Sunday, 24 January 2021

The Phil More's Corner - Series 2 Episode 1

 Welcome to Series 2 of The Phil More's Corner Podcast. It may be deep winter, we may still be in lockdown but there's always some birding to talk about. Sean has left sunny Spain and returned to damp old Ireland. We hear his remarkable recordings of Otter and Red Fox plus possibly one of the fewest recordings of singing Redwing in Ireland. We also veer hugely off topic and discuss the origins of the Banshee and the legend of the dreaded 'Three Knocks'!

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

2020 Review

So, we've reached the end of the year and its time to look back. On 31st December 2019, I was birding in the Botanic Gardens of Singapore. If you told me then that in 2020 I would need to cancel birding trips to Armenia, Cyprus and Cape Clear, that in the spring I couldn't go to the coast to look for migrants or some of my favourite spots in the Brecks to look for Redstarts, Nightingales and Cuckoos and that my birding would largely be confined to an area within 5 kilometers of home, then I'd have said that was going to be a very bad year for birding indeed! 

First of all, I don't wish to downplay how bad 2020 has been for so many people. Many have had to cope with bereavement, serious illness, loneliness, depression, anxiety, financial worries and losing their jobs or businesses. I was lucky, I wasn't affected by any of that - thankfully. Forced by Covid-19 to take a different approach to birding, 2020 was a year which rejuvenated my love for and interest in birds. I had struggled for the last 5 years or so with birding. Maybe it was the over-crowded scene in the UK, the nastiness on social media and perhaps a little over-familiarity with the birds I was seeing. But, forced by a whole new set of circumstances I found new ways to enjoy my birding. 

1. Local birding

Thanks to Brian Lynch, I got involved in a Whatsapp group called '5kmsfromhome'. The 5km limit came from the stricter restrictions that the Irish government placed on its citizens during the first lock-down. I started this in late March and am still going. I've reached 114 species, highlights included Common Cranes over the garden, a singing Quail on Bowthorpe Marsh, a noc-mig Ortolan Bunting and a Cuckoo heard from the garden. It got me out walking and cycling around my 5 km circle and savouring the delights of local-patch birding. 

2. 'Noc-migging'

'Noc-mig' is short for Noctural Migration, thanks to Sean Ronayne for pushing me to start this up. In the first lock-down I bought a small Olympus PCM recorder and later on a Dodotronic parabola. Spring was interesting as I travelled a steep learning curve on using the recorder and using the software. I clocked some of the commoner birds like Coot and Moorhen but was delighted to also record Golden Plover and Water Rail. But, it was the autumn when it really took off. A noc-mig Ortolan Bunting on the 1st September was really exciting. Waders included Green and Common Sands, Dunlin, Lapwing and a probable Spotted Redshank. A juvenile Sandwich Tern one night was a surprise and I never realised how much Tawny Owl activity goes on around our home until now. I discovered how little I knew and now I pay far more attention to what flys over my head calling whether by day or by night. Here are some picks!

The last piece, recorded one night last October during heavy Redwing passage over the city of Norwich. I think the sound of a local football match taking place as this mass movement of birds goes on over our heads is, to me at least, very evocative.

3. The Phil More's Corner Podcast

A Whatsapp group consisting of my old pals from my Cork birding days (Harry Hussey, Brian Lynch and Sean Ronayne) evolved into The Phil More's Corner Podcast. None of us had ever done a Podcast before so we learnt as we went and it was great fun. We've done 11 episodes now, it's hard to pick a favourite out but Sean's story as he tried to record Wallcreeper in the Pyrennees still makes me chuckle out loud.

4. Project Swift

In February I ordered a 4-apartment nest box from a company called Impeckable and managed to get it up in time for arrival of the Swifts in early May. I played Swift calls from May to August. There was no interest this year but there are birding nesting in the house next door so maybe I've stirred the interest of some younger birds for the 2021 season and beyond.

5. Autumn

Finally a decent autumn. It arrived at the tail end of the first wave and ended just as infection rates started to take off again. There were plenty of drift migrants in early autumn and our day on the coast on 1st October will go down as one of the finest birding days ever - culminating in co-finding Norfolk's 2nd only Stejneger's Stonechat. A day to remember and Stonechat confirmed as Stejenger's

My week off in mid-October was meant to be on Cape Clear but Covid took care of that. Still, a Radde's Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail and an Eastern Rufous Bushchat more than compensated.

Radde's Warbler

Red-flanked Bluetail

Eastern Rufous Bushchat

 6. Bird of the Year

And finally, before all of the craziness and disruption started  I was able to go birding beyond Norfolk. In January 2020 I travelled to Whipsnade Zoo and saw this beauty. A male Black-throated Thrush. I said back then that it would probably be my bird of the year 2020 - and I was right. What a stunner!

Black-throated Thrush

To all of you - thanks for reading and I wish you a Happy New Year and happier times in 2021!


Monday, 9 November 2020

Stonechat at Happisburgh confirmed as Siberian Stonechat (Stejneger's)

You may recall from earlier blog posts that Nick and I found an interesting Stonechat in early October at Cart Gap that looked a strong candidate for 'Stejnegeri' (see  A day to remember and  Follow-up Chat).

Fair play to Richard Moores who refound the bird the following Monday and obtained a faecal sample. This has now been analysed and the results have confirmed the bird as Siberian Stonechat (Stejneger's), the 2nd confirmed record for Norfolk.

There's some excellent shots of the bird on Birding World by Steve Gantlett plus a large selection of shots of 'Siberian' Stonechats seen in Norfolk and other localities in the UK. Given that the Salthouse bird and now this one have both been identified as 'Stejnegeri' then this may start to provide birders with enough information to reliably identify one in the field without needing genetic analysis. 

I saw the Salthouse bird in 2018 which was confirmed, through genetic analysis, to be 'Stejnegeri'. This was the first confirmed record for Norfolk. I forgot I had a photo of it until I trawled through my files.

Siberian 'Stejnegers' Stonechat - Salthouse, Norfolk - November 2018

I also saw the very dapper Siberian Stonechat at Caister on Sea in 2015, however this was never assigned to either form maura or stejnegeri.

Siberian Stonechat, Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk - November 2015

Nocmig Update

No sooner had I finished my mid-October week off when the east winds swung around to the west and the autumn seemed to stop dead in its tracks. Perfect timing considering I was back at work! However, the change in wind direction brought wet and very breezy weather. No good for 'nocmigging'. I recorded on Saturday 17th October (when I had what may be Spotted Redshank, I'm struggling to think what else it could be) but otherwise that was it for the rest of October.


However, in the first week of November the weather cleared up a bit and there were a number of calm and dry nights where I was able to record.

Wednesday the 4th November was especially good. I'd only just put my parabola out when a Tawny Owl started hooting from the back of the garden. I know they are common birds in the UK but the sound is so evocative to me and this bird was so close.



Later the same night I had a Barn Owl once again (first time was last September), considering I'm in a built-up suburban area, this is still a surprise to me.


 Redwing passage was steady all night, plus Blackbirds and the odd Song Thrush. I kept the recorder going after dawn and picked up Redpoll, Brambling and Crossbill.


Over the course of the next few nights I continued to record. Redwing, Blackbird and Song Thrush movements continued steadily. Plus I managed to record Fieldfare too. 


 Dunlin were recorded three nights in a row including this close sounding fly-past.


 Pink-footed Geese also put in an appearance. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

East Winds - part two!

After three early starts and lots of walking, I decided Saturday would be a rest day and I would be raring to go Sunday before heading back to work.

However, things didn't quite go to plan. I was busy doing chores on Saturday morning when a message on the Norwich Birders WhatsApp group said "Rufous Bush Chat at Stiffkey". Now that's a bird and a half! One of my favourite species. However, and there will be a lot of birders who won't understand this, but my first reaction was 'I'm not going to bother going for that'! I'm not much of a twitcher and my immediate thought was 'that'll be one hell of a shitshow'. I could see it already, large crowds of birders (in a pandemic), parking problems, pissed off locals, birders accusing 'toggers', 'toggers' accusing birders, a lost, hungry bird being pushed around by the crowd. Not how I want to do my birding and not how I want to see a bird. 

I tried to press on with my chores and 'stuff' but I was distracted now and I was relieved when I got a message from James Appleton to say he had found a Pallas's Warbler in the churchyard at Happisburgh. I gathered my gear up and headed out.

Suffice to say I didn't see the Pallas's. I walked from the cricket club to coast watch and en route I bumped into James who had just found a tail-pumping Pipit. He was pretty sure it was just a Tree Pipit and his 'back of the camera' shots did look like Tree Pipit (albeit the head / face pattern wasn't visible in the shots), raspberry legs and fine flank streaks. We searched for the bird and I flushed a pipit which called briefly (sounding very like Tree Pipit), alighted on a telegraph wire and then dropped down and out of sight before I could see it either through bins or take a photo. We couldn't relocate it but seemed to have resolved ourselves into taking it as Tree Pipit, although I did think it was late for that species. 

That evening James processed the shots and sent me photos of what was certainly an Olive-backed Pipit. D'oh!!

I looked the next morning as did James but it was gone. Double d'oh.

But I was out in the field now, there wasn't much else happening so I bit the bullet and drove to Stiffkey. And you know wasn't all that bad. I got parked without too much trouble (although all those sensors and cameras on my car did assist). I donned my wellies and face -mask and marched out across the salt marsh to where the crowd was assembled. 


Birders on Stiffkey saltmarsh

I found a reasonable gap that allowed me to maintain social distance and waited for the bird to show. A minute later (yes, just one minute), the bird popped up on the sueda on the opposite side of the channel from where I stood and posed for a minute before flitting off. I cursed myself for not bringing my big lens whilst I fired off a few frames. Job done! I watched the bird for a short while longer before beating a retreat back to my car for lunch.

Eastern Rufous Bush Robin - Stiffkey, Norfolk - 18th October 2020

The bird is supposedly one of the eastern races familiaris or syriaca (I suppose I may have seen syriaca in Kuwait?) which is duller than the nominate race galactotes (which I saw in Morocco - see images below). 


Rufous Bush Robin (galactotes), Morocco - May 2013

Truth be told it was a bit scruffy looking (certainly compared to the above specimen) but despite that it has survived as far as Wednesday 21st October, lets hope it continues to do so. An extradinary find and all said, I'm glad I saw it. Birders were well-behaved and the whole thing wasn't anything like the fiasco I expected it to be.