldn’t make it to Spurn before dark – but I could get up there ready for dawn the next day. I’d stupidly forgotten to put the sleeping bag back in the car, though, and a £35 Travelodge room on top of petrol wasn’t as cheap as I’d hoped. And anyway, the weather forecast revealed a crystal clear night ahead with very light winds over the east coast, giving way to strong SW winds later on Sunday. Surely the bird would move on, and with little chance of anything else turning up, it seemed like a fool’s errand… and so I continued on south.

Back in London, I pondered having a lazy morning at home, waiting on the off-chance of positive news. But the best weather of the day was the morning, and it would be a massive waste of time to do nothing – my free weekends are too precious to pass up like this. Confident that Mr Snipe would be long gone, I headed across the river into Kent with Shaun to enjoy some commoner passage waders. But not long after we arrived, the message I’d dreaded came up… and was quickly made worse by stunning photos, obviously taken at point blank range. How long would a usually-skulking snipe continue to show before it was flushed, though? Not long, I reasoned, even telling the world: “decision made – I’m not going!”. But after a couple more positive messages leading to inward groaning, Shaun read my mind: “You want to go for it, don’t you?! I don’t mind… just drop me back home, and I’ll go back for the Red-backed Shrike at Canvey.”

After five minutes of agonising indecision, I caved in. Crazy or otherwise, it was Twitch On!

Racing the worst of the weather north up the M11 and A1, the news remained positive, including happy texts from friends from Suffolk and Sussex who’d been more decisive and got there well before me. The last half hour of the route, east of Hull, was complete torture with endless villages, 30 and 40mph limits, and worsening weather. Happily though, when I arrived, the rain wasn’t too bad… and there was a Great Snipe parading around just feet away from a baffled and delighted crowd of only about 40 people.


Initial views featured particularly salubrious surroundings – note the cider brand placement and the remains of some birders’ packed lunch in the above pic!

After a while feeding in the base of the ditch, the bird emerged onto the bank, heading straight for me:


… before walking past no more than two feet away. Crazy!!! It clearly hadn’t read the script, and continued to show blindingly well just below the assembled birders.


On a couple of occasions, once after an especially energetic preening session, it popped its bill under its wing and settled down for a lengthy nap – in full view!


Later on in the day, it emerged once again onto the grass verge, scattering birders out of its path, before settling down to feed again, just yards away.

What an utterly amazing bird! As far as I know, there has never been a Great Snipe that’s showed like this in the UK before, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen one like this abroad either… so quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!